Reap what we sow: Trevor Paglens new flower works take an allegorical view of AI

Trevor Paglen, Bloom (#9b746d), 2020 © Trevor Paglen, courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery

“I felt like I was trying to swim in an ocean with 60-foot waves crashing down on me,” Trevor Paglen says. The 46-year-old American photographer is speaking over Zoom from a bucolic-looking spot in Northern California. But, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and as he began to prepare his major new exhibition Bloom, he recalls seeing refrigerated trucks housing dead bodies close to his studio in Brooklyn.

“I was trying to figure out what these things mean,” he says. “And I realised: youre not in control here.” His new shows, which open at Pace Gallery, London and the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, in September, and then at Officine Grandi Riparazioni, Turin, October, are “about mourning,” he says. Some of the new works created for them were made “under conditions that are completely tragic, where hundreds of thousands of people are dying for no reason”.

“How do you make art in a moment where the meaning of things around us are changing so rapidly,” he says. “I guess my answer to that was going back to allegory."

Paglen recalls feeling “hyper-aware” on his daily walks during lockdown of the visual signifiers of winter turning to spring—the bloom of nature, as humanity remained confined indoors. He started to think about how flowers have featured throughout “other moments in history when meaning itself started to come into question”. Inside, he studied Vanitas and Baroque paintings and endured “a lot of self-questioning”.

Trevor Paglen, Bloom (#836c74), 2020 © Trevor Paglen, courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery

“Whats funny is, if youd told me 10 years ago Id be doing a show about flowers—I would have thought you were out of your fucking mind,” he says. “I would have thought flowers are the biggest cliches in the universe. Why would you ever go near that? But flowers have been used over and over again, throughout history, to mean so many different things. That became poignant to me; how theyve always been allegories for life and fragility and death.”

Paglens contribution to this long-serving trope is to create flower formations via computer vision algorithms—ones built to analyse real-life photographs. The colours and shapes in Paglens images are conceptualised composites the AI has detected in images of flowers. They are not flowers, but what an AI thinks a flower is. They are, therefore, allegories for how AI systems interpret the broad complexities of humanity.

Installation view of Trevor Paglen: Bloom, Pace Gallery, London, 10 September – 10 November 2020 © Trevor Paglen, courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery Photo: Damian Griffiths, courtesy Pace Gallery

Paglen has made a career by visualizing—primarily via the use of photographs, but increasingly with sculpture, installation and VR—the ways in which artificial intelligence algorithms and state-level surveillance are impacting on the minutiae of our most intimate lives. The London exhibition is open for in-person viewing by appointment only, but visitors can also visit it through a web portal created by the artist called Octopus (2020)that shows views from cameras installed in the gallery, and even livestream their own images to monitors hanging on the walls.

Celebrated with the Duetsche Borse prize in 2016 and a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant in 2017 for his work Watching the Watchers, on which he worked in collaboration with the journalist Glenn Greenwald and the filmmaker Laura Poitras, Paglen hasRead More – Source

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