Considering a Cognitive Landscape – Restriction, Constraint, and Surveillance in the Creation of Boundaries

In my last blog, I detailed the Broad Art Museum writing residency program that I will participate in this semester. We had our first meeting with the faculty members (from many different departments!) and fellows last week. Throughout the course of the meeting, we listened to lectures on the artist/experimental geographer Trevor Paglen (see his website at as well as on the history of landscape art. Coming from a physical anthropology/archaeology perspective, nearly every bit of information was new to me. I had a great time! When the meeting concluded, we were given readings on the theme of “landscape and mediascape” to read and write about. At first when I sat down to tackle the readings, I did so with the science-minded framework I’m used to – locate the research question(s), identify the data, review the discussion and interpretation. I quickly discovered this approach will not work with these readings or this museum project (or anything related to this residency!). I spend a lot of time thinking about landscapes to be sure – mortuary landscapes and how biological data fits in and on them in my dissertation research; gendered landscapes and how female students operated in and on them in my CAP research – but I had never thought about the visual process of creating and maintaining knowledge of a landscape. I believe this contemporary art perspective will be not only a great challenge to adapt to (and see my own work from and within), but will also give me new and innovative ways through which to address archaeological landscapes and data.

Trevor Paglen is interested in what can most easily be termed a “classified landscape” (those areas that, through military force, are considered off limits or even non-existent). Though the mechanisms are different through time and space, this theme of restriction is present in all archaeological research. There are always spaces that are restricted for complex combinations of social, political, and economic reasons that are shaped by a host of cultural factors. I’m working hard to digest Paglen’s work while also relating it to my own – I believe the uniting theme will be that we are both searching for information that is, in part, “hidden in plain sight.” Paglen is examining the military installations and drones that we know exist but are not able to see, or the government buildings that are outwardly visible to the public but absolutely restricted in access (point of fact – Paglen published the second known photo of the National Security Administration, a highly visible space with invisible activities). I am examining the campus past that is under the ground we walk on, in the buildings we enter, and preserved in the records on campus. The past is here right in front of or below us, but it’s hidden. It straddles that visible/invisible line.

Below I will share my first attempts at my first blog entry for the Broad Art Museum writing residency. I hope that readers of this CAP blog will think about these themes of surveillance, restriction, and constraint (all addressed in Paglen’s work) in terms of your own archaeological interests or research.

In a 2013 interview with the Center for the Study of the Drone, Paglen discussed his interest in “the line that separates vision from knowledge,’ acknowledging that material evidence does not often come to the forefront of his work. Rather, his images provide the foundation for a conversation, a questioning of the limits of knowledge, and an examination of how and why those limits came to be drawn. Because Paglen’s subject matter is defined by secrecy, constraint, and restriction by various government entities, he seeks to examine, at least in part, the mechanisms by which this secrecy is created, reproduced, and legitimized. The products of this state-sponsored secrecy are the “blank spots on the map” (per Paglen’s book by the same title). How are these spots designed and engineered, and by whom? Why do we, the public, respect these boundaries? Why do we accept secrecy as a precondition to our safety? What of those secrets that are not particularly “secret” at all yet still hindered by underreporting or selective invisibility? How does a general, yet amorphous, knowledge that secrecy exists – in some place, some plane, some form unknown to us – colonize the public thought?

From an archaeologist’s perspective, these themes are present in history and prehistory in every complex hierarchical culture. But, Paglen’s raises an interesting question: Does material evidence make what we know (or think we know) about a landscape more “real”? Does absence of evidentiary material matter? How can we fill in the gaps? These are questions that archaeologists have always considered in their work.

In the Center for the Study of the Drone interview Paglen stated that, “…the images are taken from so far away, through so much dust and haze and heat, that while it’s a photograph of a site, it’s also a photograph of what it looks like when you’ve pushed the physical properties of your vision as far as they will go. It’s a photograph of a place, but it’s literally a photograph of what it looks like when your physical capacity to see collapses, or begins to collapse.” I related this quote directly to archaeology! While Paglen is discussing the difficulties in seeing and documenting real-time objects or events on the visible, horizontal landscape,             archaeologists are wrestling with these same issues on a (usually) invisible, vertical plane (sometimes many feet below the current ground surface).


Author: Amy Michael

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