Trevor Paglen: A Thousand Flowers @Pace East Hampton

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 pieces exhibited on eight white walls in the two rooms of the gallery. All the works are dated 2020-21. Five are dye sublimation prints (three are sized 69 x 92 inches; one is 54 x 40 inches; one is 26 x 19 inches); five are ink on paper drawings (24 x 19 inches each); two are carbon prints (20 x 16 inches or the reverse); one is an albumen print (20 x 16 inches); and one is a video interactive installation with camera, screen, and computer elements (50 x 28 x 5 inches). The large dye sublimation prints are available in editions of 3+1AP while the smaller ones are in editions of 5+2APs. The video installation is available in edition of 5+2APs; the carbon prints are in editions of 5+1AP; and the albumen print is in an edition of 5+1AP. The drawings are unique. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Trevor Paglen’s preoccupations as a photographer locate his work within a shifting set of coordinates between Conceptual art and muckraking journalism. His investigations over the last 15 years have explored what the camera can’t record about the world, not only because of technological or ontological failings but also what a camera isn’t allowed to record because of government security fears about what a photograph might reveal. His mission has been to undermine assumptions about what we think we are seeing—to question whether we are getting the whole picture or even a truthful part of it—and to expose the networks of power and persuasion hidden beneath the surface. “My work is about what invisibility looks like,” he says.

The expanding reach of the surveillance state and the fences of secrecy surrounding it caught his attention when working toward a Ph.D. in geography at UC Berkeley in the late 2000s. He first gained attention for photographing U.S. air bases in the western deserts from afar—so far, indeed, that it was often hard to discern the subjects of the photographs (drones) without lengthy captions. Likewise, his underwater photographs and videos of internet cables laid by the NSA and other agencies on the ocean floor, exhibited at Metro Pictures in 2015 (reviewed here), acquired meaning only after one read what these wrapped electrical lines were designed to do. His books include Torture Taxi (2006), a collaboration with journalist Adam Clay Thompson on the CIA’s sites for extraordinary rendition in the post-September 11 era, and Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World (2009). His videos of air bases were folded into the documentary about Edward Snowden’s NSA disclosures, Citizenfour (2014), by Laura Poitras; and Paglen himself is the subject of the new documentary Unseen Skies (2021) by Yaara Bou Melhem.

His earnest demeanor and the public spiritedness of his quest, fighting for ordinary citizens against the oppressive paranoia of the state, have made him a curators’ darling. This is not altogether to the good for him as the visual poverty of his results are often overlooked. We are asked to take on faith that what he is showing us is fact, when he readily admits that his subject is invisibility and therefore can’t be verified.

The issues raised by new show are benign by comparison. The largest group of pictures are from his series Bloom: black-and-white photographs of tightly bunched flowers in bushes and on trees that have been colored according to a computer program. It scans the images and assigns various hues in patterns that, according to its AI algorithm, are realistic. What’s interesting is that some of these efforts are more successful ruses than others. Why this should be is not clear. One example from Bloom (#907677) is a botch. The violets and oranges are too garish when measured against the arrangement of other flowers on the branches. In other examples, however, where the hues are subtler and the transitions smoother between individual blooms and branches, the composite is convincing, even though all of the photographs are rather flat and lifeless.

Paglen’s experiments in machine learning are in the early stages. Perhaps he should make a video that would chart his progress with this series. As he teaches the computer to color flowers, what is he hoping it will achieve and how is it responding to his commands? The pictures have historical value and bring to mind those of the Lumière brothers who used potato starch for their autochromes. His (or its) technique is bound to improve.

The centerpiece of the show is ImageNet Roulette (2020), a piece that consists of a video camera embedded in a full-length mirror that, with aid of a computer program, reads the faces and bodies of people who approach it and classifies them. Bits of text pop up on the mirror informing you to which group the algorithm claims you belong. According to the press release, an earlier version caused a scandal when exhibited at the Fondazione Prada in 2009 because the categories of classification, developed for the Tampa-based database company ImageNet by Princeton and Stanford researchers, turned out to be “actively racist, misogynistic, ableist, cruel, and LGBT-phobic.” (ImageNet has since removed some 600,000 images that formed the basis of comparison for its pseudoscientific pigeonholing.)

After spending a few minutes with the program I can only attest to its comical imbecility. As I approached the camera, which transferred my image to a full-length mirrored screen, the algorithm identified me as “old man” and “senior citizen” (both true, though not the self-descriptions I favor) and then inexplicably as “stamp collector.”

It doesn’t take AI to guess that I’m middle-aged—the gray hair on my head is a giveaway—and I couldn’t help thinking that a daily dose of Grecian Formula or just a hat might confuse the arrogant machine. Any hopes that ImageNet could inspire confidence in places such as airports or offices from security risks seem misplaced. This old man could have been carrying a ghost gun or a vial of sarin gas underneath my shirt and I doubt the algorithm would have suspected me.

What distinguishes Paglen from other Conceptual photographers is that his scientific curiosity is marbled with streaks of Romanticism. He is a Coleridgean rather than a Pavlovian and has likened his wonder at seeing a drone to Turner seeing a steam locomotive in the 19th century. The molten red skies in his early drone photographs owed a lot to the sunsets and landscapes of the Luminists. He spent $1.5 million to launch a space sculpture, Orbital Reflector, that was lost in 2019 during a government shutdown. It had no existential purpose other than to be a free-floating piece of art.

His carbon prints of the moon and of the sun pay their respects to 19th century photography, although both are built with computer vision algorithms. Similarly, Paglen’s drawings are a working out with lines, cones, and geometric projections the construction of faces, houses, yards and other simple objects. His work is increasingly about the ways that machines translate the world into discernible shapes and patterns, photography being one of the first and foremost technologies to do so.

In an interview for his new book Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment the Nobel-Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemann, who says he is loath to make predictions, predicted: “Clearly AI is going to win [against human intelligence]. It’s not even close. How people are going to adjust to this is a fascinating problem – but one for my children and grandchildren, not me.”

Paglen is trying to keep himself on the front lines of this battle even as advances in analyzing and applying Big Data happen so rapidly now that the task of keeping up is difficult even for computer engineers, much less artists. If this show is less than fully satisfying, that may be because Paglen has yet to figure out how to make photographs about AI that express both his skepticism about technology and his rapture with it.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The ink drawings are priced at $12000 each, the carbon prints and albumen print at $21000 each, and the flower photographs at $21000, $30000, and $50000, based on size. The video installation is $100000. Paglen’s work has not yet reached the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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