Drone Shadows and Dispositions

May 16, 2013

A Drone for Brighton, a work and a talk, and other dispositions.

brighton-drone

As part of the 2013 Brighton Festival, I was invited by Lighthouse to create another Drone Shadow, a 1:1 outline of a military drone aircraft. This time, we drew an MQ-9 Reaper, the Predator’s larger, more heavily armed successor, currently in service with the RAF and the USAF.

It’s on the seafront for a month. This time it’s green, and Brighton’s local politics (the only Green party MP in the country) made it necessary to articulate this choice – partly forced by local planning laws – although regular readers will recall my feelings about the colour. This green is the colour of the future; chromakey green; greenscreen; the colour onto which we project our hopes and fantasies. It is the colour of technologically-augmented vision; the bright green of digital cameras and machine vision; of laser targetting systems; of late evolution. This green is the least “natural” of colours; or rather, it is the colour of another nature, verdant and elusive, that we live within and alongside, but have barely begun to notice.

On the day we painted the drone on the seafront, May Day, we received the news that the RAF had made its first drone strike since relocating its cadre of remote pilots to RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire from the USAF base at Creech in Nevada. A landmark, of a kind: the first (known) robotic attack in another country, directed from inside the UK.

There is, to put it bluntly and inelegantly, an explosion of drone art around at the moment, in exhibitions, festivals, symposia and discussions. The fever dreams are appearing ever more frequently. It’s thus more important than ever to be clear about what we are talking about when we talk about drones.

As I’ve written before, my interest in drones attempts to go beyond the fetishisation of the objects themselves to understand them as avatars and prostheses of the network itself, embodiments of technology and reifications of the same desires.

In the case of the Canon Drone, the most widely-distributed popular image of a drone in circulation, which I dug out as an entirely constructed, photoshop rendering with a little help from the internet, we see how loose and clouded our own understandings of the drone are, how little we know about it and its operations, and perhaps how little we want to know, like contemporary luddites, ever more despairing at the technology around us, even as we become more dependant upon it. (The same attitudes were revealed in the widespread media reaction to Dronestagram, which revealed a near-total lack of understanding of social media and software systems; with such technophobic spokespeople, it’s little wonder we are so consistently underinformed.)

As part of the festival, I gave a talk at Lighthouse last week on drones and my drone work, which you can watch on YouTube, or below:

Another recent articulation of this slippage or transformation between dimensions which drones permit and facilitate is A Quiet Disposition, exhibited as part of “Coded Conduct” at Pilar Corrias gallery in London, which attempts to replicate and thus expose the unknowable and unquestionable technologies and processes behind the drone programme. The theme of the exhibition was ‘performance’, and here’s the text I contributed to go alongside the work:

“The Disposition Matrix” is the term used by the US Government for its intelligence-gathering and targetting processes. Overseen by the National Counterterrorism Center and in development for some time, the Matrix is usually described as a database for generating capture and “kill lists”, but the criteria for both adding to and acting on the information in the database is not public. One of the outcomes of the process is the ongoing, undeclared CIA drone war in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. These attacks have killed an estimated 3105 people in Pakistan alone since June 2004, including 535 known civilians and 175 children. (Sources: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, New America Foundation.)

The architectural theorist Keller Easterling uses the term “disposition” in other contexts, to refer to the propensity or temperament of forms which produce actions. Disposition is found not in activity itself, but in the relationships or relative positions of the objects that produce action. Consider a motorway: you can describe the movement of the cars, but the active form is immanent in the concrete itself; the motorway has a disposition. If such forms can be said to have a disposition, to what extent can they be said to possess agency?

For Easterling, architectures and infrastructures perform aspects of their being: not merely spatial objects, they shape the world around them on many levels: legal, political, technological. The sociologist Erving Goffman in turn uses the term “disposition” to describe the entire performance, including – in human terms – gesture, posture, expression and intent. These subtexts are capable of overwhelming what is being merely said: the distinction between the aesthetics of what is being depicted, and what is actually being done.

Drones – the armed, unmanned planes in action around the world – are dispositional. Their significance is not wholly in their appearance, but in how they transform the space around them; both physical space (the privileged view of the weaponised surveillance camera at 50,000 feet) and legal, national and diplomatic spaces that as a result permit new kinds of warfare and assassination. And the Disposition Matrix is an organising principle: not a thing, not a technology, not an object, but an active form, a reorientation of intent into another dimension or mode of expression. In another sense, the Disposition Matrix is the network itself, the internet and us, an abstract machine, intangible but effective. Finally, the Disposition Matrix is an attitude and a performance.

“A Quiet Disposition” is an intelligence-gathering system turned back on its namesake. A weak artificial intelligence or naive neural network, the system exists on the network, constantly searching the internet for news articles and other sources of information about drones, and drone-related technologies, including the Disposition Matrix itself. When it finds relevant texts, it analyses them, cataloguing names, objects, terminologies, and the relationships between them. From these relationships it draws its own conclusions, connecting pairs of names linked through the information it has gathered.

For “Coded Conduct”, Bridle presents a set of ten “Disposition Matrix” books, each containing a snapshot of 250 such pairings identified by the database, dated to their production, together with the linking terms and texts generated automatically by the system in an attempt to make sense of them. Alongside the books, a visualisation of the decision engine in process runs constantly, querying the database and producing new pairings based on the connections it is constantly identifying. The books are an archive of the state of the database as it attempts to understand; the visualisation a reminder that this process is ongoing and indefinite.

A Quiet Disposition, like the dark mirror to A Ship Adrift, is still churning away, somewhere, online, like a starship with half its engines trenched in hyperspace, gathering information. Alongside a number of other drone works, it will be shown at a solo exhibition at the Corcoran in Washington DC in June.

quiet-disposition

Drones are prostheses of the network. They perform the same affect as the network itself, granting the ability to communicate, to see and take action at great distances. But while the civilian network is tuned to openness, the drones use exactly the same technologies to obscure and divide.

Though I’ve long been a vocal advocate for the new, I also believe that technology actually engenders very few truly novel behaviours; rather it enables or permits latent ones, and thus reveals them to our new, technologically augmented view – if we truly understand them.

Obscurity is a classic tool of power, but it’s now married to another one: ignorance. Actions carried out in plain sight are hidden not from sight, but from understanding, cloaked in the the aura of technology.

Here’s the thing: it’s not about drones at all, it’s about technology, like the render ghosts, like the data centers. The drones stand for all our invisible, intangible, noumenal technologies, but in their jet trails, in the video feeds of distant lands and the craters in those landscapes, we see much older enactments of power and political violence performed in legal, diplomatic and social dimensions, as well as in the physical.

The true state of the world is revealed in the intersections of technology and culture as they emerge into the world, as visual imagery, but also as the more complex psychological responses and mental models that underpin them. This world is formed as much by our understanding of technology as by the technology itself. We live in a world that is almost entirely interleaved with technological, networked processes, where there’s no longer any meaningful distinction between online and off; natural and digital; but we lack much of the vocabulary and metaphor needed to describe this adequately. We need a new language and framework for understanding the world as it actually is, rather than a world underserved by old metaphors, or confused by notions of remote, cartoonish capital-F “Futures”.

But there is hope in the drone work too. In attempting to obscure, the drones, like the network, actually reveal. Power and privilege’s implementation in technology also means it has to be written down, rendering it legible, if we can only learn the techniques to read it. The reification of power in code and infrastructure makes it’s operation more and not less visible, and therefore subject to disruption and critique.

Top image of the Brighton drone by Roberta Mataityte, courtesy of Lighthouse. Drone installation film by Brian McClave. Artist Talk film courtesy of Lighthouse.

1 Comment

  1. [...] By James Bridle [...]

    Pingback by Drone Shadows and Dispositions | Design Interaction — May 16, 2013 @ 4:50 pm

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