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 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.”

PALLADIUM Variation #4, 2023
Stainless steel, mirror foil
23 ⅝ × 70 ⅞ in.

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.

A small subset of the field has to do with building unusual objects – structures that to human eyes might look like a balloon or basketball, but that look to a radar operator like a fleet of bombers or a misbehaving UFO. 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.

This post is part of a series of posts supporting works from the exhibition You’ve Just Been Fucked by PSYOPS at Pace Gallery, New York.

You can find more information about this project and other posts in the series here.