Is Trevor Paglen a hyper-suspicious activist exposing the state? Or is he an artist who has found that adopting such a stance helps him reveal things about how we live now? It’s hard to tell. Previously, he has photographed secret military installations in the desert and taken long-exposure pictures of the night sky that at first glance look like astronomy, but in reality record the paths of satellites watching our every move. That was before Covid-19, which seems to have driven Paglen to new depths of paranoid introspection, responding with the blackest of humour in an exhibition that may not even be an exhibition but a lure to catch the unwary in his sinister web.
The white walls and partitions of the gallery are hung with what look like artworks. Big photographs of flowers and woodlands bring the outdoors into this city interior. Paglen appears to have turned to nature for solace during lockdown. Like David Hockney and Nan Goldin, who have produced lockdown images of trees and flowers, he has wandered in pastoral meadows to relieve the stress – or so it seems. Except these meadows are unreal. They were produced using artificial intelligence. The harder you look, the less soothing they are. The colours are hyper-intense yet unseasonal. The leaves and petals are brittle, even plasticky.
This is the most convincing algorithm-composed art I have ever seen. Yet Paglen is not an AI huckster who wants you to believe a machine is a great artist and aims to make a fast buck at Christie’s with technophile blather. On the contrary, these unnatural images of nature are presented to disturb. Paglen’s digital gardens are upsetting in a similar way to his pictures of a night sky, where the wonders of the universe are obscured by surveillance machines.
But he is just showing the truth. And when you look into the dead soulless spaces of his fake nature scenes, the reality is brutal. They reveal the vanishing of nature, but it’s nature as seen through layers of sentimental myth, TV documentaries, or the window of a people carrier racing down a country lane – a faint cliche of the picturesque that’s no more alive than these monstrous AI visions.
This, however, is almost incidental. By the time you’ve started to feel the strangeness of the art on the walls, you are also intensely, awkwardly aware of something else. The gallery is full of surveillance cameras watching your every move. Some are blatantly set up in the midst of the space, others are more discreet, and at least one is hidden inside an artwork. They are not for show. The exhibition is being screened as a live webcast called Octopus. Those cables slung about the space like tentacles are taking images of you directly so people around the world can watch you on the webcast as you look at art.
I felt paralysed and I tried to find a corner where no camera could see me. Then I composed myself and went around posing as an art critic looking at art. But the experience was now anxious, mediated and false. Paglen is not only paranoid, he’s able to create paranoia in others. He has created a layered project in which nothing is what it seems. I genuinely don’t know how seriously to take the art on the walls. For the real “exhibition” appears to be me. Paglen explodes the complacency of contemporary culture with cruel clarity. This is a bonfire of modern illusions.
For one thing, he takes apart the cult of interaction and participation that was so huge in art before the pandemic. Paglen’s show is participatory – but in a cold, voyeuristic way, without the consent of the gallery visitor. Sure, there’s a warning that you will be webcast. But, short of refusing to enter the space, you have nowhere to hide.
Watchers at home, meanwhile, get the ultimate online exhibition. I dashed home and caught an art deal going down, a security guard checking his watch. Here Paglen aims his telescopic sight on lockdown culture. Galleries and museums around the world have been putting on virtual exhibitions and events. This is the reductio ad absurdum of that. As art lovers gaze at synthesised flowers, we are watched on a split-screen webcast. It’s fascinating for the homebound, excruciating for the gallery-goer. This is lockdown culture as a human zoo.
Paglen distrusts everything and everyone. The technological layers of 21st-century life, he suggests, are mind-boggling traps. For you are kidding yourself, hypocritical voyeur, if you think you’re safe as you watch me in the gallery. As we all know, but choose to forget, every move we make online is open to surveillance. Paglen’s live webcast exhibition dramatises and makes visible the hidden watchers everywhere: the cameras we don’t usually notice, the invisible servers that know what you are reading right now, the poison bloom of an infinitely ramifying system of illusion and control.