Chris Knight, Globe and Mail, 2 February 2023
Trevor Paglen sets up his camera to photograph the U.S.-Mexico border wall at the Algodones Dunes, in director Yaara Bou Melhem’s Unseen Skies.
Unseen Skies Directed by Yaara Bou Melhem Classification N/A; 98 minutes Opens at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto March 3, Ottawa and Montreal March 10 and Vancouver March 17 Head outside on a dark and cloudless night and you’ll see constellations such as Orion and Ursa Major. Take a long-exposure photograph and the stars will turn to streaks as the Earth rotates beneath them.
But train your camera on the right spot and those streaks will be accompanied by points of light, bright and sharp. They look like stars but are actually geosynchronous satellites, circling the Earth at a speed and altitude that makes them appear motionless (and generally invisible) from the ground.
Artist and photographer Trevor Paglen has an interest in those lights. In 2012, he joined them, metaphorically speaking. That year, the communications satellite EchoStar XVI entered orbit carrying 32 radio transponders – and The Last Pictures, a disc he curated, microetched with 100 images, encased in a gold-plated shell. Far above any atmospheric drag – 100 times higher than the Space Station, a 10th of the way to the moon – The Last Pictures will remain in orbit for millions of years, a kind of Space Age cave painting, preserved in the vacuum.
Unseen Skies, the first feature from Australian journalist and filmmaker Yaara Bou Melhem, doesn’t even touch on The Last Pictures project. Its focus is Orbital Reflector, a Mylar balloon that Paglen designed and launched in 2018 aboard a SpaceX rocket. It was meant to inflate in space and remain in orbit for three months before burning up in the atmosphere.
Things didn’t quite go as planned, but that scarcely matters, since this engrossing documentary touches on so many of Paglen’s other interests and artworks, including his trips to the Nevada desert to photograph military installations. He sees himself as a kind of spiritual successor to such 19th-century photographers as Timothy H. O’Sullivan, tasked by the U.S. Department of War with documenting the frontier.
Nowadays those landscapes are dotted with drone airfields and black ops sites, surrounded by barbed wire and twitchy guards. “This is a sketchy place where a lot of people are making up their own rules,” he says after an encounter with nervous security personnel who say they’re U.S. Marines but also claim to working for Customs and Border Protection.
Above the desert are contrails and the chunky shapes of next-generation fighters. Higher still, where you or I might marvel at the stars, Paglen sees “reconnaissance satellites and space junk and bits of human infrastructure.” For the first time in history, space is looking back. Melhem gives free rein to her subject, but even the digressions prove fascinating. We learn how high-speed photography was used to document nuclear tests, and how the military realized the camera triggers were actually more precise than those used to detonate the nukes, and were subsequently co-opted into weapons design.
Then there’s Paglen’s interest in the use of artificial intelligence in surveillance. Many scenes are overlaid with images of an algorithm trying to categorize objects in the frame. “How does a self-driving car see the world?” Paglen asks. “How does a guided missile see the world?”
The answer: not the way we do. Unseen Skies may put you off the idea of ever taking a trip in an autonomous vehicle. And is it reassuring that AI can’t distinguish a Black man from a white man, a violin from a cello, a nun from an imam – or terrifying to watch jittery pixels jump and slide as it tries every 10th of a second to do so? And what to make of an AI that tries to guess your occupation based solely on your looks?
Although ostensibly an art doc, Unseen Skies will leave you with a great many questions and concerns about the place of surveillance in our lives, the ways that open-source artificial intelligence is getting in on the act, and what it might mean to the future of privacy and civil liberties. Do look up.