How do computers look at art?

Sight Machine

Trevor Paglen, Kronos Quartet

You are looking at a performance from our archive

The visual artist Trevor Paglen examines ethical problems related to the latest technology in his work. He created a multimedia concert with the Kronos Quartet which explores the ubiquity of artificial intelligence. While Kronos plays music by Laurie Anderson, Geeshie Wiley, Steve Reich and Terry Riley, among others, Paglen projects a spectacularly designed live video feed of the same concert above the quartet, but as perceived by artificial intelligence. Sight Machine shows evocatively how human creativity and emotional expression are reduced to data and calculations. At times the effect is comical, at other times it is a stark warning.

background information

“I really don’t think art is good at answering questions — it’s much better at posing questions, and even better at simply asking people to open their eyes, which, for me, is kind of the point of art,” the

American artist Trevor Paglen told The New York Times. 

Paglen works across multiple disciplines, and often finds ways to employ them in the same work. One such discipline is investigative journalism, within which he monitors and documents government surveillance activity, in particular the CIA’s infamous practice of “extraordinary rendition”, its extrajudicial programme for abducting and detaining suspected terrorists.

He recently teamed up with the Kronos Quartet, the avant-garde ensemble whose four members are as adventurous as the artist himself, and their collaboration resulted in Sight Machine, a multimedia performance centred around artificial intelligence. As the quartet performs a set of compositions by Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Laurie Anderson, a processed video feed of the musicians is projected onto a screen behind them, allowing the audience to compare what they see to what an algorithm is “seeing”. 

“Because music is so affective and is just as corporeal as it is cerebral, I thought coupling a music performance with machine vision adds up to something that work on an emotional, aesthetic and intellectual level,” says Paglen.

His goal with Sight Machine, however, is to use the visual discrepancy to pose an important question: what are the social, ethical, economic and political consequences of allowing artificial intelligence to look at the world on our behalf? Paglen: “Image-making, along with storytelling and music, is the stuff that culture is made out of. We’re now handing over the ability to tell those stories to artificial intelligence networks and machine-vision systems. My work on machine vision has to do with learning how to ask the right questions about the new relationships between images and power that we see developing throughout society.”

The world is no longer just what we see, observes Paglen, “and the advent of computer vision is changing our relationship to images.” More and more of our daily activity is being monitored, recorded and turned into metadata, and this has far-reaching consequences for us individually and collectively, and for the entire structure of society. May art open our eyes.



Trevor Paglen is an alumnus of the University of California and the Art Institute of Chicago. His work spans image-making, sculpture, investigative journalism, writing, engineering and numerous other 

disciplines. Two of his primary concerns are: learning how to perceive current events, and developing ways to imagine an alternative future. Solo exhibitions of his work have been held at the Vienna Secession, the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven and the Frankfurter Kunstverein, and he has participated in group shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and at Tate Modern. He has launched an artwork into distant orbit around Earth, in collaboration with an art organisation and an academic institution, contributed research and cinematography to the Academy Award-winning film Citizenfour, and created a radioactive public sculpture for the exclusion zone around the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. Paglen has published five books and numerous articles on subjects such as experimental geography, state secrecy, military symbology, and photography, and his work has been profiled in The New York Times, Vice Magazine, the New Yorker and Art Forum. In 2014, he received the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award for his work as a “groundbreaking investigative artist.” 

Since its foundation in 1973, San Francisco's Kronos Quartet has become one of the most celebrated string quartets of our time. Their pioneering reimagining of the string quartet experience, relentless performance schedule and shared disregard for musical borders has earned them a permanent place in the spotlight. The quartet — currently made up of David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola) and Sunny Yang (cello) — has released more than sixty albums, won numerous awards and commissioned more than 900 works for string quartet from some of classical music’s most important composers, including Terry Riley, Missy Mazzoli, Arvo Pärt, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Steve Reich, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Philip Glass. Their collaborative partners and musical selections from the worlds of jazz, pop, rock and other genres have been just as progressive, and include names such as Thelonious Monk, Jimi Hendrix, Björk and Sigur Rós. They have also recorded the soundtracks to several films, among which was Clint Mansell’s score for Requiem for a Dream. The Kronos Quartet are renowned for their interest in and engagement with music of non-Western origin. Many of the composers involved in the quartet’s ambitious education and legacy project, Fifty for the Future, are from a variety of non-Western countries and cultures, and include artists like Wu Man, the Chinese pipa player and Tanya Tagaq, the Inuit throat singer. The quartet are a cherished favourite of visitors to the Holland Festival. They accompanied the Nederlands Dans Theater for a performance at the festival in 2014, and returned two years later to perform at the Holland Festival Proms, during which they played some of the commissioned works for Fifty for the Future.



Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Geeshie Wiley e.a.
Trevor Paglen
technical director
Cullen Miller
music performed by
Kronos Quartet:
David Harrington, viool,
John Sherba, viool
Hank Dutt, altviool
Sunny Yang, cello
with support from
AI Now Institute, Altman Siegel Gallery, Cantor Arts Center, Metro Pictures Gallery and Obscura Digital