C-Astral Bramor UAV during landing, Kilpisjaervi, Lapland, November 2012, courtesy of Marko Peljhan
C-Astral Bramor UAV during landing, Kilpisjaervi, Lapland, November 2012, courtesy of Marko Peljhan

Unmanned Aerial Ecologies: proto-drones, airspace and canaries in the mine


08 June 2015

I recently gave a talk about the use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, in tactical media art. The intention was to place the work Lighthouse is presenting at this year's Brighton Festival 2013 in a wider art historical context, and to acknowledge some of the significant interventions that artists working within media have made over the past 10-15 years. By Honor Harger

Trevor Paglen with telescope. Photograph from MIT.
Trevor Paglen with telescope. Photograph from MIT.

On Tuesday 16 April 2013, I gave a talk in Brussels at the seminar, Look Up in the Sky! which was organised by Cimatics as part of their Digital Now programme, to coincide with the Brussels Art Fair. Michel van Dartel moderated, Bram Crevits introduced the exhibition he curated for the Digital Now, and James Bridle gave an excellent talk on drones called, ‘A Quiet Disposition’, which he’ll be reprising at Lighthouse in Brighton on 9 May 2013.

My talk followed on from a piece I wrote last November, which looked at contemporary artists’ responses to drones. It was an attempt to provide some recent art historical context. Below is a rough account of what I said, annotated and illustrated where practical.

Unmanned Aerial Ecologies: proto-drones, airspace and canaries in the mine
by Honor Harger, 16 April 2013, Brussels

Tonight, I’m going to talk about the environment that we find drones in. We are going see plenty of drones this evening, in James Bridle’s presentation, so my job is to begin with the natural history piece, and place drones in the wider context of their ecology. So to start, I want to refer to the title of the symposium. Because when you say look up in the air at the sky, I immediately see this:


In the Air by Nerea Calvillo & collaborators

Airspace. The space where airwaves propagate. Information space. And that’s the space that I’ve been interrogating my whole career, both as an artist with r a d i o q u a l i a, as a writer, now mainly on the science blog, Particle Decelerator, and as a curator over the past 15 years.


Atlas of Electromagnetic Space by Jose Luis de Vicente & Bestario (2008).
Co-commissioned by AV Festival 08, directed by Honor Harger

We often ask ourselves, at events such as the Digital Now programme, if it still relevant for us to be talking about media art today, when technology has become pervasive, and therefore mundane. Surely, as it becomes enfolded into the practice of all artists, media art as a form becomes obsolete? Well I would argue the opposite, that media artists are some of the culturally deep and urgent guides to a landscape which is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate using the maps and compasses we’ve grown up with. I want to show how media artists are the veritable canaries in the mine, detecting weak signals about how our technolgised world is shaping up, and giving us ways of both perceiving this changing world, and acting within it. In particular, I want to show how media artists have, for the past 15 years, created projects which presciently framed and contextualised the issues and technologies which have collided to enable today’s drone-wars.

Situational Awareness by Marko Peljhan (2007) at Ars Electronica, Austria, 2007

As the oft-quoted science fiction writer, William Gibson (2007) has said, in relation to new technologies:
The most interesting applications turn up on a battlefield, or in a gallery.

That is very much the case, in relation to drones. In many ways, media artists are uniquely qualified to frame a contemporary conversation about drones. Because today to have an interest in drone technologies, whether for military or civilian use, is to have a concern with, and interest in, the networked information space in which they belong. And that is the space that media artists, particularly artists who work from a tactical media perspective, are experts in.

Many of the artists who are making some of the most interesting and impactful work about drones have often found them whilst studying the sky using a whole armory of other instruments. They are concerned with the politics, power structures, architectural infrastructures and mediated activity of the network.

Read the full talk text here on Honor’s blog: http://honorharger.wordpress.com/2013/04/21/unmanned-aerial-ecologies-proto-drones-airspace-and-canaries-in-the-mine/


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