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    Watching You, Watching Me, Watching Everyone

    Written by

    Reid Singer

    “This has really been blown out of proportion,” Omer Fast wrote in an email a few weeks ago, speaking about "5000 Feet is the Best" (2011), a work which stems from his interest in military and surveillance drones. Fast is an accomplished video artist whose work has taken an increasingly political timbre in recent years. Most recently, he had been asked to describe an admittedly brief bit of homeland security intrigue in which he and his collaborators were involved.

    While working on another project that would include interviews with people who had operated drones in the past, Fast was approached by the FBI and told to lay off. "After the call, our contacts went dead,” he told Photoworks magazine, “We were told to stop what we were doing and threatened in suggestive, spy-movie language.”

    Fast didn’t much feel like telling me about his next project. In emails and over the phone, he seemed to assume that I was looking for the kind of shallow, get-a-load-of-this news item which, let’s face it, would probably gather more web traffic than a serious essay about his work. He’s half right. The brief mention of the FBI, and the cartoonish behavior he describes, is great for a 200-word blog post (the summary in The Art Newspaper was shorter than that).

    But it’s also true that for some time, drone technology has been a regular topic in current events, and a source of concern in the public’s mind. Increasingly, it has also been a favored source of material and subject of interest among contemporary artists.

    Their range of approaches is striking, and not all of it is documentarian. Although much of "5000 Feet is the Best" is drawn from descriptions of veteran military drone operators, the re-enactment, (cast, rather brilliantly, with American-looking actors), was obviously meant to resemble a suburb in the southwestern United States—not in rural Pakistan. Although a big part of Fast’s thesis involves the alienated, far-away aspects of a remote-controlled military, mixing the operator’s account with the scene of a white family driving around in a station wagon does a great deal to bring the narrative closer to home.

    At the same time, not all of today’s “drone art” is focussed on war zones. Writer and artist James Bridle (of New Aesthetic fame) is probably best known for his Tumblr page, Dronestagram, which consists of photographs of Afghanistan and Yemen, processed through an Instagram-style filter. Though the information is sometimes less precise than desired, Bridle confirms that each site has been the location of a drone strike through sources in the mainstream media and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as well as activist sites including Dronewars UK.

    “The landscapes and the places and their names are real,” he writes on Dronestagram. “These are just images of foreign landscapes, still; yet we have got better at immediacy and intimacy online: perhaps we can be better at empathy too.”

    Bridle has at the same time been lauded for his overhead photographs of sites in London, one of which includes a 1:1 silhouette of the MQ-1 Predator drone chalked out into the pavement.

    A similar outline can be seen in his photograph of the space in front of a Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul. Images via blog.chasejarvis.com.

    But not all art dealing with drones involves photography. As one practitioner put it to Animal New York this past September, “I’m an artist in the medium that I choose, and the medium I choose [is] based on the message.” Alarmed by reports about the use of armed drones abroad and dissatisfied with the level of the conversation about the use of drones in the US, an artist calling himself Essam Attia spent several months planning a city-wide installation work on the subject. He and his collaborators designed a series of satirical posters, which commented on the NYPD’s speculated use of surveillance drones around the city, slipping them into the place of window ads at bus stops and on subway platforms.

    “It’s all very mundane and monotonous,” he said. “I did it directly in front of some cops, and nobody even looked twice.” Eventually, however, the police did notice, and when speaking to Animal, he allowed for lighting and a voice modification that made him resemble a drag queen with an afro.

    Attia denied that his work had anything to do with the Occupy demonstrators, which he called “a broken down movement,” and the interview includes no comment about whether the similarly prankish parking signs advertising an “authorized drone strike zone” were his doing. Of course, both Attia and the parking signs’ author, who was written about anonymously in The New Yorker a year ago, identified themselves as former “geospatial analysts” for the US Army. Essam Attia was arrested in late November after a vigorous investigation by the NYPD’s counterterrorism unit, who at one point were dusting the glass sleeves of bus stop ads for his fingerprints.

    The most recent incidence of drone-spoofing to reach the mainstream media is the work of Adam Harvey, an artist based in New York who is known equally in the worlds of technology and contemporary art. Looking for a way to respond to the proliferation of domestic surveillance drones, Harvey developed a line of apparel called “Stealth Wear,” or clothing that is designed to shield the wearer from detection by common surveillance technologies. Debuting the line last week at London’s Primitive Gallery, the series included a sweatshirt that hides the wearer from thermal imaging, a pocket protector that can black out a phone signal, and a dashing “anti-drone burqa.”

    Adam Harvey’s “Anti-Drone Burqa.” Image via PrimitiveLondon.co.uk

    As the debate over the use of unmanned drones has intensified since President Obama nominated John Brennan, his chief counterterrorism advisor, as the next director of the CIA, the range of artistic responses to drone art is likely to broaden still. Last week, when the British military announced plans to begin final testing for Taranis, a stealth drone that will fly faster than the speed of sound, commenters and bloggers breathed a response with an increasingly-familiar mixture of awe and anxiety. The tension between these two emotional responses, to say nothing of the horribly tangled personal ethics and rules of war that drone technology draws, is the primary material for what can turn into some thoughtful, inventive art. It is usually a cross between, “Holy fuck, that’s cool,” and just plain, “Holy fuck.”

    Originally posted at the Creator's Project.