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Trevor Paglen’s Machine Gaze

In an essay published last year in The New Inquiry, artist Trevor Paglen wrote that “visual culture has changed form” in the last decade. “It has become detached from human eyes and has largely become invisible.” Paglen is referring to digital images and their underlying code, and to “machine-to-machine seeing.” Most images, he points out, “are now made by machines for other machines, with humans rarely in the loop.” Already, these machine images permeate and control our lives, yet we’re largely unaware of them, and only rarely are they rendered visible to humans, Paglen says.

A Study of Invisible Images,” Paglen’s exhibition at Metro Pictures on view until October 21, considers the social, cultural and political implications of computer vision and artificial intelligence through still images and video artworks. Paglen created the works in collaboration with software developers and computer scientists while an artist-in-residence at Stanford University. To create his series “Adversarially Evolved Hallucinations,” for instance, Paglen and his collaborators trained two AIs to work together to generate almost grotesque representations of subjects such as a man or a Venus flytrap, revealing the disconnect between computer vision and human seeing. For his work “Machine Readable Hito,” Paglen ran images of the artist Hito Steyerl through facial recognition algorithms and he presents the prints with data the algorithms have interpreted from the images. And his video “Behold These Glorious Times!” uses computer vision training images and a visualization of an AI’s learning process, set to a soundtrack by the electronic musician Holly Herndon.

For those of us who create and upload some of the billions of new images generated each day without giving the act much thought, Paglen’s exhibition should provide a jolt. How machines interpret images, for whom and to what end, are crucial questions for our digitally dependent society. As Paglen points out in his New Inquiry essay, “The invisible world of images isn’t simply an alternative taxonomy of visuality. It is an active, cunning, exercise of power, one ideally suited to molecular police and market operations–one designed to insert its tendrils into ever-smaller slices of everyday life.” —Conor Risch

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How Photography is Changing in the Age of Machine Learning (for PDN subscribers; login required)

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