Trevor Paglen’s drone photography at the SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art

Trevor Paglen at SBC Gallery

The exhibition on Trevor Paglen at the SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art is within the larger context of Le Mois de la Photo à Montreal 2013. The SBC Gallery is amongst 25 other Montreal galleries to present an exhibition on photography within the theme of Drone: The Automated Image; a theme proposed by the renowned curator and photography writer Paul Wombell.

Trevor Paglen is a New York City based photographer. With a degree in geography and art Paglen is renown for his military drone photography. Interested in military secrecy the artist uses his camera as a research tool and an extension of his eye (like a telescope). The pictures presented here can be divided in two sets: one is in close frame and represents elements on the ground. The second is in a larger frame of the sky and focus on color.

In the first set the pictures Reaper Drone: Indian Springs, NV; distance – 2 miles (2010) and Canyon Hangers and Unidentified Vehicle (2006) are part of his many images of secret military bases such as Area 51 (Nevada, US). The pictures themselves are taken from public ground, usually high in the mountains surrounding the restricted areas. As can be seen in the exhibition Paglen’s goal is not to make clear and condemning pictures. Indeed he aims more to unsettle by suggesting the subject matter and make a visually dynamic picture. If the picture were clear the viewer might simply see a plane. However the haziness makes it a ‘secret’ plane, one that is not supposed to be seen by the general public. The fact that the photograph is out of focus gives it’s subject matter the dramatic appeal that Paglen wishes to convey. In addition, the blurriness also accounts for the activity in the atmosphere (1) therefore making the heat of the American desert visible and a protagonist in itself as yet another threat for the photographer.

In the second set of photographs Paglen points his camera at the sky. With three skyscapes we are first subjugated by the Sublime aspect of the overwhelming heavens. The large frame of immersing color focuses our attention first on the pattern of clouds and the nuance of colors. However, the title suggest there is more to see creating a sense of unease: Untitled (Reaper drone) 2010 (all have the same title). Far away in the sky a drone is zooming by, so far it only appears as very small engulfed in the vast sky. In contradiction to the first impression of great silence the title gives a context of noise; a ‘drone’ being named for the sound it makes.

Whether or not it was the intention of the artist, some elements offer space for personal interpretation. A first level of interaction with the Sublime, for example, is experienced when the viewer encounters the sky as a larger-than-life entity with no discernible end escaping human understanding. When the viewer finally see the drone a second level of interaction with the Sublime is experienced as we realize we are once again looking at something that escapes our immediate knowledge as well as a sense of invisible power and unauthorized watching. Although this time it is not nature, but our own government the awes us. This brings me to yet another interpretation: the role of the camera. In popular understanding the drone is sent as an observer. Here the spier is being spied on, thus reversing the power of the gaze. The camera is then a tool to regain power over a Big Brother-like entity by the photographer and through him the viewer.

Although the exhibition is small it was fun to experience! I found myself diving into the world of secret military politics and desert locations leaving my imagination run wild with conspiracy theories for the time of my visit. In addition, the aesthetics offered by the artist were unique and a delight to encounter.

(1) Jonah Weiner, “Onward and Unpward with the arts. Prying Eyes, Trevor Paglen makes art of government secrets,” The New Yorker, Oct 22, 2012; pp. 54-61.

SBC Gallery of Contemporary Arts, space 507
Trevor Paglen
Drone – The Automated Image
September 7 – November 9, 2013

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