Installation view of Trevor Paglen: Bloom at Pace, London (image courtesy Pace Gallery; photo by Damian Griffiths)

LONDON – Entering Trevor Paglen’s current exhibition at Pace, London, you would be forgiven for thinking that you were looking at a display of pleasant landscapes, delicate abstractions, and a finely-chiseled marble bust. You quickly sense, though, that something stranger and more sinister is at play. Cameras on tripods are dotted around the room and screens hang from each of the gallery’s four corners. As you walk around, you are being broadcast through a livestream to anyone in the world who chooses to watch and they, too, are being projected into the gallery space on video monitors. In this sprawling installation, aptly titled Octopus, observers become the observed, collapsing distinctions between the real and virtual.

Trevor Paglen, “Kate” (2020), pigment on textile, 18 × 18 inches (© Trevor Paglen, courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery)

Paglen has made a career of visualizing the invisible power structures and systems which govern contemporary society. The American artist-cum-academic has scuba-dived through labyrinths of undersea data cables, photographically infiltrated government “black sites,” and analyzed AI programs used by security systems and social media companies. He presents these investigations in artworks which are both politically incisive and seductively aesthetic.

Paglen’s sensational new show, Bloom, was inspired by the state of the world over the last few months and the 17th-century Dutch genre of vanitas paintings ornate still lifes, filled with flowers and skulls, which reflect on the transience of human life. In the exhibition, seemingly beautiful objects are undercut with an intense feeling of anxiety: the pleasant landscapes are photographs of trees in bloom, taken by the artist during quarantine and put through artificial intelligence systems that color them, vibrantly and unreally, according to their constituent parts; the delicate abstractions are lines of image and text tweets about airlines, for example which have been fed into AI programs to make them more “intelligent”; and the marble bust is a reconstruction of the “standard head” developed in the 1960s by the computer scientist Woody Bledsoe to make automated facial recognition — a visual representation of the white male bias of such technology. 

Installation view of Trevor Paglen: Bloom at Pace, London (image courtesy Pace Gallery; photo by Damian Griffiths)

An even more unsettling visualization of the prejudices embedded in supposedly objective AI systems comes in the interactive project “ImageNet Roulette, conceived and developed with AI researcher Kate Crawford, featuring a video monitor showing how one of the world’s most widely-used datasets would categorize gallery visitors who stand in front of it — in my case and that of other young women, through the overtly sexualized and pedophilic labels of “jeune fille,” “call girl,” and “nymphet.”  Paglen’s talent is making art that takes on the whole world, but also concerns every single one of us. 

Trevor Paglen: Bloom continues online and at Pace Gallery (6 Burlington Gardens, London W1S 3ET) through November 10.

Naomi Polonsky is a London-based curator, art critic, and translator. She studied at the University of Oxford and the Courtauld Institute of Art and has experience working at the Hermitage Museum and Tate...