One of the most important reasons to create art is to make known the unknown — to expose the hidden world we either don’t see or simply take for granted. Whether it’s the tragic progression of species extinction or humanity’s undeniable impact on the climate, Obscura uses advanced technology and impactful creative artistry to bring critical information out into the light. And we also love a good challenge.
So when the Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University came to us and proposed a collaboration with artist Trevor Paglen, we jumped at the chance. Paglen works in a variety of mediums to address topics like government secrecy and surveillance, exposing the vast apparatus of machines, systems and algorithms that watch and monitor virtually every aspect of our lives, with or without our consent.
Paglen’s proposed “Sight Machine” project would demonstrate to a live audience how machines “see” the world — in this case, a performance by the renowned Kronos Quartet. Obscura worked with Paglen’s team to develop the computer and video systems to take a live video feed of the string quartet’s performance, run it through actual off-the-shelf artificial intelligence surveillance algorithms (over a dozen of them in total), and project what the AIs see and how they interpret it onto a screen above the musicians.
This effort would prove Arthur C. Clark’s maxim that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, as the casual observer would be surprised to learn just how complex the system was and how incredibly challenging a technical feat this was to accomplish. When asked the level of difficulty on a scale of 1 to 10, Paglen replied “This would be a 25.”
These AIs — whether for facial recognition, object identification or threat detection — are designed to communicate with their machine counterparts, not to provide human-readable output. Making that possible in realtime, with negligible (non-noticeable) latency, would require a Herculean maximization of bandwidth and optimization of code. Obscura Technology Director Cullen Miller mused, “I’m just glad it was a Herculean effort, and not a Sisyphean one. This turned out to be quite the research project.”
Indeed, the hard work paid off, as over 600 attendees thoroughly enjoyed the show, after which the term “mind-blowing” was repeatedly overheard. Obscura helped to produce the event itself, hosting the one-night performance in our soon-to-be new headquarters — still only the patinated steel shell of a warehouse on an active construction site at San Francisco’s historic Pier 70. As building christenings go, this one definitely fell on the industrial high-art side of the spectrum.
As the hour-long performance drew to a close and Kronos took the stage for their encore, Paglen deftly brought his message around full circle, revealing to the audience that, unbeknownst to them, they too were under surveillance. As Kronos played their final movement, Paglen projected on the screen an eerie live feed of an infrared (FLIR) camera which was trained on the audience. Overlaid on their upturned faces was the output of the AIs, which were dutifully churning away at their mindless task, watching and monitoring these nameless people, attempting to interpret who and what they saw — for better or worse and, well, who’s to say?