October 31, 2013 | 17 Comments

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.


Is covert violence more fatal than what you can see coming?

  1. November 1, 2013, 3:39 pm

    Tony Dunne

    I think this is definitely the case with linguistic violence, where deep damage can be done to a population’s psyche over an extended period of time. From subliminal media and propaganda to satire, there is a whole arsenal of covert linguistic weaponry available for ideological manipulation. If there is such a thing as semiotic violence (maybe less covert?) or even covert kinaesthetic violence (think interactions, ergonomics and subtle posture manipulation at work and at play) then this is where designers unwittingly contribute, and we need to be vigilant.

  2. November 7, 2013, 6:21 am

    Elliot Vredenburg

    Not to downplay Trevor’s project—I recently came across it, and think it’s great—but the funny thing is, most of these patches are readily available on eBay. Even as representations of that which, by definition, must not be represented, we’ve learned to read these symbols as such, and produce and buy them accordingly. Our visual literacy is surpassing our linguistic capacity.
    An interesting comparison is with the practice of ‘false flagging.’ False flagging is a war tactic that involves masquerading as the combatant’s (or other) organization in order to get up close before maiming them. However, these patches aren’t trying to appear as something they’re not—a distinct enemy, for example—instead, the only thing they reveal about the wearer is intentional obfuscation. But don’t corporate logos produce affect the way these patches do—representing something that must not be represented? They say something, but nothing about the organization behind it. We relate to these ‘molar entities’ affectively, and this is the problem. Is this kind of intentional obfuscation semiotic violence?
    My point being: Visual literacy exists in public, but linguistic violence largely exists in private—it’s frequently brought up in discussions of domestic abuse. But semiotic violence in the visually-literate public is definitely a thing, and I’d suggest that most designers are knowingly complicit in this practice. Ideology is evident in everything we produce—logos, books, chairs, phones, cars, toilets (as Zizek has pointed out), and so on. It’s clear that the core of design IS ideological manipulation—creating new needs, desires, literacies—whether we like it or not. What we must realize is not that everything may be an illusion, but it is our illusion to manipulate with.

  3. November 8, 2013, 1:22 pm

    Betti Marenko

    The notion of semiotic violence – which I haven’t come across before in such a precise formulation- strikes me not only because it is sinister, but because it speaks directly to design.
    Designers do semiotics, whether they know it or not. Are designers therefore guilty of semiotic violence? Possibly.
    When manipulating forms to trigger desires, prompt behaviours and create new landscapes of needs, designers are effectively manipulating ideas and meanings beyond (or below) human responsiveness. If this sounds like a death sentence to user-centred design, so be it. The user is dead anyway and we have been for a while floating in a zombified post-user scenario.
    This is not to suggest that design is guilty of occult persuasion. Rather, that it might be wise to zoom out and place design within the current convulsions of late capitalism. Seen from afar, design is one of the (many) psycho-technologies of control that work by a systematic capture of attention and affect (Bernard Stiegler). Semiotic violence indeed.
    If every designed object is a machine that makes meaning, designers have power on their hands. It is up to them to decide what to do with this power.

  4. November 8, 2013, 7:16 pm

    J P McMahon

    subdued insignia

    “Suppressed” patches are those whose traditional symbolic colors are replaced in the service of camouflage…This is imminently practical, advisable, yet quite new, indicating the strength of a prior reluctance to alter these primary symbols.” This simply isn’t true, unless changes that were made to US military uniforms 50 years ago during the Vietnam War could be considered “quite new”. US military field uniforms throughout history are notable for a paucity of decorative features, barring rank insignia, at least compared to European uniforms.
    An interesting thing about the patches featured here is that there isn’t some DoD office that creates these, it is the members of the units themselves, who either draw it out and send it to an embroiderer, or they have an artist create it to their specifications. The Pentagon isn’t really involved in the process. This is no different really, than a beer league softball team having t-shits silk screened. People are proud of their organization, and they are showing it through an article of clothing. The other posters here are reading some wacky stuff into this that just isn’t there.

  5. November 9, 2013, 3:45 am

    Hugh Brennan

    This is pretty funny. To begin with Mr. McMahon just schooled you on the fact that suppressed patches were evident in Vietnam, Additionally, tokens of rank and status were suppressed in earlier wars. During the Civil War, line officers began to wear the common 4 button blouse of the enlisted man so as to avoid the sharpshooter’s desire to pick off the officers first. During the Boer war, the British Redcoats learned to dye their white belts with tea and to wear dun colored clothing to avoid the precision fire of the Afrikaner farmers’ Mausers.
    Additionally, what a wonderful opportunity to contemplate the vast gulf between the people who do things- such as go to war, design and create vastly complex technological products and those who identify those activities in the hyper developed linguistic arcana of the postmodern graduate seminar.
    At least the shoulder patches offer the advantage of actually being intended to deliver the messages of intimidation and violence referred to explicitly in their iconography. One need not search far for ideological messaging in images of various ferocious beasts, grinning skulls and assorted swords, spears and arrows.
    Contra Mr. McMahon, there is a Pentagon office of heraldry that is tasked with designing patches, awards flags and so on. The profusion is astounding. Every project, unit, event, location requires new images. The recent development of the “challenge coin” creates another opportunity to execute military motifs.
    I think it’s worthwhile to mention the profusion of imagery also associated with the military tattoo fad. There’s also a vast array of unit specific t-shirts.
    As to the velcro patches, I fear you misread that completely. To begin with, patches were traditionally sewn on because there was no velcro, not because of some fantastical belief in the “rules of war.” Whether facing the Japanese, North Koreans-Chinese, Vietnamese or now, the Jihadis, the notion of a reliance on the rules of war is laughable. With these opponents the captives fate is more likely torture and death than any adherence to the Geneva Convention. The patches are movable because they are often mission specific. Individuals move in and out of different organizations in relatively quick succession compared to other wars. You also have the ability to switch out your suppressed patches for the normal ones when out of the combat area.
    I think one amusing idea behind the commentary above is how French military fashion so influenced generations of uniforms and regalia, and French postmodern and postcolonial philosophy and ideologies so clearly continues to influence the discourse of the intellectual producers above. Interesting symmetry!
    Interesting also to note the confrontation here between the wholly non-ironic and the reflexively ironic. What really has the critique to offer in the face of non-symbolic, non-metaphorical, non-ideological, but wholly actual, real, and ongoing violence? Men abed, what price do you place on your manhood?

  6. November 9, 2013, 3:06 pm


    Today army pins, yesterday heels. The internet requires extremely warped sense of gimmickry and violence certainly fits the bill. But it’s just another meaningless brand, wrapped on multiple justifications. Perhaps Museums can now classify the new hot style is the month. Violence… So chic. So 2013.

    Once an object is stamped as “violent” by the moma, does that make it so?

    The inherent problem with showing symbols and pictures of violent design away from context is an extreme fetishization of those symbols. It’s like gratuitous, sexed up violence without the “story” (insert unchallenging content). One wonders if chicks with guns is around the corner.

    The blog format of this project seams only to heighten the state if fetishism and separation from context, more flattened imagery in an already crowded landscape.

    Over fetishization leads to statements like “the core of design is idea logical manipulation.” But a chair is not the same as a logo.. The operate two diff meanings.

    The banality of army pins shows that design is really about what happens in reality not a blog post.

  7. November 9, 2013, 10:40 pm

    SMSgt Mac

    RE: 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.

    No. The so-called “crypto-patches”, if they are at all like any of those in my possession or have personally designed in many decades of experience, have absolutely nothing to do with industry marketing tools, specific contractors, or in-house advertisements. They are invariably designed by people who are part of a team and are both a response to and a promotion of a self-defined team identity. They are almost invariably designed and distributed among team members independent of organizational approval (except for security) and almost always in spite of formal organization preference that teams did not engage in this form of team building. These patches are always about the ‘team’ and internal bonds. It is only when they fall into the hands of someone who wants to make a buck, that these designs proliferate outside the team. Now, because of the wealth of gullible and/or indiscriminant patch-collectors, E-Bay has been flooded with cheap counterfeits of many different team’s patches. Aside from unintentionally providing a recurring source of laughter for those on the inside looking out, these puerile attempts to attach ‘meaning’ to these designs that are either 1) isn’t there or 2) distorted beyond belief.
    I find little positive in the art world’s navel-gazing about things they have insufficient consequential knowledge to comprehend, yet pontificate so tediously. For instance, my keyword for the patches would have been ‘Deterrence’. My keyword for the article would have been ‘Projection’.
    P.S. Tell Trevor I’ve noticed that he’s kept his word.

  8. December 8, 2013, 10:50 pm

    Audrey Sutton

    Overt, Not Covert

    These patches express the violence that those who wear them can inflict on others. While the removal of these patches can conceal the threat they imply, the fact that they were created at all shows the desire of their creators to indicate to others the violence that they are capable of inflicting. Here, the sign of violence is not covert, but overt. Viewing these patches as industry marketing tools (or the equivalent of fraternity rings) furthers the idea that these patches are not about covert violence, but about display of ability.

    However, it could be said that anyone wearing a military uniform is capable of inflicting fatal violence. While the use of these patches could imply that one person is more deadly than another, they are just a customizable part of a uniform that implies violence as a whole. One does not have to see the gun or the patches that someone in a military uniform has to know that they have been trained to kill. In the case of these patches, one can see that violence is coming because the threat of violence is being clearly displayed.

    While the patches overtly show that the wearer is capable of violence, the more mundane camouflage uniform implies violence that can sneak up on you since not being seen is the express purpose of the uniform. Rather than looking at these patches specifically, perhaps the violence implied in the uniform that these patches are part of could be explored.

  9. January 22, 2014, 7:12 am

    Bob Kruize

    Showing your ” colours” is as ancient as man. Heraldy was honed to a fine art. Patches are simply a continuance of an ancient tradition. However, this forum has elucidated on this phenomenon in an articulate manner, making clear its deep connection to man & society.

  10. September 21, 2014, 1:54 am

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