There are no men in black waiting for Trevor Paglen, who, by the way, is running late. United Airlines canceled all 757 jet traffic across the nation — a “software problem,” or so we are told. But Paglen finally arrives.
Tonight at the Hammer Museum, he is speaking about tracking down CIA front companies, photographing classified military installations and hacking Predator drones. He's just put out a book of photographs, Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes, the follow-up to his books Torture Taxi and Blank Spots on the Map.
It's all part of his journey into the modern heart of darkness, an eight-year odyssey into the world of covert military and intelligence agencies.
The evening takes on an added surreal dimension with actor Mark Valley, the star of Human Target — a TV series about secrets, surveillance and intrigue — watching in the audience.
Paglen's opening question — “What does secrecy look like?” — is illustrated with a continuous slide show at the front of the room. He demonstrates that you can download the U.S. Department of Defense budget for the coming year fairly easily, unlike other countries, in which you can be arrested if you try.
Suddenly, a 10-foot-tall mural appears on the screen, with column after column of code names used in that budget, stark and bloodless as names on a mausoleum wall.
Front companies are explained as simple pragmatism: Flights over a foreign country that are disguised as innocuous jet traffic do not escalate into acts of war. If you find yourself booked on a flight courtesy of Premiere Executive Transport Services, chances are it's a one-way ticket: It's a major front company in charge of prisoner renditions abroad.
Looking for rendition sites in Kabul, Paglen recalls how once, when driving down a forgotten road, he got caught in a goat traffic jam. The goatherd sported a baseball cap marked KBR, short for Kellogg Brown & Root, the notorious private military contracting company.
“What are the ways in which secrets appear?” Paglen asks. One way is via electromagnetic signals. All Predator drones are controlled from Nevada, their video feeds barely encrypted, so anyone with the skill can watch their progress.
He plays brief snippets of onboard video that came to him in the mail one day, on a mystery DVD from an unknown source. Predator drones, for some reason, really like looking around at clouds.
Watching Paglen make sense of all this secrecy is an invigorating thing — it is as though the secrets themselves want to wriggle free, out and into the daylight.
Some secret military projects are revealed by something as basic as the symbology of patches on uniforms. One of Paglen's previous books is titled I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me: Emblems From the Pentagon's Black World.
“Doing God's work with other people's money” is the motto of the secret-projects teams, embroidered in Latin on one patch. The intelligence community, aware of the fascination with Area 51 — the secretive, mysterious military base in Nevada — often sews five stars alongside a single star in various patterns on multiple patches.
He ends the lecture with more questions than answers, naturally, and during the Q&A session — naturally — talk veers toward conspiracy theories. He refuses to take the bait and handily refutes the theories.
Under the circumstances, Paglen might be expected to appear more paranoid and sketchy than the thoughtful, rational artist he seems to be tonight.
At his book signing, he is asked if looking at secrecy compels him to be more truthful himself. “That's a very psychological question,” he says with a laugh. “I think that it … makes me very cautious. Particularly when I'm looking at this work, it makes me very cautious about what I can say and what I can't say about it. I try not to draw conclusions from evidence that doesn't support those conclusions.
“The trick is not to turn into a conspiracy theorist, and I think conspiracy theory begins to happen when you start to synthesize a story that is more coherent than the evidence you have warrants.”
It's a succinct definition, almost as piercing as the observation about secrecy that he makes at the end of his lecture: “Secrecy is made of the same things as everything else in life. It's made of matter, and matter reflects light.”