Maps and graphs: Making art of our solar system

“You aren’t going to have a factory built out of dark matter. You aren’t going to have test pilots who are invisible.”

You aren’t. The factories will be built out of concrete and rebar, the test pilots as visible as your uncle. Even factories and pilots that serve classified aircrafts, the factories that don’t exist, the pilots that spend their days flying planes that never were. This is the world that Trevor Paglen explores. He is trying to circumnavigate this “black world,” a space that exists inside restricted military areas, a space that is observable only through the way it interacts with our own world, our normal, everyday, not-at-all confidential experience.

Paglen spoke as part of Experimental Cartographies, a multi-day workshop co-hosted by the Studio for Creative Inquiry and the Miller Gallery last week. He was part of a series of speakers who explained their work and art, which focused on re-framing popular conceptions of map-making. Paglen himself focused on these explorations of the secret: holes in government budgets, aircrafts that don’t exist, airline companies that are stand-ins for the CIA. And while his work is politically motivated by the climate of terrorism, the methodology is hundreds of years old.

“Minding the heavens” was a description used by Caroline Herschel, the famous German astronomer, to describe the activity she and her brother would perform each night. They memorized the star charts, internalizing the positions of every known object in the sky. They were not processing images by computer, they were not comparing photographic slides; they were searching the heavens for stars that didn’t belong.

Richard Holmes’ account of the Herschels takes center stage in his newest book, Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. They are the archetypes of romantic scientists, thinkers whose years of education and work led the public to the idealized portrait of a scientist under a tree deducing gravity. But it was their meticulous years spent recording out-of-place “stars” that led to the discovery of dozens of comets, hundreds of galaxies, and Georgium Sidus, the planet that we would come to know as Uranus. The discoveries not only expanded the size of our solar system, but they led to a re-imagining of the size of the entire universe.

Through Experimental Cartographies, we see maps continue to play a crucial role in our understanding of space. But the maps themselves are evolving. We aren’t crossing the oceans from port to port, we are tracking off-the-record flights in and out of Guantanamo Bay, finding a new apartment on Google Street View, and seeing galaxies discovered in the 1780s in exquisite technicolor from the Hubble telescope. However, the message from many of the speakers was one of tempered optimism and cautious conspiracy-theorism: With the maps becoming more technical and information-rich, as consumers we must be mindful of the edges, the details left off, the hidden black worlds.