He Watches the Moon: Trevor Paglen’s Listening Station

A writer selects one image from our current exhibitions and responds to it. Here, Hatty Nestor selects an image by Trevor Paglen, winner of this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize exhibition, currently on view in our galleries


Trevor Paglen, They Watch the Moon, 2010.

Uninhibited, he marks his destination with deliberated steps, unaware of the impending journey before him.

In times of great curiosity, particular things — landscapes, objects, and unmarked territories enter our periphery, and demand interrogation and observation. We have embarked upon a discovery of the outside, which present no restraints, opening the gates of a world in which we are bound by no visceral limits. This confrontational approach to the world, has allowed us to question the societal norms of communication and geography.

In an attempt to distort but also reveal, this photograph of the NSA listening station deep in the forests of West Virginia demonstrates unknown sites of activity, where communication satellites archive and collect the most unearthly signals from outer space. They Watch the Moon (2010) lends physical form to intangible modes of communication, and reveals the geographical locations that can house such sites of activity in secrecy. The secrecy of this surveillance is neither idle nor prosaic; places that do not appear on maps are also places that are often outside or above the rule of law. This process of manifestation creates a platform for re-examining the surveyed landscapes which we inhabit.

Photographing from a distance, Paglen’s subjects materialise much like Monet’s Green Park in London (1871), or a distorted other world; underwater, where objects are blurred, indistinguishable. Much like blurred Impressionist depictions of real life scenarios, Paglen’s photograph, although capturing real space stations, acts as a metaphor for the landscapes and places we cannot quite grasp, or we are denied access to. Here, transmissions are sensitive to radio astronomy, and materialise as fragments of another reality, co-existing with telecommunications. They Watch The Moon harbours an agency that Paglen reveals in surveying his soundings, tracing the existence of uninhabited landscapes, of marks on horizons, one click at a time.

A myopic vision is thus imposed upon the gaze of the camera, where hidden territories are documented. Such regulations of communication by government and other hierarchies are, as this photo demonstrates, never wholly imposable. This image acts as a portal, uncovering the fabric of known places of telecommunication, which briefly enter the periphery of the camera or observer, raising more questions than they can provide answers. The feeling of having encountered an unseen space enhances this first distant glimmer portrayed in the image, and the trace of Paglen’s alienation marks the distance between untouched territories, once removed from human modes of communication. In doing so, this photograph makes apparent communicative relationships, and the distance from subject becomes an elemental feature in this work. Observing is the meditation between our existing selves and the outside, the action in which we watch and take notice.

What does this image portray, in its ephemeral experiences in unseen metropoles? It is not that photography’s value is so distant it fails to meditate upon life; by removing itself from the everyday and seemingly reflecting it, it allows familiarities to be reconsidered. The assumption that everyday practices are mundane, monotonous or nondescript provides us with a new perspective, to meditate upon and pursue in unknown territories: this is the real quotidian that sits pensively beneath the clouds. These “meaningful” observations are rooted in – on one plane of immanence – a utopian endpoint that life can, at any passing moment, manifest as a pulsating, authentic moment of clarity and curiosity, retaining an eerie potency.  

Suspicions arise from encounters with such images, superstitions that invite the observer to re-examine sites of technology, our geographical placements and communicative associations. In the presence of such unsettling databases, one cannot — and by one I refer to the observer — feel anything but a little perplexed when viewing these unmarked territories. Little wonder, then, that the encounter with this image is a true documentation of how we are subject to modes of technological relations and interventions, and surrender to their functions. This super refined, other worldy image is a subtle testament to the world in which we are immersed. However labour intensive this image may have been to capture, not a trace of doubt is found in Paglen’s quest for documenting unmarked territories, providing a representation we can, in time, find familiar. To view the hidden more acutely, to survey even the most undetected of communications, preferring to disregard secrets in unattainable realities.

Hatty Nestor

Hatty Nestor is a writer based in London. www.hattynestor.co.uk

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