Art Seen: International

TREVOR PAGLEN // LE MOIS DE LA PHOTO À MONTRÉAL

by Tina Gelsomini

Climb up to the fifth floor of the Belgo building, walk down the creaking halls of the galleries d’art contemporpain du Belgo, and turn left into the sparse space of SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art. Welcome to the temporary resting point of Trevor Paglen’s black world. It is also our world; though by design it is hidden, unknowable, and chronically unreachable. SBC and Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal present DRONE, The Automated Image featuring Trevor Paglen, a collection of seven works, six prints, and one short video – all of which force the meticulously ‘invisible’ sites of military technology into our field of vision. Within this exhibit, as within all of Paglen’s work – whether academic or art-based – his role hovers between that of geographer and educator, artist and political activist. Just as the subjects of the works which define him, Paglen is elusive. The photographs on display could be roughly categorized into two streams; one represents vivid and haunting views of the sky dotted with barely-visible drones, the other displays the blurry far-off images of US government nuclear and missile testing facilities, shot from miles away. Yet, despite this distance, both bodies of work consistently play upon a sense of foreboding, ominously attached to the contents of that which is strategically presumed absent. All of the works beget one simple, but thus-far unanswerable question: what exactly are we looking at? Or, more precisely, what are we permitted to see?

Installation view of the exhibition ‘Trevor Paglen,’ September 7 to November 9, 2013, SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art and Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal. Photo credit: Guy L’Heureux

On a small white bench placed just to the right of the gallery’s entrance, written materials serve as a guide – a thick binder contains the usual carefully laminated reviews on Le Mois de la Photo and the Paglen exhibit, interviews, and artist bios.  Placed just beside, a well-worn and simply stapled article written by theorist Thomas Wagner, entitled Dark Stars in the Firmament, Trevor Paglen’s Investigative Cartography and the Changes in the Sky, provides a much more compelling insight into the artist, whom Wagner describes as expanding the definition of the very term, “he is a geographer by education, a conspiracy theorist by instinct, and an investigative reporter by calling” (Wagner 8).

Paglen’s Untitled series, three large-scale chromogenic prints all measuring 121.92 X 152.4 cm, showcase what – in another context or by another artist – would be considered breathtaking images of the sky: at dawn, at dusk; bursting with golden-honey hues, royal and cobalt blues, and scarlet blood reds. However, each image is interrupted by the small, yet undeniable appearance of a military drone, splattering like an insect on a windshield to disrupt our pristine frame, if not our world-view.

Installation view of the exhibition ‘Trevor Paglen,’ September 7 to November 9, 2013, SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art and Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal. Photo credit: Guy L’Heureux

Even more staggering are Paglen’s two separate pieces documenting military testing zones in Nevada. Here, the militaristic aspect takes on a more dominant position; the blurred frames are infused with the raw aesthetic of investigative journalism. The titles and descriptions of the works hold the vital and controversial role of pointing out both the area in which the sites are located, and the distance from which they were shot. In Canyon Hangars and Unidentified Vehicle; Tonopath Test Range, NV; Distance – 18 Miles, 12:45 p.m., 2006, these harsh and clear-cut details echo the militaristic subjects at hand, seemingly almost out-of-place in a gallery – yet, their addition effectively immerses us in the unseen underbelly of the US armed forces. The final work, located in SBC’s viewing room, is Drone Vision, 2010, a five-minute silently looping and edited video of an intercepted communication satellite.  In the center of the frame, the laser-targeting marker looms threateningly over the changing landscape, jumping from one scene to another, all the while scanning the terrain below.

Trevor Paglen, Drone Vision, 2010, Video intercepted from a communication satellite, 5 min. Courtesy of the artist ; Metro Pictures, New York ; Altman Siegel, San Francisco ; and Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne. Photo credit: Guy L’Heureux

As one moves from work to work throughout the small gallery space, the collective weight of the exhibition rests upon questions of truth and the production and control of knowledge. A self-described experimental geographer, Paglen’s art confronts our perception of space and interaction with architecture, inextricably linking the two with manifestations of power, and imploring us to heighten our awareness. When simply viewed as objects, images hanging within a frame, Paglen’s work can only move so far; yet when viewed as a process, a journey, and a politicized struggle for access, their potential is as vast as the firmaments captured.


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Tina Gelsomini graduated with distinction from Concordia University with a dual degree in Communications & Cultural Studies and Etudes Françaises. She currently works at the Montréal-based, nonprofit media arts network Cinema Politica.

Trevor Paglen, part of DRONE: The Automated Image, curated by Paul Wombell, runs through November 9.

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