As the Drone Flies: Compelling Art Inspired by Unmanned Aviation Vehicles

Photo by James Bridle.

Just how history will judge our country’s use of drones in the “War on Terror” is not for me to decide. I’m not going to to wax political or to publicize in which direction my moral compass points.

What I can do is show you how this powerful machine of war is being seen by a handful of artists around the world. Through these representations we find perspective, and with each new perspective we can consider ourselves better informed to then pass what judgment we will. Or in my case, won’t.

James Bridle is a writer, artist and publisher residing in London, UK. Using records of drone strikes drawn from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Bridle has compiled images from Google Maps Satellite on Instagram of strike sites, which include locations in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The collection images — of cities, towns, villages and roads — is Bridle’s attempt to “[Make] these locations just a little bit more visible, a little closer. A little more real.” Bridle calls this collection Dronestagram.

Photo by James Bridle.

Photo by James Bridle.

In another related collection entitled “Under the Shadow of the Drone,” Bridle and friend Einar Sneve Martinussen chalked out 1:1 representations of the MQ-1 Predator drone on the pavement of a parking lot in London.

Photo by James Bridle.

He then did another in Istanbul, in front of a Greek Orthodox Church, whilst in the city as a participant in Adhocracy.

Says Bridle of the drone:

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.

Finally, there is this moving dock-drama by Israeli artist Omer Fast, in which an interview with a drone operator is juxtaposed over a dramatization of the story he tells. No more summarizing from me. Watch. It’s worth the ten minutes out of your day.

5,000 Feet is the Best from Commonwealth Projects on Vimeo.

[Additional reporting provided by Ben Hardy.]

15 Responses to As the Drone Flies: Compelling Art Inspired by Unmanned Aviation Vehicles

  1. January 3, 2013 at 11:00 am #

    We cannot learn from history because we are so busy distorting it to justify our current crimes against humanity. How is it that bombing funerals came to be acceptable? The robots did it?

  2. Will January 3, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

    Had the opportunity to see 5000 Feet is the Best. An amazing film that provokes thought in such a beautiful format.

  3. David January 3, 2013 at 1:52 pm #

    Its rather funny to read the comments on facebook about this … truly, they run the gambit from ‘art’ to frustrations towards CJ himself. My take?
    The old adage;
    ‘art is in the eye of the beholder’
    is accurate here,
    but today we tend to add;
    ‘we really must criticize the placement of the work within the definition of art,
    rather than interpret the appropriateness of the art in our world’.
    ie: Michelangelo suffered massive critique of the Sistine Chapel, but its definition as art was never questioned.
    If someone … anyone … see’s these images as art … then they are.

    • Dan January 3, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

      David, I agree with you, but then can you see how everything is art, which means nothing is art. It just is “something”. Art then loses all definition when anything and everything can be considered art.

      As I posted on Facebook, would a picture from a security camera at Columbine or Sandy Hook Elementary also be considered “art” then? What stops an individual who is seeking publicity to create an art project called “The Art of School Shootings” and creatively place images from security cameras from these events? I wonder if parents, loved ones, anyone, would find that as art.

      These drones are in war zones…there are HUMANS down there. Families. Children.

      And the other factor is that Chase never gets involved in these conversations himself which has been a let down. An intern is just posting things (most likely)…Chase’s blog/shows have been great, but I’d like to see involvement and a line drawn between revenue generation (and increasing followers) vs. meaningful conversation.

      • David January 3, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

        You seem to need to get all that off you chest Dan, and thats fine.
        If I may;
        ” … can you see how everything is art, which means nothing is art. ”
        I’m sorry, this is just pedantic. This line has been abused up till the early 70’s coffee shop philosophical circles, but since is accepted as simply pointless. One persons appreciation of a single work of art, and another persons complete dislike of it … makes this sentence completely moot and redundant.

        Regarding Columbine or Sandy Hook; This is an extremely sensitive subject … let me just say that how does one view the image of Tibetan exile Janphel Yeshi / running and burning this year, or the image of napalm burned child kim phuc from 1972 (google these names).

        Images like this can incite social change, and begin as photojournalistic, but in lore can become balance points. It is arguable that they be described as pure art, but they are a visual, that actually changes the world. Do you think the family members of Janphel Yeshi see those images as art … no of course not, but a decade from now who’s to say it did not play a role in the quest for freedom for millions of Tibetans?

        That image of kim phuc, or that image of the execution of that Vietcong gorilla by Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan in 1967 … played key roles towards ending the war, everyone knows that now. There is incredibly important social value in images we are uncomfortable with. Over the long term, they begin to be seen as art that had a purpose. Still today, those vietnam images bring up emotive responses, is that not art?

        In other words … yes … there are humans down there under these drones … its images like these that could change their use as machines, that kill the innocent.

        Finally; the crap about Chase having an intern, and does not get involved in convo’s; of course Chase posts these himself, and any good curator knows, that it is their job to put the work out there, and let the people discuss the issues. He is being very thoughtful to not get involved, to do so would tarnished and flavour the task of curation, and the conversation … trust me, he’s reading every line here, and on FB.

        Its the simpleton that draws the line between curation and ‘revenue generation’ as you and others have said. This is about the conversation that is art, and this blog is the medium. He is multifaceted, and capable of many directions and threads. Why do you knock the ones YOU dont like, when they counter ones you do?

        • Dan January 3, 2013 at 7:28 pm #

          Thanks for the response David.

          I guess first off, I’m not that old to know some of the references you make or that my statement “has been abused up till the early 70′s coffee shop philosophical circles”, but good to know.

          The image is very important…I never doubted that…but to classify it as “art” is where I don’t agree. The image can have a very powerful impact, but for any artist to use a drones image as art, is to me rather the same as using security camera footage at Columbine. I know this is a very sensitive issue, but so are the drones to the right audience. Ask the children in Iraq and I’m sure they would find the drones more sensitive than any US school shooting. One does not devalue the other. Life is Life (I’m sure this has also been abused up till the early 70s).

          As for my “crap” regarding the intern comment, I find it important that a social media personality such as Chase who also has had such success in photography and business (which is why we all follow and admire him), get involved in such topics to bring his views to the table. Curation would require that titles such as “Compelling Art” be dropped from the titling as well as not to “tarnish” the curation and allow the viewer to make their own judgements.

          Chase has also been active in other mediums and often asks for user engagement, so on a topic like this, it would be great to get his insights.

          No one is knocking anyone else…just making comments on what I observe.

          But again, thanks for your reply.
          I thoroughly have enjoyed the conversations on this topic.

          One Love.

          • Dan January 3, 2013 at 11:24 pm #

            BTW, update: Chase just responded on Facebook and silenced me (foot deep in mouth here, lol)…hence I have no problem apologizing for questioning his involvement and am happy to see that he does care and does get involved and read the conversations :)

          • David January 6, 2013 at 7:40 pm #

            Ya, me too Dan, foot in mouth a bit, didn’t correlate mountain climbing with unavailability to jump in on the convo, actually glad he did. Actually Chase, your doing a great job of curating this, and making us question definitions, prerogatives and priorities, and managing to keep the door open to draw opinion.

            Dan, Sometimes I jump into these discussions fresh off wandering around youtube, which of course is the medium of nasty and often rude comments.
            I would like to apologize for the tone of some of my comments, I’m not really like that. I love good debate, and you offered it back after responding to the need to defend yourself. Sorry bout that.

            Your comment; “One does not devalue the other. Life is Life”, You are actually correct with the equality of life in any land. Obviously I feel for the entire families wiped out by American Intel, good and bad. The best way I can look at these images, and the original guy who presents them, is to simply hope that publicity alone will facilitate change in the future. I will stand by my comment above how in long hindsight, an image can provoke emotion, and that response can be indicative of a response to art … but that alone doesn’t make art … life … or vice versa.

            Thanks Dan, hope to bump into you again,
            Never know, maybe a little conversation, on a photographers blog, can be a branch on a tree that can change the world … for the better.

  4. faisal January 4, 2013 at 5:11 am #

    This is some seriously impressive work.

  5. Clint January 4, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

    Just how history will judge our country’s use of drones in the “War on Terror” is not for me to decide. –Chase Jarvis

    I’ve been an avid reader of your emails and blog for some time now, but this nonchalent view of these indescriminate killing machines is morally bankrupt and speaks to everything that is wrong with US forign policy and our nationalist world view. Issuing the disclaimer, “it’s not for me to say…” is total bullshit. It may only be in name only these days, but until I’m told otherwise, the US is a democracy. If it’s not for your to say, the who should?

    To celebrate the so called beauty of the images from military drones is the same as exclaiming the artistic virtues of a mushroom cloud as it lays waste to everything living in it’s path without reaffirming its deadly effects.

    Furthermore, only a sociopath can hale the aesthetic of drone photography and exclude the fact that 98% of drone strike casualties are civilians (50 for every one “suspected terrorist”).

    The Bureau of Investigative Journalism issued a report detailing how the CIA is deliberately targeting those who show up after the sight of an attack, rescuers, and mourners at funerals as a part of a “double-tap” strategy eerily reminiscent of methods used by terrorist groups like Hamas.

    Chase, unless you liken your career to that of Joseph Goebbels, you might want to rethink using your blog and newsletter to publicly praise the “really cool pictures” taken by these murderous machines while ignoring the moral implications of the death and destruction they cause. To promote drone photography while omitting the indiscriminate killing and maiming they cause is not only irresponsible, it’s criminal.

  6. Clint January 4, 2013 at 1:11 pm #

    Another fellow-non political photographer/filmmaker: Riefenstahl claimed she was not aware of the nature of the internment camps. According to Schulberg, “She gave me the usual song and dance. She said, ‘Of course, you know, I’m really so misunderstood. I’m not political.’”

  7. Karl Larsen January 5, 2013 at 1:31 pm #

    Political statement sure. But art? Nah, no way. A bit preachy and boring if you ask me. Clint, your clarity on the issue is welcome. Pretense always muddles the picture when discussing what art is. Just because someone says something is art does not make it so.

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