Published at ASAP/J: The Aesthetics of Drone Warfare, A Conversation with Tomas van Houtryve and Mahwish Chishty

We are delighted that an excerpted version of our roundtable public conversation with Tomas van Houtryve and Mahwish Chishty — which we held at the Curzon cinema last year following a screening of Sonia Kennebeck’s National Bird — has been published on ASAP/J. ASAP/J is the open-access platform of ASAP/Journal, the scholarly publication of the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present, which explores new developments in the contemporary arts, including writing, plastic and visual arts, digital arts, music and sound art, performance, architecture and design, mixed media and the intermedia arts.

In the conversation, Van Houtryve speaks about his motivations behind his drone photography series, Blue Sky Days, which captures the sorts of gatherings that have become habitual targets for foreign air strikes, but on the American soil. Chishty describes her interest in juxtaposing the imagery of the war on terror with the cultural beauty of her native Pakistan, and the colourful truck art aesthetic she incorporates into her painting and multimedia work.

The discussion can be read here.

Prior to the portion excerpted on ASAP/J, Dr Ross Bellaby, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sheffield, offered some remarks concerning the history, politics, and ethics of drone warfare. This has been transcribed below:

To understand drones, you have to understand the history of the most recent military developments. There are two key developments, and the first one dates back to the First World War, when they realised they could put cameras on planes. It might be hard for us to understand nowadays what a revolution that was to understanding the nature of war and how a war was to be fought. Though the technology wasn’t great in the First World War, it started to gain momentum in the Second World War, and it gave the Allies a great advantage just to have that bird’s-eye view. But we see it gaining technological development in the Cold War, with America and the USSR trying to engage in surveillance of each other without ever coming to direct conflict. As they joined the Vietnam War, they started testing out the use of aeroplanes that had pre-programmed flights, to look at prisoner of war camps, to look at communication and movement of troops throughout Vietnam.

This development of the military, of the ability to see, then culminated in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield where we see them using aeroplanes and drones to surveil the battlefront. It’s the first instance we see people surrendering to an unmanned vehicle. Post-9/11 and the War on Terror, we see a move from surveillance to an offensive use of these drones. That’s the contemporary turn; if the initial turn is having eyes in the sky, the contemporary turn is having the ability to then find, fix and finish, or shoot, your target, from quite a removed point of view.

In ethics, this raises a couple of questions. For some people, these are just smarter weapons – there are no new ethical problems. But what I would argue is that drones do alter the nature of war quite dramatically. It’s not just being further away from the battlefield. It’s a level of being removed from the battlefield that we have yet to really understand, and this raises lots of ethical problems around the entry to war and it lowers the boundary of what it takes for someone to initiate or carry out acts of war. It lowers the cost to your own troops –this is always a huge consideration for states, putting your soldiers on the front line, the danger that they may face.

This is an ethical question, and for politicians it’s a political question. What they don’t want is the body bag effect, the CNN effect, dead troops being brought home in a body bag, being caught on camera. Drones take that away. You don’t have that very physical cost to your own people. They’re also cheaper. The cost of a Reaper drone is around £13 million, whereas a fighter plane is around £252 million. There’s a big difference there, and it makes it much more accessible for a greater number of states.

[On the personal experience of drone operators depicted in National Bird]: I think the illusion of distance is really important, especially when you start thinking about authorising military political elites and the people who actually have to carry out orders on the ground. The illusion of distance is very much held by those who are developing and authorising these sorts of weapons and these sorts of missions. It feeds into what they call the ‘PlayStation mentality’, that kids are growing up playing computer games, so our soldiers should have no problem doing this, it’s a sanitized version of war, it’s a more digitized and cleaner version of war. That’s how Obama upped the number of drone strikes compared to previous administrations exponentially. It feeds into the rhetoric of distance; ‘we’re not actually interfering with another nation. We’re not occupying another nation.’

In the documentary, they mentioned [former imagery analyst Heather Linebaugh] would go home and she would cry. The expectation is that when she left the pod she was in, that was it – turn off, go back to civilian life. And that idea that you can go between military and civilian life in the space of a day is highly problematic. When you’re overseas and you’re in the military space for six months at a time, and then you come back and you have that debrief phase, that’s problematic, it’s incredibly psychologically torturous for individuals. But now, to do that within a 24-hour window, to go back to civilian life, to go back to a normal environment with your family and your friends… That intimacy juxtaposed with being stuck in your normal world almost amplifies the fact that you’ve really got no home at that point, I think.

Our thanks to Ross Bellaby, and to Mahwish Chishty and Tomas van Houtryve for participating in this discussion and sharing their artwork, as well as to our funder, the British Academy.

Exploring the Empathy Gap: November Events Recap

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’.

Gavin Haynes, ‘Muse interview’, NME, 20 May 2015

At our sold-out event during the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield, we discussed what shapes and forms such an empathy gap took.

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.