(USA/Australia, 98 min.)
Dir. Yaara Bou Melhem
“What does it mean to be looking at the sky in the 21st century?” asks Trevor Paglen in Unseen Skies. The artist and geographer endeavours to complete a decades-in-the-making project of putting art into space. It’s an ambitious and controversial installation. He aims to launch a satellite that then inflates as a giant balloon in orbit, visible to Earthly beings.
However, as Australian director Yaara Bou Melhem follows the American artist in his bid to put the first non-militarised satellite into space, Paglen’s project becomes increasingly significant. Paglen’s work chronicles the act of looking. Over the years, he sees how the observer becomes the observed. Unseen Skies finds in this ambitious project a study of global concern. The cameras that fuel artists like Paglen now wield more power than the people behind the lens do.
Unseen Skies admittedly starts shakily as it begins with a montage that bridges JFK’s iconic “to the moon” speech with Bush Jr.’s notorious declaration of war. These snippets lay out film’s thesis and are important to catch. Otherwise, one might worry that Unseen Skies flies in all directions. Essentially, the film observes how the space race presented options for war or peace. Paglen’s project considers how technology’s place in space is historically one of might and money. He notes how satellites serve only military or commercial interests despite having few clear returns on investment beyond status. Moreover, his project tackles the relationship between cameras and the space race on a journey from exploring the unknowing to exploiting people unknowingly.
With the turning point of 9/11, moreover, Paglen finds artificial intelligence (A.I.) an increasingly pervasive force. His work therefore tackles technological developments in the ground as well as in the skies above. The implications are far-reaching as he invites onlookers to consider all they cannot see.
It does at times seem as if Bou Melhem has two documentaries on the go as Unseen Skies cuts between projects. On the satellite side, the film observes as Paglen and his team deal with the hurdles of putting a million-dollar installation in orbit. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), for example, continually intrudes on the endeavour. The team grumbles about how Elon Musk can launch Teslas into space or how wealthy people can memorialize loved ones by flinging their ashes into orbit. But launch something that seeks to draw attention to the unseen junk in the air, and the FCC has questions. The project is pretty novel, especially for stargazers who frequently look at the night sky and confuse stars with satellites.
A.I.: Absurdly Inaccurate
The A.I. portion of Unseen Skies, however, is the better film. The documentary unpacks this algorithmic act of looking using novel tech and graphics. Paglen sits before the camera and explains the process of cataloguing and data-sorting that informs A.I. Give a computer 1000 pictures tagged as apples, and it can identify an apple with a degree of certainty. However, the onscreen graphic illustrates the fallibility of A.I. In a single conversation, the algorithm misgenders Paglen and places his age across four decades. His male colleague, meanwhile, might be identified as a weary widow, an abbess, or a beatnik depending on whether he wears his glasses or ties his hair back.
Another sequence similarly riffs on the absurd unreliability of A.I. Paglen joins forces with the Kronos Quartet and uses his technology on them during a live performance. The rapid-fire squiggly lines and algorithmic processing can’t compute what it sees. Forms, emotions, and character traits are misinterpreted. There’s not a false note to the music, but the computers are way off.
Looking as a Human Act
Unseen Skies tackles AI to remind viewers that looking is an inherently subjective act. Paglen unpacks the problematic dynamics of power and control embedded with A.I logic. In short, the process informs the camera and the computer with the onlooker’s bias. The artist says that a human’s ability to say a piece of fruit is an apple when a computer identifies it as an orange is the same as civil rights protesters using a placard to say “I’m a man” or contemporary non-binary people or transgender people fighting heteronormative boxes. There’s power in the gaze.
The film therefore offers an inquiry that’s sometimes confusing, but consistently provocative. Moreover, as with any doc about a photographer, there’s gorgeous cinematography as Unseen Skies captures Paglen at work. Especially while photographing Glen Canyon in Arizona or shooting picturesque Nevada, the nature landscape looks like an oasis from the digital world. Some shots are so beautiful you’ll wonder if they’re real or captured with a green screen.