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Attack of the Drones

Attack of the Drones

14 May 2013 Tom Hunter

London Calling talks to artist and creative technologist James Bridle

The shadows of sinister technology are made all too visible in James Bridle's inspired new art work, Under the Shadow of the Drone, now haunting the streets of Brighton.

London Calling: Tell us about Under the Shadow of the Drone

James Bridle: UTSOFTD is a 1:1 outline of a Reaper drone, a military unmanned aerial vehicle currently in service with the RAF and USAF. The Reaper is an armed aircraft, used for both surveillance, and air strikes, in support of ground troops, and as part of an assassination programme carried on outside declared theatres of war, in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia (and possibly elsewhere).

Drones are weapons which are designed to be obscure: that is, they are rarely seen either by the people at whom they are aimed, or by the citizens of countries that operate them. As a result, they possess an aura of technological sophistication which obfuscates much of the ethical argument around their use.

The drone paintings - which are further described here: http://booktwo.org/notebook/drone-shadows/- are attempts to render the drones and the policies they enable legible, and therefore accessible to discussion and critique.

But they are also an attempt to make visible technologies in general, which in a larger sense are also obscure and misunderstood, leading to a suppression of agency of those who encounter and are mediated by them, which is most of us.

LC: You’ve worked with Lighthouse before as a creative technologist in residence. What exactly does a residency involve, and indeed how would you describe the role of a creative technologist and is it overly different from an artist in residence?

JB: The Happenstance project was a fascinating one. I was initially sceptical that the alleged "culture of technologists" could be simply imported to another organisation and culture - in this case, an arts organisation - as a series of processes, but in the event the discussions that it generated were really beneficial on both sides. Technologists - broadly, people who have a skilled understanding of technology, and are comfortable working with it, both creating and using software and hardware - are not very good at helping that understanding spread to others with different backgrounds, so it was very valuable. I would say it was much more of a working relationship, with the technologists supporting the organisation, where an AIR programme is probably more often the other way round.

LC: One thing we keep seeing next to your name on a Google search is your notion of the New Aesthetic. Could you tell us a little about the ideas behind this concept?

JB:The New Aesthetic is an ongoing research project into the intersections of technology and culture as they emerge into the world, as visual imagery, but also as the more complex psychological responses and mental models that support this. It's as much about our understanding of technology as about the technology itself. We live in a world that is almost entirely interleaved with technological, networked processes - there's no longer any meaningful distinction between online and off - but we lack much of the vocabulary and metaphor needed to describe this adequately. The New Aesthetic is one attempt to generate such a language and framework for understanding the world as it actually is, rather than a world underserved by old metaphors, or confused by notions of a remote "Future".

LC: We were especially taken by the recent research you did into the ubiquitous but fake drone image that has proliferated across the internet. What first led you to start digging into this?

JB:My research covers all sorts of areas, and as part of the New Aesthetic and related research into drones, I often try to understand the origin, spread and misrepresentation of images of technology. This is particularly relevant to military drones, which are always semi-hidden, and in that space all kinds of misunderstandings arrive. So the photoshop drone is a near-perfect image of our contemporary lack of comprehension in the face not just of robotic warfare, but of all networked technologies.

LC: You originally worked in publishing. Do you think the industry is now beginning to grasp the opportunities for digital publishing and promotion, or is it still very much first baby steps?

JB:I still follow the publishing industry closely, and it's made a number of advances in the last decade, but its broad attitude to technology - and particularly how it effects authorship, distribution, and reading - is still largely one of fear and mistrust. As a result, I'm pretty pessimistic about its ability to respond adequately to the challenges presented by internet superpowers like Amazon and Google. That said, there will always be writers and readers: the books themselves will be just fine.

(Readers might want to have a read of http://booktwo.org/notebook/the-new-value-of-text/if they want to dig into this more)

LC: What does it mean to do projects for fun, money or both, as part of the Really Interesting Group, and is East London still as interesting as its billed or is the tech-sheen of Silicon Roundabout starting to fade do you think?

RB:I'm lucky enough to pursue the projects that interest me, most of the time. I think RIG's tagline just means we'd like to get paid, but we'd probably be doing this stuff anyway. It's a very privileged position, but one we've all worked pretty hard at, and it is supported by the culture of East London's tech scene. I love London, so for me East London is a lot more than the tech scene of course, and I think there's a danger in buying into too much of the corporation and Government-led hype around "Tech City", but look behind it and there are a lot of brilliant people doing fascinating things.

Commissioned by digital culture agency, Lighthouse for this year's Brighton Festival, which runs from May 4 – 26, Under the Shadow of the Drone is designed to encourage people to imagine a military drone making a sudden incursion into the airspace of their own city and to confront the reality of what it might be like to experience a bombing raid carried out by a drone aircraft.

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