In 2013, the writer Teju Cole, in an interview with Mother Jones, suggested that there is an ‘empathy gap’ in drone warfare. Speaking of his Twitter fiction, ‘Seven Short Stories about Drones’ — which rewrites the opening lines of seven canonical novels by weaving in references to drone warfare — Cole said,
‘I had been thinking so intensely so much about the global war on terror, especially the heavy silence that has surrounded the use of drones to assassinate people outside this country… this was just another way to generate conversation about something that nobody wanted to look at.’
Sarah Zhang, ‘Teju Cole on the “empathy gap” and tweeting drone strikes’, Mother Jones, 6 March 2013.
The question of drone warfare’s empathy gap is also the subject of rock band Muse’s album Drones(2015). Originally inspired by composer Matthew Bellamy’s reading of Brian Glyn Williams’s Predators (2013), the album, Bellamy stated, was
‘a modern metaphor for what it is to lose empathy. Through modern technology, and obviously through drone warfare in particular, it’s possible to do quite horrific things by remote control, without actually feeling any of the consequences, or even feeling responsibility in some way’.
The first part of the evening was a film screening of Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary National Bird (2016), which opened up thought-provoking questions about what can and cannot be perceived from a drone. Through its three whistleblower narratives, the film probes the devastating consequences of attempting to bridge the gap, whether by exposing the fallacies of drone operation, or by seeking out the civilian victims of collateral damage in the U.S. Drone War.
The second part of the evening was dedicated to thinking about the art of drone warfare in two senses. First, there has been an outpouring of the visual and multimedia arts in response to developments in drone warfare. Second, predicated on advancements in aerial imaging, and deeply intertwined with the entertainment and gaming industries, drone warfare is itself a kind of art. These topics were covered in a panel conversation with our invited guests: Politics Lecturer Ross Bellaby, and artists Mahwish Chishty and Tomas van Houtryve.
Ross spoke about the historical development of drone warfare, its reconfiguration of ethical questions in war, and the future of autonomous warfare. Mahwish and Tomas each presented aspects of their work, and talked about their motivations and their creative processes. Tomas explained how he researched instances of civilian collateral damage, which often took place at gatherings such as funerals and weddings, and during moments of prayer; he attempted to bridge the empathy gap by featuring similar scenes, but on the U.S. soil. Mahwish, whose drone art draws from the cultural idioms of Pakistani truck art, remarked that a drone operator was so moved by her work that they got in touch to ask if they could have a copy of one of her artworks, which they then put up to remind them of what they were ‘actually doing’.
During their visit to Sheffield, Mahwish and Tomas also gave separate talks at the University to an interdisciplinary audience of staff and students. The School of English has written a report of the week’s activities here.
Our thanks to the British Academy for sponsoring this event; the Curzon Sheffield for hosting us; Sonia Kennebeck and Ten Forward Films for giving us permission to screen her film; Ross for his insights on the history and future directions of drone warfare; and Mahwish and Tomas for traveling from so far to speak to us about their important artwork.
For our events in November, there will also be a screening of Sonia Kennebeck’s award-winning whistleblower documentary, National Bird (2016), executive produced by Wim Wenders and Errol Morris. This will be followed by a panel discussion with artists Tomas van Houtryve and Mahwish Chishty, who are joining us to talk about their artwork in relation to aesthetics and drone warfare.
You can register for the film screening and panel discussion here.
Mahwish Chishty will also be giving a public talk at the University of Sheffield, which you can find more about here.
Called ‘one of the leading photographers of his generation,’ Tomas van Houtryve is a conceptual artist, photographer and author. His projects ‘interweave investigative journalism, philosophy and metaphor.’ Van Houtryve has exhibited his work around the world, and has been the recipient of prestigious honours including the Roger Pic Award (2019), CENTER Producer’s Choice Award (2018), CatchLight / Pulitzer Fellowship (2017) and many others. In his project Blue Sky Days (2013), Van Houtryve explored the politics of space and aeriality, photographing civilian scenes in the USA from a drone, presenting domestic life as if the target of a hostile eye.
Mahwish Chishty is a multimedia artist who initially trained as a miniature painter in Pakistan. She has since developed an approach that combines traditional artistic practice with her interest in contemporary politics, particularly the relationship between the US and Pakistan. She writes that her work explores the ‘juxtaposition of terror with the representation of cultural beauty.’ In 2017, Chishty was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in the same year held a solo exhibition at the Imperial War Museum London. Much of Chishty’s work responds to contemporary drone warfare, often combining the tradition of Pakistani ‘truck art’ with images of military Reaper and Predator drones.
Come join us
Please click on the individual images for more information on each event, and to register your interest on Eventbrite. All events are free. We hope to see you there!
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?’
Here’s a postcard featuring some upcoming events that are taking place in Sheffield during the project period. Event summaries and reflections will be posted here. Our sincere thanks to Mahwish Chishty for allowing us to reuse her drone painting, X-47B (2012), in the second image below.
We’re delighted to share our first Aesthetics of Drone Warfare podcast, a conversation with Brisbane-based artist, Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox. Kathryn speaks about drones, temporality, distance, clouds, meta-veillance, existential risk, the Anthropocene, painting, and the relationship between academic research and creative practice. There’s also a shout-out to our conference keynote, Derek Gregory, among many other important researchers!
Her ‘dronescapes’ are currently being shown in a solo exhibition at the POP Gallery in Brisbane from 27 August — 7 September 2019.
Below are two pieces of artwork that are referenced and especially relevant to the discussion in the podcast. More of Kathryn’s work can be found on her blog, which has been archived on PANDORA, Australia’s national archive for online sites ‘of significance and long-term research value,’ since 2014.
Drones have now become commercial and readily available, with innovators promising unprecedented solutions to sectors as wide ranging as agriculture, energy, public safety, and construction. But this multi-billion-dollar industry is founded upon the technology’s origins in a military context, and drone warfare is rapidly redefining the meaning of war, peace, and their temporal and geographical boundaries. This project explores the issues surrounding drone warfare through the prism of aesthetics: aesthetics understood as art, and as the relationship between the body, the self, and the material environment. Combining surveillance with targeting, satellite imaging with ground-level intelligence, drones alter how war is experienced by pilot, target, and spectator.
To examine the impact of this information-based, algorithmic apparatus on the cultural consciousness, this project will bring together writers and artists, museum curators and NGOs, through three engagement events to reflect on the art of drone warfare:
A public panel featuring leading artists and thinkers about drone warfare
Film screenings featuring works about drone art and drone warfare, introduced by an expert and followed by post-screening discussions
An international, interdisciplinary conference held at the Humanities Research Institute, University of Sheffield
In addition, this website will include blog posts of interviews with artists and writers working on the aesthetics of drone warfare, alongside event recaps and summaries.