Stanford University’s inaugural artist-in-residence Trevor Paglen plugs in to the tech world
When selecting the first person for a new artist-in-residence program at Stanford University, there was only one candidate for Alison Gass: “Trevor Paglen hits all the sweet spots of a contemporary artist,” says Gass, associate director for collections, exhibitions and curatorial affairs at the Cantor Arts Center. “And I’m excited that Stanford, which is considered at the forefront of technology, is now able to do the same thing with art.”
For this residency, Paglen is focused on the ways machines interpret images. His inaugural project, Sight Machine, brought together the Kronos Quartet, a Grammy Award-winning string quartet based in the Bay Area known for its experimental music, and Obscura Digital, a creative studio and leader in visual projection technology, for a Cantor-commissioned performance piece at Historic Pier 70 in January. He asked Kronos to play “exquisitely human” music while Obscura ran 20-plus diverse algorithms (used by such disparate sources as Facebook and the U.S. military) designed to measure the performance and the audience from myriad angles: including facial recognition, perceived mood and sensed movement, broadcasting the machines’ findings on surrounding screens.
At this moment, there is perhaps no other creator whose work so skillfully skewers the themes of the zeitgeist: government, justice, freedom, private life—all of which are being upturned and drastically altered by the new relationship between technology and humanity. Named to ArtReview’s Power 100 list of the most influential artists in the world last year, Paglen has garnered attention for his subtle photographs of satellites, rendered in the style of Eadweard Muybridge, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston—artists who ventured to the American West to photograph dramatic empty landscapes—displaying the eerie ubiquity of surveillance in our lives. And his Autonomy Cube (2014)—a “usable sculpture” created with artist, hacker and independent journalist Jacob Appelbaum and featured in the 2016 Berlin Biennale—went beyond the frame: allowing visitors to connect to Tor, a volunteer-run network that lets users anonymize their Internet activities.
Paglen’s current work springs from the reality that images have made the jump from a human tool used to derive meaning, to a medium readable by a machine (thanks to developments in artificial intelligence and machine vision).
“You take a digital picture, you put it on Facebook, five of your friends might like it—but actually that photograph is being read and analyzed over and over and over again by dozens of algorithms trying to extract as much information as possible from them.” And, he cautions, those images live on in perpetuity—perhaps affecting your future health care premiums or your likelihood to be arrested.
While teaching and working in concert with a variety of university departments, Paglen will mount a retrospective of the history of the camera in May for the Cantor Arts Center. Gass will curate a concurrent exhibition of his work, a particularly apt juxtaposition, given that some of the most famous early photographic experiments took place at Stanford, including Eadweard Muybridge’s series of a horse galloping at the Palo Alto Stock Farm in 1878. “Muybridge was really one of the first people using machines to see the things that humans could not see,” Paglen says.
“The more that we allow our lives to be quantified, the more the expense of our own freedom.”
For him, the show is yet another way to shine a light on one of modern life’s most thought-provoking discussions. “Humans are so much more complicated than machines can understand—that’s what’s wonderful about us,” he says. “The more that we allow our lives to be quantified, the more the expense of our own freedom.” museum.stanford.edu.
Written by ELIZABETH KHURI CHANDLER.