The artist as participant in the future of the drone

Despite the rapid diversification of commercial use, a large percentage of drone use applications are for the purposes of photography and film. The legislation distinguishes between personal and commercial drone use, with different requirements for each. But when does artistic use become commercial use? Understanding the role of artists working with drones means interrogating the boundaries between art and product, creator and the tools of creation – which, in the case of drones, can blur and shift rapidly in response to a changing field.

In some cases, the commercial application is clear. A drone camera operator, for example, commissioned to capture extreme sports footage at an event, is clearly operating in a commercial capacity, and the footage taken is clearly a commercial product. And in other cases the artistic intent is clear, as for example the work of artist Addie Wagenknecht, who uses small drones indoors to scatter paint on paper.

Other cases are harder to establish. The boundaries between art photography and filmmaking, journalism, and image-making for commercial use can be blurry. What if an artist takes footage during a hobbyist flight and later creates work using the imagery that gets shown in a gallery, or funded with a grant? What if a student captures a major incident by accident and sells her story to a news agency?


Rivera and Nevarez’s LowDrone, 2005

Grey areas such as the rise of ‘drone graffiti’ further complicate the issue. Drone artists have at times pushed the boundaries of the forbidden, as in the work of  Alex Rivera and Angel Nevarez , who flew their 2005 LowDrone across the militarized US-Mexico border. As more artists take an interest in the technology, more art will invariably be produced – some good, some bad, and some attracting high levels of media attention. And in a time of rapidly changing legislation, the action of artists may well end up shaping the very laws regarding the use of civilian drones.

This ability to change and shape the future of technology comes with the responsibility to ensure that any project making use of drones follows the highest standards of safety, and a thorough understanding of their capabilities and dangers. Today’s media artist has one foot in the past and one in the future: artists contextualize the technology with which they are working, but in doing so, help lay the groundwork for its future use and regulation. By working within the existing guidelines, erring on the side of caution in ensuring all relevant permissions are obtained, and exercising transparency and accountability in carrying out projects, drone artists can positively shape the future of the drone.
‘…media artists are uniquely qualified to frame a contemporary conversation about drones. Because today to have an interest in drone technologies, whether for military or civilian use, is to have a concern with, and interest in, the networked information space in which they belong.’ Honor Harger

“Black Hawk Powder” painting series by Addie Wagenknecht from bitforms gallery on Vimeo.

“Black Hawk” is a mechanically assisted series of action paintings that Wagenknecht started in 2007. She creates them with small-scale drone aircraft, and in the process, utilizes simple flight commands such as ‘barrel roll’, ‘take off’ and ‘land’. Among the most recent are works on paper that incorporate heat- and UV-sensitive pigments, furthering her first explorations with liquid acrylics on canvas.

Further Reading:

US Artists That Use Drones Could Be Grounded (artnewspaper)

The Legal Turbulence Hindering Drones in the UK (WIRED)

‘A Conversation with Addie Wagenknecht’, Centre for the Study of the Drone, 6 Dec 2014.

Harger, Honor. “Unmanned Aerial Ecologies: proto-drones, airspace and canaries in the mine.” Honor Harger, April, 2013. Web

Holland Michel, Arthur. ‘Interview: KATSU and The Graffiti Drone.’ Center for the Study of the Drone, 10 Apr 2014.

Rothstein, Adam. ‘The Complexities of Drones in Art.‘ The Creators Project, 21 Nov, 2014. Web

Smith, Greg J. Drone As Metaphor: Interview with Alex Rivera, for

Next page in the toolkit: Promotional films: drone manufacturer’s fictions


Next page in toolkit: Drones in science fiction