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  • Trevor Paglen: Turbocharged AI, computer vision and the truth about UFOS


Trevor Paglen: Turbocharged AI, computer vision and the truth about UFOS

Ahead of his new exhibition 'Hide the Real, Show the False' at n.b.k, Trevor Paglen talks surveillance technology in art.

Portrait of Trevor Paglen. Photo: Axel Dupeux

Trevor Paglen has a chilling new show, ‘Hide the Real, Show the False’, at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.) this summer. We talk to the US artist about PSYOPs and the dangers of AI.

What can people expect at your new show?

The show looks at PSYOPs, psychological and deception operations. I’ve been focusing on surveillance and the role that technology plays in our lives, looking at AI and computer vision and thinking about how machines have been trained to see and how that’s different to the way humans see.

The problem is that people are quite easy to manipulate.

I believe that we’re moving away from surveillance capitalism and into PSYOP capitalism, where the media we consume will be increasingly not only targeted at us, but generated for us by AI systems. And being done in a way that’s intended to manipulate us.

You find that frightening?

I think it’s terrifying! Based on an individual’s metadata history and all the information that’s been collected about them, turbocharged generative AI systems will generate media exclusively for them. The problem is that people are quite easy to manipulate, and there’s quite well-developed literature about how to do that. I grew up surfing, so Instagram has my number. When I look at the screen and I see this surf video I’m like, “Oh, wow!”, and suddenly I’ve spent 10 minutes looking at this junk. I think we’re at the very beginning of how powerful that actually can be.

View of Trevor Paglen’s “You’ve Just Been Fucked by PSYOPS” at Pace Gallery, New York 2023. Image courtesy of Pace Gallery.

How is the exhibition using PSYOPs?

The mechanics of those operations are quite complicated. The main video installation, Dody, is about a counterintelligence officer who worked at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. He would say that UFOs are totally real and speaks about these crashed spaceships, but it’s a complete mindfuck.

Because this guy is telling you he’s lying, tells you what he’s doing and what he’s done in the past, then tells you he’s going to tell you some crazy stuff. And then a lot of the stuff he says is actually true. So you’re like, ‘Wait, what?’ But then he also explains that that’s part of the craft. So, to me, this felt like the perfect allegory for Instagram or ChatGPT.

Trevor Paglen, UNKNOWN #83975 (Unclassified object near The Scutum Supershell), 2023. Silver gelatin LE print, 80×54 inches. © Trevor Paglen. Image courtesy of Pace Gallery, New York.

From your standpoint, is there still time for regulation of AI? 

I think a lot of people don’t really understand what’s going on in the technology fields, let alone think through the implications of it. And that’s something I spend a lot of time doing. Part of the problem with technology is that it changes so quickly, so you really have to be a specialist to keep up. You’ve probably tried ChatGPT and that’s just a single application on a single website. What they’re doing now is attaching those kinds of technologies to far more powerful applications.

You now live in New York City, but before you lived in Berlin for five years and still have a studio here. What keeps you returning?

I still spend one week a month in Berlin and I’ll probably be here for the summer. Berlin reminds me a lot of where I grew up in San Francisco, the place you went to if you were really talented and you weren’t solely concerned with money.

And then Berlin suddenly became that place, and weirdly, like 80% of my friends from the Bay Area now live here. My Berlin studio is manned by these incredibly talented people that could be making a lot more money doing something else. And you certainly can’t afford to do that in New York.

  • ‘Hide the Real, Show the False’,Jun 10 through Aug 6. at n.b.k. (Chausseestr. 128-129, Mitte), details.