Making drones visible

Drones are often associated with military innovation and systems of control, and consequently with secrecy and invisibility. That association is itself worth interrogating, as unmanned flight extends far beyond military uses. While today’s civilian drones certainly owe much to 20th-century military research, the history of unmanned aircraft is as old as the history of flight: in fact, before the Wright brothers launched the field of aviation with their manned (and dangerous) experiments, the Montgolfier brothers were sending unmanned aerostats into the air. Work in remote control systems is also historically independent of military application, and inventor Nikola Tesla was the first to patent an ‘apparatus for controlling mechanism of moving vessels or vehicles’ in 1898. Unmanned aircraft have long been a human ambition, as much for reasons of safety, efficiency and economy as for secrecy, and for the possibility of extending human awareness of areas that remain beyond human physical reach. The history of spaceflight, for example, offers many examples of unmanned missions to destinations too far or too inhospitable for human journeys.

As with nearly any technological advance, governments have been quick to pursue military uses for unmanned flight. The use of the US Predator in Afghanistan and Iraq attracted the most early media attention, but for some years the drone remained a shadowy entity glimpsed only in reports of distant warfare. It is partly thanks to artists that the military drone has been brought – quite literally – into wider public view. As early as the 1990s, photographer Trevor Paglen was aiming his camera at sites of drone research, producing blurred images imbued with a pervasive anxiety about a not-clearly-foreseeable development. His early image of a Reaper Drone parked at a Nevada Air Base, and others of military research drones in flight, remain among the most powerful and often published of drone images.

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James Bridle’s ‘Under the Shadow of the Drone’ placed to-scale drone silhouettes in urban settings, playing up the contrast between an image-obsessed media and wartime covertness: ‘very few people have a strong image of what drones actually are – a strange circumstance in an age of mass media, when we are supposed to see everything.’ (Bridle in Dezeen, April 2014). Bridle’s follow-up project ‘Dronestagram’ makes drone strikes visible via Google Satellite and Instagram as and where they occur, and in doing so sits on the crossroads of art and new journalism.

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Bridle’s ‘Drone Shadows’

A similar desire to make the invisible visible underscores ‘5000 Feet is the Best’, a video piece by Omar Fast that draws on a series of conversations about drone warfare with a former U.S. Air Force Predator operator, by way of Hollywood and video games.

Omer Fast ‘Five Thousand Feet is the Best’, Digital Film, 30 minutes, 2011

Five Thousand Feet is the Best is based on two meetings with a Predator drone sensor operator, which were recorded in a hotel in Las Vegas in September 2010. On camera, the drone operator agreed to discuss the technical aspects of his job and his daily routine. Off camera and off the record, he briefly described recurring incidents in which the unmanned plane fired at both militants and civilians – and the psychological difficulties he experienced as a result. Instead of looking for the appropriate news accounts or documentary footage to augment his redacted story, the film is deliberately miscast and misplaced: It follows an actor cast as the drone operator who grudgingly sits for an interview in a dark hotel. The interview is repeatedly interrupted by the actor\’s digressions, which take the viewer on meandering trips around Las Vegas. Told in quick flashbacks, the stories form a circular plot that nevertheless returns fitfully to the voice and blurred face of the drone operator – and to his unfinished story.

The below resources further explore the military history of drones and their uses as covert surveillance systems by various authorities, with links to articles about artists currently working with those themes. As drones become increasingly integrated into government activities, artists will likely continue to use ‘creative surveillance’ to watch and discuss developments, keeping the image of the drone before us.

Further reading:

Popular Science’s Brief History of the Drone

Drone Centre Interview with Trevor Paglen

Next page in toolkit: Drones & the fabric of everyday life