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The power of remote vision

This book investigates drone technology from a humanities point of view by exploring how civilian and military drones are represented in visual arts and literature. It opens up a new aesthetic ‘drone imaginary’, a prism of cultural and critical knowledge, through which the complex interplay between drone technology and human communities is explored, and from which its historical, cultural and political dimensions can be assessed. The contributors to this volume offer diverse approaches to this interdisciplinary field of aesthetic drone imaginaries. Sprouting from art history, literature, photography, feminism, postcolonialism and cultural studies, the chapters provide new insights to the rapidly evolving field of drone studies. They include historical perspectives on early unmanned aviation and aerial modes of vision; they explore aesthetic configurations of drone swarming, robotics and automation; and they engage in current debates on how drone technology alters the human body, upsets available categories, and creates new political imaginaries.

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Jan Mieszkowski

Today, photos and videos are increasingly made by machines for machines. The almost unimaginable scale on which still and moving images are created and processed by digital surveillance and information systems ensures that the overwhelmingly majority of them will never be seen by human eyes. This chapter explores the sublimity of big visual data in the post-vision age and considers its implications for emerging drone aesthetics. Although by definition unmanned aerial vehicles take the place of human beings or fill roles to which people could never aspire, several contemporary artists have nonetheless turned to drone media in an effort to resuscitate the humanist paradigm of the autonomous artwork, a singular product that cannot be subsumed by an algorithm or a data set. In the fight against the spectacle of immensity and complexity that underwrites the neoliberal rationalization of life, drones may yet prove to be a valuable weapon

in Drone imaginaries
Interview with photographer Tomas van Houtryve
Tomas van Houtryve and Svea Braeunert

In October 2012, a drone strike in northeast Pakistan killed a 67-year-old woman picking okra outside her home. At a US Congressional hearing held in Washington in October 2013, the woman’s 13-year-old grandson, Zubair Rehman, spoke to a group of lawmakers. ‘I no longer love blue skies’, said Rehman, who was injured by shrapnel in the attack. ‘In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.’ According to strike reports compiled by investigative journalists, Zubair Rehman’s grandmother is one of several thousand people killed by covert US drone strikes since 2004. Although we live in the most media-connected age in history, the public has scant visual record of the drone war and its casualties. In response, artist Tomas van Houtryve decided to attach his camera to a small drone and travel across America to photograph the very sorts of gatherings that have become habitual targets for foreign air strikes – weddings, funerals, groups of people praying or exercising. He also flew his camera over settings in which drones are used over America to less lethal effect, such as prisons, oil fields, and the US–Mexico border. By creating these images, van Houtryve aims to draw attention to the changing nature of personal privacy, surveillance, and contemporary warfare.

in Drone imaginaries
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Repellent Fence and trans-Indigenous time-space at the US–Mexico border
Caren Kaplan

This chapter analyses the art installation The Repellent Fence (2017) by the artist collective Postcommodity. This group staged a line of 52 floating balloons in the Sonoran Desert crossing into Mexican and US territory. The balloons have Indigenous Eye iconography and are also otherwise used as insect and bird repellents. This chapter investigates the artist’s reflection on aerial surveillance in the region and connects the balloons to the digital drone used for border control.

in Drone imaginaries
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Nineteenth-century hot air balloons as early drones
Kathrin Maurer

Digital drone surveillance practices can erase notions of a three-dimensional space continuum and destabilise territorial boundaries. This chapter, however, aims to show that this process of spatial flattening is not exclusively a feature of digital, but also of analogue forms of surveillance. Its focus is aerial surveillance from hot air balloons, which was initiated by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783. Analysing nineteenth-century poetic literature about ballooning (Jean Paul), this chapter aims to show that the balloon view triggered new forms of spatial perception (loss of central perspective, the diffusion of spatial boundaries, blind spots). As the literary works show, this flatting of the horizon was closely entwined with a critique of social hierarchies and seen as a symbol for social mobility; issues also at stake in current deliberations about fluid surveillance and space. This chapter critically discusses the similarities of hot air balloon reconnaissance with contemporary drone surveillance technologies and initiates a debate about whether forms of pervasive surveillance and their reconfigurations of communities are an exclusive effect of the digital.

in Drone imaginaries
Lauren Wilcox

As war has been considered by many to be one of the most gendered of all human activities, this chapter suggests that perhaps one of the reasons this form of warfare is so troubling and difficult to classify in contemporary conceptual frameworks is precisely that it defies the gendered categories that have constituted theories of war and political violence in International Relations. Inspired by feminist critiques of the war/peace distinction in terms of sexualised violence against women, the chapter draws on queer and black feminist thought to analyse not only how the drone challenges our understanding of what war is, but also how it must be understood as a gendering and racialising technology. Given the much noted ‘voyeuristic intimacy’ of the drone and its fetishised, even sublime qualities, and the predator/prey ‘manhunt’ structure of this form of violence, the chapter argues that to understand the gender politics of the drone we must examine the mutual constitution of both the concept of gender as a technology of embodiment and a racializing technology.

in Drone imaginaries
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Andreas Immanuel Graae and Kathrin Maurer

The Introduction describes the scope of the book and gives an overview of each chapter. It also discusses key terms including drone imaginaries, vision, aesthetics, social imaginaries and communities.

in Drone imaginaries
Thomas Stubblefield

In their focus on possible identities, meanings and events, the martial networks of US drones enact a shift from producing a definitive world picture to overseeing the ground from which such representations emerge. The mobilization of data that makes this possible, conflicts with the historical goals of surveillance and reconnaissance operations. Rather than identifying discrete individuals, the kill chain collects the partial traces of metadata in order to produce the actors necessary for a strike. These relations allow drones to penetrate the world directly, to work through and as instead of upon its objects. In this way, drone power shifts from the symbolic to the ontological; its operations become one of world-making. Using work by Trevor Paglen, Noor Behram and others, this chapter examines the ways in which the above relations resurface in the context of drone art and the larger attempt of this genre to reimagine its subject by way of this convergence.

in Drone imaginaries
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A techno-bestiary of drones in art and war
Claudette Lauzon

If the advent of the drone wars in the early twenty-first century was largely accompanied by narratives of virtuality and disembodiment, recent years have witnessed a renewed attention to the human dimensions of drone warfare – from Hollywood’s fascination with the lived experience of UAV pilots to theoretical examinations of the agential capacities of the drone. But what are the stakes of such representational strategies in a context that arguably relies on the dehumanization of drone targets and victims? This chapter draws on feminist theory and critical posthumanism to explore both the objectification of human subjects in contemporary warfare and the anthropomorphisation of the drone in popular culture. In conversation with a series of recent artworks, the chapter examine the figure of the drone through three rhetorical filters – the swarm, the blob and the corpse. Together, these filters help to elucidate an aesthetics of estrangement that might paradoxically cultivate a praxis of solidarity and care among the ‘stranger things’ of drone warfare.

in Drone imaginaries
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Insects, drones and swarming in Ernst Jünger’s The Glass Bees
Andreas Immanuel Graae

Since ancient times, insect swarms have triggered uncanny emotions such as anxiety, paranoia and panic within human communities. During the twentieth century, this imagination revived as it merged with fantasies of autonomation and emergent behaviour among intelligent machines. As an eager entomologist with a keen eye for technology’s impact on the human, the German author Ernst Jünger put these ambivalent emotions into literary form in his futuristic novel The Glass Bees (1957), which features advanced robotic bees hardly distinguishable from today’s micro-drones. This chapter investigates Jünger’s novel as an early literary work on drone technology and situates it in the proper historical context as it arrives in a dawning era of computers, networks and automation. The drone swarms in the novel can be seen as something inherently uncanny, which evokes feelings such as paranoia and anxiety – emotions that are easily associated with the authoritarian community where this drone technology is used. Focusing on the figure of the swarm, the chapter thus discusses how Jünger’s artificial bees foreshadow today’s drone technologies and the prospects of swarming robots in warfare as well as everyday life.

in Drone imaginaries