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Trevor Paglen: From 'Apple' to 'Anomaly'

Four Clouds by artist Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen: From 'Apple' to 'Anomaly'
(Pictures and Labels)
Selections from the ImageNet dataset for object recognition


Barbican Art Gallery has commissioned the artist Trevor Paglen to create a new work for The Curve. Paglen’s practice spans image-making, sculpture, investigative journalism, writing and engineering. Among his primary concerns are learning to see the historical moment we live in, exposing the invisible power structures that underpin the reality of our daily lives and developing the means to imagine alternative futures. The exhibition is part of the Barbican’s 2019 season, Life Rewired, which explores what it means to be human when technology is changing everything.

For the exhibition, Paglen takes as his starting point the way in which Artificial Intelligence networks are taught how to ‘see’, ‘hear’ and ‘perceive’ the world by engineers who feed them vast training sets. Standard training sets consist of images, video and sound libraries that depict objects, faces, facial expressions, gestures, actions, speech commands, eye movements and more. Paglen highlights how the advent of autonomous computer vision and AI has developed alongside this new kind of media, not designed for humans, but for machines, which are rife with hidden politics, biases, stereotypes and epistemological assumptions. 

Trevor Paglen said: 'Machine-seeing-for-machines is a ubiquitous phenomenon, encompassing everything from facial-recognition systems conducting automated biometric surveillance at airports to department stores intercepting customers’ mobile phone pings to create intricate maps of movements through the aisles. But all this seeing, all of these images, are essentially invisible to human eyes. These images aren’t meant for us; they’re meant to do things in the world; human eyes aren’t in the loop.'

For The Curve, Paglen has installed approximately 30,000 individually printed photographs pinned in a complex mosaic of images along the length of the curved wall. Taking as a starting point ImageNet: one of the most widely shared, publicly available collection of images, which is also used to train artificial intelligence networks, Paglen queries the content of images chosen for machine learning. ImageNet contains more than fourteen-million images organised into more than 21,000 categories or 'classes'. In most cases, the connotations of image categories and names are uncontroversial i.e. a 'strawberry' or 'orange'. Others are classified under 'debtors', 'alcoholics' and 'bad persons'. These definitions, if used in AI, suggest a world in which machines will be able to elicit different forms of judgement against humankind.

Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican, said: 'Trevor Paglen continues to probe the underbelly of our digital world, illuminating the powerful and often hidden forces at play in shaping our understanding of the world. I am therefore delighted that we have been able to commission him to undertake our 32nd commission for The Curve as part of a year that explores our relationship with technology.'

In 2012 Paglen launched an artwork into distant orbit around Earth in collaboration with Creative Time and MIT, contributed research and cinematography to the Academy Award-winning film Citizenfour in 2014, and created a radioactive public sculpture for the exclusion zone in Fukushima, Japan in 2015. Last autumn, he launched a satellite into outer space with the Nevada Museum of Art.  

Trevor Paglen’s work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Tate Modern, London; Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Taipei Biennial 2008; and Istanbul Biennial 2009 as well as numerous other solo and group exhibitions. Paglen has been nominated for the Artes Mundi 8 Award (2018-19), is the recipient of the Nam June Paik Art Center Prize 2018, as of the MacArthur Fellowship (2017) and the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize (2016). 

Trevor Paglen was born in 1974 in Camp Springs, Maryland, and currently lives and works in Berlin.

Supported by Cockayne Grants for the Arts, The London Community Foundation, and using public funding from Arts Council England.