Admittedly we’re late to this, but after picking up Trevor Paglen’s I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me: Emblems From the Pentagon’s Black World in the bookstore the other day and paging through, we are intrigued. Who knew our covert warriors were Cub Scouts? Through collecting and many Freedom of Information requests, Paglen assembles a full sash of secret military badges, and they make for a fun tour through some vaguely unsettling regalia. In our chat, he reveals that since the book's come out, there have even been “witch hunts” for those who leaked him the badges.
Trevor Paglen is an artist, writer, and “experimental geographer.” His most recent book, Blank Spots on a Map, was published by Dutton/Penguin in early 2009.
How were you first exposed to the world of secret patches?
I first learned about these while conducting research for my book ‘Blank Spots on the Map,’ which is about state secrecy. While interviewing people who worked on “black” or secret projects, I started to realize that these folks often had patches and other souvenirs from their time in the secret part of the military displayed on their walls. At some point, after a discussion about patches with my friend and avid patch collector Peter Merlin, I began collecting them. The book is the result.
If the operations are covert, why are patches being made?
You have to keep in mind that these patches were never intended for public consumption. In most cases, they’re only to be worn at classified facilities or kept in private collections. One man told me that they made patches for their secret unit because it would be conspicuous if they didn’t have patches on their uniforms.
Where do these patches’ slogans come from? How does “Tastes Like Chicken” equate death squad?
The designs for the patches come from people in the units themselves. Often, several artistic people in the unit will propose various designs and the unit will vote on which they like best. Often, the slogans will obliquely reference something about the unit’s mission, or be an inside joke.
Now that it’s been out for a while, what’s the reaction to the book been like from military and intelligence quarters?
For the most part, it’s been extremely positive. I’ve heard of a couple of “witch hunts” in some of the units to try to find out who “leaked” the patch to me, but the patches themselves are not classified. In many more instances, some of the designers have gotten in touch with me and been pleased with the book. In a lot of cases, this book is the only recognition that some of these guys have ever gotten in public for their work.
What are you working on now?
My new book Blank Spots on the Map came out a few months ago. I’m working on a book of my photography that comes out next year, a number of art exhibitions, and am putting together some ideas for a new book.