Portrait of Trevor Paglen. Photography by Axel Dupeux


Trevor Paglen’s Abridged Guide to "You’ve Just Been F*cked by PSYOPS"

Published Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Trevor Paglen’s first solo exhibition at Pace’s New York gallery is on view at 540 West 25th Street from May 12 to July 22. Featuring photography, sculpture, video, and other works, this thematic presentation examines the weaponization of human perception in the context of military and civilian influence operations. The following text, written by Paglen, is a brief guide to the historical and conceptual underpinnings of the show. For more information on the exhibition, visit its dedicated website at (opens in a new window)

"This sentence is false."

You've Just Been Fucked by PSYOPS

The “Ghost Army” was a top-secret World War II unit staffed by an unusual group of people. Instead of infantrymen, tankers, and artillery, it was composed of painters, designers, and architects. Among its ranks were artists Ellsworth Kelly, Art Kane, and Bill Blass. Their mission was to conduct large-scale deception operations. The Ghost Army fabricated and deployed inflatable tanks and mock combat materiel to spoof Nazi reconnaissance operations, used giant loudspeakers to create illusions of nonexistent tank divisions moving through the countryside, and arranged for phony generals to appear in unexpected places. Through trickery and deception, the unit aimed to create an alternate reality in service of strategic military goals.

PSYOPS are designed to make people see what you want them to see, perceive what you want them to perceive, and believe what you want them to believe. They are most effective when specifically shaped for a particular person or group and are crafted to exploit well-known features of human perception, belief, emotional life, and group dynamics.

Our world of recommendation algorithms, generative-AI models, gamification, and ferocious quests for engagement is a world of ubiquitous and relentless “influence” operations. We are racing through the world of “surveillance capitalism” into an era of “PSYOPS capitalism.”


There are roughly 350 objects in orbit around the Earth whose origins and identities are unknown. The military tracks them on radar and makes that data available to researchers and aerospace industry professionals—except for a handful that are classified secret.

So, what are these unknown objects? The best answer is that, well, nobody knows. Any other answer is speculation. We know that they are not “normal” spacecraft, nor are they (for the most part) classified military spacecraft.  It is possible, albeit unlikely, that some are natural phenomena such as wayward asteroids. Many of the “unknowns'' are without doubt debris from unidentified on-orbit events. Others are most certainly artifacts of space-based deception operations. Others might be something else. The story is as complicated as it is irresolvable.

UNKNOWN #85237 (Unclassified object near The Eastern Veil) by Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen, Unknown #85237 (Unclassified object near The Eastern Veil), 2023, silver gelatin LE print, 80" × 54" (203.2 cm × 137.2 cm) framed, 81-1/8" × 55-1/8" (206.1 cm × 140 cm) © Trevor Paglen

The US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has a history of building satellites that attempt to disguise themselves as pieces of debris. This was the case when a spacecraft called USA 53 (launched onboard the Space Shuttle in 1990) faked its own explosion, and again in 1999 when a “stealth” satellite deployed a balloon-like structure as a decoy. The Russian military has engaged in similar tactics, most recently with a spacecraft called Kosmos 2499, which behaved as if it were a debris object, but was, in fact, a satellite designed to attack other spacecraft. (Kosmos 2499 was mysteriously destroyed in early 2023, creating a small debris field.)

The only publicly available analysis of the “unknown objects” I’m aware of comes from a PhD dissertation written by space-security researcher James Pavur at the University of Oxford. Pavur took a novel approach to the analysis of these objects. He created a dataset of known satellites, and another dataset of known debris objects, then trained a machine learning model on each. His idea was to build a classifier that could distinguish between a “generic spacecraft” and “generic debris object.” Pavur then used those models to analyze the orbit of Kosmos 2499, a satellite that pretended to be a debris object. His model correctly predicted that Kosmos 2499 was a spacecraft. Pavur then ran his model on the entirety of the “unknown objects” data and discovered something remarkable: the model predicted with high confidence that a significant number of unknown objects behaved like spacecraft. 

To photograph these “unknowns,” I gather unclassified orbital data from a military database maintained by the US Space Force’s 18th Space Defense Squadron and supplement that information with observations of classified objects made by amateur astronomers. I import the data into several virtual planetariums, which I can use to model orbits and make predictions about where and when I might find specific objects. Once I've chosen the objects I want to image, I write a computer script to control an electronic mount, an exceptionally fast full-spectrum telescope, and an infrared-sensitive camera.

The night sky looks very different to infrared-sensitive equipment than it does to unaided eyes. Hydrogen, sulfur, and oxygen emissions reveal great cosmic clouds, stellar remnants, and galactic structures that recall Gustave Doré’s etchings of The Divine Comedy. Their names refer to ancient myths, stories, and ancestral stargazers. Many of the stars in the sky have names so ancient that the origins of those names, and the stories they once referred to, have been long forgotten.

UNKNOWN #87991 (Unclassified object near The 13th Pearl) by Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen, Unknown #87991 (Unclassified object near The 13th Pearl), 2023, silver gelatin LE print, 80" × 54" (203.2 cm × 137.2 cm) framed, 81-1/8" × 55-1/8" (206.1 cm × 140 cm) © Trevor Paglen

I have spent countless days and nights studying the unknown objects, plotting orbits, measuring light curves, and analyzing their movements over time to see how their behavior may have changed over the years. I’ve tried to learn anything and everything I can about their shape, size, and mass, the relative stability of their orbits, and the question of whether they receive energy from any non-natural sources. Some of the numbers are surprising.

But every analytical technique available supplies only tiny variations on a simple fact: the identity of these objects is “unknown.” Given this, I ask myself where my desire to “identify” them comes from. Where does my unconscious desire to place these objects into received categories come from? Why does my subconscious seek the comfort of pre-existing language and concepts in the face of these unknowns?

Palladium Variation #4

In late October 1962, an American fighter jet out of Key West screamed south towards Havana Bay. The reaction was almost immediate: the Cuban military scrambled a pair of interceptors and raced north to meet the intruder. Just as the American jet neared the coastline, it banked north, flying impossibly fast and remaining just out of the Cuban pilot’s visual range. In the meantime, out of nowhere, a handful of unidentified aircraft of varying shapes and sizes appeared just outside the bay… 

There was one problem. None of it was real. The plane was an electronically generated “ghost.” The UFOs were a collection of specifically calibrated balloons launched from an American submarine, carefully designed to appear on radar screens as something wholly different than what they actually were.

Palladium Variation #4’s lightweight, mirrorized, faceted structure is inspired by a history of objects built by military and intelligence agencies to spoof adversarial sensor systems. Objects like these are part of a broad category of military capacities called “Electronic Warfare.”

Electronic Warfare (EW) is a huge field with many aspects to it, but a large part of it has to do with developing technologies that allow someone to remotely influence or control adversarial sensor systems and hardware. The idea is to make those systems “see” what you want them to see and “do” what you want them to do.

There are a wide range of applications in EW including remotely disabling rival sensors, making objects appear, disappear, or behave erratically, and conjuring all sorts of digital illusions.

PALLADIUM Variation #4 by Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen, Palladium Variation #4, 2023, stainless steel, mirror foil23-5/8" × 70-7/8" (60 cm × 180 cm) © Trevor Paglen

A small subset of the field has to do with building unusual objects—structures that to human eyes might look like balloons or basketballs, but that look to a radar operator like fleets of bombers or misbehaving UFOs. The concept is related to stealth technology (creating shapes that are ‘invisible’ to radar), but much broader, namely creating objects that look like a huge range of things to sensor systems.

I often think about the relationship between the postwar aerospace industry and minimalist art. Undoubtedly, minimalist artists were inspired by the faceted shapes and then-exotic materials that emerged from advanced military research and development programs. But the philosophy of materials and shape descended from the Palladium programs are altogether different. They are not so much about the specificities of the objects-as-such. Quite the opposite. They are objects designed to dramatically amplify the different points-of-view that disparate observers and forms of seeing bring to them. They are adversarial sculptures, designed to weaponize the underlying assumptions built into different visual apparatuses. 


CYCLOPS is a networked performance, collaborative narrative, and alternate reality game designed to be played by groups of people working together across the word. Set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the game begins with a series of audio tracks. Some tracks are musical compositions, others are filled with odd voices reading letters and counting numbers, others still resemble nothing more than noise and static. Each track is, in fact, a puzzle of increasing complexity. As players work together to solve them, a narrative about early research into psychological operations, mind-control experiments, and an alternative history of the internet age begin to emerge. Over the course of the game, Cyclops players come across a collection of artworks that are specifically created for them. To find these artworks, players must identify and follow up on clues provided within the game. CYCLOPS is a world within a world.


As part of his training to join the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), Richard Doty was taught how to recruit spies, conduct and resist interrogations, run surveillance operations, and organize and manage deception and disinformation campaigns. After graduation, he was assigned to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

During his active years in the late 1970s and 1980s, all sorts of strange, cutting-edge projects were taking place at the airbase. There were experimental laser systems, nuclear weapons programs, highly classified “stealth” aircraft, and other advanced technology demonstrators. Bizarre light shows, unearthly radio transmissions, and impossible-to-explain events became a mainstay in the base’s vicinity. Civilian UFO researchers took notice and began to investigate the goings-on at Kirtland.

Doty by Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen, Doty, 2023, single channel video projection, black and white, stereo mix; 66 minutes © Trevor Paglen

Using his training in counterintelligence, deception, and spycraft, Doty would recruit people from the UFO community to act as informants for the Air Force and to assist him in crafting and spreading disinformation among their ranks as part of his mission to protect Air Force assets.

Doty concedes that the field of UFO research is filled with charlatanism and disinformation, but nonetheless insists on the reality of the phenomena. Over the course of his intelligence work, Doty describes being “read into” a top-secret program having to do with the US government's relationship to UFO phenomena. 

Because Physical Wounds Heal... by Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen, Because Physical Wounds Heal..., 2023, mixed media, 50" × 50" × 7" (127 cm × 127 cm × 17.8 cm) © Trevor Paglen

…Because Physical Wounds Heal

One genre of “outsider art” I’m most interested in is the iconography and images that military special operations groups and “black” units create to represent themselves on uniforms and other forms of material culture. These can provide rare glimpses into their internal workings and psychologies.

The basic PSYOP crest consists of two symbols: the horse and the sword. The figure of the horse has two meanings. First, it references the “knight” chess piece, which moves in a circuitous fashion and can attack from behind enemy lines. The second is the myth of the Trojan horse. Lightning represents the ability to strike quickly and the ability to do damage through non-kinetic means.

Another figure commonly associated with PSYOPs is the ghost. This references the Ghost Army of World War II, a group that conducted large-scale deception operations in occupied Europe. The Ghost Army was staffed by painters, designers, and architects, including Ellsworth Kelly and fashion designer Bill Blass.

The more informal, self-generated “morale” designs for PSYOP units have given rise to an unofficial motto of sorts: “You’ve Just Been Fucked by PSYOPS…Because Physical Wounds Heal.” 

  • Essays — Trevor Paglen’s Abridged Guide to 'You’ve Just Been F*cked by PSYOPS', May 9, 2023