Roger Hiorns, Untitled (2014), installation view, courtesy Corvi-Mora
Roger Hiorns, Untitled (2014), installation view, courtesy Corvi-Mora


30 January 2015

In Gijón, Spain, Lighthouse's exhibition A Screaming Comes Across the Sky at LABoral Centro de Arte has been drawing crowds and intriguing the media. Here Rachel Segal Hamilton interviews our Artistic Director Juha for The Space.

Laurent Grasso, On Air (still) 2009. Courtesy of Laurent Grasso Studio, Paris.
Laurent Grasso, On Air (still) 2009. Courtesy of Laurent Grasso Studio, Paris.

With drone technology becoming increasingly widespread – both in warfare and everyday life – how are artists responding? Rachel Segal Hamilton finds out…

You’ll see them on YouTube playing catch or delivering pizzas. They’ve been used to hunt rhino poachers in Kenya and to map archaeological ruins in Peru, to paint graffiti and to film pornography. You may even have been given one for Christmas. Drones are throwing up new possibilities for how we live, work, play and see the world.

Like many technologies before them – GPS, computers, microwaves – drones are a military invention, and this military context is still overwhelmingly where they’re found. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as they’re officially called, have evolved through various incarnations, from pilotless hot air balloons in the nineteenth century to the Queen Bees of the Second World War to Lightening Bugs in Vietnam, culminating in the Predator, the dominant combat drone used today.

Because Predators fly solo for up to 40 hours, operators can control them remotely, via a screen, from thousands of miles away. After 9/11, the US stepped up its drone programmes, watching and targeting militants in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia from the Nevada desert. Around 4,700 people – many of them civilians – have been killed without trial in these strikes, which human rights groups such as Amnesty and Reprieve condemn as unlawful.

“They’re almost the logo of human ingenuity, our greatest invention – automated machines with agency,” says Juha van ’t Zelfde, Artistic Director of Lighthouse Arts. “[But] these machines that trigger our imaginations are terrorising entire nations, threatening our rules of engagement and international war.” Van ’t Zelfde curated A Screaming Comes Across the Sky, which runs until April 2015 at LABoral Centro de Arte in Gijón, Spain, and takes “a look at the dark side” of UAVs. It’s one among myriad examples from across the arts of a growing interest in drones. There is also Grounded, George Brant’s play about a female drone pilot; Sparked, Cirque du Soleil’s short human-drone dance film; and video artist Omer Fast’s What the Drone Saw.

The Lighthouse exhibition presents a range of approaches; some, like Roger Hiorns’s hanging foam sculptures obliquely refer to UAVs, while others, like James Bridle’s Under The Shadow of the Drone, have an expressly political intent. Bridle makes visible the covert aspects of drone warfare, drawing scale outlines of MQ1 Predators in cities across the world – from Istanbul to London, and now Gijón. A reminder, as Bridle puts it, that “We all live under the shadow of the drone, although most of us are lucky enough not to live under its direct fire.”

Bridle’s activist agenda is shared by street art installation #NotABugSplat. “The idea came when we learned the phrase ‘bug splat’ is used to describe casualties of drone bombings, as humans look like tiny bugs on the ground from a drone camera,” explains Saks Afridi, one of the collective of Pakistani and international artists behind the project. “We decided to do something to counter it: to create a direct visual dialogue between the drone pilot and their victim.”

They printed a portrait of a young, Pakistani girl as a 60×90′ poster on weather-resistant panaflex material and laid it on the floor in KPK province so that it was visible from the air. According to the Bureau of Investigative Reporting, between 416-959 civilians have been killed in CIA strikes in Pakistan since 2004, up to 204 of them children. “Despite the fact that the drone programme sometimes polarises, most people couldn’t argue with the fact that innocent children should never be the casualties of war,” says Afridi.

Both #NotABugSplat and Bridle seek out audiences in virtual, as well as public, space. In addition to his drone shadows, Bridle posts images of the sites of actual drone attacks on his Dronestagram Instagram account. Similarly, #NotABugSplat came to the world’s attention because the artists, in collaboration with Reprieve, released a photograph of the installation, fittingly taken using a drone camera, on social media and it went viral. By putting the viewer in the place of the drone controller, they make us think about how we are accountable for their actions.

Photographer Tomas van Houtryve also plays with the drone’s eye view. In 2012’s Blue Sky Days series, with the help of human rights groups, van Houtryve drew up a list of specific situations – weddings and funerals, for example – where US drone strikes had occurred in Pakistan and Yemen, and looked for similar places in America, which he shot using a drone.

He initially found the heavily mediated nature of this method odd. “There’s this huge social part of being a photographer. With a drone that’s completely cut out. You can catch them unawares. It’s more like being a video game player than being a photographer. This semi-hostile relationship you have with the subject is creepy.”

Nonetheless, he discovered in this novel perspective a way to say something bigger. “While I was driving through the US I’d often just stop at things I saw that looked interesting and take pictures with the drone. So this whole other set of pictures built up, this weird new portrait of America.” Inspired by Robert Frank’s The Americans, he’s expanding the project. “I felt like the Leica was the tool of [Frank’s] time and the drone is the tool of our time. It makes you see Americans as they don’t often see themselves but the way they might see the rest of the world.”

“We’re at a point that happens with all technologies where it’s just on the edge of being democratised, of being cheap enough that anyone can use it. That’s a really exciting time, where you can see glimpses of its applications beyond the military industrial complex,” says architect Liam Young, co-founder of the think tank Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today.

He has, like van Houtryve, embraced drones’ cultural applications, working with musician John Cale to create Loop>>60Hz: Transmissions from a Drone Orchestra in which a flock of vividly-costumed drones, choreographed by Young, performed above the audience’s heads to a score by Cale. The live show at the Barbican in September 2014 was accompanied online by City of Drones, an interactive digital piece, commissioned by The Space and made in collaboration with FIELD.

Young started working with drones in 2010 on the project Electronic Countermeasures, a flock of autonomous GPS drones that broadcast their own WiFi signal. It was a response to the Arab Spring, when governments shut down the digital networks protesters were using to organise themselves. “The work I do is centred around our future relationships to technology, how that changes the way we occupy space, interact with each other, and the way communities are shaped.” Drones, says Young, offer new ways to map, navigate and experience the world. “The drone is just one more technology that’s going to collapse the planet into our pockets.”

In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority has rules about where and how you can fly drones but in the US, the Federal Aviation Authority regulations are yet to be clarified. “Technology evolves faster than our laws to govern it,” says Young. “We see that happening with digital file sharing, for instance. Our capacity to share media has developed faster than copyright law.”

We’re at a crucial moment in which the sky is suddenly becoming “a very charged place,” says van Houtryve. “Will the sky be a place for poets, artists and documentarians or a place where authority figures, military and security forces look down at us? That depends on the regulations.”

Technologies are amoral; culture gives them their ethical dimension. Artists have an critical role to play in the public conversation about how drones should be used. “We’re trying to present them in ways that the general public can connect with, and develop their own opinions and emotional responses,” says Young. “The future is something we actively shape and define.”


Rachel Segal Hamilton is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @rachsh.

This interview first appeared on The Space platform for new digital art on 27 January 2015.

A Screaming Comes Across the Sky is open until 5 April 2015, for more information visit



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