Artist Q&A: Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen is the subject of the mid-career survey Trevor Paglen: Sites Unseen, on view at MCASD Downtown through June 2, 2019. MCASD recently spoke with Paglen via Skype at his studio in Berlin.
MCASD: You spent your childhood on military bases. Can you tell us about your relationship to the military and its culture?
TREVOR PAGLEN: I grew up in the military and I went to the Department of Defense High School in Germany. Growing up in the military gives you a different sense of the geography of the United States because the reference points you have are American bases all over the world. So you understand that there are American bases in Korea, and in the Middle East, in Europe, and your sense of the American footprint in the world is very different than if you grew up in the continental United States. It makes you think about what the U.S. actually is in a very different way.
MCASD: Your early photographs seem to do the impossible by showings objects and places that supposedly do not exist or are almost entirely hidden from view—secret military sites, operations, spacecraft, security networks. How do you manage to photograph things meant to be invisible to the naked eye? 
TP: In terms of photographing things that are invisible, there’s a couple of things. First of all you assume that everything actually is visible to one degree or another. In the sense that, it sounds maybe a little bit naive, but I always think everything in the world is made up of stuff, and stuff reflects light…so how do you find that? Where is the material that an abstract concept is made out of? An example of that would be the internet. The internet is something that we think of using metaphors like the cloud or cyberspace, but you can also think of it as cables and data centers, and switches and routers. Those are all pieces of infrastructure that you often at times have to really go out of your way to see, but they’re there. For example, for a project I was scuba diving to find internet cables on the bottom of the ocean. They’re there, you would never randomly run across them in your everyday life, but a lot of the work I do is about putting yourself in the position to see something if it is in fact possible to see.
MCASD: Do you consider yourself to be a landscape photographer? Can you talk about how your work revises landscape as a genre? 
TP: I have a lot of different influences, one of which is definitely landscape photography. I think about those traditions a lot. The way that I think of landscape photography is thinking about our environment. And when you’re working in landscape photography—and this is the same if you’re doing landscape painting or working with landscape in general—you’re always looking at things that other artists have been looking at for hundreds if not thousands of years. So that’s the starting point. Then you think about what are the specifics of your moment in history, what do you have to add to the conversation that’s been going on for hundreds of thousands of years…how are youin conversation with your ancestors, and how are you learning from them? How are you showing a particular way of seeing what your version of that landscape is?
MCASD: Today, privacy seems elusive and surveillance seems inescapable. Yet your recent projects Autonomy Cube and Orbital Reflector imagine spaces free from corporate and governmental monitoring. Can you talk briefly about these works?
TP: So with projects like Autonomy Cube or Orbital Reflector, one of the exercises that I use sometimes when I’m developing ideas for artworks, is I look at something that bothers me, or that I’m critical of, and I try to imagine what the opposite of that would be. If the business model of the internet is massive surveillance,what would the internet that could not surveil you look like? If every satellite is somehow involved in corporate or military activity, I imagine what would the opposite satellite be? The satellite that could not do anything at all. So those are for me ways of trying to get away from your own presuppositions about how the world is, and get a tiny glimpse of how the world might be different.