Trevor Paglen in Unseen Skies. Image courtesy of Illuminate films

A new Trevor Paglen documentary shows how AI gets it wrong

The artist outlines how machine learning just 'doesn't get art' in a new film, Unseen Skies

Trevor Paglen’s father was an Air Force ophthalmologist, and the artist grew up on military bases. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn Paglen has spent much of his career trying to help us visualise the unseen reach of America’s armed forces.

Our book – the first complete monograph published on the artist – details Paglen’s attempts to reveal the unseeable and undocumentable forces that shape contemporary society, from the spy satellites that orbit above us, through to the underwater communication cables that knit our planet together, by way of the many machine-learning initiatives that underpin the armed forces, law enforcement and the wider society. Now, a new documentary on the artist gets behind his own image making, to show the amount of time and effort that goes into his meticulous art.

Entitled Unseen Skies, the doc (which premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival) follows the artist as he attempts to launch his own satellite, tracks the drones taking off and landing at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, and runs his face, and other faces, through facial recognition software. Paglen himself is identified as a 'bad person', revealing that data sets can come with opinions.


A still from Unseen Skies
A still from Unseen Skies


Blending photography, installation, investigative journalism, and science, Paglen explores the clandestine activities of government and intelligence agencies, using high-grade equipment to document their movements and reveal their hidden inner workings.

“Ways of seeing are never neutral, images have always required a human to interpret them,” the artist says in the film. “We all know the René Magritte paintings 'This Is Not a Pipe' or 'This Is Not an Apple'. If you show that to an Artificial Intelligence algorithm, it will say, 'This is an apple’.

“We as humans are continually renegotiating the meanings of the images that we make,” he goes on. “That freedom to say ‘This is not an apple” is similar to the freedom within the Civil Rights movement to say ‘I am a man,’ or ‘I am a woman’, or ‘I am neither a man nor a woman but I’m still a person’.”

These might seem like fine aesthetic and cultural points, but Paglen feels his struggle is much more vital. “I guess when I look at my own life, I’ve just had experiences living with a system that didn’t work for me and made clear to me that there are always winners and losers,” he says in the documentary. “Any kind of power is exerted at the expense of somebody else. I’ve been always suspicious of power, and I’ve always questioned that.”



Trevor Paglen
Trevor Paglen

To find out just how Paglen has questioned those sources of power, order a copy of our book on the artist here. And for more on the new documentary go here.