Trevor Paglen’s efforts to document the institutions and apparatuses of our surveillance society have taken him from the deserts of Nevada (where he photographed secret government aircraft bases) to the bottom of the ocean (where he trained his camera on internet cables tapped by the National Security Agency). Offering glimpses into a new form of dark geography, his latest work mines the images generated by artificial intelligences designed to monitor our everyday lives.
Recent advances in technology have enabled AI not only to pick a face out of a crowd but to read the subtlest physiognomic expressions with unsettling accuracy. In Machine Readable Hito (2017), artist-author Hito Steyerl-whose own work has investigated the intersections of politics, vision, and technology-is portrayed in a grid of 360 small photographic portraits. Beneath each image is the output of AI readings of her age and gender and the range of emotions detectable on her face. Moving from photo to photo, one constantly measures one’s own impressions against those of the AI, cognizant of being the more advanced beholder-but also of the likelihood that this won’t be the case for much longer.
Adjacent to this work was another portrait, this one a large-scale depiction of Martinique-born philosopher and radical Frantz Fanon (1925-1961). The image is what’s known as a “face print,” which is produced by averaging numerous photographs of a person’s face so that its defining features can be distinguished from those of others. In his book Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Fanon discusses the agony of being captured within a racist ideological matrix that alienates him from his own physical being. Paglen’s portrait, which reduces its subject to a visual schema, suggests an analogous form of capture. The work is a reminder that surveillance technologies are used to track certain bodies in disproportion to others.
At the center of the gallery, a large projection screen flickered with images used to train AI to recognize persons, objects, and gestures. Appearing at intervals throughout the video are gridded, pixelated visualizations of the various images broken down into constituent parts. Viewers here are “seeing what the AI is seeing,” according to Paglen’s artist’s notes. One of the more unsettling aspects of the work, ironically titled Behold These Glorious Times!, is the coldness with which AI experiences our reality. Far from “glorious,” this is a grayscale world void of affect, in which gestures of intimacy are reduced to mere data.
The most surprising works in the show were the dark and painterly “Adversarially Evolved Hallucinations” in the rear gallery. These works were produced using two forms of AI: what Paglen calls a “Discriminator,” which is taught to discern the items depicted in a particular “training set” of images, and a “Generator,” programmed to produce ambiguous, semiabstract pictures. Each image on view is the result of numerous exchanges in which the Generator fed the Discriminator images until the Discriminator mistakenly identified one as showing something it had been trained to recognize-such as a comet or a rainbow, which belong to the training set “omens and portents.” For one of the works, Vampire (Corpus: Monsters of Capitalism), 2017, the training set was limited to “monsters that have historically been used as allegories for capitalism.” The image is of a haunting, masklike form.
In “Right in Our Face,” a prescient 2011 essay on class-driven racism and the collaboration of global elites and the professional class in the deterioration of the boundary between democracy and fascism, Steyerl follows Giorgio Agamben in describing “the contemporary” as a figure who gazes unceasingly on the darkness of their time. Paglen continues to be such a figure. His works give form to a contemporary darkness that often goes unseen, though it’s right in our face.
Do endless grids of Google images accurately describe our existence? And if so, will aliens like them? For his project “The Last Pictures” (2012), Trevor Paglen selected 100 images to represent our contemporary world. Teaming up with MIT, the artist had these images etched onto a silicon disc that was enclosed in a gold-plated aluminum container and sent into orbit on a satellite last fall.
Paglen’s first exhibition at Metro Pictures consisted of 21 works, encompassing digital prints, projections, videos and ephemera. The first two galleries introduced the project via images that exemplified its spirit, among them a wry finger wag titled The End of the Space Age (2012), which shows a 2011 cover of The Economist with the eponymous cover line. Installed from floor to ceiling in a corner of the second gallery were 182 images that didn’t make it onto the disc, including a Rorschach test, a Planet of the Apes still and a Japanese shunga painting of a woman making love to an octopus. A table in the middle of the room held a log of Paglen-penned notes and e-mails discussing his project’s theoretical implications and logistics. In the final gallery, a projection, The Last Pictures, presented the images on the disc in pairs. Here, they had a search-engine redundancy—as though Paglen systematically downloaded images from the Web in order to upload them to the sky. A hypnotic video, EchoStar XVI in Gestationary Orbit (2013), offered the orbiting satellite’s view of space: a blizzard of stars resembling a meteor shower. Shown on a small monitor, it would have been more gratifying as a large projection.
“The Last Pictures” is a riff on astronomer Carl Sagan’s Voyager Golden Records, gold-plated records with sounds and images that were sent into space on the Voyager spacecrafts in 1977. Predating Sagan’s project, artist Forrest Myers masterminded Moon Museum (1969), a ceramic wafer with small drawings by six famous artists, including Warhol, Rauschenberg and John Chamberlain. The wafer was supposedly smuggled onto Apollo 12 and deposited on the moon. Paglen’s project doesn’t merely reprise Sagan’s, but forces us to consider what exactly goes on up in space. From television to GPS, we depend on satellites—yet their presence lacks a sensuous register. Paglen’s videos and e-mail logs give satellites a more tangible existence.
“The Last Pictures” has garnered a lot of popular attention, and it might be the perfect Trojan horse to carry Paglen’s more politically dense projects to a wider audience. For the last decade, the New York-based artist traveled to restricted locales to photograph the “black world” of classified military operations. These photographs, often taken with a telephoto lens, show hazy landscape images of locations like Area 51, as well as skyscapes of weaponized aircraft in flight. Among five elegant, Color Field-esque photographs on view was a large print, Untitled (Predator Drone), 2012, that recalls the melting creamsicle hues of a sunset. Within the image, though not perceptible, is the unmanned aircraft.
Paglen’s work houses, rather than spills, the secrets of our military. As Paglen told the New Yorker, his pictures are “useless as evidence . . . they’re a way of organizing your attention.” Were Paglen’s “black world” photographs more descriptive, they might render to the world a pictorial Wikileaks—and Paglen might acquire a persona more Assange than artist. Instead, Paglen’s ghostly abstractions invite important questions, such as: if we allow our military to be invisible, does that mean we are a society that simply prefers not to look?
PHOTO: Trevor Paglen: The Last Pictures (Penultimate Collection), detail, 2013, 182 C-prints, notebooks, satellite model and mixed mediums; at Metro Pictures.