Making the Invisible into Art Through the Eyes of Artificial Intelligence

Award-winning artist Trevor Paglen speaks to students and faculty in Pomona College’s Rose Hills Theatre on Wednesday. (Akshaya Amarnath • The Student Life)

Trevor Paglen, an artist who creates images that depict critical human geographies and political landscapes who recieved the MacArthur Genius Grant earlier this month, shared his work to a packed audience at Pomona College’s Rose Hills Theatre in his first talk since receiving the award, “The Planet as a Sensor” on Wednesday, Oct. 18.

In Paglen’s introduction, Pomona Chair of Media Studies Mark Andrejevic described Paglen’s interest in surveillance machines (such as the Internet and satellites) whose threads lace around the planet, and the way in which humans are often unaware of their existence. “[Paglen] characterizes what invisibility looks like,” said Andrejevic. “And this characterization is so important in this time, [as] invisibility is found in most things we do.”

Paglen – whose art combines engineering, artificial intelligence, politics, geography, and social activism – earned a Bachelor of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy from University of California, Berkeley, and a Master of Fine Arts from the School of Art Institute in Chicago. He holds residencies in both Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Artpace, as well as a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship. His work has been exhibited in several museums. Recently, his work was shown in a display that featured machines’ reflections of life in New York City. “I am happy that we have [Paglen] as an official genius in our midst,” said Andrejevic.

Paglen began by saying he happened to come across writing that examined the internet. In his talk, he described how these documents contained information so different from the bizarre images one could find when googling the word ‘Internet.’ He displayed some of these Google images: mysterious blue holes with stark white lights shining through the ends, blue fires that cradled the Earth, and peculiar drawings of unicorns, rainbows, tacos, and animated objects all coalescing into a great mess. “The documents described the Internet more factually, and they made me want to go out in the world and see what the Internet really looked like,” Paglen said.

Paglen went out into the world. He photographed ocean horizons at beaches in which Internet cables converging from Hawaii and Asia, from the East Coast and Lisbon, from the United States and Brazil, were buried. He wanted to see the cables, and not just know that they existed somewhere in the seabed, and thus learned to scuba dive.

Once he’d photographed the seabed and the wires, Paglen decided he wanted images of the insides of the wires, too. “I’d dived into the sea and taken pictures of the cable exteriors, but I wondered what would happen if I dove into the infrastructures themselves,” Paglen said.

He mapped their internal function, describing the self-referential images machines made to identify the essence of objects we both use and see in everyday life. He displayed blurry color blots on the screen behind him: “That one is the machine’s signification of shark,” he said, pointing to a hazy shapeless mass on one display. “That other one there [pointing to another colorful blot] could be a kitchen knife, or a water-bottle, anything really.”

Paglen also described lurking near and photographing National Security Agency (NSA) bases that controlled some of these machines, whose fences bore signs warning directly against photography. “Pissed-off” that his work was held up by the military police who told him to get off the sites, Paglen decided that he needed to teach the police a lesson about his rights.

“I created a photography contest and told people that I would publish the best NSA base photographs,” Paglen said. “Everyone wanted to participate, everyone was now legally taking pictures of these secret places, and it was great.” He also described capturing images of secret satellites and watching the Earth, as the satellites wafted through the sky.

Ornella Altunyan PO ‘18 was struck by Paglen’s connections toward art and science. “For me, Paglen’s art is a really inspiring example of how art and technology can intersect to illuminate global power dynamics,” Altunyan said.

Through his presentation, Paglen showcased images of his work on the screen – frames with light blue blurring with a hazy white, large blots of galactic purple mingling with black, and sceneries of beaches and sea fronts. “It looks pretty sparse, doesn’t it?” said Paglen. “But each of these images grew from an extensive backstory and an enormous amount of research.”

Kirsten Tingle PO ‘18 responded to his method of displaying those same images in a gallery. “I didn’t really feel the need for the gallery show that much though,” said Tingle. “For me, what was most ‘art’ about the photographs, was the research he did for them, and this existed outside the frame. Much of the time, the gallery itself didn’t add anything to the art.”

Tingle cited one of his other projects, that explicitly displayed a vast interconnecting Internet through which people are given the illusion that they are unnoticed. “I liked this,” said Tingle, “because the space is itself activated, and is forced to participate in activism. It conveyed the universality of that tension between visibility and invisibility because it existed through the whole space of the art.”

Tingle said that everything Paglen did was related to making people aware of what is invisible. “Even the large non-functional blocks – made for science’s sake only, like art is made for art’s sake – drew attention to satellites that orbited Earth in a similar way,” Tingle said. “It’s activist because it’s telling people about the satellites.”

Paglen suggested that continuing to build things that he considers exist only for their beauty is freeing, somehow opposing the control inherent in surveillance and other power structures. “Those useless things that only exist to demonstrate art or scientific understanding will not have to adhere to what we think we need,” Paglen said. “They will not have to be controlled, and perhaps, things that couldn’t otherwise be thought of will emerge without control.” ​

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