Trevor Paglen

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Uncomputables: #5 Doty
Trevor Paglen

66 Minutes

Artist Cinemas

Repeat: February 26-27, 2024

Richard Doty is a former Air Force Intelligence operative whose job at Kirtland AFB in New Mexico involved creating and disseminating disinformation about the existence of extraterrestrial spacecraft to UFO researchers.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Kirtland AFB was home to a wide range of highly classified technology experiments involving lasers, stealth aircraft, and nuclear weapons. Strange phenomena in the skies above the base piqued the interest of amateur and professional UFO investigators. Doty’s job was to recruit UFO researchers to be informants to the Air Force about goings-on in the UFO community and to spread military disinformation about UFOs among their peers. To accomplish this, Doty supplied fake documents to UFO investigators purporting to tell the “truth” about government involvement with extraterrestrials.

On the other hand, Doty insists that UFOs are real, that the government is in possession of crashed spacecraft, and that he was read into a top-secret military program detailing the history and status of US-alien relations.

In this video, Doty discusses the craft of disinformation, and describes operations he ran against UFO researchers as well as elements of the “real” top-secret extraterrestrial technology program that he says continues to this day.

Doty is the fifth installment of Uncomputables: On Cybernetics and Alien Intelligences, an online program of films and accompanying texts convened by Agnieszka Kurant as the thirteenth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Film.

The film is presented alongside a conversation with Trevor Paglen by Tom McCarthy.

Uncomputables: On Cybernetics and Alien Intelligences runs in six episodes released every Monday from January 15 through February 26, 2024, streaming a new film each week accompanied by a commissioned interview or response published in text form.

A Conversation with Trevor Paglen
By Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy (TM): As a novelist, it’s fascinating for me to watch your portrait of this US Army disinformation operative, Richard Doty—this kind of latter-day Epimenides who says, “I’m lying,” then purports to tell us the actual truth within the lie, even as he smiles wryly to the camera throughout. For me he seems to be elaborating, basically, a theory of narratology. At one point, he even says that if you start with a truth and then end with a truth, you can say anything in between and make it believable. It’s almost a paraphrase of Aristotle’s Poetics. What was it that drew you to a figure like this in the first place?

Trevor Paglen (TP): That was a very elegant description of Doty—far more elegant than I’ve ever been able to describe him. What drew me to him was ChatGPT, honestly [laughs]. I’ve been thinking about the world in which we’ve entered, where things like disinformation are so prevalent. But that’s not really what I’m getting at, so much as thinking about generative media, in particular, becoming attached to value extraction: what it means to be living in a media environment that increasingly is not just about trying to harvest your engagement, or to collect information about you and sell it to advertisers. Rather, it is an emerging environment in which the media itself is specifically crafted for you in order to manipulate you in one way or another. So that got me thinking about PsyOps—about the history of military projects and techniques that are designed to make somebody believe what you want them to believe, to perceive what you want them to perceive, and to do what you want them to do. In looking at that, I came across Doty, who was a kind of infamous figure in UFO circles. I was interested in talking to him about his training in psychological operations, and trying to understand the relationship between that and—as you described—his narrative, basically.

TM: It’s interesting that you mention media but ChatGPT as well. At a recent talk in Berlin that I attended, you said that we’d reached, in about 2016, a kind of watershed moment of disinformation due to the way that media was changing. Do you want to expand a bit on what you meant by that?

TP: There’s a conspiracy theory out there—one that is also increasingly true—called the Dead Internet Theory. It says that around 2016, the substance of the Internet in terms of content in traffic was eclipsed by bots, and that humans doing things on the internet became the exception to the rule rather than the rule itself. There’s ways to kind of measure that, but I think you’re seeing those dynamics getting hyper-amplified by generative A.I. We’re already seeing people doing search-engine optimization, hacks for generated content, etc.—very quickly the Internet is turning into a kind of hallucination of itself. This is on the one hand. And then, on the other hand, I think—in things like virtual girlfriend applications in particular—you’re seeing an evolution of the kind of para-social relationships that people have had with influencers and TikTok and that sort of thing. You’re seeing that being leveled up quite significantly. So I’m thinking about where all this is going.

TM: Okay, so here’s a provocation. Jacques Lacan would say that this disinformation—or misrecognition—is absolutely constitutive of all knowledge and all human identity. We become subjects not by correctly understanding our place in the universe but, on the contrary, through an exact and systemic misunderstanding that drives us and makes us, at the same time, always out of sync with ourselves. And, what’s more, all of Lacan’s schemas for subjectivity are basically cybernetic, right? It’s all about circuits and feedback loops. So his conception of our whole mental apparati is basically machinic. So, this is the provocation: Does it actually make a fundamental ontological difference whether it’s people or machines—wetware or hardware—doing the misrecognition?

TP: I think it’s a question that I’m less interested in, in the sense that it’s more about the metaphysics of subjectivity. We don’t need to decide what’s real or what’s not real. What I’m interested in is taking that observation for granted—that subjectivity is witchy and communication is witchy—and asking ourselves: What is the political economy of media that is capitalizing on that fact in order to manipulate you, or influence you?

TM: Absolutely. But, sticking with Lacan, this is where I think metaphysics slides into politics. For him, in the great scheme of things, we’re driven by our desire for the big Other, which can be God or the mother or truth, or some kind of psychotic version or idea of nation or tribe—you know, the fascist side. These are all just indexes of desire—this marker for a big hole which is life itself. But this is a very political vision as well. So, to get to my next question: Where do aliens fit into this?

TP: First, just go back to Doty: You do see observations like the ones you were making in his narration of how to make successful PsyOps. For instance, he talks about the need to identify what somebody wants to believe, and craft the story with that in mind. He talks about the need to have those touchpoints of truth in the story you’re telling, and says that, ideally, those touchpoints should be more outlandish than the “payload” you’re trying to deliver, for lack of a better word. So I think we’re in fundamental agreement about the sandbox that we’re playing in. I’m sorry, that was a little bit of a digression. You were going to ask about UFOs?

TM: Yes, well… Are UFOs ultimately metaphysical, psychological, or political signifiers—or all of the above?

TP: I think that’s the game, right? I think it’s part of why UFOs work as what I think of as a kind of hyper-mimetic device. The UFO is a prompt to play a lot of games. So, for example—and I don’t mean that in a trivializing way—it prompts you to play the investigative journalist game. What is possible to know about these things that may or may not exist? How does one investigate that? What constitutes evidence in terms of that phenomena? What constitutes a coherent story about it? That’s one game. Another game is Fill In the Signifier. So what is the UFO? Is it aliens? Is it real? Is it psychological? The way you pose that question is part of what actually can be a pretty satisfying game, that dovetails into another game of, say, folk philosophy. The UFO, then, is a prompt to have questions about the nature of reality in a way that is fun. You don’t have to read philosophical texts about metaphysics in order to prompt that conversation. There’s much more to it, but there’s also a prompt there to imagine alternative realities and futures, in the sense of, “What is the imagination?” If we think of UFOs as offering humans advanced technology or, you know, limitless energy, or a reconsideration of our place in the universe—are these prompts ones that allow us to imagine post-capitalist societies, post-scarcity societies, and what have you? Then, finally, there’s a kind of cult aspect to it, or a kind of religiosity in the sense of dividing the world into believers and unbelievers, and into different factions within those. So there is a kind of set of tribal affinities that the prompt of the UFOs engenders as well. Each of these is quite powerful in and of itself, and they come together in what I think of again as this hyper-mimetic way, in the figure—the phenomena—of the UFOs.

TM: I was amazed when I went to Roswell about a year ago, and we stopped at the UFO—the incident museum [The International UFO Museum & Research Center]. They’re kind of playing both sides. It’s a brilliantly staged museum. If you’re in the irony camp, or the meta camp, or the anthropology-of-America camp, it’s talking to you, it’s saying, “Look at this belief system.” But if you’re in the believer camp, it speaks to you, too, “Look, here’s the evidence.” It’s amazing how two completely contradictory narratives are being staged— two belief systems dancing around—in one and the same space. You mentioned the real a moment ago. So another thing that I came away thinking, is that you have the UFOs as a marker of some kind of political unconscious—the dog that didn’t bark, or the elephant in the room, whatever you want to call it. The thing is, it’s not a coincidence that it’s in New Mexico—I mean, this is where the Trinity site is, right? It’s the enormous catastrophe of the Manhattan Project which continues to poison the land and have appalling health effects, especially on indigenous populations to this day. It almost seems like the kind of screaming, obvious thing that we don’t want to see, and we’re looking at the aliens instead.

TP: I completely agree with that. And I think you see the modulations of that UFO story throughout history to reflect, you know, different cultural zeitgeists or what have you. You have the figure of the UFO, perhaps in the 1950s and ’60s, as a way to think through nuclear war or, you know, self-annihilation. And you see that story morphing in the late ’70s and ’80s—in the context of things like Watergate and Iran-Contra—to take on this very conspiratorial turn. I see another kind of conspiratorial turn to the current way UFOs are used. But there is another part of it, which I do think is about the imagination of a kind of post-capitalist society, and what the possibilities of that might be.

TM: So there is something quite politically utopian in the UFO horizon view.

TP: Yes, well, I think that’s in there. I think it’s always been there. I mean, there are versions of these stories in the ‘80s where that is absolutely not there but, certainly, when you look at UFO stories from the ‘50s, what do the they always tell the humans? “Take care of each other. Don’t destroy the planet.”

TM: It’s like if you think of Sun Ra and the whole Afrofuturist narrative, it carries politically emancipatory possibilities for sure.

TP: Yes, there’s absolutely a desire in that that’s adjacent to religious narratives around salvation.

TM: We’re going totally Lacanian from the real to the imaginary here, but since you foreground that term imaginary and imagination—I was very struck by one of Doty’s claims. Towards the end of your film, he paints this remarkable picture where he says, “You’ve got, like, five people who go to a movie house and only four come out.”

TP: I’m so pleased that you identify that! When we were crafting the film, that particular spot—that’s sort of an end point that was very deliberately done.

TM: It’s beautiful, because, again, this is the interface: The American imaginary is mediated through the cinema. As Thomas Pynchon says, at the end of his novel Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) as the final atom bomb falls on the Orpheus night theater, we were just always at the movies, weren’t we? So, yes, I thought there was another, maybe slightly more high-art, media allegory cached within Doty’s claim. A bit earlier on in your film, Doty’s talking about the guy who, as he was dying of cancer, handed the feds or CIA all his artifacts. He keeps using that word, “artifacts.” He’s a kind of, as our Berlin friend Hito Steyerl would say, a curator of the poor image. You know, he’s taken all these snapshots with the aliens he’s met. And in fact, very like Hito’s description of these giant warehouses in the Middle East full of art that no one will see, Doty says, “You know, the government—we’ve got warehouses full of these images, no one’s ever going to see them.” I mean, he almost paraphrases her. That was very interesting. It seemed like you were rather slyly embedding a kind of mise en abîme of circulation of objects and images within a culture economy of the art world. Or is it just a happy accident?

TP: There was a lot of back and forth about how to treat that section— that was probably the section that caused the most back and forth in terms of crafting. I was thinking about that figure of the imaginary artifact, or the figure of what Hito would call the poor image.

TM: The invisible image.

TP: Right, exactly, and what that prompts us to imagine—what those artifacts or images would be…

TM: And this kind of vision of dark sites where images are made invisible…

TP: Exactly. I mean, that figure of the Indiana Jones warehouses is quite powerful, right?

TM: Absolutely. And this ties in with a lot of your work—your calling to make the invisible visible, or to make invisibility itself visible. I love that. That happy coincidence is just one of many. I mean, that term, “proving grounds”—it’s such a brilliant thing. So much of ballistics is about “proving,” and “falling true.”

TP: Oh, that’s interesting, like true aim. I hadn’t realized that before, but now that you make that prompt…

TM: And the truing of a compass, the truing of a blade… “‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer,” as Francis Bacon said. This could be the subtitle for you, for the whole piece.

Tom McCarthy is a novelist whose work has been translated into more than twenty languages and adapted for cinema, theater, and radio. In 2013 he was awarded the inaugural Windham-Campbell Prize for Fiction. He is also author of the study Tintin and the Secret of Literature, and of the essay collection Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish. His latest novel, The Making of Incarnation, was published in 2021. Since 2022 he has held the position of Miller Scholar at the Santa Fe Institute New Mexico. Born in Scotland, he is now a Swedish citizen, and lives in Berlin, where in 2019 he was a Fellow of the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin program.

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

Film, Surveillance & Privacy
Outer Space, Documentary, Militarization, USA, State & Government, Conspiracy
Return to Uncomputables
Return to Artist Cinemas

Trevor Paglen is an artist whose work spans image-making, sculpture, investigative journalism, writing, engineering, and numerous other disciplines. Paglen’s work has had one-person exhibitions at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington D.C.; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Fondazione Prada, Milan; the Barbican Centre, London; Vienna Secession, Vienna; and Protocinema Istanbul; and participated in group exhibitions the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Modern, and numerous other venues.


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