Before you set foot in James Bridle's new exhibit at D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery of Art, you will likely walk directly on top of its largest work: an outline of a Reaper drone, as though it were passing right overhead, on the sidewalk outside the museum, one block from the White House.
The piece stems from a conversation Bridle had with a friend, Einar Sneve Martinussen, in January of 2012. "We were trying to understand why [drones] were so compelling," Bridle said. "We were trying to understand why we were trying to understand them and what they meant, essentially." Bridle and Martinussen had a small model of one that they were staring at, "but," says Bridle, "it didn't help us, because we had no idea of the scale."
They went out to the parking lot outside Bridle's London studio with a diagram of a drone and a bit of chalk and sketched out a drone to actual size. "Suddenly it had this whole different weight to it. It totally transformed our understanding of what these things did and how they feel -- their effect in the world." It wasn't until later that he realized the chalk outline's primary connotation: a murder scene.
This piece, like all of the pieces in the exhibit, are borne of Bridle's struggle to understand drones -- what they are and what they mean for people and governments around the world. How can we understand something we can't see? For Bridle, making sense of drones begins with making them physical. They are, after all, a physical phenomenon, metal machines with corporeal effects. Perhaps by connecting with their material reality, by seeing them, we can understand them in a new way.
Take, for example, Bridle's Dronestagram project, an Instagram account featuring Google Maps pictures of the sites of American drone strikes. At the Corcoran, the Dronestragrams are projected onto a wall of Gallery 31, a space run by the Corcoran's College of Art + Design, as though they were slides from a recent family vacation.
The project is a sort of play on Instagram's common function. "It's a platform that's supposed to give you a glimpse of everyday lives," Bridle explained. "But this is not the everyday kind of thing you expect to see. But they are everyday events for many people."
In a sense, Dronestagram seeks to reverse the technological powers of the drone, which are, as Bridle put it "sight and action at a distance." With Instagram, which lives in our pockets on our phones, Bridle can bring this sight and this action (or, at least, the knowledge of it) back to us.
Joseph Hale, who curated the exhibition, told me he sees it as an effort to "meet the ante" through art. "One of things that a lot of the work in this room has in common," he said, "is that it has to do with the question: If governments have these sorts of superpowers, how can we rethink the public equivalent? Almost every project in this room involves using publicly accessible resources to look into the same spaces that the government hand has already reached."
That's certainly the idea behind "Watching the Watchers" a series of images of drones collected from Google Maps and other publicly available satellite-image sources.
"These things are kind of secret and invisible and no knows about them or talks about them, until recently, and yet we've mapped the entire globe and they are visible if you choose to go looking for them," Bridle said.
But at the same time, Bridle realizes that drones are more than the sum of their 3D parts; they are the capillaries of a network, the point at which lines of computer code, political power, and obscured decision-making appear in the physical world. "This is what I'm really interested in at the moment: trying to push this debate back from the fetishization of the drones themselves, back into the computational networks behind them," he says of his piece "Disposition Matrix," a computer monitor reeling through a software program Bridle wrote that searches public resources for people who have a connection to drones and a series of volumes printed from the findings of the program, conveniently accompanied by some gloves for museum visitors to don as they flip through the pages. The program is meant to evoke the system and variables that generates an official "kill list."(As I was standing there, the name of my colleague Jordan Weissmann flashed across the screen, probably because if your name appears somewhere on The Atlantic, another headline not too far away contains the word "drones," and, thus, you are implicated.)