Irma watched over by machines

2019 – ongoing

Live footage as Hurricane Irma destroys Maho Beach Cam in St Maarten 9-6-2017, Images copyright © 2017 PTZtv LLC from All rights reserved. Used with permission.

What will be the first sights of the conscious machine?
How will it apprehend the world around us?
What will it see?

All over the world, there are now well over 250 millions cameras, webcams and surveillance cameras, recording our reality 24/7. The sheer quantity of data made available from hundreds of millions of locations can only be processed by machines, and possibly one day integrated in the super vision of an AI super-consciousness: a hyper being with 250 million eyes. The gaze of these cameras has become the prism by which we are able to theorise and disengage from events that otherwise would harm us. Unharmed, unaffected und undisturbed the camera keeps recording.

In collaboration with specialist paint labs that research the transferal from the virtual and light based to the physical and pigment-based colour space, an acrylic paint palette of 16 gradual colours of red, green and blues (48 colours in total) was created. A Hi-fi paint version of the camera’s colour palette.

Woolsey watched over by machines, Installation view ‘ In a forest of red, green and blue’, Max Goelitz, 2023, Photo: Dirk Tacke

Installation view, ‘To see a world through a grain of salt’, OMR, 2021, Photo: Jacob Flood

Installation view, ‘To see a world through a grain of salt’, OMR, 2021, Photo: Jacob Flood

Irma Watched Over by Machines. The series depicts images collected from publicly accessible web cams transferred onto canvas, of palm trees thrashing in hurricane gales. But what we see does not look like our home planet. A toxic greenish colour dominates the paintings, maybe because the original footage was recorded at night, or possibly because the hurricane had blocked out all sunlight? Troika explain that they have applied the Bayer filter, which breaks down light recorded by photosensors into a mosaic of colours but privileges the colour green in accordance with the sensitivity of human eyes. (The same filter is used in the machine vision scene in ‘Terminal Beach’).

The closer you are to the paintings, the more their composition falls apart into grids of colour fields, equivalent to digital pixels, each square a hue of either red, green, or blue. Much less precise than the digital cameras of our age, Troika have reduced the shades of paint to sixteen grades per colour (in contrast to the two hundred and fifty- six shades of computer vision). In what must have been a painstaking, repetitive, robotic, or very Zen process – painting by numbers, or by milligrams of pigments – the Irma paintings slowly came into being. They illustrate both the composed reality of digital images and the melding qualities of our own perception, representing, in the eye of the storm, what an all-seeing electronic eye might recognise as the epitome of a planet in self-destruct mode. Depending on one’s position in front of the paintings, the colour fields on the canvases — its pixels — continuously shift between synthesis and dissolution, analysis and resolution. But importantly, human viewers and computers seem to come at this spectrum from opposite directions.

The series’ title is a combined reference to the hurricane that wreaked havoc in the Caribbean in 2017, and the 1967 techno-utopian poem by Richard Brautigan, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Brautigan invokes an imminent era of blissful co-habitation on planet earth by humans and computers or AI: ‘I like to think (and / the sooner the better!) / of a cybernetic meadow / where mammals and computers / live together in mutually / programming harmony / like pure water / touching clear sky. […]’ From today’s perspective, it is quite hard to read the poem without irony or cynicism. And Troika’s appropriation, too, tends towards a darker reading: how better to intone a sardonic swan song to humanity’s sad vanities than in the form of a series of paintings, helplessly clinging on to mankind’s fondness for pictorial composition, for mobility on the secondary market, or even walls, for goodness’ sake.

The paintings of Irma are not only images in space but also in time, demonstrating their own virtuality as a continuous transformation or becoming. Each grid contains the potential to accumulate, to crystallise (in all senses of the word) into a picture. Each colour field acts on a multiplicity of dimensions. The series is neither made entirely for human eyes nor for those of machines of loving grace, brought to life as it were by the agency of salt. The exhibition assumes different meanings according to your point of view.

Eva Wilson

Eva Wilson, ‘Salting the Earth’