Paglen often uses photography to expose the unseen reach of the surveillance state — NSA black sites, tools for spying, spaces kept secret. He even tracks them in the sky, shooting spy satellites as well as drones. The CIA and the US Army operate Reapers (as well as the equally sinister-sounding Predators and Global Hawks) over Afghanistan, Yemen, and western Pakistan to track and kill terrorists. In Untitled (Reaper Drone), the unmanned aircraft is photographed within the US, as the plane flies on a training mission on the California-Nevada border.
Looking at the photo, with its minatory little speck, I think of the tradition of American landscape painting. I’ve been pondering the meaning of that tradition since moving to the Catskills, land of the Hudson River School, a decade ago. That art was aligned with how a young country saw itself, bound up with divinity, power, progress, and possibility. Where do those values manifest now? What landscape holds them? There are links to drones, I’m certain, even if the paintings and planes are separated by nearly two centuries.
Paglen’s photograph reminds me of a painting from 1863 by Albert Bierstadt, one of the last Hudson River School painters and one of the first to go west. The painting, The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak, is grand. Bierstadt became known soon afterward for his bombastic skies and views of purple mountains’ majesty; nature dwarfed anyone in the image. This was his first such painting, made after a trip out West with a War Department survey team. Ten feet across, the composition is twice the size of Paglen’s photo. When he took that shot of a drone, Paglen was thinking of Bierstadt, too, and he has since talked about it. He was referencing the past, how surveillance culture is now informed by the legacy of the landscape, by painters like Bierstadt and 19th-century government survey photography. Paglen borrowed from them to make clear the connections. At Kaaterskill Falls in upstate New York, I hope to find them too.
It’s autumn and I’m at the top of a waterfall, nearly the highest in the Northeast. It feels like being on the edge of an abyss. I can’t see the drop, or the falls, though they appear in all the paintings of the scene, one of the most famous in early American art. Thomas Cole and his legions of followers in the Hudson River School all painted Kaaterskill Clove. This afternoon the skies are so blue they seem endless, the foliage brilliant and bold. “Riant” is the word Cole used to describe the colors. It’s nearly 190 years to the day since he first traveled up the Hudson on a steamboat and found an Eden that would become an artistic tradition. Standing here, peering over the edge, I realize that those paintings he and his friends made of the site lied. They skewed the perspective to get the falls and precipice at the top in the frame.
When I started my search nearly two years ago, I had little more to go on than art history and Paglen’s images. I wasn’t even sure what a military drone looked like. I definitely didn’t picture something the size of a 737. The planes are rarely shown or reported on, and the most you’d see would be a few lines in a newspaper: “Drone strike kills five …”; “Insurgents killed by drone …”; “Suspected militants killed by drone …”; “Drone in southern Yemen …”; “Drone strike in North Waziristan …” The language is sanitized, the victims rarely named, dispatched with little comment. Something in the way the papers and paintings dwarf their subjects suggests a similarity to the Hudson River School.
Above the tree line at the Falls, it feels like I can see to the edge of the world. What does it mean to see so much you feel all-powerful — and what about the hubris involved in that, or in Cole’s cheating the view to make it seem true? Perhaps that false perspective the Hudson River School employed is connected to the ethos that lets us fly drones five miles or more in the air and survey all below with such precise detail that we can follow the path of one car in a crowded city or track a single bird in flight.
At the Falls people push closer to the edge. Signs warn visitors to stay away, but we all want to see the famous view. Everyone — me included — has our cell phones out to shoot the scene. There are no drones overhead, though countless clips of amateur footage shot on afternoons like this can be found on YouTube. Cole and his compatriots would be jealous: the Falls were too dangerous for them to sketch easily. In Cole’s day, artists had to hike in from one side to draw Kaaterskill Clove from below, then travel four miles around to reach the top; the images were put together in a painting in the studio. The landscape made it impossible for them to capture the same sweeping vistas miniature planes easily shoot today.
The Hudson River School was America’s first homegrown artistic tradition. When it started, we were barely 50 years into being a new country, and the landscape was for all, a popular subject for American art because everyone could understand it. Europe’s dominant tradition was history painting, which required an expensive education in literature and the classics that few Americans possessed. As collector James Jackson Jarves wrote at the time, “It had no place with the people.” What did? Stirring views of their own country.
In 1836, Cole wrote about the landscape in his “Essay on American Scenery.” “Whether it’s the Hudson[,] … the central wilds of this vast continent, or … the margin of the distant Oregon … it is his own land, its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity — all are his.” His point was that this landscape topped Europe’s in every way; it was our inheritance, our destiny: “All are his” — that is, all ours.
The same year Cole wrote these words, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a line in his essay “Nature” meant to capture a transcendental experience: “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all.” In the context of that decade, the words suggest watching and power. This was two years before the government finished deporting the Cherokees and other tribes from the Western territories and just before the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers started their project of detailing the West. The Corps’s techniques of triangulation led to better mapping, accurate pictures of the West and its mountains — all developed in our eagerness to represent, control, and own the land.
The word “landscape” was first used in English at the end of the 16th century. It emerged from the Dutch landscape paintings and migrated to Britain. The word doesn’t connote just land, but how that land is viewed. By the mid-17th century, still early in its English usage, “landscape” also meant to get as high as possible to capture or map something. In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the ability to survey from on high equaled a nearly Biblical power: “Could we but climb where Moses stood, / And view the landscape over.” This is what I feel at the top of Kaaterskill Falls — this sense of viewing the landscape over, of seeing like a god. Drones have the same divine power as they track thousands of moving targets at once and focus in on something as small as my hand. Trevor Paglen sees something similar in them, too.
Paglen trained not just as a photographer but also as a geographer. With an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago and a PhD from Berkeley, he specializes in what he calls “experimental geography,” exploring relationships between cartography, photography, surveillance, and state power. For Paglen, the concept of the landscape extends from agriculture to military technologies. “I think of the landscape tradition in such an expanded way at this point,” he tells me via Skype. He’s in Switzerland installing a show. “I think about it in terms of image-making. I look at pictorial painting and landscape photography, but spy satellites and GPS are part of that tradition too; so is geography and mapping.” Behind him an assistant adjusts the lighting in the gallery. “It’s a way of seeing that emphasizes how humans transform the surface of the earth,” he tells me. “That’s how I see the landscape tradition. It’s the dialectic between our transforming the landscape and how we picture it and how our societies live in the landscape.”
Recently he’s been shooting dramatic seascapes, worthy of Turner, that reveal where the transoceanic cables carrying the internet make landfall. These sites are also where the NSA spies on data and conversations. In his images, Paglen conflates the sublimity of nature with the dark power of the state. The result creates an aestheticized paranoia, while quoting the long history of the landscape in art. “The landscape is tied up with military forms of seeing, with strategic forms of seeing” he explains. “And with capital, which works to dissect a landscape and make it more efficient to squeeze profits out of it.”
The landscape can serve as a document to decode a culture’s values at different moments. It can be read like any other history, and while Paglen often borrows from 19th-century Army photography, I turn to that Bierstadt, The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak, which hangs in the Met today.
The museum acquired the canvas in 1909, just before such paintings went out of fashion. Bierstadt painted it in the studio from sketches and photographs he’d taken out West. Like the constructions of other Hudson River School painters, the scene never existed, at least not as the artist presented it. In 1859, Bierstadt joined a government survey of the West with one of the Army’s soldier surveyors with the corps of topographical engineers, Colonel Frederick W. Lander. Lander fancied himself a man of letters, writing poetry and giving lectures. He was in Wyoming Territory to build the Honey Road, meant to be a safer, faster route for pioneers and the mail.
The project was unremarkable, and the road was never finished. It was going to travel through Utah and what is now Wyoming and Idaho to the Nevada-California border, but Lander died in the Civil War. The project is notable now for one thing alone: Bierstadt’s painting. Pastel skies swirl in the painting as in Paglen’s photograph, and towering mountains resemble Snow White’s castle. At the bottom are a tiny group of Indians. Dwarfed by nature’s majesty, they quaintly lay out blankets as if for a picnic. A buffalo skull sits in the grass at the edge of the picture as if a vanitas had migrated from some Dutch still life. There’s also a tripod standing there that looks uncannily like a photographer’s tripod, although it doesn’t hold a camera but skins set out to dry. Bierstadt served as the survey’s photographer — hardly the first artist to travel with a survey, but perhaps the most ambitious.
In 1859, he was 29 and not yet famous. He had a bushy beard and weary eyes. His brothers were photographers with a studio in Boston, and he probably learned the trade from them. He was also just back from four years in Germany at the Düsseldorf Academy. All serious American artists went to Europe to study and see the old masters, but in the Rockies he found a subject better than the Alps, mountains more dramatic than anything on the East Coast. He wrote about the expedition for the art magazine The Crayon that July. He also wrote of the Indians who were to his vast surprise “astonished” to find themselves photographed surreptitiously. They were, he noted, “So enticing [… with] their picturesque dress, that renders them such appropriate adjuncts to the scenery.” None of those surreptitious photographs survive, just his monumental painting, assembled back East and described to journalists as “not a composition but a genuine scene drawn from nature.”
When the Civil War started, Bierstadt’s painting served as propaganda, a sense of what we were fighting for — not only keeping the Union together, but also expansion, one country unified from ocean to ocean. Bierstadt toured the massive painting up and down the East Coast, displaying it for eager paying crowds who wanted to know what the West was like. They shelled out nearly what we would to see a movie today and bought reproductions to hang at home. In 1864, as part of an exposition to raise money for Northern troops, he displayed Lander’s Peak next to a tableau vivant he assembled of Native Americans.
Lander’s Peak shows the world on the cusp of change, not just because of the war: photography was also about to replace painting as the recorder of nature. In the Rockies with Lander, Bierstadt was both painting and taking landscape photographs, an agent of a culture of watching, of surveillance, of vision and control. The details of the painting are so fine that crowds brought opera glasses to focus on them. Today, drones stitch together images with processors from data the planes transmit. Instead of happening in the studio, the planes construct them in near real time.
Less than a decade after the Civil War, Timothy O’Sullivan was on a government survey as its official photographer. An Irish immigrant who lived on Staten Island, he took a series of landscape photographs that stands somewhere between the Hudson River School and Ansel Adams’s majestic prints. In one, a man stares out at a lake; jagged peaks carve the distance — nothing interrupts the scene, as if he’s the only one ever to contemplate it. In another image, spray rises off a waterfall; white cataracts cut across the print, and the curve of a river draws the eye up. It’s Shoshone Falls — the West’s Niagara — and in the foreground a solitary man sits, arms crossed. His back to us, he stares, hidden at first by the plateau’s stubby rocks and grass, which camouflage his bowler hat and jacket. He’s there as our proxy. We see as he does, sitting alone, dwarfed by the grandeur before him.
O’Sullivan took part in the War Department’s surveys to “tame” the West and finish the mission that the US Army Corps of Topographical Engineers had begun in the 1830s. Now a continental railway connected the coasts, so the job was in part symbolic, uniting the country North, South, East, and West. At the end of the 1860s, three different surveys were established under three different explorers: Lieutenant George Wheeler, Ferdinand V. Hayden, and Clarence King. Each was given a piece of the West to map and detail. All of them took photographers, and Timothy O’Sullivan served on two of the teams. The nature of the job was laid out in orders the Secretary of War sent to Wheeler:
The main object of this exploration will be to obtain correct topographic knowledge of the country traversed by your parties and to prepare accurate maps of that section. In making this the main object, it is at the same time intended that you ascertain as far as practicable everything relating to the physical features of the country, the numbers, habits and disposition of the Indians who may live in this section, the selection of such sites as may be of use for future military operations or occupation, and the facilities offered for making rail or common roads, to meet the wants of those who at some future period may occupy or traverse this part of our territory.
The job was to catalog everything — animal, vegetable, or mineral; friend, foe, or food. The surveyors were to note any place people could settle, eat, farm, divide the land, and make money. This, Trevor Paglen tells me, makes O’Sullivan “a spy satellite.”
From his gallery in Switzerland, Paglen talks about survey photography’s role in mapping and documentation. On the wall behind him is a list of alphabetized words and phrases. They’re codenames for secret NSA programs. He reads some of the R’s, incanting, “Radiant Berelium, Radiant Breeze, Radiant Crimson, Radiant Diamond, Radiant Frost, Radiant Garnet, Radiant Hale, Radiant Jade, Radiant Mercury, and let’s see, Radiant White. Radio Spring …” He draws a direct line from 19th-century survey photos up to the way our government uses surveillance now:
When you look at the King surveys and the Wheeler surveys, and you go to the National Archives to find the printed reports, the first page says, ‘Reconnaissance Report. Department of War.’ In a very real way, O’Sullivan was to the 19th century what spy satellites are to the 21st.
He points out that O'Sullivan was paid by the War Department to photograph the West. “This is a territory that had recently been acquired in the Mexican American War, and it’s no coincidence that this region became landscape photography’s greatest proving grounds.”
Taming the West, he says, "meant bringing symbolic and strategic order to blank spots on maps through surveillance, imaging, and mapping. The patriarchs of Western photography — Carleton Watkins, O’Sullivan, and Eadweard Muybridge — all played a part in asserting control over the landscapes they captured." O’Sullivan, he feels, offers the best example of the intersection of photography with the will to map and military control. "We tend to think of him as a landscape photographer," he explains and leans into his monitor, "but his career was one of those points where multiple histories of photography diverge. When you trace the history of technology that’s been funded by the military and military funding of photographic techniques, there’s a line that goes straight back to O’Sullivan."
Looking at O’Sullivan’s survey images now, I’m struck by their stillness and quiet. Shooting with wet plates required long exposure times, so the subject had to remain motionless. The scenes of Shoshone Falls are particularly striking. Higher than Niagara Falls, the Snake River here is 1,000-feet wide, and O’Sullivan clambered onto precarious ledges with his camera and glass plates. He also placed himself and his tripod in the rushing water. On all his trips out West, it’s the only location he shot twice.
Someone called John Samson wrote about the photographs for Harper’s in 1869, calling the falls “nature’s greatest spectacles […] the most sublime of Rocky Mountain scenes.” “[A] feeling,” he wrote, “pervades the mind almost unconsciously that you are if not the first white man who has ever trod that trail, certainly one of the very few.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Shoshone Falls became one of the first places a drone photographed more than a century later.
Before the Civil War, capturing scenes like this was nearly impossible. A few photographers tried; like Bierstadt, they traveled with War Department surveys. Most of those images are lost: plates broke, and developing them was tricky. But the war became photography’s proving ground. O’Sullivan worked first for Matthew Brady’s photo studio and then Alexander Gardner’s, capturing farm fields turned into battlefields. The images were given titles like Landscape of Death as if to tie them to the tradition Cole had launched.
At Gettysburg, O’Sullivan also faked two photographs. He and Gardner arrived after the fighting, and most of the bodies were bloated in the summer heat, but O’Sullivan and Gardner found one that wasn’t. They laid it out and dressed it first as a Union sniper then, carrying it to a more dramatic location in a nest of rocks, claimed the corpse was a Confederate. The body was contorted by violent death, and Gardner’s captions made clear we were supposed to sympathize with the Union soldier. It was his “last sleep.” The images’ veracity held for over a century, until the hoax was recognized, because people believed (and often still do) that photographs tell the truth.
O’Sullivan’s Western photos were constructions, nearly as much as Bierstadt’s paintings had been. O’Sullivan’s men are deliberately tiny, and the camera is above them, suggesting omniscience. He cropped rocks at dramatic angles, shooting from underneath so they looked more perilous, and in the desert he’d hide nearby roads to make the area seem more desolate. In Cottonwood Canyon, he tilted the camera, giving viewers a slipping, sliding sense of falling out of the frame. His photos set the visual language for how we see the West. They appeared not only in Harper’s but also in books the government released to publicize its discoveries.
In 1873, the Army published Photographs of American Scenery, with Wheeler’s introduction promising the “wildest and grandest in North American scenery,” “barren wastes,” and places that were “stupendous” and “turbulent.” This is the same language of the sublime that John Samson had used. While surveys were part of “taming” the West and “subduing” the native tribes, the Army also employed the visual conventions Bierstadt and the Hudson River School had developed. The photographs didn’t just appear ex nihilo; the technology represented the cultural values of the era that created it.
I read Wheeler’s Congressional report online, his words glowing on the screen. He talks about photography and two pages later about the Indians he found. “Their lawless and migratory life has carried them beyond the notion of anything like order […].” “[T]he Indian question in Arizona will never be settled until the campaigns of an energetic officer shall thoroughly whip and subdue them.” Soon he declares, “The secret of their great terror to the whites is their lawless and roving life […]. The common experience in settling questions with such tribes, and the only one that has proven successful, is to thoroughly whip them […].” Whip, whip, and subdue. It’s no secret that the US government’s relations with Indian populations were despicable. In 1871, their legal status was changed, ripping away their sovereignty. George Armstrong Custer, with his famous last stand in 1876, was originally out West to guard survey parties from the Sioux.
Is it any wonder the Indians hated the surveyors? The Army was cataloging the natives as well as the country’s resources. Wheeler’s “whip and subdue” stands out for its savagery but also suggests how drones function. The people watched by drones now — tribal populations, too, mostly — feel helpless under the planes’ gaze. The difference is that the technology is more sophisticated today, and “whip and subdue” has been replaced in government current language by “find, fix, and finish,” or as it’s abbreviated: “F3.”
Paglen traces a line from photography to military surveillance via Kodak’s development of high-speed film for spy satellites, a development that eventually trickled down to digital cameras. As Paglen wrote in Artforum in 2007:
The imaging satellite can then send targeting information to a covert data-relay spacecraft […] which can transmit bombing coordinates to airborne JSTARS command stations, Tomahawk cruise missiles, and “smart bombs.” […] [T]oday’s military and reconnaissance spacecraft are directly descended from the men who once roamed the deserts and mountains photographing blank spots on maps.
He’s writing about his series of photos of secret government satellites, The Other Night Sky, where the only proof of the satellites’ existence is to track them at night. He shot them over Mono Lake, where the sky is dark enough to capture them — but it’s also where O’Sullivan took survey photos himself.
The technology for surveillance is a tradition that takes in satellites, smart bombs, and cruise missiles. Height equals power; the higher you get, the more you see, conveying that sense of omniscience I experienced at Kaaterskill Falls. In World War I, photographer Edward Steichen had an entire aerial command dedicated to photography. As French theorist Paul Virilio wrote in his 1989 book War and Cinema:
Since the battlefield has always been a field of perception, the war machine appears to the military commander as an instrument of representation, comparable to the painter’s palette and brush […]. The pilot’s hand automatically trips the camera shutter with the same gesture that releases his weapon. For men at war, the function of the weapon is the function of the eye.
Even earlier than Steichen, Eadweard Muybridge shot images for Army surveys of Alaska and photographed the wars against the Modoc tribes in California. He also famously developed technology for time-motion studies, an invention that was essential to cinema. His technology was, Paglen notes, later used to develop high-speed film that captured the nuclear tests in Nevada and soon was remotely triggering those bombs themselves. “The camera triggers” he said recently, “were more accurate than the bombs.”
In the first Gulf War, missiles and bombs got the gift of vision: they became “smart,” and we got to see from their perspective. When the aerial war started in January 1991, I watched the attack on Baghdad on TV. The first smart bomb went for a telephone tower, or so the newscaster declared. Seen from overhead, the building was reduced to a rectangle with a cross over it. As the bomb got closer, the building lost all dimensionality. The anchor solemnly explained that this was Iraq’s telephone building, “its AT&T,” as the rectangle disappeared into a smudge of black like a TV on the fritz.
During the war, news reports would show the cross, the rectangle, and the black blur and tell us this bridge or that ministry had been destroyed. The reports were often wrong. The news agencies relied on intelligence from the armed forces. As with O’Sullivan and Jackson, facts were moved, realigned, and reconstructed. As it turned out, the smart bombs were less intelligent than anyone admitted. Their success rate was on par with traditional bombs. With this view from on high, however, a new visual language developed, one that needed interpretation for us to understand it.
German artist and filmmaker Harun Farocki noticed the war footage and was curious what the lines meant. They were there to teach us how to read the image, he wrote:
As early as the Eighties, cruise missiles used a stored image of a real landscape, then took an actual image during flight; the software compared the two images, resulting in a comparison between idea and reality, a confrontation between pure war and the impurity of the actual.
Like Paglen, whom he influenced, Farocki examined how the military shapes what we see. The gap between “pure war and the impurity of the actual,” which haunted Bierstadt’s and O’Sullivan’s images, now haunts the manipulated video. The TV anchor’s voice teaches us how to view a bomb as it falls over a building, a bridge.
In becoming smart, the weapons shifted how we perceive a landscape and how we perceive war. During the first Gulf War, the real again failed us. As the landscape was destroyed, the bombs became less and less effective: their stored images no longer matched up with a decimated landscape. Now smart weapons, like the “fire and forget” Hellfire missiles used on drones, read the landscape themselves and don’t need us to interpret it.
The word “drone” sounds benign. When I started thinking about the planes, I imagined them small and round, hovering in the sky like a security camera in an elevator. The first time we talked, Paglen described them as eyes. Shooting in the desert, he said, “They’ll fly over you and you can almost see their little eyeballs,” almost as if the planes were alive, hovering like dragonflies. Paglen talks too of the hum they make — “like a lawnmower,” as he puts it. They’re hardly that prosaic, though the name suggests bugs, worker bees, faceless factory workers — even the sound of a plane engine, its low buzz. The government prefers “unmanned aerial vehicle,” or UAV, as if to escape the word’s connotations, but “drone” has time on its side. It was first used just after World War II in Popular Science magazine.
Drones, as the radio-controlled craft are called, have many potentialities, civilian and military. Some day huge mother ships may guide fleets of long-distance, cargo-carrying airplanes across continents and oceans. Long-range drones armed with atomic bombs could be flown by accompanying mother ships to their targets and in for perfect hits.
The images accompanying this article are quaintly futuristic: someone in a jeep clutches a radio device, a giant box with levers. Paglen points out, “A drone is basically a remote-controlled airplane, and those have been around almost as long as there have been airplanes.” They don’t need mother ships for guidance anymore but use satellite triangulation. A drone’s power comes from its vision, the technology that lets the plane watch for hours and days. As Paglen explains, “The plane doesn’t terrify me; it’s the persistent surveillance, the ability to surveil an entire city 24 hours a day.”
Military drones, the Reaper, Predator, and Global Hawk, are, as the military puts it, “hunter-killers” designed for “long-term loitering.” The planes circle the air in shifts, flown by crews in Nevada, from places near where O’Sullivan worked in the 1870s. The planes “loiter” at heights of between one and 10 miles in the air. Their wingspans are close to a 737’s, and they’re armed with two or more Hellfire missiles. They’re not bees or anonymous workers, nothing close to what I imagined.
The first Predator drones were used in the Balkans to watch troop movements. Planes iced up and fell out of the sky, but their cameras were linked straight to the CIA director. Afterward, no one was sure just what to do with them. On the banks of the Snake River, however, where O’Sullivan was so enchanted by the scene he visited twice, two scientists in April 2000 began testing the drone’s possibilities. The world had yet to see the Twin Towers fall. No one was really sure what a drone could do, and White House infighting nearly nixed the program. But then two academics, Mark C. Quilter and Val Jo Anderson, published a dry treatise, “Low Altitude/Large Scale Aerial Photographs: A Tool For Range and Resource Managers,” which laid out a future for the technology.
At the time, drones were so obscure that the authors needed to explain what they were and how they worked. Quilter and Anderson used a drone to monitor hard-to-reach terrain, in a development akin to the introduction of the camera in government surveys. They advocated using 35mm film because digital cameras weren’t sophisticated enough. The authors took small drones out West — their test case: Shoshone Falls. The planes could distinguish birds and fragile plant life that was nearly impossible to photograph otherwise. A few months later, a Predator drone flew over Afghanistan 16 times, providing live video and photos of a man with a beard in white, flowing robes. He was Osama bin Laden, surrounded by men who formed a phalanx as he walked into a mosque on his compound. The flights were an early experiment, a bit like Quilter and Anderson’s, to see what was possible with drones.
In October of that year, Bin Laden’s forces bombed the USS Cole. One of the suggestions to track him included putting a giant telescope high on a mountain in Afghanistan, which seemed like something Wheeler and the War Department might have come up with. A year after the article on Shoshone Falls, a “stone-for-stone” duplicate of bin Laden’s home (whose courtyard he crossed in the earlier drone photos) was built in the Nevada desert. From 10,000 feet up and four miles away, a Predator sent a missile to hit one specific room in the villa. It was an exercise to prove that the government could weaponize the spy plane. This was, according to one observer, the “holy grail.”
Military drones can now fly for 24 hours — more in the case of the Global Hawk, allowing for almost godlike surveillance, two miles high, looking down like Moses in the Book of Common Prayer. Cameras zoom in on minute details and sensors pick up electronic data. In a 2011 film by Israeli artist Omer Fast, a drone sensor operator in Las Vegas declares that, “5,000 feet is the best,” since from that height, the pilot and sensor operator can make out someone’s sneakers. The line became the movie’s title. The sensor operator also talks of the “Light of God,” the laser-targeting beam from a Hellfire missile. Those outfitted with the right equipment — the goggles US ground forces have — can see it, and that beam means whoever or whatever it’s focused on is about to be destroyed.
“The Light of God” was a phrase coined by pilots and troops. It was just a bit of banter, but what else do you call something that can deal out death from such a distance? This power is also implicit in the “Gorgon Stare,” the military’s official name for the suite of technology drones use. The Gorgon Stare allows pilots in a US desert to observe an area the size of Manhattan thousands of miles away.
The Gorgon Stare includes a program called ARGUS-IS, which stands for “Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System,” though the acronym also recalls Argus Panoptes, the “all-seeing” giant of Greek mythology. “Panoptes” links etymologically to “panoptic”: Argus had a hundred eyes and never slept. Merging the prosaic and the profound, ARGUS-IT uses 368 5-gigabit smartphone cameras, such as the kind I used at Kaaterskill Falls. Networked together on the plane, they create a seamless image reported to have a resolution of 1.8 billion pixels. Meanwhile, the Gorgon Stare also comes equipped with night-vision and infrared cameras, which can see the striking of a match or the heat signature of overturned earth. There are electronic sensors that “see” what we do with our phones, our computers. LiDAR (the word is a combination of light and radar) technologies can map a location in enough detail to recognize something the size of a coffee cup. Tracking your metadata, or mine, or someone in Pakistan’s, the drone’s technology can, over days or months, catalog whom you call, where you go, what you do, whom you text and email.
Just like 19th-century painting and photography, drones frame a narrative that is linked to violence — “to whip and subdue.” The information drones collect becomes a “signature strike.” It doesn’t require the president’s signature or anyone from the CIA or Pentagon; rather, the signature is the victim’s own — his metadata profile.
The operative technique is behavioral patterning, and anyone who has ever received a targeted Facebook ad knows just how accurate it can be. The pilot dropping the Hellfire missile might not even know the victim’s name. The Gorgon Stare can’t distinguish cultural niceties, just patterns and algorithms. The ability to see from on high creates a sense of omniscience and omnipotence. Technology is not neutral; it retains the bias of the culture that creates it. Drone surveillance is shaped as much by ideology as survey photographs were. It’s been noted that “three guys doing jumping jacks” can be taken to constitute a terrorist training camp, or as Cameron Munter, former ambassador to Pakistan said, a terrorist is “any man between 20 and 40.” The Gorgon Stare is no more able to make precise distinctions than Bierstadt with his “picturesque,” “astonished” Indians painted into a fake “genuine” scene.
Paglen says the plane isn’t the issue; it’s the cameras, the data collection. James Poss, a retired Air Force major who oversaw the Predator’s development, put it even more bluntly: “It’s the data link, stupid.” Quoting him in The Atlantic, Mark Bowden explains, “The craft is essentially a conduit, an eye in the sky. Cut off from its back end, from its satellite links and its data processors, its intelligence analysts and its controller, the drone is as useless as an eyeball disconnected from the brain.” Like Emerson’s “transparent” one, Bowden’s “disconnected eyeball” comes bound up with those notions of height, power, and transcendence that Cole and Emerson sought in the 1830s American landscape.
“Signature strikes” are a way of ordering vision, a way of seeing people in a landscape, while the consequences of killing at a distance remain hidden. What happens when machines can make choices for us? Farocki noted that the guidelines on cruise missiles weren’t for the machines but for us, so we knew how to read them. We were already obsolete. On its website, BAE, the manufacturer of ARGUS-IS, claims that the system can “[r]each back into the forensic archive, and generate 3D models,” track every moving object in a city into perpetuity, and then reshape and rescale that information into a convenient package for us to interpret. It reframes that information and reshapes time, rewinding and recutting it. ARGUS can reframe 5,000 hours a day of high-definition footage.
Paglen has noted that chips from spy satellites led directly to iPhone cameras. “Fast forward a few years,” he says in an interview with the Brooklyn Rail, “and the chip in your iPhone is a little piece of a spy satellite.” With ARGUS-IS, though, the reverse is true. Our phones lead back to spying as they’re networked together, and those photos we upload on Facebook or Instagram become part of our indelible digital signature, data that can be trawled to target ads at us. Social media, shopping, and spying are intrinsically linked. The endless quest for individuality the internet offers feeds right into the reach of surveillance. The flip side of social media’s promise is how its algorithms track us, sorting and interpreting our patterns.
This rewound, reedited, and reshaped truth makes O’Sullivan’s tricks of moving a body or choosing an angle seem quaint. At the top of Kaaterskill Clove, I stand where Asher Durand painted Kindred Spirits, his dual portrait of Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant. Cole was dead by then, and the painting constructed a fiction of the men’s friendship as well as of the view here. It’s similar to the one beneath me, but not real. I try to imagine myself into that era and am haunted by Paglen’s words as he talked about Farocki, who died last year, and the German filmmaker’s abiding concern with machines supplanting our vision.
What worries me too is the language of representation — not just who is framed in images from drones, but how that information is interpreted. The Apaches and other tribes responded to the survey era by attacking, by turning terrorist. Recently, in western Pakistan, one tribal chieftain asked about both drones and terrorists: “But who created them?” He knew aerial surveillance has spawned more violence, more terrorism. How will we judge our drone war in 100 years? Will it seem like the Indian wars of the 1870s? For Paglen, it does already.
How something is framed becomes how we understand it. Like Bierstadt, we’re still framing the landscape, still looking from on high. Staring out over the precipice at Kaaterskill, I watch the autumn leaves fall 20 feet into a pool below. From where I stand I can’t even see the famous falls, just the edge, just the cliff.
A recent finalist for Notting Hill Editions’ Essay Prize, Jennifer Kabat is working on a book of linked essays, Growing Up Modern, exploring art, ideology, and the landscape from the modernist suburb where she grew up to where she lives now in the Catskill Mountains. A co-founder of The Weeklings, she teaches at NYU.