Five Classified Aircraft (Trevor Paglen)
From the curators: Military culture traditionally uses a visual language composed of intricate symbols and insignia to signify affiliation and association with a range of services and programs. Traditional military uniforms are usually adorned with embroidered patches flaunting these symbols, and act as markers of an individual’s identity and position in hierarchy. Trevor Paglen, an artist and geographer, collected unofficial embroidered patches from the “black world” of classified intelligence and military units, revealing both closely guarded secrets and the esoteric visual language that accompanies them.
The symbolism of military insignia has been traditionally and actively non-covert, the unit represented associating itself with patriotism, bravery, with its specialty in warfighting, and perhaps with campaigns or engagements key to its history. Insignia honor the branch or unit they identify, announce its presence in the field, symbolically remind of its past prowess and fortitude.
The three most significant developments in such insignia in the late 20th century were Velcro-backed uniform patches, “suppressed” patches, and the “black patches” of Trevor Paglen’s Five Classified Aircraft.
Traditional uniform patches were relatively difficult to remove quickly. Sewn on, they left permanent evidence of the patch when removed, often in the form of a distinctive shape. The wearer demonstrated a formal and open commitment to membership, as well as a certain trust in the rules of war. Captured, a soldier remained, openly, a member of that service, regiment, unit. The advent of Velcro patches (uniforms having factory-applied “loop” areas, on which “hook”-backed insignia are placed) suggests a profound meta-symbolic disjunction, a new fluidity, a previously uncharacteristic ambiguity. The patch as disguise. Or no patch at all.
“Suppressed” patches are those whose traditional symbolic colors are replaced in the service of camouflage: the U.S. flag or the Red Cross symbol rendered in two very slightly different tones of whatever Pantone chip the U.S. Army currently favors. This is imminently practical, advisable, yet quite new, indicating the strength of a prior reluctance to alter these primary symbols. Until very recently, it evidently mattered symbolically that the U.S. flag was red, white, and blue, not coyote brown (or black). Another disjunction.
The crypto-patches of Five Classified Aircraft are covert, “in-house” advertisements. They are best viewed as “industry” marketing tools, as each of these occluded, unmentionable, quiveringly secret crafts is the product of a given contractor. As deliciously sinister as they are, as redolent of our military-industrial hybridism, they are not as broadly ominous as the anonymity and evidential ambiguity afforded by Velcro patches and suppressed patches.