The gallery attendant at Pace warned me before I could even get a foot through the door. By entering, she explained, I’m consenting to being filmed. It’s nothing to worry about, of course— it’s just art.
But that’s precisely Trevor Paglen’s point. He has spent his career exploring the nature of artificial intelligence and data collection and, in this new exhibition, offers a reminder that these practices are never as benign as they appear.
The exhibition title ‘Bloom’ stems from a group of floral photographs, muddied with a pink and yellow wash, which form a cornerstone of the exhibition. These flowers could seem to be out of character for Paglen’s practice, but here he’s creating a type of modern memento mori, tapping into the allegorical history of floral arrangements in art. In each image the coloured overlays were generated by an algorithm designed to dissect the images into their component parts.
My favourite pieces in the exhibition were a series of works which, from a distance, could be mistaken for traditional minimalism. Up close, however, they reveal themselves to be datasets. In one example, Paglen printed a list of tweets placed by AI into positive, negative and neutral categories. I laughed as I read the inane texts, but Paglen’s reminder is inescapable—as a society, we can’t predict how our data is used and manipulated after it’s captured.
And of course, throughout the exhibition, Paglen has you under surveillance. The dozens of cameras streaming the exhibition online are impossible to ignore. Titled ‘Octopus’ (2020), the video apparatus is a response to our current state of dislocation, where interactions are primarily digital. In each of the four corners of the room, there are blank screens, initially coloured a placid beige, which allow online visitors to beam directly into the physical space.
As I lingered, one of the screens turned on and a man was suddenly staring down at me, seemingly watching me read the datasets. He looked down through his glasses, speaking things I couldn’t hear to someone I couldn’t see, until the screen flickered off. Then, a woman peered into frame holding a mug of tea, before abruptly disappearing from view.
Later, I tried it for myself. I went to the Pace website, clicked into the exhibition and turned on my own camera. On the video steam, I could see my own face projected into the gallery. I was in one of the far corners, looking down as a gallery attendant spoke to a woman in the centre of the room. Neither of them looked over at me. I hovered for a few minutes, feeling both exposed and voyeuristic, before clicking away.
In ‘Bloom’, Paglen has succeeded in layering multiple dialects—our current state of remoteness, different levels of abstraction and different uses of algorithms. It’s a reminder of the systems that are constantly evaluating us, consistently seeking to monetise our interactions. It’s full of lightness and humour, but the underlying message is clear. And it’s a message that has never been more crucial.