In the Texas desert, 287 miles north of Earth's most powerful light, is what might well be the spookiest. It's a military installation near Lake Kickapoo, a quiet patch of the American outback, and it's the master transmitter in a belt of the world's most powerful radar system. Blasting the sky with a beam of microwaves, The Fence can detect objects three inches wide 30,000 kilometres high. Owned by the US Air Force's wonderfully named Space Control Squadron, it's part early warning system against missiles, part surveillance network to watch for foreign satellites and part broadcast signal to alien life forms. The invisible-to-the-naked-eye sheet of light shines out in space, rotating in orbit like a lighthouse, or a police siren.
New York art photographer Trevor Paglen has spent most of his professional life shooting the American military's silent, hidden infrastructure. In between photographing Predator Drones in Turner-esque skies, the frat-house-y insignia of secret squadrons and the other-worldly glow of vast military testing centres, he shot the microewaves shining from this strange corner of the American imagination. He turned up the spectrum of light to show the sickeningly lovely picture above in 2010, which looks to this writer like the cover of an anthology of new Southern Gothic stories, which, in a way, it is. In the week of SXSW, we spoke with the photographer at home in New York.
Hey Trevor! So, tell me about your photo "The Fence".
Trevor Paglan: The most powerful radio transmitters on earth are a network of American military radars called the Space Surveillance Network. These are a collection of extremely powerful radars that were originally designed for detecting missile launchers and airplanes. They have now been refurbished and upgraded to track satellites. The most powerful of all the radar signals in The Fence come from a transmitter at Lake Kickapoo, Texas. This transmitter creates a huge radar border along the south of America. Microwaves are used for the radar and they are essentially light that we can't see. If we could, you would see an enormous sheet of light along the southern border of the USA, which is produced by this transmitter. There are places where this fence has come up in my own work and the image of the fence is part of an on-going series to “photograph” the skyskape. This is obviously a tricky task as it’s impossible to see the fence with the naked eye.
Is there a link to SETI?
Trevor Paglan: One of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence thought experiments that they do is say "OK, we wanna look for other civilizations on other planets and so we imagine how would we look to them". Point alien microwave receivers in the direction of earth, what you would find would be a kind of rotating lighthouse almost. As the signal of the radars shoot outwards and the world turns, they would appear flash to the galaxy. In one of the study thought experiments, they imagined that aliens could even figure out that the earth was not politically united planet based on the fact that this light is only shining from one portion of its surface.
So what was the camera you used to take a picture of this radar system?
Trevor Paglan: We don’t use a camera we use a radar receiver. You're taking something that is a radio signal. There is no way to photograph radio waves. The images produced are more of a visualisation. After it has been made visible you can then choose what part of the spectrum to create an image out of. I chose red because it is the closest colour to microwaves. So it was not an arbitrary decision.
Where did you take the picture?
Trevor Paglan: From Southern Texas. Other people have done similar things where they have imaged radar signals from Greenland, I think there are even some guys who have done it by collecting some of the sense signals that they bounce off the moon. Again these are enormously powerful transmitters so you don’t have to be near them to see them. For example if you're out in the desert in Nevada and you can be a couple of hundred miles away from Vegas, and still see some spotlights coming up from there. You can really see them from enormous distances.
Why was lake Kickapoo, Texas chosen for this fence? Why not more to the southern border?
Trevor Paglan: Lake Kickapoo is part of a line of transmitters. There’s a network of them along every border. There are transmitters all over the world including the UK that are all part of the network, but Lake Kickapoo’s are the most powerful.
The great southern desert of the American has a history of this experimental military hardware, from the Manhattan project to Area 51 the Fence. Why do you think this barren stretch of land from Texas to New Mexico is the crucible of so much military technology?
Trevor Paglan: Well, yeah. Economic geographers sometimes refer to Texas as the gun belt.
That’s a nice phrase.
Trevor Paglan: It doesn’t mean that a lot of people have guns, which of course is true but the name came after World War II. Military spending is a massive part of the economy for that region and that’s why geographers have dubbed that phenomenon as the gun belt. These industries became what Eisenhower famously called the military industrial compound. The US basically kept that wartime production in place. As those industries were being put into place they were mainly set up in the south. Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California. The other part of it has to do with the fact that there are huge amounts of open space in places like Texas, Arizona and New Mexico and a much denser population. Going back to the days of the 2nd world war the southwest was the place you would go for bombing ranges and to train fighter pilots. Many viewed these parts of the US as Bad Lands or wastelands. There was a government official who set up a bombing range in Nevada and said it was a great place to do it as you could literally bomb it to oblivion and nobody would be able to tell the difference.
Charming. There’s something that you brushed on earlier, that the places that are sometimes referred to as the gun belt are often areas of high gun ownership. Do you think there is something in the culture of the state that leads people to this sort of thinking?
Trevor Paglan: That’s slightly out of my area of expertise, but it certainly seems to be the case that places where you have large amounts of military spending and an economy where everybody is dependent on the military for their livelihood, that you get a culture that reflects that.
What are your personal feelings, political or otherwise about the fence?
Trevor Paglan: The fence is a strange thing. The infrastructure of a fence is not immediately controversial in the same way that the infrastructure for drones or wire-tapping is. For me its part of a deeper question about the degree to which the American economy and the geography of the United States is militarized. The US spends more on its military than all of the other countries in the world combined. That is something that for me is very disconcerting. I think that US defence is a particularly controversial infrastructure in terms of how hidden its day-to-day operations are, and how the American landscape and the American economy is a militaristic one.
Your work is often about making these hidden things visible.
Trevor Paglan: One of the concerns I have as an artist is trying to see things that are around us all the time that we typically don’t see either because they are hidden or our eyes are not trained to see them. When it comes to my work I’m also very interested in the history of perception and the ways in which our perception of the world – I mean this very literally – changes to the next. I’m interested in the history of how artists have tried to grasp ways in which seeing and perception itself has changed and is changing.
Could you tell me a bit more about this relatively benign sounding Lake Kickapoo and then this vast extra terrestrial installation there? What’s that like.
Trevor Paglan: I’ve never been to Lake Kickapoo I will spend some time there over summer actually. From what I understand of it there’s an enormous transmitter that is set into the ground. Even if you go, there is not an awful lot to see. Some of the other transmitters that are a part of this network are very bizarre in their architecture – some are vast Ziggurats, or pyramid-like structures, and they're all over the world – there are several in Alaska, Barbados, the UK, Iceland and beyond. But at Lake Kickapoo, it's basically just a big fence and this thing poking out of the ground.
Visit Trevor Paglen's site here: paglen.com
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