Strange Renderings

This month’s issue of California runs my profile of Trevor Paglen, an artist, geographer, writer, and photographer who deals in exploring “the limits of what we can know,” as he put it to me one day. This broad category takes in everything from investigations of California’s vast prison network to gorgeous photos of “dead” satellites orbiting the earth. He’s played in a noise band (as one music blogger described the sound: “Has a band ever made you want to take a shit? Like involuntarily?”); he went toe-to-toe with Colbert; and he’s founded his own branch of geography, called experimental geography. Paglen specializes, however, in working the seam line between our government’s desire for secrecy and the public’s right to know. Here’s the beginning of the piece:

The light is fading on a bitter-cold December afternoon in Berkeley, and Trevor Paglen is talking about spy satellites. Specifically, he’s explaining how hard it is to photograph them–not just because our government doesn’t want us to know they’re there but also because they’re a long way away. “You’re basically trying to shoot something the size of a car on the other side of the Earth, but actually it’s even farther,” he says, his words dissolving into a machine-gun laugh. Then, dissatisfied with the imprecision of his statement, he says, “Wait, you know what the diameter of the Earth is?” He’s silent for a minute as he pulls out his iPhone and searches the Web, and then: “Yeah, it’s 8,000 miles, so that would be … ” He trails off again, running the calculations in his head. “Yeah, shooting something a little bigger than a car but from a distance of three times further than China.” Another rapid-fire laugh. “It’s far away.”

Check out the rest of the piece.