Trevor Paglen on AI, surveillance and art

The artist talks to us about his artworks that reveal the “jaw-droppingly appalling” methods underpinning AI datasets, and why he’s turning the lens back on the public in his new exhibition

Due to months-long restrictions around events during the pandemic, countless art galleries, fairs and institutions have understandably dipped a toe into virtual waters. Whereas these attempts at housing artworks on online platforms have mostly taken the form of online viewing rooms, Trevor Paglen’s new show at London’s Pace gallery not only offers a novel take on the format, but casts a sceptical glance over the wider technologies that have become so pervasive in our everyday lives, particularly in 2020.

Titled Bloom, the exhibition examines the methods and implications of facial recognition, artificial intelligence, the politics of images, and the various biases baked within these technologies, which touch countless corners of our modern existence and yet remain obscure to many.

The centrepiece and the exhibition’s namesake is a series of large-scale algorithmic photographs constructed from machine learning ‘interpretations’ of flowers. The AI was trained on images of real flowers, producing colours and shapes it deemed to be most accurate yet are filtered through the lens of AI, resulting in unexpected, exaggerated hues.

“It’s a weird show for me because if you had told me five years ago that I was going to do a show that was photographs of flowers, I would have laughed you out of the room. I would have said, this is the biggest cliché in the entire history of the universe – there’s no way I would go anywhere near that,” Paglen says. However, the use of flowers was for him less about the “decorative thing that you would put in a hotel” and more an embodiment of the tension between the beautiful and the critical, as well as a reflection of the circumstances in which the piece was made.

Top image: Bloom (#7a5a4e), 2020. Here: Bloom (#5f5554), 2020. All images © Trevor Paglen, courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery

“A lot of it was made in quarantine, right here in New York, and it was made in an environment where there’s a huge amount of sadness and a huge amount of mourning,” he says of creating art during the pandemic. The sentiment surrounding Bloom – the series and the wider exhibition – stems from an amalgamation of cues rooted in the present moment: the new, everyday dangers of life during Covid-19 (from sharing space to touching objects); the “sense of dread from the everyday infrastructures around us”; the “technological layer” smothered over our interactions; and the resurgence of nature in the absence of human interference.