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May 01, 2017

The Unsettling Performance That Showed the World Through AI’s Eyes

“The world is not as it seems. More and more parts of our everyday life are able to be monitored, are able to be transformed into metadata. This has potentially very profound consequences for the structure of our everyday lives, and the structure of our societies at large.” – Trevor Paglen

In January, Kronos took centerstage in “Sight Machine,” a large-scale multimedia performance piece that explored the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI) technology and visual experience. WIRED magazine has just released a documentary short about this collaboration between artist Trevor Paglen, Kronos, and Obscura Digital that took place at the Orton Development construction site on Historic Pier 70 in San Francisco. This special event was presented by Stanford University’s Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts in tandem with the annual FOG Design+Art Fair.

“Inside an abandoned warehouse on the San Francisco docks, as the damp air floods through the holes in its rusted tin roof, Sunny Yang is playing her cello while recovering from the flu. She is 45 percent sad and 0.01 percent disgusted.

“That, at least, is the read from the AI that’s tracking her expressions, gestures, and body language from the other side of the warehouse, flashing these stats on the movie screen behind her. The audience—several hundred people huddled between her and the AI, dressed in scarfs, hats, and overcoats—lets out a collective laugh.

“Yang is playing alongside the rest of the Kronos Quartet, the iconic San Francisco string ensemble known for its unorthodox experimentation, and the AI is obeying orders from Trevor Paglen, the American artist who poses big questions about technology and surveillance through nearly any medium he can get his hands on. It’s all part of Sight Machine, a Paglen-orchestrated performance that explores the rise of computer vision.

“Minutes later, as the quartet begins another piece, new images appear on the screen. At first, they show the Earth through the eyes of a satellite circling above. Then they zoom in on the ground below, an AI locks in on homes, cars, and individuals, tracking their movements from the heavens much as Paglen’s hardware and software tracked Yang’s movements inside the warehouse. “One Earth, one people,” says a disembodied voice, the words bouncing through the cold of the warehouse. This time, no one laughs. What was amusing just minutes earlier is now so unsettling.” Continue reading >


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