Issue 8 is by experimental geographer Trevor Paglen. The issue was a military style coffee mug with imagery from a patch that Trevor collected from the military's "black" world, a world that officially does not exist.
A letter from Trevor Paglen
I have been researching and collecting images from secret or “black” military projects for a number of years now. The military is a highly visual culture – there are patches and heraldry signifying a person’s rank, unit, the programs they’re assigned to, their job and so forth. It turns out – somewhat curiously – that people in the military also make patches for “black” or secret projects. One man assigned to black projects told me that they made patches for black projects because it would look weird to not have patches designating one’s programs. The symbols designed to represent black projects on patches are often reproduced on all sorts of souvenirs associated with particular programs: challenge coins, pendants, buttons, baseball hats, and mugs. It’s always interesting to me to see how people in the more secret parts of the military go about solving an ancient problem in art, one most often associated with religious imagery: how to represent that which must not be represented. In the religious tradition, “that which must not be represented” is usually God (the Christian ban on “graven images” – the second commandment – is higher on the list than the prohibition against murder, second only to a ban on worshipping “other gods”). In the “black world” of military secrets, it is the classified projects which are illegal to represent.
While researching my book “I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have To Be Destroyed By Me” (which is about this phenomenon), I heard several references to a patch for something called the “Alien Technology Exploitation Division.” My friend, aerospace historian Peter Merlin had seen art from the patch and told me that it had an image of an alien with a chain around its neck, and that the patch had some kind of weird writing on it. He’d written down the phrase “yltlhobQo Jay’” and told me he thought it might be Navajo. With a few minutes of inspired googling, I found a Klingon translation of “Hamlet” and thought that the style of writing seemed very similar to the phrase on the patch. We didn’t know what kind of unit the patch was associated with – Merlin had been told that the patch might be related to flight test. I was never able to find the patch or even get an image of it that I could use in the book, but I kept knowledge of the patch in the back of my head.
When the book came out and I was doing the promotional work for it, I ended up doing a TV interview with Stephen Colbert. At one point in the interview, he asked me whether there was a “Holy Grail” of patches – an image that I thought was out there but that I couldn’t get my hands on. I thought about it for a second, then remembered the story I’d heard about the “Alien Technology Exploitation” patch and mentioned that it had a Klingon phrase associated with it.
A few weeks later, I got an email from a man named Robert Fabian: “Subject: Alien Technology Exploitation Division Patch - FOUND!” It turned out he had designed the patch I’d mentioned on the television broadcast. One of his friends had seen the show and mentioned my reference to the patch he’d designed. He went on:
“I designed that patch several years ago while stationed at Headquarters, Air Force Space Command. A couple of friends and I pooled our money and had them made – strictly unofficially. I’m afraid there’s not a whole lot of symbolism in it. We were working inside a SCIF (vault) and our friends and coworkers used to like giving us a hard time about it, asking if our office was where they kept the alien bodies. As a joke, we told them that dead aliens were no use; we needed live ones to explain their technology to us. After one particularly grueling late night working on briefing slides that went nowhere, we came up with the patch idea. The Klingon translates to “Don’t Ask!”
We wore them on our flightsuits for a couple of months before anyone in authority spotted them. Our boss’s boss’s boss, a Brigadier General’s only reaction was to ask where he could get one...
When one of my “co-conspirators” told me about your reference to our patch, I just had to laugh. When we first thought of making it, we wondered what would happen if someone got a hold of it and tried to read too much into it. It’s still my favorite among the patches I’ve designed. I’d be more than happy to send you one.
For this issue of the Thing, we present you with a commemorative mug based on Fabian’s art work for whatever he was doing in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility at U.S. Space Command in Colorado. Special thanks to Robert Fabian for condoning our use of his art work and for allowing us to share his story about the art work. Thanks to Brad Aldridge for adapting the art work for use on the mug.
- Trevor Paglen
- TREVOR PAGLEN
Trevor Paglen's work deliberately blurs lines between science, contemporary art, journalism, and other disciplines to construct unfamiliar, yet meticulously researched ways to see and interpret the world around us.
Paglen's visual work has been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Tate Modern, London; The Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis; The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the 2008 Taipei Biennial; the 2009 Istanbul Biennial; the 2012 Liverpool Biennial, and numerous other solo and group exhibitions.
He is the author of five books and numerous articles on subjects including experimental geography, state secrecy, military symbology, photography, and visuality. His most recent book, The Last Pictures is a meditation on the intersections of deep-time, politics, and art.
Paglen has received grants and awards from the Smithsonian, Art Matters, Artadia, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the LUMA foundation, the Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology, and the Aperture Foundation.
Paglen holds a B.A. from U.C. Berkeley, an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, and a Ph.D. in Geography from U.C. Berkeley.
Trevor Paglen lives and works in New York.
More information on Trevor Paglen can be found here.