Over the past several years, artist and geographer Trevor Paglen has been rooting around in the dark, feeling out the architecture of government secrecy. As a one-man visual account of shadowy spaces punched into the physical world by classified military and intelligence activity, he’s tracked planes en route to secret desert airstrips, photographed classified satellites in space, and used telescopes to capture biological and chemical warfare test grounds from 42 miles away.
Today, though, Paglen visualizes a riddle much of the country has been struggling to grasp since the first Edward Snowden revelations of 2013. With the goal of giving our sprawling intelligence apparatus a size, a shape, and a texture, Paglen has published some of the first-ever photographs taken by rented helicopter of three of the largest, multi-billion dollar spying agencies operated by the United States: the NSA, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
“My intention is to expand the visual vocabulary we use to ‘see’ the U.S. intelligence community. Although the organizing logic of our nation’s surveillance apparatus is invisibility and secrecy, its operations occupy the physical world,” Paglen writes for Creative Time Reports and Glenn Greenwald’s new outlet, The Intercept. “If we look in the right places at the right times, we can begin to glimpse America’s vast intelligence infrastructure.”
So far, that infrastructure looks like it embodies much of the intention behind it–dark, reflective, and thanks to mid-century International Style, faceless and devoid of any telling flourishes. But now that it’s more out in the open, maybe this “visual vocabulary” will go the way of the classic spy trenchcoat: It now draws more attention than it rejects.
Check out Paglen’s images, which are now in the public domain, in the slide show above.