From 20-22 September 2019, we put together a collaborative installation for the Pop-Up University festival at the Millennium Gallery, organised by the University of Sheffield’s Public Engagement and Events team. Users could control and pilot a Parrot drone while wearing a FPV (first person view) headset, through which they could see a live camera feed from the drone itself. This was accompanied by a specially commissioned music piece which transported the listener to different locations, playing with the superimposition of different soundscapes or sonorous worlds. The installation explores the bifurcation between mind and place, sight and hearing, to explore how multiple understandings of space and time interact and intersect in drone aesthetics.
The exhibit garnered a variety of responses from festival visitors. The effect of seeing oneself from the drone while piloting it was a particular focus of the feedback. It is usual in life to see our reflection and our image in photographs and footage, but both to see ourselves from an external position and to be able to move that position created a keener impression of being outside one’s own body. Referencing this technology’s application in warfare, one visitor remarked ‘I can see why I might kill myself.’ This comment draws attention both to the disembodying effects of the exhibit and to the detachment experienced when viewing the world from an unnatural aerial perspective. ‘It’s like being in another world,’ was commented more than once. This was a reaction particularly from younger visitors, who tended to have a greater familiarity with hobby drones than older visitors, showing that the exhibit significantly altered the usual civilian experience of drone piloting. Younger visitors were also more often familiar with using a controller: although a logical side-effect of gaming culture’s generation gap, this also gestured towards the aggressive recruitment tactics of the military, which tend to target teenagers and children. Although an uncomfortable thought, it was easy to see how the younger visitors’ familiarity with the basic technology involved would make them more desirable as potential military drone operators.
Integral to this exhibit was the music composed by Jean-Baptiste Masson, a PhD researcher at the University of York who is part of the interdisciplinary Electronic Soundscapes research network funded by the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH). Here is his atmospheric soundpiece, reproduced with his permission, alongside his reflections on this work:
‘Drones are the first step to an externalisation of war: acquisition of data and engagement are made from a distance, through sensors. Intelligence becomes primordial to contextualise the data received and surveillance arise as a central and constant need, also made from a distance through sensors. A probably extreme reading of this could be to establish a parallel with predictive maintenance: a constant remote surveillance to establish when, where and how take action. However, the embodiment of this intelligence, on the field compare to from a distance, is completely different.
An underlying ominous presence was then the main idea behind the music. Distant voices, stolen communications, non-directional melodies, juxtaposition of elements: if it’s enough to build something, is it enough to build a meaning?’