Review of To See Without Being Seen: Contemporary Art and Drone Warfare

To See Without Being Seen: Contemporary Art and Drone Warfare
by Svea Bräunert and Meredith Malone

Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. Washington University in St. Louis, 2016
96 pp. illus. 86 col. Trade, $25
ISBN: 9780936316413

Reviewed by
Jane Hutchinson
May 2017

This catalogue was published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name that was held at The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, Washington, January 29 through April 24 2016. Although the exhibition’s political position is US-centric the contributing artists come from the US, Germany, Belgium, South Korea, Italy and the UK. They exhibit work from 2002 to the present (some ongoing), to raise issues specifically related to drone warfare and surveillance and more broadly concerning, “... the near-invisible activities of the modern state” and “... the mediation of the world through images” (p. 95). So the catalogue documents examples of contemporary “... art, activism and research” (p. 11) to call attention to covert practices of government and the military and associated supporting structures and systems. 

As the title indicates, the exhibition and this catalogue are concerned primarily with the mechanisms and consequences of covert surveillance, and the US military’s use of missile carrying drones or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to identify and kill distant enemies from the relative safety of The Homeland. The exhibition is one amongst other recent and current art events that respond to a growing public awareness, and in some quarters concern, about the military and intelligence agencies’ use of UAVs. This practice gained impetus from President, George W. Bush’s declaration of War on Terror in 2001, followed by Barack Obama’s support for drone use in what he called a “just war” and US self-defence. In previous centuries the justification for war was based upon a premise of there being an identifiable enemy, but now the enemy resists identification and war continues to be waged against a terrorising abstract other. 

Exhibition catalogues can be simple reminders of a visit, formal records of an event, or potentially useful references for auctioneers and archivists. They are also a revenue raising opportunity, especially if the visitor is encouraged to leave the exhibition via the shop (as seems usual these days). In some cases, the ‘exhibition book’ might assume even greater importance as the driver of deadlines for the show and informing the selection of work. This catalogue provides context for the exhibition, which presents the military drone as an embodiment of a discussion about “...the networked systems that shape our daily existence and our ideologies and beliefs, directly and indirectly, openly and clandestinely.” (Malone, p. 9). But how to read and respond to exhibition catalogues can be problematic for those who did not attend the event, only accessing the work second hand as it were, through the curator and editor’s selection. As Ana Peraica has noted in a previous review for Leonardo, exhibition catalogues “…indicate [...] a problem of documentation of media artworks, as well as art installations in space. While on one side it is important to document the exhibition, providing contextual background to its concept as well as technical details in cataloguing, printed matter appears limited in depicting and describing media arts, such as video or sound environments.” Yet, despite the limitations of print in representing visual art and sound installations, the essays and associated comprehensive footnotes in this catalogue do offer valuable information and interest. In addition, the publication provides biographical details so the reader can find out more about the contributing artists and their work. (I recommend that readers do this). Those exhibition visitors who bought the catalogue had access to thought provoking supplementary material that surely contributed to their understanding of the work. For those, like myself, who did not see the exhibition, the essays form the greater value. 

Meredith Malone, the exhibition’s Associate Curator, explains in her introduction that the exhibits are installed both inside and outside of the museum building. This decision perhaps unintentionally reflects the issues presented by those contributors whose work provokes thought about issues associated with visibility and concealment, public and private space, interest and indifference to, or even a lack of awareness of surveillance. I wonder how many people walked over without noticing the white lines of James Bridle’s 1:1 scale outline of the Predator drone painted on the sidewalk by the museum’s north entrance? At 14.8m by 8.22m it would have been difficult to make out its shape from our usual ‘feet on the ground’ perspective, so only visible in its entirety and recognisable from above: a privileged aerial view. James Bridle’s ongoing work, represented in this catalogue by four installation view photographs (perhaps taken by drones?) of his Drone Shadows may have encouraged the exhibition’s visitors, upon leaving the museum, to look again at the painted lines and attempt to follow the outline. It may even have prompted them to look into the sky and wonder if they too were being watched from above.

The exhibition was divided into three sections: ‘Bringing the War Home,’ ‘Tracking and Targeting’ and ‘Countersurveillance.’ So, in addition to an introduction, the catalogue presents supporting material in the form of three essays. In the first, Svea Bräunert situates the exhibition in an active discourse concerning changing conditions of vision and perception.  She explains that the curator and artists’ intention is to use art’s potential to make drone technology and drone warfare, and the systems in which they are embedded, both visual and visible. In this respect the exhibition and to some extent, the catalogue, achieves its aims.

The second essay is ‘Seeing Machines’ by investigative artist and political activist, Trevor Paglen. He begins his discussion by suggesting that photographic images can no longer be understood within the existing analytical frameworks of theory and practice and proposes a new understanding of photography, one that accommodates not only technologies that humans use “... to ‘see’ the world, [but] also the ways machines see the world for other machines.” (p. 51) Paglen (acknowledging the work of Virilio) proposes the term ‘seeing machines’ as a more appropriate definition that encompasses not only devices and distributed systems that are used to create, store and retrieve images, but the images themselves. He anticipates criticism of his definition as too broad to be useful and so counters it with an explanation of the inadequacies of traditional understandings of photography. This is followed by a longer discussion, supported by specific examples, of “... ‘how’ a seeing machine is utterly bound up with the effects it produces.” (p. 52) and as a consequence, how each image produced by a seeing machine has been formed through a particular pre-scripted and prescribed intent. He explains that this intent is designed into the distributed technological system that makes the image or gathers the data from which the image can be made. However, ‘seeing’ is a loaded term. It implies understanding. Seeing machines may collect, translate and present data, and construct images derived from data. They may also interpret, present conclusions, and act according to instruction derived from the rules or the ‘script’ that informs their interpretation, but they do not understand. Paglen describes how he disrupts a particular seeing machine’s script by using it for a purpose for which it was not intended. In this case by producing images of up to 40 miles distant classified military sites using equipment designed for astrophotography. The catalogue includes by way of an example, a reproduction of a photograph of a national Reconnaissance Office Ground Station in New Mexico taken from 16 miles away. While the image has the appearance of a mirage, the building and associated structures are identifiable. The catalogue also includes reproductions of Paglen’s photographs of what at first sight appears to be empty sky. But each contains a drone, a tiny speck of darkness that might be dismissed as dust if it were noticed at all. I imagine these images would have provoked long and intense looking by the exhibition visitors, because once alerted to its presence there is a compulsion to find the aircraft. Curiously, the US military and government agencies do not seem to be particularly troubled by Paglen’s activities. He describes only one example of what he assumes to have been a targeted deterrent, but this is disputed by the authorities. 

Joseph DeLappe uses a different strategy to bring the increasing pervasiveness of drones to public notice. The catalogue includes images of US and English bank notes carefully rubber stamped with a small ink image of a predator drone. It is illegal in the US to deface currency with the intent to render it unfit for use, but DeLappe and the hundreds of volunteers who participate in his quietly subversive art project intend that the notes remain in circulation. So it would be problematic for the state to bring a prosecution and potentially bring the project to wider notice. Perhaps the authorities recognise that although artists and art provoke critical enquiry and comment, they have rarely (if ever?) made sufficient an impression upon public opinion to effect political change.

Countersurveillance, is the third section of the catalogue and the exhibition. It includes the work of author, artist and film maker, Hito Steyerl. Her essay ‘In Free Fall, A Thought Experiment in Vertical Perspective’, explores connections between political power and a change from the historically dominant paradigm of linear perspective and a stable horizon to a “God’s-eye view” (p. 72). Steyerl begins by asking the reader to engage in a thought experiment in which they imagine they are falling, then introduces the notion of there being no ground to fall towards. In this way she leads the reader into a discussion of individual and societal disorientation and confusion, the myth of stability and ground, and  (mis)perceptions of movement and stasis in time and space. Steyerl’s examples, (some illustrated in colour), include accounts of the navigational skills of medieval travellers, scientific instrumentation and experiments into vision such as the depiction of perspective in painting. She moves from the Italian Renaissance artist Paolo Uccello, through to J.M.W. Turner, then the multiple visual and temporal perspectives of cinema and computer visualised modelling of the earth using satellite data. Steyerl’s essay invites the reader to consider the consequences of being able to see from above, the favoured perspective of visual surveillance. The problem that arises though is that the subject of surveillance is increasingly de-contextualized as the observer moves overhead and the field of view narrows. The drone pilot’s view has been described as “looking down a soda straw”. This lack of context - the pilot’s inability to see the big picture - is acknowledged to have led to errors. Limited context leads to errors of interpretation. Steyerl concludes her essay by suggesting to the reader that what may have appeared to be a “helpless tumble” (p. 80) might instead be representational freedom. But this freedom comes at a price that is a new reality of constant uncertainty.  

Privilege, authority and power, represented by military drones and aerial perspective, are intrinsically linked with observation, scrutiny and monitoring. If the work in the exhibition reflects current practices, then visual surveillance is largely dependent upon finding high points or unobstructed air space to fix or fly cameras. So surveillance, whether by CCTV, drones or satellites (a reproduction of one of Paglen’s long exposure photographs of an optical reconnaissance satellite is included in the catalogue) is likely to have material consequences as we respond by shaping the built environment into a place from which we can survey or in which we can hide. The built environment will represent the tension between the observers and the observed.

While the catalogue presents work associated with government surveillance, a desire to see from above is not new and neither is it confined to the military. This is neatly expressed by the instructional designer and photographer Matt Fishbach, who explains “... like a lot of people, I think I have a little bit of that Icarus Syndrome in me, just that desire to fly like a bird and see things from above.”  Aerial views are no longer surprising. Representations of the landscape from above are found in cartography since the late Neolithic period, art since the 15th century, topographical maps since the 18th and photography since the 1860s. Printed material from newspapers through to glossy coffee table books have shown us the land and sea from above. Google helpfully provides us with satellite images that become an immersive augmented reality of our own or someone else’s neighbourhood. One into which we can drop from above and ‘virtually’ walk around. The Center for Land Use Interpretation uses Google Earth images for their project Notable Drone-related Sites in the USA in which they “[make] visible as a political counter strategy” (p. 12) Of these various forms of bird’s-eye view, maps contain explicit icons and keys to their meaning, but photographs, whether analogue or created from data afford a looser interpretation, and their ambiguous clues are open to subjectivity. 

If I type ‘drone’ into Google, the first results are comfortingly commercial. I can buy a drone for ‘fun’ and assume that I will be able to use it to see what was previously out of my sight. TV news infotainment illustrates documentary and investigative reports with ‘insider views’ recorded by drones, although the drone’s-eye view very often offers little in the way of additional or useful information. But through this filtering of the term drone into the familiar and domestic, we are surreptitiously persuaded to consider them as useful, educational and entertaining, or at least, benign. ‘To See Without Being Seen’ is concerned with a very specific type of drone or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). This is a military aircraft, an “aerial robot”, that not only ‘sees’ but carries weapons. One that allows its operators to engage in warfare of an uncertain status from a safe distance, using a satellite control system. This is just as well because the US military’s Reaper and Predator drones are reported as “slow-moving, [at just 84mph] erratic, and fragile shell[s]” that are not invulnerable to attack and “crash at a disproportionate rate in comparison to other piloted systems” (Grayson, 2016, p. 326,) 

‘To See Without Being Seen’ raises the following questions: Who is watching whom? Who is hidden? Who is able to hide? These questions provoke a discussion about de-personalisation, anonymity, and the devolution of responsibility from an individual to a technological system (and therefore without conscience) other. I wonder, does the drone operator in the Nevada Desert, (portrayed as a cartoon character in the computer game Unmanned created by Molleindustria), feel a personal connection to the images of war in the news reports that he watches on his TV after his shift?  Stills from the game intimate that he does. Perhaps the drone pilot does not realise that his role is considered by a cost conscious military industry to require less skill than a fighter pilot’s and so is more cost effective in terms of defence spending (Grayson, 2016, pp. 327 - 328,) in a “perpetual low intensity war” (Hippler, 2017, p. 200). The drone pilot’s job - playing at war, but for real - is driven by a privatised industry’s concern for investment and expenditure, but rather less a concern for collateral damage in enemy territory. It is argued that manned spy planes are limited by human endurance and risk pilot loss of life. This argument in defence of drone use overlooks the fact that unmanned drones are controlled by humans who may also become tired and suffer from stresses that might impair their judgement. 

A particular type of military drone, The Reaper, is not a secret. Images of Reaper drones are plentiful and even in flight at distance of several thousand miles, this UAV is recognisable by Paglen, who, rather like a WW2 child plane spotter with a copy of ‘Know Your War Planes’ can identify UAV’s by their profiles and flight patterns. Paglen’s work invites us to trust that what we look hard to see in his photographs is what he tells us. Just as Foucault described the prisoners of a panopticon, those who are watched by drones are subject to asymmetrical surveillance. “[They] are seen, but do not see; [they] are objects of information, never subjects in communication.” However, although ‘we’ may forget that we are the subject of surveillance, those who live under the threat of drone strikes are, just like the prisoners of Bentham’s panopticon, very aware of being watched and constantly fearful of the potential consequences. We are fortunate if we doubt our ability to be able to tell the difference between a commercial airliner and an UAV. Drones are visible if we make the time and effort to look for them and learn what to look for. Most of us don’t. We either assume drones to be irrelevant to our busy lives or we see them without realising what they are, either way, we don’t consider how it must feel to live under the constant threat, explained by photographer Noor Berham as “a regular thing [...] like any other day in Waziristan, coming out of the house, witnessing a drone in the sky, getting along with our lives till it targets you.” 

Remote Warfare is not a new phenomenon. In fact, warfare is likely to have been experienced remotely for the fortunate majority of visitors to the exhibition and indeed, those who pick up this catalogue. If it were not, then ‘playing at war’ in computer video games such as Unmanned would probably not be appealing. However, perhaps playing virtual war games might be useful preparation for a career in the remote warfare industry if it is indeed the case that some drone pilots begin their training in New Mexico on video simulators “...programmed using Xbox video game controllers.” 

From their inception photographic technologies disturbed understanding of public and private bodies, public and private space, and as a consequence anonymity has become a luxury, if not an impossibility. This catalogue includes work that employs strategies devised to confuse or prevent ‘seeing machines’ from capturing the data that will make an image. The ubiquity of surveillance devices, the expectation that we are surveyed, creates a lack of interest and curiosity, we conform to their insistence, but they are on the whole ignored or overlooked, unless our attention is directed towards them. For example, I have always been aware of the existence of CCTV cameras in my neighbourhood, but my attention was only really drawn to them when, very early one morning, I had to walk around the ‘cherry-picker’ which was being used by council contractors who were cleaning the dome covers. A couple of days later I was captured by Google’s street view camera; a rather uncomfortable experience compounded by the fact that I had no opportunity to refuse to be photographed or avoid the camera. The computerised facial recognition technology at airports requires conformity to a statistically calculated range of normal, anyone outside of this range is required to undergo examination by a human being, drawing attention to their deviation from the norm. So being unexceptional might be a useful strategy if the intention is to avoid being noticed. 

We can become ‘invisible’ by hiding, or by blending in to a mass of similar individuals. Björn Schülke’s Spider Drone #4 is a neither a surveillance camera or a drone but has elements of both. It is fixed to the gallery wall but has moving tentacles that respond to the movement of the exhibition visitors. If you were alone in the gallery, then the spider drone would presumably focus upon you. If you were one of a crowd, its camera eyes on stalks would appear to move randomly and it would not be possible to tell who was being watched. Uncertainty fosters uneasiness and not knowing undermines a sense of security. Distrust has moved from an identifiable person, group or organisation, to an unidentifiable abstract other. We are assured that this surveillance helps to keep us safe. But although we are aware of the presence of at least some surveillance devices we are uncertain whether anyone is looking at the images, or who might be looking. During a recent chance conversation with a CCTV maintenance technician he told me that in addition to the cameras we can see on the corners of buildings or on motorway bridges for example, there are a multitude of hidden ones. He also explained that data storage capability means there is no longer any need to monitor activity in real time, so with the exception of trouble hotspots, the digital footage is only watched after the event if an incident has occurred. This means our movement and behaviour is stored over and over again. Patterns will emerge. A drone operator’s role includes identifying behaviour that fits a pattern: a pattern pre-defined as suspicious: a pattern that may result in a ‘strike’.

While the majority of the work in the exhibition fetes (perhaps inadvertently) augmented vision and visualisation technologies, it also includes work intended to undermine technological surveillance by playing speculatively with mechanisms that exploit the technology’s limitations.  The catalogue includes eight images from Cloud Face created by Engineer Shin Seung Back and artist Kim Yong Hun. Their work presents the results of a technological Pareidolia as a consequence of face recognition software’s misinterpretation of clouds. Adam Harvey’s CVDazzle draws upon a technique originally used during the first world war to disrupt the appearance of a ship, so making it more difficult to spot by the enemy. (The Vorticist painter Edward Wadsworth oversaw the painting of Dazzle on ships in Liverpool in 1918). While the original intention for Dazzle was to disrupt visual continuity and so confuse the enemy observer, Harvey’s intention is to confuse machine vision technology by creating ‘anti-faces’. State of the art face detection algorithms fail because they cannot ‘see’ beyond the surface, however, images of Harvey’s ‘anti-faces’ are clearly recognisable to us as human even though they are obscured by camouflage. The most affecting images in the catalogue are, for me, those by Tomas van Houtryve for his work Blue Sky Days. The work’s title was inspired by a young Pakistani boy Zubair Rehman, who explained to a congressional hearing in Washington in 2013 that he prefers grey days because drones cannot operate in cloudy weather. The work alerts us to the potential disastrous consequences of misinterpretation and misunderstanding arising from a drone’s vertical perspective.

The catalogue provides a wealth of thought-provoking information for those, like myself, who have only a limited knowledge about drone warfare and digital surveillance. Regrettably though, the images in this publication do not represent the exhibition very well. Double page spread images across the centrefold are always rather frustrating: Spider Drone 4, Blue Sky Days and Paglen’s photographs suffer as a result. Fortunately, it is possible to find Hito Steyerl’s digital video online as it is not even adequately represented by the stills. Neither is Harun Farocki’s Eye/Machine III, which concerns the work of what he terms ‘operative images’ that are part of a military and surveillance processes. Although the catalogue is difficult to recommend in terms of its representation of the exhibited works I have no such reservations about the essays. Both Paglen and Steyerl present instructive and interesting information that explains the issues and concerns informing their work, although both are drawn from previously published papers accessible elsewhere.  Svea Bräunert’s excellent essay would have been indispensable reading for many exhibition visitors. It is accompanied by 36 footnotes that make it easy for readers to find out more about the context of the various installations and the intentions of the artists. As the record of an event worthy of repetition, the catalogue will provide curators with a jumping-off point from which to find out more about the contributing artists and a useful overview of the exhibition as a whole.

The catalogue is produced by an art museum in association with an exhibition that, although important, is a temporary add-on to the respectability of the permanent collection. As such, it is a means by which the museum can demonstrate its awareness of topical concerns. As befits an establishment that began life as a teaching museum and is still affiliated to the educational institution of Washington University in St. Louis, the exhibition encourages visitors to look more closely at their immediate surroundings, and question their assumptions about the wider world. This catalogue is an example of an expectation that there will be a publication to enlighten the interested visitor, just as there will also be a requirement to produce “A Guide for Educators,” and an Impact Statement. All of these are part and parcel of a successful application for funding. However, given the importance of the issues presented by the exhibition I suggest it should be installed in open access public spaces rather than the inherently elitist (despite much effort to prove the contrary) spaces of galleries and art museums.