Trevor Paglen

From: ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ 

The Barbican Centre, The Curve, Exhibit, 26th Sep 2019

On entering The Curve, an isolated divider wall to the left-hand side was the basis of the idea for the rest of the work. It had a small image in the centre, a famous painted image of an apple. This was the famous oil painting by Rene Magritte, titled; This is Not an Apple, original title; Ceci n’est pas une pomme, in 1964.

Rene Magritte, This is Not an Apple, 1964, Oil Painting

Paglen had put this image through one of his software programmes that had already been trained by another computer with a taxonomy of 30,000 images from ImageNet. The end result was the original painting, but ‘seen’ through the ‘eyes’ of artificial intelligent. The AI data analysis was composited over the painting. Lines and boxes compartmentalising isolated areas with statistical analysis attached. The picture had been through a process that had disassembled elements to gather information. 

Moving onto the rest of the work, I was shocked to realise that it was one vast piece. The huge curved wall displayed 30,000 square images individually pinned to wall. The wall had been covered with cork and painted black to make it look like the original wall. Trevor Paglen had a team of 10 people pinning these images for two and a half weeks. With images from the floor to the ceiling.

The exhibit started with a simple image of an apple to the far right-hand side of the wall. The image was then built upon with other images of different apples. Words were placed in the areas of these ‘image sets’. The word ‘apple’ was therefore surrounded by images of apples and so forth. Then the images started to change slightly and develop into ‘apple tree’ and ‘fruit’ and you could gradually see the evolution of the images and the words building upon the previous input of information, as the ‘image sets’ became more complex. 

It wasn’t too long until I observed that the words and images were becoming more biased, especially when people were introduced into the images. Words like ‘farmer’ ‘settler’ and ‘labourer’ were now being introduced and formulated on from words like ‘sky’ ‘coffee’ and ‘predator’.

Towards the end of the wall, the words being displayed became more negative. Words such as, ‘alcoholic’ ‘traitor’ ‘drug addict’ ‘bottom feeder’ and ‘bad person’ were being clumped together with images of people. Images that depict white men in suits surround words like ‘director’ ‘business owner’ and ‘legislator’ whereas images of black men surround words like ‘convict’.

The 30,000 images that were taken from Stanford University’s ImageNet, display a visual of the input that these computer programmes are receiving, and how the algorithms analyse, sort and judges the objects and people contained inside. The vast amount of data that these seemingly innocent images contain are helping systems to construct a taxonomy of data and information to draw from. Although this is an extraordinary exhibit to see, I felt as though there was another side, and this other side was invisible. Behind the wall where the computer ‘perceived’ a different world existed where 0’s and 1’s were light particles and I was blind. This both scared and fascinated me. 

As a piece of art, the work was overwhelming to look at. It demanded different proximities of viewing. I felt torn between viewing close up and from a distant. I felt as though I was constantly undulating through the exhibit, however when I was close up I felt like there was too much to look at, as though my mind was being intruded upon and overloaded. 

Trevor Paglen: From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ Installation view The Curve, Barbican 26 September 2019 – 16 February 2020 © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

Trevor Paglen: From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ Installation view The Curve, Barbican 26 September 2019 – 16 February 2020 © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

Trevor Paglen: From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’, Portrait of Artist Trevor Paglen, The Curve, Barbican 26 September 2019 – 16 February 2020 © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

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