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Romancing the drone: how America's flying robots are invading pop culture

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Both real and unreal, drones are spreading silently through art and culture

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Drones of New York - Supermundane
Drones of New York - Supermundane

On September 30th, 2015, the FAA is scheduled to complete its Congressional mandate to authorize unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial use in US airspace — a somewhat ominous milestone next to its estimation that by the end of the decade, American skies will be home to around 30,000 remote control aircraft. It's hard to imagine what that will be like because for most people, drones — as we've taken to calling them — simply aren't "real" yet. We still don't know when they can kill us or where they can spy on us. And we’ve barely scratched the surface of what they'll be doing aside from killing and spying.

More importantly, we're having trouble figuring out exactly what drones are in the first place: The State's Adam Rothstein submits that what we call a "drone" — which lumps military killing machines together with toy helicopters — isn't "real" at all. Rather, it's a fictitious characterization comprised of "a collection of thoughts, feelings, isolated facts, and nebulous paranoias," reacting to the rapid accumulation of augmentative technologies like cellphone cameras, GPS, and ubiquitous wireless communication networks. Therefore, he argues, whenever we talk or write about unmanned flying machines used to see or attack from a distance, we are by necessity crossing into the realm of fiction.

Their surreal and ambiguous nature goes a long way to explain why drones have been emerging as a kind of cultural icon. Today's drones are everywhere and nowhere, an invisible meme metastasizing throughout literature, design, fashion, and social media. And for artists like James Bridle, the hope is that exploring that meme and its aesthetics can help us gain better insight into what this technology, simultaneously capable of both intimacy and alienation, ultimately means.


Much of Bridle's work with drones has focused on spreading awareness. His "Drone Shadows" — 1:1 scale chalk outlines traced in the shape of the MQ-1 Predator — give physical presence to the unseen warplanes that hover above battlefields and national borders, its unmistakable silhouette forming the basis of their visual vocabulary. Other projects like his die-cast UAV Identification Kit, and Dronestagram, a social feed which posts filtered images of areas hit by US drone strikes as they happen, similarly aim at making drones and those they affect "a little bit more visible, a little closer. A little more real."

"There does seem to be an iconography of drones emerging, and its been happening for a few years," Bridle tells The Verge in an email. "There's been a huge amount of hard work done by some politicians, NGOs, some journalists, etc. to raise the profile of the use of unmanned weapons in the last few years. But they seem to have snuck into the public consciousness by a number of routes, a fever dream of networked society. Art reflects back these fears, and can perhaps provide a lens through which to understand and focus this disquiet."


One prime example is street artist Essam Attia's satirical NYPD drone posters, which displayed the Predator using the recognizable branding language of Apple's iPod ads. Attia, a former geo-spatial analyst who served in the Iraq War, told Animal New York that he placed the mock ads to "start a conversation" about the seemingly inevitable scenario of police surveillance (and maybe even enforcement) by unmanned aircraft — a mission which didn't sit well with the NYPD, who arrested him on 56 counts of criminal forgery.

In Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal regions, where over 3,000 drone-related deaths have been reported since 2004, the effects of flying robots require no such imagining. Last September, an upbeat love song by Pashto singer Sitara Younas became hugely popular on YouTube just before the service was cut off by Pakistani authorities. Its title, and repeated chorus: "My gaze is as deadly as a drone attack."

"It's been a hit because people like the music and the movie that it was written for," lyricist Khalid Shah Jilani told The Guardian. "Now you hear it all the time being played at wedding halls and in cars."

Back in the US, a music video from former Das Racist member Himanshu Suri begins and ends with interview footage of President Obama's non-answers to questions about America's secret targeted killing program and its effects on civilians. Like Younas, Heems isn't evoking the drone solely as a political object, but as a loaded cultural artifact — amid the clamor of dubhorns, he stands in front of green-screened UAV missile strike footage and a spinning, bright-pink CG Predator drone as he delivers the chorus:

That drone cool, but I hate that drone
Chocolate chip cookie dough in a sugar cone
Drones in the morning, drones in the night
I'm trying to find a pretty drone to take home tonight

The drone's influence goes beyond symbolism. UK designer Adam Harvey is releasing a line of anti-surveillance jackets and hoodies that claim to interfere with the thermal imaging capabilities on UAVs and CCTV cameras. In line with Rothstein's position on the drone as a metaphor for technological anxieties, Tim Maly writes that hoodies of all kinds are "an element of fashion driven by an architectural condition ... a response to the constant presence of cameras overhead." Asher Kohn takes that idea even further with his designs for an anti-drone city, reasoning that "Architecture is a way to protect people when law chooses not to."


Drone by eBoy, from "Drones of New York," 2013

Others have taken a more light-hearted approach. "Drones of New York," a new project made available through the DVD dead drop at the Museum of the Moving Image last week, imagines a more whimsical or commercial future for quotidian flying bots, placing Warholian-looking pop art designs onto computer-generated Predator drones. Rajeev Basu designed the Mr. Drones app, allowing artists like eBoy and Supermundane to paint onto the virtual models, which are superimposed over images from Google Street View and vary in theme and purpose (one is designed to be a John Lennon memorial, meant to continuously hover over the location where he was shot in 1980; another acts as a Coca-Cola advert).

"once people see how they could be useful in their everyday lives, they'll start to understand them better."

"To me, in the last few years, nothing is as instantly recognisable as [the Predator]. I felt something similar would make a good canvas for this art piece," Basu said in an email when asked about choosing the shape. "I think there is a lot of hype. But I also think there are a few people who talk about [drones] in a really smart way ... once people see how they could be useful in their everyday lives, they'll start to understand them better."

Of course, as drones explode into the public consciousness, there's also the fear that meme and speculation will overshadow their unfortunate and measurable reality. "There's plenty of thoughtless 'drone art' out there, and there's always a danger that they become 'cool', iconic, or fetishistic," says Bridle. "But then, these techniques can always be used to analyse and explain too." As he sees it, art about drones "should be concerned with their inherent power relationships, with the psychological effects and implicit violence of pervasive surveillance, with the network effects of action and sight at a distance," focusing on issues like the double tap assassinations which target civilian first responders, and the discovery of PTSD in drone pilots.

Omer Fast's "5,000 Feet is the Best," a short film from 2011, manages to put those realities front-and-center while unflinchingly wading into the murky waters of fiction. The eerie, make-believe narrative involves a suburban family living in an occupied American countryside, contrasted by an interview with a real-life Predator drone operator stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Las Vegas. At one point, he describes what Marines call "The Light of God," a slang term for the drone's laser targeting system:

"We just send out a beam of laser and when the troops put on their night vision goggles they'll just see this light that looks like it's coming from heaven. Right on the spot, coming out of nowhere, from the sky. It's quite beautiful."

"technologies flow between violent and nominally peaceful uses..."

"It's important to distinguish between military and civilian drones, between many types of drones, while understanding the way technologies flow between violent and nominally peaceful uses, and the results of this flow, such as heightened fear, surveillance culture, and lowered empathy," says Bridle.

Empathy in particular rarely comes easy — especially on the Web. Last month, a rash of hawkish and vile comments on Bridle's Dronestagram caused Buzzfeed to proclaim that his project, meant to reveal drone strike locales through social media, had "turned into a pro-drone love fest." More interesting, he notes, is how the conversation also reveals inherent failures in the media we use to communicate, like how we're consistently discomfited when we see someone "Like" a drone strike image on Facebook.

But the drone's essence is complex, and art, politics, and social media are just a few of the avenues through which the conversation spreads. In the end, the point is to give visibility and materiality to systems that are by their very nature obscured or out-of-reach. The seeds have been planted — even if we still can't tell what's "real" and what's science fiction.