Trevor Paglen's new show is called Impossible Objects, but the drawings, prototypes, and photographs on display at Altman Siegel document a project, that, while seemingly implausible, is very much real: he is putting a sculpture in space. This August, Orbital Reflector, a 100-foot-long, 6-foot-tall diamond-shaped object, will be fired into low orbit via a SpaceX rocket.
While the history of art is rife with astral intrigue, from the Russian avant-gardist Kazimir Malevich’s plan to reach the moon (years before the technology to do so was invented) to the "Light and Space" artists who engaged with NASA in the 1970s, there are few precedents to projects on the scale of Paglen’s. In our interview, he is quick to point out there are plenty of objects floating in space, but the few of them are artworks because, as he says repeatedly, "Space is really, really hard."
Paglen is best known for his work examining military infrastructure — in distant photographs of CIA black sites, covert satellites, and landscape shots of internet cables. In recent years, he’s also developed a body of work using artificial intelligence to reveal the hidden biases of image classification algorithms. His work probes and inhabits the contradictions of mass surveillance by working within the structures he critiques. By launching his non-functional satellite from a military base, on a rocket with a spy satellite on top of it, Orbital Reflector may be the closest he's gotten to working in tandem with those systems.
Near the front desk of the gallery is a scrappy charcoal drawing called View From Earth. A black square with tiny white dots and a star, it pays homage to Malevich’s famous Black Square painting, where the artist sought to express the underlying structures of the visual world (and in this case, the night sky) through abstraction.
The exhibition begins with a series of photographs from Paglen's ongoing series, The Other Night Sky, a project that follows and documents classified American satellites and other objects in orbit. Four of the images have their colors inverted, showing the charcoal lines of orbital paths against white backgrounds. "[The inversion] is the style that you use for more technical astrophotography," Paglen says; it makes faint satellite paths clearer and highlights the aesthetics of the scientific style.
The hazy abstractions stand in stark contrast to their titles. Consider NROL-76 in Scorpio (Unknown Purpose – Possible Satellite Interceptor; USA 276) (note: second satellite in the image is COSMOS 1275DEB – a piece of Russian Space Debris). The images are named for exactly what they are, even when the definition is uncertain. They also stand alone as remarkable photographs.
In the center of the gallery is a to-scale replica of Orbital Reflector, constructed of mylar, aluminum, solar panels, and tape. The real-life sculpture will be ejected, inflate, and reflect sunlight down to Earth so it’s observable with the naked eye. From late August through October, it will look like a celestial body about as bright as one of the stars in the Big Dipper.
In the back room of Altman Siegel, assorted prototypes for Orbital Reflector hang from the ceiling, including a steel and lacquer triangle, a fiberglass Möbius strip, and a polished stainless steel circle. Sketches along the wall show myriad other shapes and possibilities.
In one early concept, Comet sat, a satellite would produce a giant snowball in space. As the snowball traveled across the Earth, Paglen says, "it would leave a little trail of meteorites, so you’d see this kind of streaking fireball in the sky."
Another sketch is titled Hopeless Diamond. In it, a hastily shaded circle bears the note "Aerospace engineering for aerospace engineering’s sake." When asked how he arrived at the ultimate diamond shape, Paglen explains that once he'd determined he wanted to create a reflective piece, he had to consider how much surface area could reflect sunlight at a given moment, while being as aerodynamic as possible and stay up in space longer. (The ideal shape would be a cylinder, but the diamond functions similarly, and he finds it more aesthetically pleasing.)
The descriptor "aerospace engineering for aerospace engineering's sake" hearkens back to the exhibition title. What makes an object "impossible"? In Paglen’s words, "Objects that are parts of infrastructure, but whose ethics are the opposite of what infrastructure normally is.” To him, this would be an internet infrastructure that is, by design, incapable of collecting data or spying on people. Or a satellite that has no military, scientific, or commercial functions.
“Impossible” also has a more obvious, secondary meaning: the fact of pulling off a crazy, grandiose project, a testament to the artist’s extreme vision, labor, and graciousness. "A big part of Orbital Reflector was developing stakeholders — building a community of people who are invested in the project,” Paglen says. “That’s people within the aerospace industry, people within the arts community, people within Kickstarter.” (The crowdfunding site raised over $76,000 towards the project.)
"The real trick of the project is to do it in such a way that people can trust it,” he says. "When I first was talking about the project with the program manager and said how much money we needed to raise, he said, ‘Fine, I’ll raise it tomorrow.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' And he said, 'I’ll just call up Red Bull we’ll do this' and I said, 'No no no no, we can’t do that. We have to do it the hard way!'"
Paglen’s commitment to grandeur is grounded in disarming humility. “I’m not unique,” he says. “I assume that if something’s interesting to me, it’ll be interesting to lots of other people, too, by virtue of the fact that there’s nothing particularly unique about me.” But it takes a certain doggedness to make such projects a reality. When we look at the sky in August, or really, at any moment, may we all hold in mind the contradictions that Paglen’s project lies bare: our kinship with the universe, the awe of the sky, the vast spyware networks looking back at us, with which we are intractably, invisibly linked.
'Impossible Objects' is on view at Altman Siegel in San Francisco through May 5, 2018. For more information, click here.