Under the Shadow of the Drone

October 11, 2012

I drew another drone, this one in Istanbul. More pictures: Drone Shadow 002, at Flickr.

In February, Einar Sneve Martinussen and I were talking about drones. Einar is one of the team from AHO and Voy in Norway behind such wonders as Immaterials: Wifi Light Painting, and Ugle; both, in their way, visualisations of the invisible, instantiations of technological processes and communications.

I’ll go into more detail in a moment about why drones, but the thing that bothered us the most then, staring at the little pieces, the models of drones which we had to hand, was trying to get a feel for what it would be like to stand next to one. To stand before, or under, it. I envisioned drones in tanks, a la Hirst, the ability to touch the cold metal of it, to measure oneself against it. Despite occasional appearances in the day-to-day world (air shows, for example, or museums), most people have never seen one IRL; in operation, their very point is invisibility.

So we drew one.

In the car park of the studio in London, we measured out the proportions of an MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) with chalk and string, and we sketched its shadow on the ground: a 1:1 representation.

In Gaza, which is under daily surveillance and attack by Israeli drones, the Palestinians call the aircraft ‘Zenana’, meaning, roughly, “buzz”, although it’s also a slang term for a relentlessly nagging wife. I am reminded of the Nazi “doodlebugs” or “buzz bombs” of the Second World War, which fell on London and elsewhere, and which were condemned as “terror weapons” (although the term terrorangriffe was coined by Goebbels to describe the Allies area bombing of German cities). The modern UAV is more akin to the V2 in its ability to operate unseen, and to strike without warning.

General Atomics’ Predator drone, the most widely used combat drone currently in operation, cruises at around 30,000 feet. You won’t see its shadow, but it casts one nevertheless.

Last month, I was invited to participate in Adhocracy, one of two exhibitions of the inaugural Istanbul Design Biennale, which opens today. The exhibition is being held in the former Galata Greek Primary School on Kemeraltı Caddesi, a busy road and tramway which arcs around the southern, Asia-facing coastline of Beyoğlu, funnelling traffic across the Galata Bridge to the old city. The six-storey building overlooks the road and the forecourt of a Greek Orthodox church: it is there I drew another drone.

Turkey has its own drone issues. After specifically asking the US to base Predator drones on its own soil, it has used the information they gather—from flights operated by US servicemen—to strike at PKK forces in Turkey and Northern Iraq, part of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s re-escalation of that conflict. The same accusations of civilian casualties have dogged these actions as elsewhere. Turkey has repeatedly requested to purchase Predator UAVs for its own use, while also developing its own systems. The Predator-like TAI ANKA UAV, named for a mythological half-human bird known as “absorber” or “exterminator”, is expected to enter service in 2012 or 2013 (recent accidents notwithstanding).

There is much excitement in many quarters about the possibilities of civilian, journalist, and DIY drones, but for the moment they remain primarily a military and law-enforcement tool. (My ongoing work with balloons is in part an explicit attempt to counter the potential use of police drones against peaceful protest, providing both independent aerial imagery, and a barrage.) As a military tool, the UAV allows its operator to act with complete impunity, which in turn leads directly to the moral vacuum of kill lists and double-tap strikes. UAVs are the key infrastructure of the 21st Century shadow war: unaccountable, borderless and merciless conflicts.

The drone also, for me, stands in part for the network itself: an invisible, inherently connected technology allowing sight and action at a distance. Us and the digital, acting together, a medium and an exchange. But the non-human components of the network are not moral actors, and the same technology that permits civilian technological wonder, the wide-eyed futurism of the New Aesthetic and the unevenly-distributed joy of living now, also produces obscurantist “security” culture, ubiquitous surveillance, and robotic killing machines.

This is a result of the network’s inherent illegibility, its tendency towards seamlessness and invisibility, from code to “the cloud”. Those who cannot perceive the network cannot act effectively within it, and are powerless. The job, then, is to make such things visible.

We all live under the shadow of the drone, although most of us are lucky enough not to live under its direct fire. But the attitude they represent—of technology used for obscuration and violence; of the obfuscation of morality and culpability; of the illusion of omniscience and omnipotence; of the lesser value of other peoples lives; of, frankly, endless war—should concern us all.

With huge thanks to Joseph Grima, Elian Stefa, Elif Akcay, the men of Ömür Trafik İşaretleri, and a great number of other people who made this possible. The Adhocracy exhibition is full of fascinating and fantastic things, if you have a chance to visit: do. More pictures of the Istanbul drone are available at Flickr.

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