For more than three decades, Maisel's work has considered how human-made spaces are politicized and transformed through processes of industrialization, geo-engineering, and militarization. Proving Ground is a photographic investigation utilizing documentation, abstraction, and time-based media of the classified military landscape of Dugway Proving Ground.
In 2003, while making aerial photographs around Utah’s Great Salt Lake as part of his Terminal Mirage series, he encountered a site in the Tooele Valley, near the western slope of the Oquirrh Mountains. Positioned along the desert floor in uniform rows were hundreds of small buildings. What Maisel eventually learned about this gridded array was extraordinary — the buildings comprise the Tooele Army Depot, and they hold thirty million pounds of ageing chemical weapons, including mustard gas and nerve agents such as sarin and tabun.
Learning about the transformation of the region’s landscape into a repository of weapons of mass destruction triggered many questions. And those questions—pertaining to issues of chemical and biological weapons, land use in the American West, how space becomes militarized and politicized, the ways in which such sites are made off-limits, and thereby invisible—led directly to Dugway Proving Ground, some 45 miles southwest of Tooele.
Since its inception in 1942, Dugway has been devoted to the development and testing of chemical and biological weapons and defense programs. It is a site of dark creativity, used by the military to design the shape of conflicts and wars to come. Dugway’s isolated setting in Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert, in tandem with its scale of some 800,000 acres (larger than the state of Rhode Island), make it particularly suited to working with virulent substances like anthrax, sarin, plague, the botulinum toxin, and other chemical and biological agents. Despite its massive size, Dugway remains nearly invisible: not only is it located, by necessity, in an extremely remote area, but it is rarely discussed in the media and is almost entirely closed to civilian visitors. On aeronautical charts, the militarized airspace of Dugway is labeled “Restricted R-6402 A” and pilots are cautioned of “Special Military Activity.” Despite these obstacles to access, upon learning of its existence and its mission, I became captivated by the idea of making photographs there.
In 2004, Maisel's initial request to the Pentagon for permission to photograph Dugway was denied. In 2013, he met Richard Danzig, a former Secretary of Navy and chairman of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank focused on national security issues. Maisel presented him with a copy of his book, Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime, and described his interest in looking at Dugway in similar terms, as part of the evolution of the American West. Danzig introduced Maisel to James Petro, the Pentagon’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Chemical and Biological Defense. In 2014, with his support, David Maisel received permission from the Pentagon to make photographs at Dugway Proving Ground, provided he was “comfortable with a few requirements that they have to ensure everyone’s safety, security, and continued success of their ongoing activities.”
Every site he has been permitted to photograph thus far at Dugway Proving Ground has been highly vetted by layers of military personnel, and Maisel is accompanied at all times by a military representative. However, he has also been granted an extraordinary degree of access to work in zones that are otherwise restricted from civilian view. Maisel began by photographing from the ground, focusing on structures related to the testing of chemical warfare dispersal patterns, as well as high-tech laboratories devoted to the detection and decontamination of chemical and biological toxins. More recently, he has shifted to an aerial perspective, making photographs of biological test grids and dispersal patterns inscribed directly into the raw desert floor. Looking down from above reveals colossal weapons testing sites that are carved into the land, nested circles and crosshatched grids, as though the abstract drawings of Agnes Martin or Sol Lewitt have been taken to a poisonous extreme. The gridded landscape becomes a measuring device against which dispersal rates, toxicity levels, and threats to the human body are measured.
Proving Ground investigates the colonization, militarization, and mutation of the desert of the American West into a repository for toxic substances. Maisel wishes to question the ideological forces yielding these changes, and to underscore the need for greater understanding of how these transformations – both physical and political – occur.
There is a myth of the American West that Proving Ground seeks to interrogate: the national frontier as a locus of the pure and the sublime, or as a setting for what the photographer Robert Adams has termed “a landscape of mistakes.”
At the crux of Proving Ground lies the question of what we demand from the land of the American West. What needs does it fulfill, and to what has it been sacrificed? Dugway is a strangely compelling terra incognita that offers the opportunity to reflect on who and what we are collectively, as a society. In the more than thirty years that Maisel has made photographs of contested sites throughout this region, none has seemed to encapsulate the difficult and problematic realities of our present day as much as Dugway Proving Ground.