Technically, you can’t photograph something that’s nearly invisible, but that hasn’t stopped a number of artists from trying. During the 1960s, Robert Barry produced his “Inert Gas Series,” for which he placed canisters in the mountains, allowed them to disperse their contents, and photographed the results; the argon, helium, and xenon emitted are present, but you can’t see them. Meanwhile, a spread of artists, from Eleanor Antin to Adrian Piper, have used the medium to document the subtle impact of time on the human body, and there is a long tradition of spirit photography, which attempts to image supernatural forces that lie hidden. If you can’t see any of this with your own eyes, cameras can help visualize it for you.
Over the past few years, artist Trevor Paglen has entered this lineage by putting a digital spin on it, cleverly offering up several photographic series that show sumptuous vistas of landscapes, like those seen in Yosemite National Park, with an insidious twist. At first, it may seem as though there is nothing much to appreciate, except for the nature shown. Look closer—or read accompanying wall texts—and you discover there’s surveillance technology hidden beneath it all, whether in the land itself or in the sky, where covert drones, visible only as tiny dots, lurk, inconspicuously surveilling us, often to nefarious ends. His point is to expose the mechanisms of state surveillance, showing how seamlessly integrated into our daily lives they are. It takes a lot of work to image the invisible, though, and a new documentary about the artist called Unseen Skies bears witness to Paglen’s laborious process.
In Yaara Bou Melhem’s film, playing virtually at the SFFilm festival through Sunday, we see Paglen journeying far into canyons in the Southwestern U.S., remote deserts in Australia, and military bases in undisclosed locations. We watch him sail boats through serene rivers; drive across perilously thin roads, even risking a car accident in the process on one occasion; and sleep in his van at night, braving cold nighttime temperatures. In some cases, his journeys only result in one shot that’s up to his standards. Part of this is because of the antiquated technology he uses—for some of the landscape photographs, he relies on chunky camera equipment that refers back to techniques from the 19th and early 20th centuries that put him in line with artists like Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson.
Why does Paglen go to such great lengths to photograph technologies that many accept are part of our daily lives, Bou Melhem asks? With a smile, Paglen says, “It’s my job.” Then he steps under the focusing hood of his camera and snaps a picture.
At another point, Paglen, drawing on his early years as a musician with a punk band, offers a more detailed answer to that query: “I guess when I look at my own life, I guess I’ve just had experiences living with a system that didn’t work for me and made clear to me that there are always winners and losers. Any kind of power is exerted at the expense of somebody else. I’ve been always suspicious of power, and I’ve always questioned that.”
Paglen’s rise over the past decade has been swift. His pictures, some of which border on abstractions, have been shown widely at museums around the world, from the Smithsonian American Art Museum to the Fondazione Prada, and in recent years, and his work has won him various art awards, including the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, which is considered one of the world’s top photography merits. Bou Melhem’s documentary is not interested in tracing his career trajectory, however, and it elides a lot of the biographical information that most films about artists obsess over. Instead, she creates a more impressionistic portrait of her subject—one that largely features footage of Paglen at work, much of it shot using drones and obscure angles as a way to mirror the paranoiac sensibility of Paglen’s own art.
Unseen Skies lacks a chronological structure, though it is mostly centered around Orbital Reflector, a 2019 project by Paglen for the Nevada Museum of Art that involved attempts to launch a 100-foot-long mylar sculpture into space. With a $1.5 million price tag, Orbital Reflector would have been visible from Earth. When it finally came time to unfurl the diamond-shaped balloon from a SpaceX rocket, the work was ultimately ensnared in Trump-era bureaucracy, with the Federal Communications Commission never officially giving the green light to launch. Paglen said in interviews at the time that the Trump administration had “killed” his project.
Part of Paglen’s project has been to find clever ways of navigating governmental structures, and Bou Melhem thrillingly captures the conversations had in museum meeting rooms about when and whether the Orbital Reflector project would come into being and what kind of security clearance would be needed. In one scene, Paglen is shown chatting with Amanda Horn, then the head of communications at the museum, after being sent back to the drawing board with new technical specifications because the balloon was unlikely to drop out of the spaceship as planned. An exasperated-looking Paglen hangs his head, scrolling on his iPhone as the news is delivered. “Oh, man,” Horn says at one point. “This is what really happens behind the scenes.”
If this sense of boredom is felt when a project goes wrong, Bou Melhem also portrays the thrill when a technically complex art work is executed as planned. Later on, we see Paglen as he prepares for Sight Machine, a performance at the Barbican Centre in London, where the Kronos Quartet is to play a piece by Steve Reich as facial recognition technology attempts to decode the musicians’ behavior. As Paglen sets up cameras for the performance, he and members of the quartet test out the technology, enjoying themselves as terms—like “skinhead” and “black woman”—are misapplied to their faces. When Paglen steps before his own camera, he’s labeled “bad person.”
Although Unseen Skies makes its missteps, particularly in a slapped-on Covid coda that attempts to account for more recent developments in Paglen’s oeuvre, Bou Melhem’s film fascinates because it makes projects like Sight Machine look so difficult to execute. Paglen’s art is often accompanied by a glossiness that masks the work-intensive process that goes into its making. Bou Melhem strips back that facade and offers an incisive look at how difficult it can be to surveil your surveillants.
This is best glimpsed in the film toward its end, in a sequence where Paglen goes to the U.S.-Mexico border to shoot new landscapes. After driving past towers lining the landscape, he’s stopped by an official. In a conversation filmed by Bou Melhem from afar, Paglen tells the official, “We’ll definitely keep you out of it.” The official says he’ll make some calls to determine if shooting pictures near a location shrouded in secrecy would even be possible, which causes Paglen to ask, with a laugh, “What would be the authority under which that would be prohibited or whatever?”
Unseen Skies plays virtually at SFFilm through April 18.