Blank Spots on the Map

blank spots

Trevor Paglen is a geographer and photographer whose work concentrates on making the invisible infrastructure of surveillance and military intelligence visible.

Over the past decade, he has taken thousands of photographs of places connected to the so-called “black world” of classified defense activity. […] He has aimed his lens at a National Security Agency eavesdropping complex in Sugar Grove, West Virginia; a space-surveillance transmitter in Lake Kickapoo, Texas; and a secret C.I.A. prison outside Kabul. (source)

Paglen is an academic geographer by training and Blank Spots On the Map is ostensibly a work of geography. The tagline “The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World” does much to reassure us of this.

The book investigates black spaces—places rendered inaccessible not through physical limitations like topography or fences—but through social processes such as secrecy and censorship. These are secret military installations, R&D and manufacturing facilities and notorious CIA black sites where torture is conducted.

Unfortunately, Blank Spots ultimately fails to deliver on its promise of mapping a “dark geography”. Paglen uses geography fleetingly, mostly as a launching pad for charting the historical, legal and technical contexts within which the black world has taken shape over the past 60 years. This is done well and it’s here where the his exhaustive research skills shine through.

Highlights include an account of a group of people mapping the paths of covert satellites, an exploration of the CIA’s use of the U.S. Postal Service’s mailbox service and Paglen holing himself up in a hotel room overlooking an airfield to record the paths of covert flights.

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