Drone Over Washington

Artist and critic James Bridle's UAV-focused show opened this week at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, one block from the White House.
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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.

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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.

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Creech AFB, Nevada (STML/Flickr)


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Shamsi, Pakistan (STML/Flickr)


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Gray Butte Field, California (STML/Flickr)


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STML/Flickr

"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.)

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This is where the exhibit seems to connect drones back to the recent reporting on the NSA's mass surveillance programs. Although Bridle's central challenge is to see drones, to make the invisible visible, that effort is not limited to highlighting what is already "visible" (as, say, "Watching the Watchers" does); it includes bringing things that exist in bits or systems of power into a physical, visual form that we can see and critique. "If we focus just on the aesthetics and the physicalization," Bridle says, "we'll just keep on looping over those same obsessions. Whereas if we can "see" what's invisible, we'll find that "it's the same structural systems that underlie the NSA surveillance systems as underlie [drones]."

And that gets at, at least in part, why Bridle finds drones so compelling; they are a focused object lesson in technology at large, not just this specific tool. "When I talk about what drones do -- sight and action at a distance -- those are functions of technology," he says. And many other technologies allow those same basic capabilities, but they're directed toward other purposes. "You can bend them one way, for civilian uses, and tend toward transparency and openness and empathy, as we do with our contemporary social media." That's what a tool like Instagram is "designed to do."

"Or," Bridle continued, "you can take the same set of technological possibilities, and bend them toward secrecy and violence." He calls this the "dark mirror" of our modern network. And, he theorizes, by understanding something more about drones, we can understand something more about technological systems and how they affect us. In drones, their political use is apparent, bald. Can we see the purposes, the ideologies, that are invisible behind our more quotidian tools? Bridle thinks so. "Once you start to understand how the drones are a manifestation of political intent, you start to understand a bit more of the constructed nature of all technologies."

For Bridle, seeing is not believing -- it's thinking. "It's not just about, well here's a thing. It's about: Pay attention to this thing. Think about it a little bit more." To take in Bridle's work isn't just to see drones, but to be invited into his struggle to understand them, to wrestle with what it means to live in an age of spooky action at a distance, the likes of which Einstein never imagined.

And if we can follow Bridle's lead and begin to understand them, to think more critically about them, where does that get us? "I have to believe that given greater awareness and greater debate we can move toward systems that involve greater accountability and agency," he said.

"But," he added, "we're still a hell of a long way from that."




James Bridle's exhibition A Quiet Disposition is open at the Corcoran's Gallery 31 until July 7 and it's free!

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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