(Intercepted May 27, 2009), 2016. Pigmented inkjet print mounted on aluminum, 45 x
64 3/4 in. (114.3 x 164.5 cm). Courtesy the artist.
The first works in Astro Noise, Laura Poitras’s spring 2016 exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York, were made not by the artist, but by a drone. The bright, rectangular images are dense with uneven bands of color, framed by long, scrolling strings of numbers and myriad blips and gradients. Whatever order their grids and lines imply is interrupted by jagged bursts of violet and indigo. Some of them might faintly evoke Gerhard Richter’s polychrome digital streaks or Nam June Paik’s frenetic video collages, but no human created or even planned their content; the images are feeds of encrypted data, collected by an Israeli drone, intercepted by British surveillance, and released by Snowden. These accidental artworks, never meant to be seen, much less displayed, connote an omniscient stream of information, yet depict nothing we can recognize.
Poitras is best known as the documentary filmmaker who, with reporter Glenn Greenwald, broke Edward Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance. Her films so far form a catalogue of recent wounds on the American conscience: the occupation of Iraq, the brutalization of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, and most recently Snowden himself. Poitras has been generously and often justly rewarded for her work, accruing grants, prizes, and now a solo show—her first ever—at the premier museum of American art.
Like any contemporary art project worth its wall text, Astro Noise obliquely deconstructs its own materials. The exhibition darts between the hidden and the documented, concealment and exposure. Redacted documents reveal injustices while still blanking out key facts. A grainy, muffled video of U.S. soldiers interrogating Osama bin Laden’s associates in Afghanistan plays on the reverse side of the same screen as Poitras’s sharp, slow-motion footage of 9/11 onlookers. An angled hallway features slit-shaped peepholes, some awkwardly low to the floor, which reveal secret NSA maps and memos. For Poitras, the vexed act of truth-telling always hides the story of an earlier, even messier process of truth-finding. The show’s most lasting legacy may arise less from its political force—a sympathetic visitor leaves feeling alert, but hardly changed—than from its dramatization of the mutating nature of evidence itself.
In the case of drones, that evidence is everywhere and nowhere to be found. The terrifying testimonies of dronestrike survivors, who tell stories of slaughtered family members and incinerated villages, are freely available and amply documented, yet rarely appear in the mainstream media. In early March, U.S. Homeland Security advisor Lisa Monaco promised that the White House would soon release the most thorough, reliable figures yet available on exactly how many people, both combatants and civilians, have been injured or killed by U.S. drone strikes. The numbers, Monaco assured a friendly audience at the Council on Foreign Relations, would henceforth “be provided annually,” and their “transparency” would ensure “the broad support of our allies.” The statement amounted to little more than an announcement of another announcement to come, and the numbers have still yet to be released (as of press time). But that Monaco’s remarks even made headlines—albeit mainly in left outlets—speaks to the degree of simultaneous clarity and opacity, the conflicting stories, numbers, and reports, that cloud discussions of drone warfare.
As Monaco’s confidence in the virtues of transparency shows, to the White House and to the companies that make them, drones are just misunderstood. The devices’ martial image, advocates argue, distracts from their more everyday uses in commerce and recreation. Even when they don’t descend into farcical charges of “drone racism” (as Joanne McNeil and Ingrid Burrington described in Dissent, Spring 2014) such arguments are a little like saying that earlier military hardware is benign because the average American is more likely to find themselves playing with a toy tank than fleeing the crush of real caterpillar tracks. (And recent headlines show that even the miniature flying machines of hobbyists and tinkerers can turn deadly.)
As tools and symbols, drones serve a dual purpose essential to the militarized state: to watch and to destroy. But unlike bombers, tanks, or cannons, drones don’t automatically evoke the machinery of war. They are themselves a medium of visuality—to borrow from John Berger, a “way of seeing.” Drones collect visual signals, detect heat and moisture, and record radiation, space, and sound. Like the roving, collecting “camera eye” of the early twentieth century, the drone eye acts as a visual idiom for its time and place. But even more than the camera eye—whose mimetic precision itself carried a degree of menace—the drone eye’s view is also a threat. Every datum it takes in contributes a tiny piece to a vast project of targeted annihilation. Today, American power sees the world through a beady sensor. And in its robotic way, the drone is a compulsive student of the sensory. Much like contemporary art, with its uncategorizable works that can mingle video, sculpture, and painting, the drone is a multimedia vessel for an unstable variety of purposes and projects.
The threat and intrigue of this idea—that what we made is watching us—gives the work of Trevor Paglen its conceptual and visual drama. Paglen, a forty-two-year-old American photographer with a resume that ranges from semi-professional surfing to PhD work in geography at Berkeley, has made a successful career of the sensation of being watched. His videos and photographs depict instruments of surveillance and secrecy—especially drones. In several images, tiny dark specks float against a blurred twilit sky, or the red haze of a desert sunset. The specks are drones, and the images are often untitled except for the type or model of the device—Artforum featured his “Untitled (Reaper Drone)” on its May 2011 cover. Such images are “useless as evidence,” he told the New Yorker, “but at the same time they’re a way of organizing your attention.”
The drone eye and the way it “organizes our attention” sometimes becomes both Paglen’s medium and his subject, as in Drone Vision, a 2010 montage of video intercepted from a satellite relaying the visual feed from an American drone to its military operator. Banded by the wobbly tracking lines of an old VHS tape, the roughly five-minute, mostly black-and-white film pieces together a nervous narrative: after exiting the smooth belly of an aircraft, we see—the drone sees—drifting cloudbanks, then, further below, blotches of darker and lighter gray that gradually sharpen into the barren ridges and rivulets of a craggy desert. Splicing together fragments that flash from black-and-white to color to negative, the action and sequence of Drone Vision never becomes clear, and several inexplicable shots of a ticking wall clock with a Batman logo seem to parody our instinct for coherent chronology.
All the drone delivers is a few intermittent micro-narratives: at one point, a distant moving blob is abruptly magnified to reveal a lone tractor on a dirt road, and later, at the video’s dramatic height, the drone watches a pack of black figures that look disturbingly like people fleeing—only to cut back to clouds. Throughout, lines of text and data—“AIRCRAFT LOCATION,” “TARGET,” shifting scales of altitude and direction—overlay the images, the only stabilizing force in the video’s visual jumble. But for all its grainy video and hazy pixels, Paglen’s work retains a sense of visual directness. We find ourselves on the side of the drone and its pilot, desperate to understand this torrent of collected images, the better to control and dominate—and, we realize, destroy—what and who lies below. The unmediated flow of visual and spatial data that passes through drone eyes collapses the distance between device and operator, between American air base and Middle Eastern valley, into a single moment of seeing.
By contrast, James Bridle, drone art’s other star practitioner—at least before Poitras’s recent entry on the scene—has made that same distance his theme and muse. Drones, Bridle has said, “allow you to see and act at a distance, while themselves kind of remaining invisible.” Bridle works with the traces of these faraway machines, literally: his biggest projects so far have been sixty-foot outlines of drones, limned in white paint across city squares and sidewalks from London to Istanbul to Washington, D.C. At first sight, whether in person or in an aerial photograph, the shapes, with their vast wingspans, slender bodies, and bulbous heads, evoke an aircraft rapidly bearing down, about to land. Soon, though, as the empty silhouette continues simply to lie inert on the pavement, it feels less like a shadow of something approaching than a ghost of something long gone.
Bridle has found his most visible venue for this play of presence and distance on Instagram. Perhaps second only to Snapchat in the speed and volume with which its billions of pictures are posted, shared, and forgotten, Instagram is a carnival of cheap images, and one that serves more and more as one of our primary modes of shared seeing. It is also, less abstractly, the place where nearly every buzz-seeking contemporary artist posts their work and finds their first audience. Dronestagram, Bridle’s recently retired feed, dramatizes the effects of all these trends: the account is a series of over a hundred aerial shots of scattered buildings, desert roads, and scrubby hills. Each image is the site of an American drone strike, bathed in the gray or sepia tones of an Instagram filter. Their short, hashtagged captions provide only basic facts, sometimes achieving a spare elegance: “October 8, 2014: 2 to 4 killed in a strike on a vehicle near Datta Khel, some time before midnight. #drone #drones #pakistan.”
With close to 20,000 followers and an average of around 200 “likes” per post, Dronestagram still couldn’t match even a minor celebrity’s social media reach. Yet it toys with the limits of its medium in a way that should ensure it a long afterlife. Instagram’s very name denotes the real-time transmission of events as they happen, but nothing is ever happening in Bridle’s images: they document what occurred earlier, elsewhere, far below the satellite through which we see. With Dronestagram, two characteristic impulses of the internet era collide: our nostalgia for the immediate past—cropped and filtered—and our equally potent urge to forget it. If one’s Instagram archives, like the now finished Dronestagram, act as record of what we’ve been and done, they are just as easily unfollowed, deleted, or scrolled past.
Talking about drones this way risks obscuring the real human agents—military personnel, politicians, security advisors—who direct them. The drone, after all, is only a tool, with no will or mission of its own. Yet this alienation of the tools from their masters isn’t a flaw in anti-drone discourse: such abstraction is vital to the unique utility of drones as instruments of war, just as it is to their aesthetic attraction. Drones offer the most compact, iconic representation of the new image of warfare that every American administration wants to project: sanitary, sleek, almost post-human. The official talk around drones, in which U.S. airstrikes are unfailingly “surgical” and “precise,” isn’t just propaganda. War—which is never named as such—is not just the domain of the grunt soldier or even the commanding general. More and more it belongs to the expert advisor and the trained technician controlling small metal devices from thousands of miles away. Drones have a dual being as both moving, sensing agents and inert, controllable devices: perceiving but passive, mobile but mindless. Any art or politics of drones must engage with this radical abstraction of military violence from its perpetrators, even from places and people.
The brutal irony, of course, is that drone warfare, by any moral index, has proven just as sloppy, bloody, and murderous as its terrestrial precursors. The Obama administration’s almost compulsive drone deployment has to date killed over 2,500 people in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, including seven U.S. citizens and a substantial but contested number (at least 400) of innocent civilians. Yet while the scope and intensity of the killings and even the inner workings of their orchestration have long been public knowledge, they have still not prompted sustained mainstream protest or even consistent news coverage. Successful strikes targeting senior Taliban or Islamic State leaders make for sensational headlines, and a flurry of attention and congratulation often follows the death of an Akhtar Muhammad Mansour or Mohammed Emwazi. But the more everyday reality of “typical” drone attacks rarely registers in the media beyond the occasional dutifully uneasy New York Times editorial or Rand Paul’s 2013 tirade on the House floor (and subsequent reversal). At worst, the issue of drones can seem a hobbyhorse of the left and the libertarian right, a discourse of shared outrage that remains safely confined to the political fringes.
While the administration’s use of drones has slowed, it’s hard to prove that journalism, advocacy, or protest had any significant influence on the decline. Neither, for that matter, did contemporary art. Even a sympathetic viewer of Bridle, Poitras, or Paglen, with all their formal and conceptual ingenuity, is ultimately caught in the old dilemma of art’s vexed relation to political change, the still unshakeable anxiety that “the place of art”—however daring, clever, or passionate—remains, as Trotsky wrote, “in the rear of historical advance.”
In January 2015, a hobbyist was interrogated by Secret Service agents in Washington for piloting his pet drone, a two-foot whirligig more like a motorized Frisbee than a deadly weapon, above the White House, where it crash-landed on the South Lawn at around 3 a.m. The story exploded on the internet for a moment, then faded away, but its image endures: a harmless, if reckless, civilian drone descending on the mansion from which President Obama has directed record numbers of strikes on villages and farms across Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan.
But what would have happened if the owner of the drone that dropped on the South Lawn, a low-level national security employee who remains anonymous, had instead been a newly minted MFA, and his “strike” a work of guerilla performance art? His bid for notoriety in a hyperactive art market might well have worked: the artist—if sufficiently articulate, connected, and literate in art theory—could expect a flurry of think-pieces, receptive interviews in art magazines, and before long, a solo show or biennial commission. And all the while, half a world away, the drones would continue to watch and destroy.
Yet the gracefully ironizing detail that might make such a piece worthwhile would lie in the toy drone’s own fate: sputtering and dipping, it drops onto the grass, a frail shell of metal and plastic. The performance announces its own impotence, a little parable of the way that art as protest falls flat—literally. The experiments of Poitras, Paglen, and Bridle stay aloft a little longer, in a more ambiguous zone of the political. Suspicious yet complicit, they appropriate the tools and images of power in order to alienate them. Our modes of seeing and sensing are inevitably altered by these devices—even if we fail to see them at all.
Colin Vanderburg is an assistant editor at Monthly Review.
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