Under The Shadow of The Drone
Imagine walking past a drone with a sixty foot wingspan casually sitting on the corner of your block. It’s so large that it impedes traffic in both directions. It is imposing, intrusive, and quite unsettling to be suddenly confronted with something that doesn’t typically invade your life in a conspicuous way. James Bridle’s installation pieces collectively titled Under the Shadow of the Drone makes the silent invisible drones in use all over the world visible causing passersby to stop and consider the intrusion and the role that military drones play.
Each site-specific outdoor installation features one life size outline of a military surveillance or air strike drone painted onto the ground in public squares and strategic locations. The drones are painted in either a bright white or saturated color and are visible from a distance. Bridle’s installations have featured the Global Hawk, the Military Reaper, and the Thales Watchkeeper WK450 to name a few drone models. With installations across Europe, the Middle East, and the United States, Bridle opens a dialogue about today’s powerful yet invisible technologies at large. His piece pulls drones out of the shadows of the politics, policy, and agendas covering their use for a large audience to contemplate.
James Bridle is a journalist, publisher, artist and pacifist from London, U.K. whose work investigates our world as it is increasingly mediated by machines and networks. Bridle has previously displayed his fascination with drones and invisible technology through this piece Dronestagram (an Instagram account dedicated to surveillance drone aerial photography).
This work of art is a strong social and political commentary. According to Bridle, the drone is our newest and most potent tool for killing. What intrigues him, is that military drones are very distanced from us, essentially invisible, and can cause their damage quietly. Under the Shadow of the Drone speaks to the idea that the nations sending military drones into the sky, don't feel their presence or effects. The exposing of the drones through Bridle’s installations challenges us to stop pushing them out of our minds. He makes them conspicuous. On military drones Bridle himself said that:
The drones have been painted by invitation on the grounds of centrally located museums in countries currently employing drones in their military, but not within their own nations (installations have been concentrated in Germany, the U.K, the U.S. and in Turkey). The work certainly makes a bold statement. So much so that Queensland, Australia stopped the installation of a Bridle’s commissioned piece for the Brisbane Writer’s Festival in 2013 in order to avoid potentially offending a visiting delegation from Afghanistan. Citizens of countries with Bridle’s installations don’t have to live with the imminent threat of death constantly overhead. Bridle brings a glimpse of a reality that much of the world lives with into our daily life.
Bridle explores this idea of our moral responsibility to and with machines in his writing and artwork. He uses the phrase “The New Aesthetic” to describe the visual cues that hint to us that our world is increasingly mediated by computers and machines that we have designed.
As a citizen of the net, Bridle has employed social media effectively in spreading his work. He is active on Twitter and Instagram sharing his projects and interacting with groups that install drones as a continuation of his project. The ability to reach a larger audience with social media is relatively new and Bridle is an example for emerging net and digital artists.
Under the Shadow of the Drone is an ongoing project and has already featured drones being painted in over 13 locations across Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. These works are asking us as citizens to consider whether we are using our rapidly advancing technology for violence, for beauty, for improvement or for destruction.
When considering works of potent political commentary such as Under the Shadow of the Drone, it is valuable to look at the the works of artist R. Luke DuBois who also focuses on raising awareness for political and social issues through his work. His piece Take a Bullet for This City, similar to Under the Shadow of the Drone also addresses the topic of violence through an installation work. Take a Bullet for This City features a gun filled with blanks set up on a pedestal that is programmed to fire in response to real reports of firearm discharge from the New Orleans Police Department. The piece uses sound, real data, and the visual of a gun surrounded by empty shells to create a very impactful experience for the viewer.
Similar to Under the Shadow of The Drone, this piece by DuBois asks the audience to connect with violence taking place elsewhere, and making this idea intentionally less comfortable for us. Viewers want to hear the gun go off and experience the piece, even understanding that real events triggered the blank shot in the gallery that they stand in. They are comfortably removed from the event itself, this issue of being too comfortable is exactly what Bridle tackles.
The game Medusa FPS by interdisciplinary artist Karolina Sobecka is another excellent example of making an audience uncomfortable with violence, while placing them in a still largely passive role. Medusa is a first person shooter game in which the player’s goal is to reduce the ability of an artificial intelligence controlled robotic gun to kill people. The robotic gun in the hands of the player fires automatically when a target is acquired, and the player cannot stop this from happening. The only control that the player has is the ability to block the their own vision and the input for their robotic gun during gameplay. The player’s efforts can feel fruitless. An interesting aspect to the commentary behind this piece is that the “people” in the game are only rough models of figures, and the connection that we have to a very real looking human is not present. This is an interesting decision as it makes it easier for a player to potentially decide to watch what happens without their intervention with minor emotional repercussions. Medusa is a direct critique of the typical first person shooter game that is widely accepted in our culture in that the goal is to obstruct the destruction rather than cause it.
Medusa FPS, like Under The Shadow of a Drone put its viewer/player in a position of watching or imagining violence unfolding somewhere or for someone else. Both experiences provide removal to different extents. The fact that the AI weapon in Medusa was designed by humans and creates chaos is directly reminiscent of Under The Shadow of The Drone’s look at the autonomous technology of drones that we have unleashed on the world.
The voices of these artists on issues of violence, passivity, and our use of our powerful and advancing technology are resounding loud and clear through these works. The critical questions that James Bridle is able to create for his audience and the uncomfortable commentary that his works speak to are stealing away the luxury of removing ourselves from these issues. We may not be confronted by violence and fear daily, but Bridle, DuBois, and Sobecka are easing us into the reality that somebody in our world is.
Drone Shadows exhibition at the Science Gallery in Dublin, Ireland, 2016
Globale Exhibition at ZKM Karlsruhe in Germany, October 2015.
After a War Event in London, June 2014
Fire and Forget Exhibition in KW Berlin, June 2015
Dirty Wars documentary show in Brixton, London, 2013
A Quiet Disposition solo show at the Corcoran, Washington DC, June 2013
Adhocracy and the Istanbul Design Biennial in Istanbul, Turkey in October 2012