Pace is pleased to return to its physical space with an exhibition of new works by American artist Trevor Paglen. Held both at 6 Burlington Gardens and on the gallery’s digital platform, Bloom will be presented from 10 September to 10 November 2020 and explores Paglen’s central themes of artificial intelligence, the politics of images, facial recognition technologies, and alternative futures. This is Pace’s second exhibition with the artist. It will coincide with a solo exhibition presented at The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (4 September 2020 – 14 March 2021).
Paglen’s complex and pioneering work examines the systems and technologies that shape society. Computing systems that collect, interpret, and operationalize data that defines and tracks identity, movement, and habits fuel the artist’s broad practice. Employing a variety of disciplines throughout his oeuvre, from investigative journalism to scientific research, the exhibition will feature new sculptures, photographs, drawings, and digital components that relate to corporate and state use of machine learning algorithms to monitor, extract value, and influence people’s lives.
Together, the works in the exhibition recall the “Vanitas” tradition in art, in which symbolic objects such as skulls, flowers, and books remind us of mortality, the fragility of life, and the vanity of worldly pleasures. In contrast to the vanitas paintings of the 15th and 16th century, Paglen plays with these symbolic tropes, bringing them into the present day and addressing new measures of mortality in the digital era such as Zoom, AI, policing, and even such threats as COVID-19.
“Computer vision and artificial intelligence have become ubiquitous. The works in this exhibition seek to provide a small glimpse into the workings of platforms that track faces, nature, and human behaviour, and into the underlying data that structures how machines ‘perceive’ humans and landscapes. In this new work, I am interested in exploring the numerous examples of computer training sets creating AIs that reflect and perpetuate unacknowledged forms of racism, patriarchy, and class division that characterise so much of society.” – Trevor Paglen, June 2020.
Highlights of the exhibition will include Bloom, a series of large-scale photographs that depict flower formations conceptualized by various computer vision algorithms created to analyse the constituent parts of real-life photographs. The colours and shapes in the images represent similar areas that the AI has detected in learning from other images of flowers. They do not represent real-to-life colours so much as what the AI thinks the different parts of the images are.
Taking centre stage in the exhibition is The Standard Head, a large-scale reconstruction of 1960s pioneer CIA agent Woody Bledsoe’s mathematical model of a “standard head”. Conceived from the average measurements of the faces Bledsoe experimented with, Paglen reconstructed the “standard head” from rare information left behind in Bledsoe’s archives at the University of Texas. Artificial intelligence algorithms are designed and trained to look for faces, unique key points, lines, circles, and areas of interest as they attempt to deconstruct the underlying reality into a more simplified series of sections or shapes. Dialoguing with The Standard Head is Personality Model, a plated bronze phrenology skull derived from the current categories that are used in predictive policing and sentencing algorithms that intend to gauge someone’s level of criminality by measuring their psychological attributes and behaviours.
Presented alongside these sculptures are a series of new drawings and compositional paintings that are similarly based on mathematical simplifications produced by various computer vision algorithms. Airlines and Sentiments and The Disasters feature lines of texts culled from datasets that AI developers employ to teach computer systems to analyse and emotionally interpret the content of online communications. From a distance, these works give the appearances of subtle lines of colour fields reminiscent of Agnes Martin’s abstract paintings. Upon closer inspection, the colours separate, and individual lines of text pulled from email spam emerge from their abstraction.
The Humans showcases grids composed of thousands of smaller images used to evaluate people’s behaviours for commercial purposes. For example, one of the datasets is for “distracted drivers,” a collection of images used to recognise if someone is distracted while driving by an AI system. This dataset was created by State Farm insurance to adjust their insurance premiums in real-time, based on that information. In a series of pen-on-paper drawings, Paglen shows how complex images are “abstracted” into much simpler versions in computer vision systems, drawing parallels between computer vision systems and Constructivist and Cubist ways of seeing.
ImageNet Roulette is an interactive artwork that classifies people’s digitally-captured portraits according to the most widely-used dataset, called ImageNet, a program that teaches artificial intelligence systems how to classify images, developed at Princeton and Stanford Universities in 2009. When a member of the public’s image is recorded by a camera and simultaneously projected on the gallery video monitor, the AI model categorises them according to the dataset. The project is a provocation, acting as a window into some of the racist, misogynistic, cruel, non-scientific, controversial, and simply absurd categorisations embedded within ImageNet and other training sets that AI models are built upon.
The exhibition follows Paglen’s installation From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’, presented at the Barbican Curve from September 2019 to February 2020, and Training Humans, an exhibition of Paglen’s works with Kate Crawford presented at the Prada Foundation, Milan from September 2019 to February 2020.
Trevor Paglen (b. 1974, Camp Springs, MD) is known for investigating the invisible through the visible, with a wide-reaching approach that spans image-making, sculpture, investigative journalism, writing, engineering, and numerous other disciplines. The clandestine and the hidden are revealed in series such as The Black Sites, The Other Night Sky, and Limit Telephotography in which the limits of vision are explored through the histories of landscape photography, abstraction, Romanticism, and technology. Paglen’s investigation into the epistemology of representation can be seen in his Symbology and Code Names series which utilize text, video, object, and image to explore questions surrounding military culture and language. Among his chief concerns are learning how to see the historical moment we live in and developing the means to imagine alternative futures.
In tandem with his museum exhibitions, Paglen is well-known for his site-specific public projects, among them, The Last Pictures (2013), an artwork containing a micro-etched disc with one hundred photographs into geostationary orbit around Earth via the communications satellite EchoStar XVI, produced in collaboration with Creative Time and MIT. In 2015, Paglen created Trinity Cube, a radioactive public sculpture made from material collected within the exclusion zone in Fukushima, Japan, and from Trinitite, the radioactive material made from molten sand after the testing of the Atomic Bomb at the Trinity Site in New Mexico. In addition, Paglen achieved critical acclaim for his contributed research and cinematography on the Academy Award-winning film Citizenfour, directed by Laura Poitras.
Paglen is the author of five books and numerous articles on subjects including experimental geography, state secrecy, military symbology, photography, and visuality. His work has been profiled in the New York Times, Vice Magazine, the New Yorker, and Artforum. In 2017, Paglen was the recipient of the MacArthur Genius award, and in 2014, he received the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award for his work as a “groundbreaking investigative artist.”
Paglen holds a BA from the University of California, Berkeley, an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, and a PhD in Geography from the University of California, Berkeley.
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