A Conversation with Trevor Paglen

In June of 2006, Bidoun invited Thomas Keenan and Trevor Paglen to launch the magazine’s Art and Politics series at New York’s PS1 Contemporary Art Center. Keenan, who teaches literary theory, media studies, and human rights at Bard College, where he also directs the Human Rights Project, has most recently been studying jihadists and their idiosyncratic uses of new media. Paglen, for his part, is an artist, writer, and self-proclaimed experimental geographer working out of the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. His work seems to defy the neat confines of discipline, and is at once social science, contemporary art, and even activism. Paglen’s most recent projects take up secret military bases, the California prison system, and the CIA’s practice of “extraordinary rendition.”

Keenan and Paglen’s work intersect in a number of ways, not the least of which is the circulation of information — how it is packaged, disseminated, hidden away. At PS1, the two took on secret prisons in particular. Here on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks and just days after President George W. Bush announced the transfer of fourteen of the CIA’s most high-profile terrorism suspects to Guantanamo Bay to be tried, they took on the current moment. Via Skype, no less.

Thomas Keenan: I’ve been thinking that this is an unusually interesting time to talk — Bush sends the ghosts into Gitmo [Guantanamo], and al-Qaeda announces a tape in which some of them appear with OBL [Osama bin Laden].

Trevor Paglen: Yes yes yes. Those things have been occupying my mind a lot this week. Let’s talk about these weird forms of visibility and invisibility.

TK: Maybe we should begin with the ghosts, and why you’ve been so interested in them and what you’ve been doing.

TP: I’ve been thinking about these ghosts quite a bit. Obviously there’s the question of the “ghost prisoners” in this “War on Terror” — a collection of who knows how many prisoners who’ve been kept “off the books,” denied access to the Red Cross, held in secret prisons and so forth. This means that the CIA and the White House have created a global infrastructure for doing this sort of thing. What I didn’t realize when I began this latest project (although I suspected from past work that this might be the case) is that there’s a whole domestic analog to all of this. For example, when you begin researching the means by which the CIA and the White House have manufactured these ghosts, you start to find an equally invisible and somehow nonexistent infrastructure embedded in the fabric of everyday life “over here.” You find, for example, aircraft companies whose boards of directors are composed of nonexistent people. You find nonexistent people who are somehow designed to disappear others. That’s how I started thinking about ghosts.

TK: I have a factual question for you. The President announced that fourteen “high-value” prisoners would be moved to Cuba and put on trial. They are indeed some very interesting people, and the jihadist forums have been extremely excited about their imminent appearance. At the same time, various news accounts noted that CIA officials had mentioned that somewhere closer to a hundred prisoners had passed through their secret camps. Do you know where, generically at least, the other eighty-five or so are now?

TP: The other prisoners are in a couple of places. First is Guantanamo. People like Binyam Mohammed went through this system of secret prisons, only to find themselves dumped off at Gitmo after years of disappearance and torture. In fact, some people in the DoD [Department of Defense] started talking about Gitmo as a dumping ground for CIA mistakes. Other prisoners have been transferred to places like Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and so forth. Most of these guys are presumably in local prisons in these countries. With the beginning of the WoT [War on Terror], the CIA essentially bought a lot of foreign intelligence services to do this sort of thing — mainly by funding these services.

TK: I like very much your word “ghost” because it specifies exactly the way in which these creatures do and don’t appear, at the same time, and because it identifies their strange past-ness, their status as memories or remnants. I think the human rights community could learn a lot if it took their ghostliness seriously, if it wasn’t entirely hamstrung by the habeas corpus mentality… because central to the War on Terror has been the military/intelligence community’s announcement that it has these people but it’s not going to say where or how they are. They have the status of open secrets, of visible invisibles.

TP: Exactly. In what ways do you think that the human rights community might reconfigure its thinking by taking ghosts seriously?

TK: By “learn a lot” I mean something like this: they are already pretty good researchers, pretty good at producing knowledge and writing it up. The human rights world excel at making things public, at exposing, revealing, displaying. You share that interest in knowledge — we talked about that at PS1 — as do I, and a case can of course be made for knowledge as a god in itself, or as testimony, bearing witness, et cetera. But human-rights activists want, rightly, more: They want the knowledge to do something, to get something done. And often they can — exposure can be an active weapon in the fight for rights. But when the object of the knowledge or the secrecy, the revelation, is already oddly public, the way these high-value guys have been, then merely revealing them and their hidden existence doesn’t do the same job.

TP: Yes, exactly. This tendency really makes me wonder if there’s a kind of latent idealism in these approaches towards activism — meaning that somehow the articulation of truths, of the idea (for example) has some kind of necessary relation to the world. I’m not saying that this isn’t so, but that it’s limited. Over the course of this project in particular, I’ve been interested in identifying places where — through the side-door so to speak — actions can be taken. There are a lot of contradictions in this world, as you can imagine, and I wonder if those contradictions represent weak points that pressure can be applied to. I’m thinking particularly of places like John Yoo’s office here at UC Berkeley, the lawyers who help the CIA set all this stuff up (and knowingly commit fraud in order to do so), or the aircraft companies that provide so many services. What do you think?

TK: That’s a very important point, and one too many left-wing critics of the GWOT [Global War on Terror] don’t attend to fully. I think one of the great interests of your projects for me has been your ability to work inside the publicly available databases and records, to use the information that’s already there, and assemble it into a pattern and a narrative that starts to make sense of otherwise very tricky things. Exploiting the seams, rather than assaulting frontally. Hmm, asymmetric.

TP: It’s counterintuitive at first — the GWOT seems so abstract, so “over there” but when you start to look under the hood, you find that it’s woven into everyday life in very real (i.e., brick-and-mortar as opposed to spectacular) ways.

TK: So, yes, there’s no monolith here. On the other hand, they (Yoo and company) are winning, at least in the domestic political sphere. (I think they’re losing seriously on the ground and in cyberspace, but that’s another discussion.) They have been able to hide and reveal simultaneously with great success, and the good work of activists and researchers has not really dented their strategies much.

TP: Well, Yoo seems pretty untouchable, but lots of people are extremely touchable — there are lots of people who enable this who are essentially small-time lawyers or small businesses. They are quite vulnerable to things like complaints with state bar and business associations and so forth. I’d be extremely interested to know about this latest video and to hear what the newsgroups are saying about it and the transfer of KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] and company to Gitmo.

TK: The new video (released to Al-Jazeera yesterday and due online any hour now) is of course timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the WTC/Pentagon attacks. It’s called The Manhattan Raid, apparently, and may be as long as ninety minutes. It features archival footage of Bin Laden meeting with a number of the September 11 hijackers, as well as the “martyrdom tapes” of two of them. It was announced with a beautiful animated gif. The gif is typical of the advance publicity operations that the al-Qaeda media arm, as-Sahab [the clouds], runs for its big releases. These things are circulated to the moderators of the Islamist forums and are stuck at the top of every page, flashing away to announce the imminent arrival of an important new tape.This one shows the characters, the topic, the title, and promises that it’s coming soon…

TP: Very interesting. Tell me about the tape this week and what happened.

TK: I know everyone always says that Bin Laden and company are media-savvy, sophisticated, and all the rest, so much so that it’s a cliché, but it’s true — and I don’t think that a lot of people recognize how innovative and smart they are. They are certainly creating, actively, a global online community, in many languages (not just Arabic), that makes up a sort of counter-public sphere… using the strategies, or moves derived from them, of the typical information-commerce cyber- and TV-scape.

TP: This is really interesting. It seems to me that there are so many ways in which OBL and company use these tapes much in the same way that the White House uses secret information. Disclosing it in ways that are timed for specific political effects. Do you see anything homologous?

TK: Yes, there are lots of analogies… most notably that the tape is of equal use to OBL and to GWB [George W. Bush]. Each, these days, is interested in reminding every one about September 11 and who was responsible for it. What happens? The gif arrives, and that’s all… no press release, no text, no nothing beyond the flashing sequence. It circulates worldwide almost instantly, and then within a few hours Al-Jazeera has an advance copy (I’m not clear if it’s the whole thing or excerpts) that gives hints of the content, demonstrates that it has English subtitles, makes clear who’s in it, and further reminds everyone that OBL is still in charge and was the foremost responsible party for September 11.

TP: Is there information in these tapes, or are they more of “morale” boosters? Both?

TK: Information? Well, sort of. There was a lot of information in the tape that as-Sahab released on the anniversary of the July 7 London bombing — a real demonstration of AQ’s [al-Qaeda’s] authorship of the attacks, something which the UK authorities had always played down.

TP: The announcement this week of the prisoner transfer to Gitmo was extremely calculated in terms of the political effect the Bush company was trying to achieve.

TK: Well, he wants once again to take credit for September 11, to demonstrate the global reach of the organization, to inspire and fund-raise and recruit. It was a remarkable, more or less unprecedented, event, and he has yet to use up the credit he earned. I also think OBL wants to make sure that he stays on top of the jihad, that Iraq is not too distracting for his audience, that Hassan Nasrallah does not stay in the limelight too long, et cetera. There are deep internal divisions with the jihadist movement, a constant struggle for leadership, and this is a great publicity opportunity. The coincidence of the appearance of Ramzi Binalshibh and other ghosts on the tape and in Bush’s announcement suggests again that everyone sees opportunities in this anniversary… Let’s go back to your work, though, and your sense of what it is you are doing when you document, so patiently and accurately, the movement of the ghost prisoners. Can you describe a little of what you are doing, and why?

TP: Well, it’s extremely hard to document these movements in any meaningful way, but it can be done with a lot of legwork. Why do it? For me I guess it has to do with a lot of different things. The first is a kind of spatial/political question: what kinds of hidden relationships and collaborations does all of this reveal? What is the anatomy of the GWOT? I think that in some ways, you start to see some dramatic evidence of extremely unlikely allies and collaborations that have sprung up. In a sense, you’re describing a hidden landscape of sorts. That’s more a tool of seeing global politics, I suppose. On another level, I’ve also been equally obsessed by the infrastructure that you find “over here” — there are so many strange things. CIA planes acting like they’re going to Area 51 for example. Just bizarre things. Landings in places like Tulsa; cadres of pilots in rural North Carolina; airstrips in Florida. You start to see a landscape in the US that’s equally hidden. For me, this has a politics but also a strange — I don’t want to exactly say aesthetics, but something like that — it takes the familiar and makes it bizarre.

TK: Your invocation of aesthetics is important — and unusual. Activists don’t usually like to admit that there’s an aesthetic dimension to their work. On the other hand, they live and die by the aesthetics of publicity all the time, in an unacknowledged way.

TP: Ha ha. Yes. Well, I don’t consider myself an activist around these issues. At the beginning and end of the day, I think of myself as an artist. But ways of seeing are extremely crucial to politics. Sometimes I really do feel like a kind of surrealist more than anything else. Taking a lot of ideas from them and trying to do different kinds of work with them.

TK: I was looking back at my notes from our conversation at PS1 and thinking about an idea you made me have. I was interested in the fact that human rights activists always complain that they have no power, and at the same time it’s obvious that the basic norms and conventions of human rights discourse are now more or less globally accepted, that human rights have become a sort of secular religion. And on the other hand, they are powerless to stop genocides and mass slaughters (Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur), or to prevent the world’s most expressive and voluble pro–human rights democracy (our country) from effectively renouncing the Geneva Conventions and exactly that unspoken normative framework. So what do “human rights” actually do?

Various things, but chief among them might be something aesthetic, something about the laws of appearance or of perception. You made me see this: Both the jihadis and the US government are busy rejecting the well-established conventions, in different ways and to different extents, of course. And they both often try to hide that rejection, that erasure of the governing distinctions of human rights discourse (combatant/non-combatant, for instance), even while they boast about it on the side. The extremist Sunni militias in Iraq, for instance, release over-the-top communiqués about the evils of the Shias, but they never ever film their attacks on Shia civilians (their tapes, in Iraq and elsewhere, are almost always limited to attacks on military or official targets). Likewise there are no cameras in Guantanamo or Bagram or the Salt Pit. Both sides want to respect those norms at an aesthetic level. So the human-rights norms are functioning as a kind of aesthetic-regulation device, governing what you can show but not what you can do. Except it’s more complicated than an opposition between showing and doing, because the hidden doings are also made visible in their own way. Hence the ghost phenomenon.

TP: Yes, this reminds me of Marx’s beef with the young Hegelians. That ideology usually does not precede power but is rather the product of it. This is entirely related to the (sometimes) fallacy of “making visible” for its own sake, with the assumption that this has a direct bearing on power. You’ve gone into this in depth with your work on the politics of shame. It’s quite the same thing, isn’t it?

TK: Exactly.