Drone warfare is more than the deployment of a new type of weaponry. I believe mechanized killing and surveillance is also a social and cultural phenomenon. It intimately affects everyday life.
I set out to explore these phenomena through a research project called “The Cultural Life of Drones.” This project focuses on how drones in contemporary warfare affect the subjective experiences of individuals whose lives they touch.
How does the drone industry affect workers whose livelihoods are tied to these weapons’ development and manufacture? What goes through the mind of a drone operator sitting thousands of miles away from their target? What of family members who survive traumatic losses exacted by these machines? I want to parse out subjective dimensions of drone warfare as a grammar of labour, execution and terror.
One facet of drone warfare I find particularly fascinating is “pattern of life analysis” – a method used by the military to help identify strike targets. It involves the translation of human activity into digital code. What happens when the intimacy of killing shifts from human to machine? What does it mean to be human under such conditions? I ask both for those who look through the drone’s objectifying lens, and those who live under its stare.
I have the rare freedom to explore some of these questions through contemporary art. Artists provide a creative language that helps forge new ways to think through these strange and complex social, ethical and political issues.
Consider “5,000 Feet is the Best” a cinematic work created by Israeli-born, Berlin-based video artist Omer Fast.
Based partly on interviews with a predator drone sensor operator, the video combines original footage with fictionalized vignettes to restage live-fire missions. The elliptical narrative refuses to draw ideological conclusions. Fast’s video implicates the viewer in the dynamics of conflict while raising questions about the unfinished business of killing in war.
Another project that explores what it means to live in an increasingly monitored and mechanized world is Public Studio’s (2014) piece “Drone Wedding.” Toronto-based artists Elle Flanders, Tamira Sawatzky and Anna Fritz created this eight-channel video installation for the Ryerson Image Center Media Wall. The artists explore how “sophisticated recording devices can generate instability, uncertainty, and a sense of immediate danger.”
Viewers experience a 360º perspective on a fictionalized wedding. The surveillance-video feel of the installation casts sinister undertones on what might otherwise be a playful celebration. Using sound, image and digital manipulation, “Drone Wedding” provokes examination of the modes of surveillance that pervade contemporary social relations.
“Drone Wedding” and “5,000 Feet is the Best” both use visual language to bring the viewer closer to understanding the “data itineraries” of violence that characterize the drone gaze.
Drone warfare is altering our very sense of what it means to be human. Through “The Cultural Life of Drones,” I hope to help articulate and understand these changes, even as they are happening.