Moping Owl: Flowers

I don’t know about you, but I find it’s becoming increasingly hard to keep up in this brave new art world of ours, fly as I might. Perhaps it’s just my

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tired old wings, but I have a horrid feeling it might be rather more than that, even if I do manage to catch up with whatever it is for half a furlong. Taking in air significantly as I heave alongside, yet still peering keenly through the misted specs, it’s ten-to-one on I’ll still make neither head nor tail of what it is I’ve actually caught up with. All that effort spent and innocent curiosity frustrated: it is a shade dispiriting don’t you feel: but anno domini I suppose, as we used to say.

I mean here we all are, doing as we’re told, still masked-up beak and wattle, soaping the talons at every turn and dutifully keeping our distance, stuck in Zoom-space and desperate for release and something to look forward to. So when a note came pinging through the aether from the chap 404 Not Found at the Pace Gallery – you know: tradesman’s entrance at the back of the Academy, up the stairs and off to the right, the old servants’ quarters, chambres de bonnes – announcing its reopening in September with a show entitled Bloom, ahaa, ahaa, I said to myself a couple of times, ahaa ahaa; at last, something to look forward to. I rather like pictures of flowers.

But how soon the heart sinks, and all the farther and heavier when jacked up a bit first. It didn’t take long. Bloom, it transpires, is a show of the work (detail illustrated) of yet another world-famous artist we’ve never heard of called Trevor, Trevor Paglen to be precise, American and in his mid-forties. He is known, we learn, “for investigating the invisible through the visible”, which is a start of sorts, I suppose, for all its rather darkly Pauline cast of mind. Where he actually lines up, though, sounds more like the start of the Grand National than the Derby. A ‘Wide-reaching approach’ is the formula favoured here – not something approaches often are in my admittedly limited experience, except at Cheltenham or Aintree – and his “spans (again an unusual thing for any self-respecting approach to do) image-making, sculpture, (now there’s a surprise) investigative journalism (that’s more like it), writing, engineering, and numerous other disciplines.”

Quite the Renaissance Man. It’s tempting to have a guess at what those others might be – brain surgery? quantum physics? ballet dancing? experimental geography? sudoku? It’s a dangerous game, though, for, who knows, we may be right. But let’s press on. He has written “five books and numerous articles on … experimental geography (there you are: hole in one), state secrecy, military symbology, photography and visuality of all things”. His “investigation into the epistemology of representation can be seen in his Symbology and Code Names series which … explore questions surrounding military culture and language.” Does one ‘explore’ a question? Perhaps. So what has he discovered? What are the answers to these questions? We still long to know. Do tell.

“Among his chief concerns [is] learning how to see the historical moment we live in”. I find waking up in the morning and opening my eyes a not unreasonable start, or approach if you’d rather. He is also keen on “developing the means to imagine alternative futures”, at which point I’d rather leave him to puzzle it out for himself, or dream on – our Trev is a laureate of the Macarthur Genius Prize after all. Just speaking for myself, I’d have thought the usual means by which to imagine is the imagination and, as for the future, can there ever be an alternative? I suspect we’ll be rather stuck with the future we get, when it comes of course, as it does, like it or not, later today if not before: che sera. But who am I to say? These are deep waters, Watson. Moving fingers. Questions, questions: answers on one side of the paper only, and don’t forget to put your examination number in the top right-hand corner.

But to be fair, if I must, the words above are not his, though I’m sure he crossed the eyes and dotted the teas, but those of Mr Pace-Gallery, all taken down in faithful dictation by Jessica, his lovely secretary, or was it Barry. So what has Trev to say for himself? Here goes: pace yourself. “Computer vision and artificial intelligence have become ubiquitous (gosh). The works in this exhibition seek to provide a small glimpse into the workings of platforms that track faces, nature and human behaviour … I am interested in exploring the numerous examples of computer training sets creating AIs that reflect and perpetuate unacknowledged forms of racism, patriarchy and class division that characterise so much of society.” No, nor do I: not a word. Reflected and perpetuated yet unacknowledged? Hmmm. A mystery.

The eponymous Bloom of the exhibition is “a series of large-scale photographs that depict flower formations, flowers, leaves, petals, stalks, that sort of thing, conceptualised by various computer vision algorithms created to analyse the constituent parts of real-life photographs”; at which point I fear I’ve quite lost the thread along with the will to live. What, quite, goes up the universal cry, is a real-life photograph, for goodness sake? And its constituents? – all those algorithms for a scrap of paper and few chemicals exposed to light? That old combination of sledge-hammer and nut springs unbidden to the mind. But wait: there’s more if you can bear it. “The colours and shapes … represent similar areas


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that the AI has detected in learning from other images of flowers. They do not represent real-to-life colours, good heavens no, there’s not much algorithmic fun in that, so much as what the AI thinks the different parts of the images are, if you see what I mean.” I think I’d better go and sit down for a while, if you don’t mind, in the garden, somewhere in the shade, with that jar of snake-oil cream I picked up in Brixton market, to keep off the midges.