As anyone who has worked there knows, Kabul is a tough place, redeemed by the charm of the people and the abundance of cheap taxis. But Trevor Paglen had trouble finding a taxi driver willing and able to take him where he wanted to go: north-east out of the city along an old back road reputed to be so dangerous – even by Afghan standards – that it had seen no regular traffic for more than 30 years.
Finally he succeeded in digging out an old man who had been driving a cab since before the Soviet invasion. “We started driving and we left the city behind and we’re out in the sticks,” he recalls, “and we end up in a traffic jam – not cars but goats. And we wait for the goats to go by and we see the shepherd, this very old man, traditional Afghan clothes, big beard, exactly what you’d picture in your head. But he’s wearing a baseball hat.
“The shepherd finally turns to look at us in the car – and on that baseball cap are the letters KBR. It stands for Kellogg Brown and Root – a company that was a subsidiary of Halliburton, which Dick Cheney was on the board of. The local goatherd is wearing a Dick Cheney baseball cap!” It was the final clue he needed that this particular bad road was the right road. There in the distance, behind a high cream wall and coiled razor wire, was what Paglen was looking for: the nondescript structures of what he says he is “99.999 per cent sure” is the place they call the Salt Pit: a never-before-identified-or-photographed secret CIA prison.
Trevor Paglen is an artist of a very particular kind. His principal tool is the camera, and most of his works are photographs, but the reason they are considered to be art – the reason, for example, that this bland photo, three feet wide by two feet high, showing the outer wall and the interior roof outline of the Salt Pit, with a dun-coloured Afghan hill behind it, sells for $20,000 – is because of the arduous, painstaking, sometimes dangerous path that culminated in pressing the shutter; and because it reveals something that the most powerful state in history has done everything in its power to keep secret.
Since he was a postgraduate geography student at UCLA 10 years ago, Paglen has dedicated himself to a very 21st-century challenge: seeing and recording what our political masters do everything in their power to render secret and invisible.
Above our heads more than 200 secret American surveillance satellites constantly orbit the Earth: with the help of fanatical amateur astronomers who track their courses, Paglen has photographed them. A secret air force base deep in the desert outside Las Vegas is the control centre for the US’s huge fleet of drones: Paglen has photographed these tiny dots hurtling through the Nevada skies. To carry out the extraordinary rendition programme which was one of President George W Bush’s answers to the 9/11 attacks, seizing suspects from the streets and spiriting them off to countries relaxed about torture, the CIA created numerous front companies: grinding through flight records and using the methods of a private detective, Paglen identified them, visiting and covertly photographing their offices and managers. The men and women who carried out the rendition programme were equipped with fake identities: Paglen has made a collection of these people’s unconvincing and fluctuating signatures, “people,” as he puts it, “who don’t exist because they’re in the business of disappearing other people”.
It sounds like the work-in-progress of an extraordinarily determined investigative journalist. But while the dogged tracking of a Seymour Hersh will culminate in a 5,000-word piece for The New Yorker, blowing the lid off, say, alleged American plans to seize control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons or the origin of the sarin used in the Syrian civil war, Paglen is not interested in such narratives. Not that he is uninterested: he describes the extraordinary rendition programme, for example, as “incredibly evil”, and has worked closely with human-rights activists. But rather than a charge sheet of the guilty men or calls for government action or popular insurrection, he presents us with a succession of enigmatic images: boring suburban offices, middle-aged men getting into American cars, shimmering lines in the sky, aircraft waiting to take off.
The new project that brings him to Britain is in line with this, though it is also prettier than most of his work. A photograph more than 60 metres wide which will stretch the entire length of the platform of Gloucester Road Underground station – home of the Art on the Underground programme – shows an idyllic expanse of rolling north York moors. And there, nestling among the folds of the hills are the massed giant golfballs of the vast RAF Fylingdales surveillance station, jointly operated with the US.
Given the existence of bitter and determined enemies, what’s wrong with having secret facilities to keep a close eye on them?
“I think mass surveillance is a bad idea because a surveillance society is one in which people understand that they are constantly monitored,” Paglen says, “and when people understand that they are constantly monitored they are more conformist, they are less willing to take up controversial positions, and that kind of mass conformity is incompatible with democracy.
“The second reason is that mass surveillance creates a dramatic power imbalance between citizens and government. In a democracy the citizens are supposed to have all the power and the government is supposed to be the means by which the citizens exercise that power. But when you have a surveillance state, the state has all the power and citizens have very little. In a democratic society you should have a state with maximum transparency and maximum civil liberties for citizens. But in a surveillance state the exact opposite is true.”