Statement on the Brisbane Drone Shadow

I was commissioned by the Brisbane Writers Festival 2013 to undertake an installation at the Queensland State Library. Ultimately, it was impossible for me to complete this work, and in the interest of full disclosure and the public record, the following is an account of what has occurred, to the best of my understanding.

I was contacted by Kate Eltham, the Director of the festival, in April 2013, with a request to participate in the festival. I committed to participating in June, and alongside several talks, I was asked to create a Drone Shadow, which would have been the fifth version of this work. The Drone Shadows are 1:1 outlines of military drones, drawn directly onto the ground, which have previously been created in London, Istanbul, Brighton and Washington DC.

For Brisbane, I intended to draw the outline of a Global Hawk, the largest UAV currently operating. (More information about the background to the work, and the local relevance of drone technologies, can be found in this blog post.) The festival had identified a number of possible sites for the work, including the forecourt of the Queensland State Library, the main location for the festival. We proposed a temporary installation, using tape instead of paint to prevent any damage to the site, lasting for one week during the period of the festival.

On the 12th of August, a site visit was held at the library with a representative of Arts Queensland to discuss the work. Arts Queensland is the government body with responsibility for the entire area of Brisbane’s South Bank arts precinct, which includes the Library, the Queensland Museum, the Queensland Art Gallery, and a number of other institutions. The meeting was reportedly positive. However, on the 19th of August an email received from Arts Queensland stated that: “after stakeholder consultation approval for the proposed installation is not granted. I am of course happy to consider an alternative option for BWF if there is time to provide one. I am happy to discuss the decision further but note the decision is considered final.”

Despite repeated enquiries as to any objections by stakeholders, no further information about the reason for this refusal was given. My own emails to Arts Queensland went unanswered. It was my understanding at this point that the objection to the work was primarily to its location, and not to the content of the work, as no specific objection had been raised. I was warned by the festival that it was approaching election time in Australia, and the work might be considered politically sensitive, but believing that this, if true, would be an opportunity for debate, and with the promise of other sites being available, I travelled to Australia from the UK, arriving on the 1st of September, and intending to install the work on the 2nd or 3rd, before the start of the festival. (I will receive an artist’s honorarium for this work, and this was to be paid whether or not the work was installed.)

On the 2nd of September, we scouted a number of locations within the Library, which would not have been subject to approval from Arts Queensland. None of these were suitable, owing to the size of the installation. We settled on one of the external walls of the library, significantly adjusting the work to fit. Believing still that the objection was due to the location and the space it would occupy during a busy time for the precinct, and not to the content, this seemed like a reasonable compromise. We sent the new details to Arts Queensland on the evening of 2nd.

Throughout the day of the 3rd, we received assurances from Arts Queensland that they were working on their response to the proposal. That evening, I received an email from the Executive Director, Arts Corporate, Property & Services, stating that “I am unable to meet this request given the very tight timelines required to implement this new option, coupled with the programming priorities already in place across the Precinct” and “I appreciate your contributions to the Brisbane Writers Festival and hope that you understand the reasoning behind our decision in this instance.”

As we had still received no explanation of the original refusal, nor of the substance of these planning priorities, I did not feel that I did understand this reasoning, and asked to speak with the Executive Director. In a telephone conversation, I was told that the refusal had nothing to do with the content of the work, but was because there was no time for a stakeholder review. When I asked for the specifics of the previous review, in order to understand the nature of the objections, I was told there had not in fact been time for a full stakeholder consultation at any point, and that the festival had been negligent in leaving it so late to ask for an installation at all, a process which usually took three months. This had not previously been communicated to me or the festival, and was in direct contradiction with the email of 12th August, which stated that a complete stakeholder consultation process had occurred in the space of a few days. It was also restated that the content of the work was not at issue: this was merely an organisational problem.

The Drone Shadow is a political work – a work about politics – and in good conscience I could not ignore what appeared to be interference with the work by a government organisation. Due to the inconsistencies in the information I was receiving, I approached the board of the festival, and asked them to investigate. Following enquiries by the festival, it was disclosed late on the evening of the 4th that Arts Queensland was in fact concerned that the work would cause offence to visitors to the nearby Queensland Museum, which was preparing to open an exhibition of “hidden treasures from Afghanistan” that weekend. The touring exhibition consists of objects from between 2200 BC and AD 200. It remains unclear who took the decision that this was a problem for the installation. According to Arts Queensland, the Queensland Museum did not “object”, but there were “concerns”.

I requested a meeting with Arts Queensland, which occurred at their offices on the 5th of August. I regret that no representative from the Festival was available to attend this meeting with me. During this meeting, Arts Queensland flatly denied any inconsistency in their previous accounts. They continued to deny that the objection had anything to do with the content of the work, despite my argument that, if the installation was a picture of a flower, there would be no objection. When asked what the specific objection raised by the consultation process was, they denied there was any objection. I was told that the Afghanistan exhibition was a ticketed event and vital to the revenues of the museum. I was also told that the museum had invited members of the local Afghani community to an event on the Saturday near to the installation site, who might be made uncomfortable by the work. I asked if any members of the Afghani community had been consulted about this decision, and they had not. I asked if I could engage in a discussion with the museum about the installation, and was told it was too late. At one point I asked who at the museum had been consulted, and was told this was not important. When pressed, I was told it was the CEO of the museum. When I asked for that person’s name, they would not tell me. (The CEO of the Queensland Museum is Professor Suzanne Miller, a piece of information freely available on the internet. I have made a number of calls to Professor Miller’s office, but it has not been possible to make contact in the limited time available.) There was also a suggestion that the work be replaced with a projection on the building: as I had already explained to the festival, this meant the work would only be visible at night, when the precinct is deserted, and was not acceptable.

[Update: on Saturday 7 September, I spoke with the Queensland Museum producer responsible for the Saturday event. They informed me that they were consulted several weeks previously, and had no concerns or objections.]

At the end of the meeting, despite all of the previous objections, I was suddenly and unexpectedly informed that the installation might be possible after all, after further consultation. The discussion that followed made it abundantly clear that the Arts Queensland representatives had little sense of what the installation actually involved, or that the plan under review was in fact the original proposal, which had been allegedly rejected after full consultation, not the revised second proposal. Nevertheless, I was told it might be possible, that the Museum would be reconsulted that afternoon – on the exact same question on which they had been consulted two weeks previously, and to which they had not raised an objection – and I would, personally, hear about a new decision by close of business at 5pm. I reiterated my request for an open discussion with the Museum about their concerns, and was told that this was not possible.

A little after 6pm I was informed by the festival that the State Library facilities department had been telephoned, and told the installation could go ahead that evening, Thursday, provided it was removed before the Queensland Museum’s event commenced on Saturday morning. No official notice of this decision was given to me, or to the festival. At this time, despite promises to the contrary, I have received no direct communication from Arts Queensland since our meeting.

Throughout this process, I had clearly stated and maintained that I could not accept any compromise of the work which deliberately aimed to reduce its visibility to the public, because that visibility is the very core and subject of the work. As such, an injunction to create, and then destroy the work at the precise moment its message caused interest, is utterly unacceptable. I am also not prepared to compromise my own integrity by submitting to changes to my work imposed without communication, consultation, or debate.

As a last minute compromise, I proposed that I would be prepared to install the work and remove it after 24 hours, providing it was replaced by a sign stating that it had been removed at the request of Arts Queensland to prevent any offence being caused, and that I disagreed with the removal. This proposal was supported by the State Library – who have supported the work throughout – and by the festival. However, this condition was not acceptable to Arts Queensland, who have final and total say on the matter, and as a result I was forced to withdraw the installation.

Throughout this process, Arts Queensland have acted in bad faith, obfuscated the true nature of their objections, and on occasion lied directly to me about the nature and outcome of their processes and the wider situation. The breakdown in trust which has resulted from these actions, and the refusal to accommodate any debate about it, means it is impossible to proceed with the artwork, but I believe there remain a number of unanswered questions as to the transparency and honesty of the process itself. Foremost amongst these is the substance of the decision to prevent the drone shadow being installed for the duration of the festival, and the nature and locus of the authority that demands it.

What has occurred is not merely a failure of process, but an act of censorship: an attempted silencing of debate around both the issues inherent in the work, and of the act of censorship that effaces it. I appeal to the Brisbane Writers Festival, the Queensland State Library, and the Queensland Museum, to see that this state of affairs is fully and openly investigated.

James Bridle
September 6, 2013

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Read more about the background to this work, and the local implications of drone warfare.

I can be contacted via email, or via the Brisbane Writers Festival.