Pace Live

AI and Allegory in the COVID Era

Conversation recorded on October 22, 2020

Coinciding with Trevor Paglen's exhibition Bloom in London, this online panel brought together a group of distinguished participants to address the central themes of the exhibition—from facial recognition technology to alternative futures.

Moderated by Andria Hickey, Pace’s Senior Director and Curator, the event brought together scholars, curators, and artists to discuss the role of Artificial Intelligence and the politics of images in an increasingly virtual COVID-adapted era. Participants include Trevor Paglen, Julia Bryan-Wilson, the Doris and Clarence Malo Professor of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley, and Jimena Canales, award-winning author and scholar on the history of science.

Learn more about Trevor Paglen

Andria Hickey (AH): Hi, everyone who's joining, I see the attendees signing up. We're just going to wait a few minutes to get everyone online and start our conversation. I'm very curious how many Zooms you guys have already done in the last six months, public Zooms. Who's got the record? Ok, I'm going to get started and welcome everybody to this conversation, AI and Allegory in the COVID Era, with a really exciting panel of guests, Trevor Paglen, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Jimena Canales. We're going to start the conversation with some introductions, go through some conversation with everybody, some questions, and at the end, we'll open to the audience for questions, so please write your questions in the chat and you have the opportunity to vote up your questions so if there's a question you really want to see answered, we can address that first in line.

Thank you, everyone, for being here. Julia, we are so thrilled that you could join us—we know you're very busy. (opens in a new window) Julia Bryan-Wilson is the Doris and Clarence Malo professor of modern and contemporary art, where she teaches art since 1945, and she is also the director of UC Berkeley Art Research Center. She's the author of numerous essays and reviews, as well as three books, Art Workers: Radical Practice in The Vietnam War Era, which was named Best Book of the Year by The New York Times and Artforum, Art in the Making: Artists and their Materials from the Studio to Crowd Sourcing, and Fray: Art and Textile Politics from 2017, which won The New York Times Best Art Book of the Year, the Motherwell Book Award, and the Association for the Study of Arts of the Present Book Prize.

(opens in a new window) Jimena Canales is an expert in 19th and 20th century history of the physical sciences, working for a better understanding of science and technology in relation to the arts and humanities. She is currently a faculty member of the Graduate College of University of Illinois and Champaign Urbana, and a research affiliate at MIT. Her first book, A Tenth of a Second: A History, explores the relationship between science and history as one of the central intellectual problems of modern times. Her widely acclaimed second book, The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and The Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time, has been translated in Chinese, Greek and Spanish. Her third book Bedeviled: A Shadow History of Demons in Science, covering four centuries of scientific discovery, is now available, and we'll hear a little more about that book today.

(opens in a new window) Trevor Paglen is an artist, a geographer and an author. His work makes the invisible visible by documenting the American surveillance state of the twenty-first century. From his vantage points at various public locations, he photographs distant military facilities, capturing extreme telephoto images of stealth drones. Turning his vision to the night sky, he traces the path of information gathering satellites, computing systems that collect, interpret and operationalize data that defines and tracks identity, movement and habits, fueling his broad practice. In 2016, he won the (opens in a new window) Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, and in 2017 he was the recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant. His mid-survey exhibition, (opens in a new window) Sights Unseen, was held in 2018 at the Smithsonian American Museum, which was accompanied by a great catalog, if you don't have it already. He's had numerous one person exhibitions, including in (opens in a new window) San Diego last year, (opens in a new window) The Kunstverein in Frankfurt, (opens in a new window) The Broad at Michigan State University, (opens in a new window) the Van Abbe, among many others. He has two exhibitions on view right now, one at (opens in a new window) Pace London and also at the (opens in a new window) Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. Both of these exhibitions explore central themes of artificial intelligence, the politics of images, facial recognition technologies and alternative futures. Trevor is going to share a little bit about the exhibition, so I won't get into it in too much detail.

To kick us off, I thought everyone could share just a little bit about their current research, what's interesting about this invitation to discuss such a challenging moment in history and how it relates to images, and also major issues of artificial intelligence that are deeply impacting this moment in other ways. Maybe we can start with Julia?

Julia Bryan-Wilson (JBW): Well, thank you so much for the invitation and thank you to Trevor, as always, for his incredibly thought provoking and challenging work. I'm going to share my screen and just walk us through a couple of things I've been thinking about, using Trevor's work as a springboard for questions about how art gets made in times of crisis, and especially during a global health pandemic. The works that are on view that Trevor has taken these photographs, which also have an important A.I. component around their color, are pictures of flowers in bloom. We were all taken in the spring of 2020 during, obviously, the grip of the coronavirus pandemic. And they're very seductive images. I think Trevor is also someone who thinks a lot about beauty as an ambivalent ideological force. Beauty as seductive, but also beauty as a way to smuggle in a lot of really deep political critique. Hence, these images I think are really powerful for me because of how they estrange us from something that could seem really cliched. When looking at the works of this show, the entire show is called Bloom, and I believe the whole series of photographs is called Bloom. I'd love to hear you say a little bit more about your titling with the series, but they put me immediately in mind of another moment that I thought about a lot that’s about a global pandemic, which is, of course, the HIV/AIDS crisis.

I have been thinking about other artists who turned to flowers precisely to think about mourning, grief, loss, and ephemerality. Of course, flowers traditionally have been used to signal all of those things, but I was put in mind of (opens in a new window) this photograph by (opens in a new window) Felix Gonzales-Torres, the Cuban-American queer artist who himself died of HIV AIDS in 1996. This is a photograph of the grave of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein. It's a deceptively simple image of flowers that immediately take us to death, but also to regeneration. Felix Gonzalez-Torres was not someone who's really known actually for color photography, but this is an interesting moment of him using a kind of straightforward method of depiction to evoke a lot of the themes that he worked with, which have to do with allusion, metaphor and lyricism to think about queer coupling, but also, of course, to think about loss and grief in 1992, which was the height, one of the peak years for HIV/AIDS. (opens in a new window) Another piece that Trevor's recent body of work reminds me of is this piece—it's actually a series of silk flower curtains by the artist (opens in a new window) Jim Hodges, also made in the mid-90s in conversation with HIV/AIDS and questions of ritual activities that an artist might undergo when seeing all of their friends or lovers dying. Jim Hodges was a close friend of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and these are very beautiful. They got moments of transparency—the silk flowers you can see through, there's lots of gaps in these curtains, and there's a sense of the lacy finery of this and something to do with the production values, which really reminds me of Trevor's photographs. But they also have a really distinctive materiality because these artificial flowers are hand threaded together. I don't want to take up too much time because we have so much to talk about. I had a lot of other images of artists working with flowers during HIV/AIDS and other moments of crisis, but I'm going to stop there and maybe we'll come back to things. I guess I just have a lot of questions for Trevor about thinking about visualizing grief, but also visualizing grief through what could be understood to be a sort of cliché, or a set a repertoire of images that have deep grooves in history related to the memento mori, etc, so I'd just love to hear him say more about all of those questions as the conversation continues.

AH: Jimena, do you want to step in next? Maybe you can share a little bit about your new book, which we enjoyed reading.

Jimena Canales (JC): Yes, thank you, Andrea. Thank you, Julia, Trevor, and all the participants for being here. I always need to thank all of you for having and listening to a historian of science. My perspective does not come from the history of art—I’m a historian of science and technology and I find that constructive dialogue with artists is very useful. Sometimes taking away the discourse of art history from a genealogical approach and situating it more in the material culture of science and technology can give us a different perspective. Trevor's work is an inspiration, and I would like to talk about how his work can help us think about artificial intelligence more generally, about computing the history of computing, and history more generally. What type of history do we want to write? What do we want to focus on? I have known Trevor for many years and I know his early work much better than I know this work, so I'm very excited to hear about how you've moved. It is incredibly surprising to suddenly get flowers on the screen, but I’ll say a little bit about what was so revolutionary about what you were doing before the turn of the century and how even for historians of science at the time that I was a graduate student, which was when I started following your work. Most of my professors and the field were really characterized by thinking about great scientists, great experiments. We had Newton, Galileo, obviously Einstein, and maybe at times Fred and Francis Bacon. And then there was this other rebellious field, which was the history of technology that had a complicated hierarchical relationship to the history of science, which was very competitive. The historians of technology were focusing also on great men—Francis Bacon as a sort of hero and then great machines, you know, big... The steam engine, the loom, and eventually the field of science and technology started focusing on networks for the first time, and this is just so recent. There was a focus on electrical networks, light bulbs and trains. But even reading that when I was a graduate student, you weren't reading the canon, right? You were really transgressing from the canon.

And at the time, I think we all got very inspired when the work of Michel Foucault came around and we read Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison) and it was a huge impact on all fields. It did impact the history of science, but when one reads Foucault, his focus or his attention on surveillance was architectural—discipline. It was about education, discipline, and architecture. It really missed so many other things that were going on in terms of technology. There was no media history in Foucault. Therefore, when I encountered Trevor's work, Trevor was an artist, but it signaled the possibility of starting to think about not only the history of technology or the history of science, but history more generally in a way that paid attention to these things that were under the radar, and are incredibly important. In all history of things, there are secret—the history of things that have been classified and the history of things that are very complex, and that for some reason we just don't see yet. They are the structure of everything around us, such as satellite communications. Therefore, it is always ironic, and one of the motivating aspects of being a historian of science and technology that what we have in front of our eyes right now, it's a Zoom screen, for some reason becomes the most transparent. I've always been interested in how things being user friendly and things being ubiquitous somehow takes it away from the things that we think about and that we analyze. I find that Trevor’s work is an amazing moment because it captures on so many ways, it captures us on a visceral level and it says, ‘Hey, perhaps you should be thinking about what is it that we're sending over the airwaves. What is it that you'd like to give during this moment of grief?’ How can we think about the symbols, new symbols and new allegorical changes that are happening right in front of us? And again, not just because they're beautiful and because they are great art. I'm not a critic, but they obviously are. But because they can help us think about how history is going and where, in a more delicate way. I didn't say much about my work, but maybe that will come in conversation.

AH: We'll get to it for sure.

JC: Thank you.

AH: Trevor, do you want to tell us a little bit about your new show?

Trevor Paglen (TP): Yeah, I think I'll speak about it a little bit more abstractly, and people can look up the documentation of it online. There’s also a website where you can actually go and look at the exhibition in real time that I think you're going to talk about as well, Andria. I'm really excited to talk to both of you guys, because both of you in different ways have been just so inspirational to the way that I think, and the questions that each of you deal with in your work are, they just really speak to stuff that I'm concerned with in some really deep ways. I guess the new body of work for me is coming out of a moment of questioning what it means to make meanings right now. Which sounds a little bit meta, but I feel like there's a huge tsunami of meaning-making in contestation that we find ourselves in the middle of in, and the tsunamis may be wrong because it naturalizes it. One hesitates to use metaphors like warfare, but that maybe seems a little bit more apt. We're living in a moment where we have the pandemic, rewriting the meaning of our everyday environments, whether that's the image of a plane in the sky or the buttons on the credit card reader, or whether it's the feeling of being in an enclosed space or going to a supermarket or what have you. These quotidian images that are part of our everyday lives have been dramatically rewritten. On the other hand, we're seeing, you know, the forces of white supremacism, trying to rewrite the meaning of everyday objects, whether that's a Hawaiian shirt or an OK sign or whatever, trying to appropriate the language of everyday life and turn it into a kind of fascist code.

We're seeing technology platforms like social media platforms, but also machine learning models trying to ascribe meanings autonomously to the pictures that we put online that posts, our tweets, the stuff that we put on the Internet and trying to extract value from the meanings that it's attributing to that. And then, of course, finally, we are having the Black Lives Matter protests and we're having huge, collective projects of trying to reimagine what words like public safety might mean or what health care might mean, and trying to rewrite the meaning of those words, because we all understand that whatever's happening now, it's not working, right? So, I think that's the context that this body of work comes from. Julia, we've been long, long time friends and interlocutors. I've talked about every project that I have worked on with you—you’re usually the first person to see whatever it is that I'm trying to think about. But I think you've thought so much and so deeply about art that gets made in times of crisis and in times of mourning. You've thought so much about how meanings are bound to the specific historical circumstances and the people generating them, and what is that relationship between the specificities of that moment in time in which they were created versus, or not versus but on one axis, and then on the other hand, how do those meanings travel through time, right? And then Jimena, I think the world of your work is incredibly deep and it’s just always really fun to talk to you. And again, we've been long, long time interlocutors and there's many ways that one could characterize your work, but I think one way that one might characterize some of it is, I sometimes think about your work as a meta investigation of how things get to make sense and what counts as something that is meaningful, what counts as something which is intelligible, what counts as knowledge, and who gets to decide that, and what are the technical and kind of logical structures within which those meanings can get made. There's a lot of overlap, I guess, when I think about it that way.

JC: Thank you. Yes, no, I agree. I would like to hear from Julia, because one of the great things about being in these conversations with you is to think about the actual... We've been talking abstractly and you said in your introduction that you wanted to talk abstractly, but the texture of your work and how it connects again to these questions is really fascinating because as a historian of science, it opens up the possibility of, for example, writing about the history of how flowers have not only been depicted, but used in the world and sent through the air waves and part of a culture of communications, not only telegraph, but also all the way into the computer screens. The meaning of flowers today is...

JBW: Yeah, I wonder, Trevor, could you tell us a little bit more about the process of making these images? Because I think one of the things that they make me think about is a kind of long-standing suspicion of color in certain strands of modernist photography, that color as applied or color as kind of almost campy or showy. I mean, you're doing something really interesting around A.I. and color with these, so I think that the audience would be really fascinated to hear you talk about your process there.

TP: Yeah, so I guess technically what's going on is that I'm shooting very, very high-resolution photos, but basically in black and white. And then what I'm doing is bringing those into machine learning models and typically in a machine learning model for object classification or something like that. You have a neural network and it basically looks for a bunch of patterns in the images and tries to deduce what the object is by looking at the various combinations of patterns and textures and saying, like, ‘This is a flower, this is an airplane, whatever it is...

AH: Can you put it on the screen so everyone can see the pictures?

TP: Should I show one of the images?

AH: I'm just going to share it on my screen here, so you can see. I'm going to scroll through as you're talking.

TP: Ok, so what I do, instead of that outright classification, is that I go and look inside the machine learning model and I'd say, ‘What are the different textures that the neural network thinks are relevant?’ What are the different shapes that it kind of thinks are candidates for being different objects? In other words, I'm trying to get the machine learning model to show me what the kind of formal analysis that it's doing of the images prior to the classification. And then I tell it to assign different colors to those different objects and different textures that it's detecting in the image and to assign them basically arbitrarily. And so, what you arrive at, and I guess what I wanted to arrive at, was an image that felt like you were looking at a landscape, but that you understood that that was being mediated by something whose logic you didn't necessarily understand, but it was very present. And I thought that the use of the color kind of stood in for that. I mean, aesthetically, I guess that's what I was trying to get at.

JBW: I'm wondering, Jimena, if you could talk about your book, because I think when I look through Trevor's, when I use the apparatus that he's kind of invented of remote viewing and what I see, because I can't go and see the show, unfortunately, in London. I’m in Seattle, Washington, escaping the fires from California. I can't travel, but I can use his remote sensing technology, that's kind of a hybrid of surveillance and some other things. And actually, when I do click through those gallery spaces and I see other visitors, they are spectral to me. I have to say there is some detachment from what we might call the real in the way that they get rendered on my screen. And it takes me to haunting, it takes me to kind of all of the issues that you're thinking about in your recent book, so it would be great to hear you talk about that, because I get a very uncanny sensation, you know. It isn't like this. It doesn't feel transparent. I mean, of course, with so much what you do, Trevor, is to make us think about these acts of mediation. But I really feel that there's something, they do feel very ghostly, the presences that I see kind of wandering through, maybe they’re guards, they’re visitors, etc.

AH: Jimena, you’re muted.

JC: I've been wracking my brain trying to articulate what you've done now is just so incredibly powerful. And as a historian of science, I go back to a moment in the 1950s where you really have the birth of artificial intelligence as a field. And for me, the shift or something that happened, and again, know precisely what, but the way that computing intelligence was thought of, from (opens in a new window) Babbage and the early history was about doing a very powerful algorithm that would get you to a result that you knew beforehand what the result was. So it was a big sort of calculator, very tied to traditional mathematics, and it was not open-ended. Then in the 1950s, (opens in a new window) Oliver Selfridge, (opens in a new window) Marvin Minsky, and a new generation of computer scientists started doing for the first time open-ended artificial intelligence systems. (opens in a new window) Alan Turing was one of the people who talked about this and thought it was a wonderful thing. And you read those documents and they're fascinating, but they're also very scary because you have scientists and engineers creating these computer programs that will get to results that a human couldn't even get to. They come up with answers that are potentially better or worse. But it's independent, the machine goes its own way and produces a result. What you're describing right now, and one of the things that I love about Trevor's work and like to think about is that it's multivalent. It's not all negative, and it's not just another negative comment about the dangers of A.I. and how it's a big demon and how we're going to get to the point of singularity and all die and be taken over by machines.

So, I'm very fascinated by how you're using the A.I. to try to get at the essence of what is a flower, right. Because it’s its own system, its own neural network, is trained to try to find out the essence of a cat, the essence of a triangle in ways that we don't do or get there. Technically, these little subroutines were called daemons by the programmers, so they figured out a new form of computer architecture, where you had little subroutines called daemons that were tasked with very simple things to do. Is there an angle? Can you recognize a circular shape? And these daemons, whenever they hit that target, which was basically an if, then command, they got it, they would freak and they would shriek more loudly if the target was hit perfectly and less loudly if it wasn't. And you had these hierarchies of daemons shouting to daemons in the higher up until they actually found what they were told to find, a flower. I find a flower here, but taking that and using it in order to then figure out what is it that we thought and we programmed in the machine to believe was the essence of a flower, I think can be illuminating. I find that the other aspect of your show, Julia, that you referred to, in which viewers can themselves go and be in the screen and see themselves in the gallery space, is not complementary to the art that's on the wall. I mean, it's really, I think essential to it, because again, I think in these moments where we can't travel, where one of the things that has been taken away from our everyday visual world, our smiles, you know, to go and have flowers, plus a person traveling to the gallery in London and seeing the show while seeing themselves, is very beautiful. Again, I think we all know there's this other dark story. I mean, the technophobic, there's the privacy issues of somebody having control of your camera. But again, I guess I want to go back to the to the simple point of how your work as an artist can really help us rethink our mediated condition. Because we all need to be in control of our technological surroundings and environment. It's an essential part of a democratic, civil society. But they're shifty, they are eerie, they are haunting. And again, we're not trained to look at exactly what's in front of our eyes. Therefore, I'm very admiring of the role of the artist in bringing those things to light so that we can think about the current contemporary moment that we're living in the less stereotypical, less black and white, less divisive way.

AH: Jimena, I loved in your introduction to your book. Actually, it made me think so much about how artists are working, especially because, talking to Trevor, he was thinking about the ideas for this show and so many other artists in the last six months. The challenge of right now is that we're in the middle of it and it's very hard to understand how to have space from something that you're living through. You had written, “Authors of demon papers, which often used that eerie designation simply for lack of a better word. For them, the term is sort of a placeholder for the unknown,” and you later said, “The antechamber of discovery is a place where ideas are forged before they see the light of day. It's the incubator that shapes science before it's tested.” To me, that speaks so much to the artistic process and also to this question of working through art or thinking through art. I think Trevor, I see your project as, ‘How do we use art as a form of knowledge production?’ My question is, in that space of the unknown, where artists and scientists are kind of in a similar space of imagining an alternative future. The uncanny plays such a huge role in this project for you, and I think also for artists in the past who responded in times of crisis, it's a double-edged sword—walking into your show is both beautiful and disturbing. I wonder if you can talk about how that found its way inside the work as you were working through these big thoughts.

JC: Yes, thank you. And also, if we could keep…Trevor can tell us a little bit about the (opens in a new window) Octopus part of the show and the screens that are in there and how you think of the relation with the pictures of the flowers, I would love that. One of the things that I wanted to get at with this new work is this big issue of intentionality in science and technology, and control over futures. The typical story for scientists is that the inspiration comes in a eureka moment and it's usually when they're asleep or they're really tired, or this thing comes on the dream. There's really very little investigation about what's behind the eureka. Scientists say it's unconscious. It’s just, I don't know. That's the moment, a rupture of creativity, which I felt compelled that we just needed to know more about that process, if we actually wanted to know about the creative process more generally. And the eureka, or the moment of inspiration, is one of these things that are shared by scientists and artists, right. All of them have moments of inspiration. As a historian, one of the practical things, Julia, that we can do, is that we can look at the documentation of these moments of inspiration for centuries. So, I started looking for four centuries of the ancient antechamber of discovery. And as you say, usually the term, the placeholder is, you know, this is a demon, this is a ghost, this is something that I don't understand. But I believe that has consequences in what we make or don't make for society.

JBW: Let me ask Trevor a question which is, Trevor, I know that you expressed some anxiety in making this body of work about how it might read for the future or that it might seem kind of, I think you were worried about that It might seem almost optimistic or naive or I mean, I feel like you expressed more doubts and misgivings about these flower photographs than I've ever heard you be doubtful about. Can you talk to us about those fears, you know? I think it has resolved and to me in a really effective way, that I'd love to have you say more about that.

TP: Yeah, no, I mean, I remember... Sorry about that. No, I think I remember calling you up when I was working on the show, and I was like, ‘Julia, you’re going to think that I lost my mind. I'm thinking about doing a show that has like these flowers...’

JBW: And skulls and skulls!

TP: And I was just like, ‘what, am I going to have a snake, a rose, some wings or something? But I mean, I think that because these are the definition of cliches. So, it's really difficult stuff to work with. It's really difficult to try to make that mean something else. Yet, I intuitively felt like this feels right. I guess I was trying to tell myself there's a reason why these are images that people go to over and over again in times of mourning, in times of crisis. That doesn't mean that's easy to do, but there's a reason why there's a tradition of thousands of years of these kinds of images. But, Julia, I wanted to bring that back to you because I think while I was making this body of work, I was really questioning whether it was possible to make art, really, at all under these kinds of conditions, right. In other words, was it only possible to make a record of a very specific moment in time? Not that that is or isn't art, but I always felt nervous about whether the space that you were working in was going to be incredibly bounded historically and the meanings that you were generated, which just so specifically tied in. Especially this year, tied to the week, not even the month or the year. This is obviously something you've written a ton about, and by looking at art from previous moments of crisis, this is something that you've thought about a lot, so I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.

JBW: Well, all art is tied to its periodization, I guess, and week by week. I think we're just more aware of it this year in a way, because it's such an unusual, once every hundred-year kind of event that has affected us so profoundly in terms of our everyday habits. Therefore, I think for me, the parallel with HIV/AIDS exists, especially around questions of governmental negligence. But it's also such a different kind of pandemic, in terms of how it infects people and its rates of transmission. I mean, in so many ways it's very different. But for me, all art is bound to the moment of its own creation. At the same time, it also is a time traveler, and it is promiscuous, and it does go on to have these futures that we cannot script, and we cannot predict. I'm really curious to see how this body of work looks in five years, ten years, a hundred years. I think it will feel very much about spring of 2020, but I feel like we don't even know how to talk about the moment that we're in. My friend Miranda described it as describing falling as you're in the middle of falling. I think we don't yet have a lot of great tools for theorizing what it is to be alive on October 22nd, 2020, because the turmoil and the profound shifts are very difficult to process. And especially because we're so confined, getting our information in these really limited ways. I mean, my dreams are different now, and I have Zoom dreams. Anyway, it's amazing to me that you decided to dive into the cliché in a way, or what you could alternatively say the historical resource and richness of flowers and skulls as something that are dense with multiple meanings, so multifaceted. And to really grapple with that and think about, ‘Well, this is what this means to me now, and we'll see what happens in fifty years, in a hundred years.’

JC: Another question for Julia. One of the things in this moment of falling, as you describe it, that we're all freaked about, is what's going to happen with museums and the public going to museums, and even what's going to happen to galleries without tourism, without traveling, with these galleries being in big cities. London and New York City, which are in crisis. The nostalgic aspect of your work, Trevor, and Julia you described it as a sort of decision to go back to the historical record, is just so devastating and so sad, thinking of the possibility that we might not be able to be going to museums and looking at this incredible art history tradition that after the Renaissance became full of flowers starting from the Dutch age to today. And the fact that it might be gone is just nostalgic, before it should be, I hope. I'm not ready to call a funeral for the museum or the gallery world. As much as I love your work Trevor, I hope it's not that. I hope you're not sending flowers to the grave of...

AH: We're actually getting close to turning our conversation over to our audience to hear some questions. But before we do that, I did want to address, well, I think I had like twenty-five questions, but obviously this dialogue could continue for a lot longer. I wanted to talk about the question of abstraction. Julia, I know this is a big part of your research, and the theme of this panel was thinking really about the allegorical. And I think we often see abstraction and allegory as a dichotomy. In fact, in Trevor's work, this is happening at the same time. He's playing with lots of different forms of abstraction, creating visual abstraction from the training data, figurative sculptures from mathematical abstractions., but the content, the symbolism of these kind of, as Trevor said, cliché, allegorical subject points, are very much present in the first look of the work. So, I'm curious, Julia, in your own research about abstraction and, in particular, as it relates to responses to moments of trauma and crisis, how you see abstraction emerging in this moment and also in Trevor's work. Maybe, Trevor, you can also comment on this.

JBW: Yeah, I think I'd rather hear from Trevor, but I'll just share one more (opens in a new window) image, which is actually in the show. Trevor is someone who has always had a very complicated theoretical understanding of undoing the false binary between abstraction and representation, I would say. This is like a canonical Trevor Paglen type abstract photograph, which is actually not abstract at all. I mean, it's a photograph of a real thing, but taken from a really far enough distance that it is rendered unintelligible by human eyesight. One of the things I'm always obsessed with talking about is the unraveling of these strict divisions. How often abstraction is an alibi for something that has real effects. So maybe Trevor, you can say something about that. You know, it looks kind of like Agnes Martin—very faint visual incidents and everything. But what this actually is depicting in an indexical way, is a chemical and biological weapons proving ground and I think putting this next to the flowers really drives home the point. The fact that we are breathing this virus. It is an airborne virus and there is a relationship to questions of pollution and with human and non-human thresholds and how those things get entangled.

TP: Yeah, I mean, abstraction is one of these things that every day, I think something different about it and we've had tons of conversations about this too, Julia. There's so many different varieties of what that word means. On some days, I think everything's abstraction, on other days I think nothing is abstraction, and I think both of those are true at the same time. Just in terms of the logic of the images that I make, there is very often kind of visually something that signifies abstraction, right? In terms of the rhetoric of the images, and then very often in the title, there will be something that signifies extreme precision, and setting that up as a dichotomy is something that I play with a lot. Making a statement, running away from it, making a statement, running away from it, which to me has to do with just the nature of images, as I understand them anyway. I mean, I think about images as being really bizarre things that appear to mean things. But when you try to articulate what they mean, they start running away from you really quickly. So, I guess for me, trying to hold on to that tension, or have that tension form part of what the work is...

JC: Just a question tagged on to that one. The question of how do you think about abstraction in the concrete? And is it related to how you think about the question of presence and disappearance, or presence in the ephemeral? Are those connected in the choice of topics? And again, the screens in addition to the flowers in the gallery?

TP: Yeah, I think that's an interesting way of putting it. I hadn't thought about it that way when I was building the system for remote viewing and seeing through the cameras and things like that. I was just thinking about being on Zoom calls, honestly. I was just thinking about, I guess Zoom calls and geography. I was thinking about architecture and about what is the kind of space of Covid, it's actually really domestic, right? It is very domestic, but we're looking through these little portals to other places in the world. What would an exhibition be like that assumed that, right? That that is the understanding of space that the exhibition is premised on, not an understanding of space that your body is going to go to this thing, to the gallery and move around it. So, I guess that's a way that I was thinking about it. But I know, Julia, this is something that you've been thinking about as well. You have an exhibition that you curated that is dealing with this geography of Covid as well, right?

JBW: Oh, well, yeah, I co-curated a show that was meant to be at the São Paolo Museum of Art called (opens in a new window) Histories of Dance that was canceled because precisely the idea of massing bodies together in space was too threatening. And it's ironic because the show was precisely about the politics of bodies in space. That is how we were defining dance, so it had a lot of unusual work in it, but yeah, the show, sadly, will never exist. As I say, all of the work and none of the glory, because I worked on it for two years. But I think that what you've done here, Trevor, with Octopus is such an interesting continuation of a lot of your questions that you had already been thinking about vis-a-vis surveillance and marked bodies in space, but making that even more integrated into the art context. So, I'm curious to hear if this is something that you feel like you're going to replicate in future shows, or is it just about the Covid moment, or is this actually an apparatus that you're interested in refining almost as a new form?

TP: That's a really good question, and I don't know the answer to it. I think it brings us back to what you were talking about before, about trying to describe falling while you're falling, you know? And you don't know what that's going to feel like next week, or what this can feel like in a few months from now. Therefore, my relationship to space is changing week by week, and I don't know where this goes.

AH: That's a really good segue to sum up great questions that came up in the chat. We have one question, I think, for all the panelists. “Do you think it's possible to talk about technology and its implication on our time without using technology as the medium or lens to create the work, i.e. without using A.I. or computers?” Interesting.

JBW: That's a great question for Jimena.

JC: Well, thank you. No, I don't think that we cannot use technology. We're always using technology, and I wouldn’t even know what it would mean to make art without technology. But I think what resonated with me is that it seems that writing the history of technology in particular, and if we think of technology, not just the big machines and these big evident things, but you know, a pencil, a pen, a button, you always have to write the history while falling because there's something about the development of science and technology that is just subliminal, and it passes. It's like a child that, five years from now, you look at the photograph and you're like, “Oh my God, how has it changed?” But on an everyday basis, we don't have the ability to see these great transformations that are happening right under our eyes.

AH: Another great question. This one's for Trevor, “Between creation, hypostatization and finality of presentation, ritual and conceptual in any work, either scientific or artistic, there are several processes, procedures and choices. Apart from anyone else's criticisms, do you feel that one, as an artist, you are freer in these choices than what a scientist is in their own choices? And two, do you feel that your work veers moral political responsibility more than scientific research innovation does? Is moral informing of audiences part of your intentionality in making art?”

TP: Well, those are some big, big questions and there's I guess these personal answers to it, as well as deeply philosophical answers that one could bring to it, which what much of Jimena’s work is certainly about. I probably would not be able to answer that at that level of abstraction, in the sense that for me, every project's different in making art. What that process is, is really different even from one artwork to the next, let alone the different body of work. I don’t know that I’m articulating it... And just talking about science is a little bit too broad, I think it would have to be pared down a little bit more to answer that, in terms of answering that question. But in terms of this question of ethics, I think this a huge topic right now, especially in A.I. and machine learning. I think precisely because it's been ignored in a lot of those fields and that technology, very often within kind of engineering framework, has not been thought of as practices of congealing social relations. It's just been thought of as a kind of a variation on mathematics, as something that's disembodied and has nothing to do with history, culture or society. And that is very obviously wrong. I think that there's a kind of reckoning that the field is trying to sort out at the same time, but it's very difficult for the field to sort out precisely because they don't have the background in thinking about it in many cases. Then on the other hand, there's massive financial interests at stake, very often in engineering and technology that are different than, in comparative literature, for example.

AH: Right, thank you. I think we're just about out of time, but I want to pose this question that also came up from one of my colleagues, actually, that I think is really interesting for everyone to weigh in on. He asks, “What meaning making inspires you at the moment, as the right flirts with fascism and subverts the known, for example, The Proud Boys’ adoption of Fred Perry sportswear as a symbol for fascist solidarity. Beyond correcting or addressing the platforms for address, are there spaces for new meanings currently that suggest alternate meanings and liberation from overt control?” I think that probably comes up in all of your research, and especially with this question of the symbolic and how images and information are influencing everything right now. Maybe Trevor, you can start, and we could move around?

TP: Well, I was going to pass that over to Julia.

JBW: I mean, that's a really tough question, but I'll just word the phrase. The Proud Boys has made me think of a lot of really irreverent, and to me, inspiring queer activism and reclamation. I mean, there was the intervention into The Proud Boys, where suddenly it was like all these queer bears taking over The Proud Boys side. It does put me back exactly in this face of HIV/AIDS and thinking about all of the fierce and intense activism that emerged from the governmental negligence around that pandemic and how much AIDS activists fought to insist that this was not about individual practices, but about a lack of education and awareness and the need for better testing. There are some resonances that I find deeply inspiring, and I guess I do turn to history in this moment. That's one way I look to make meaning of how we're falling.

AH: Jimena?

JC: No, sorry I don't have anything to... I mean, just going back to the topic of ethics, and one thing that I've been thinking about is that, trying to think of the ethics of science and technology before we are engaged in already using, before use, or even creation. I've been trying to think about the imagination in science and technology as actually a better place to start thinking about ethics, because once the stuff is out there, the boat has sailed and the gun is loaded. So, that's another opportunity, I think, for constructive dialogue between artists, scientists and engineers. What can we imagine as a better future, as a place to start the discussion? Because with A.I. and so many things, it's too late in my estimation.

AH: Trevor, you want to wrap this up? I think this is our closing statement. We’re just about time.

TP: I'm just really, really honored to be in conversation with you, Jimena, and with you, Julia, and just thank you. Thank you very much for the many, many years of inspiration and conversation and sharing of ideas. Thank you, guys.

JC: Thank you, Trevor. Thank you Pace for including us.

AH: We're so happy that you could join us.

JC: Thank you, participants.

JBW: Thank you everyone.

AH: Anyone who's interested, you can log on to Trevor's Octopus. It's a platform where you utilize your webcam and you can enter the exhibition in London, and your own image will be projected on a series of screens. But you'll be able to see the exhibition from a number of different camera points inside the show, so it's a really unique way to have a kind of Zoom-like experience with an exhibition, so you'll have a greater sense of the exhibition we're talking about today. Thank you, Julia, Jimena, Trevor. Please be well. Be safe and join us soon for our next conversation on Pace Zoom's webinar.

JBW: Thank you. Thank you all. Thank you, especially to Trevor.

  • Pace Live — AI and Allegory in the COVID Era, Nov 6, 2020