International Relations

On Skynet, self-healing swarms and Slaughterbots
Jutta Weber

Slaughterbots, a video clip that went viral on YouTube shortly after its release in November 2017, might be one of the most influential drone imaginaries to date. The video pictures the dangerous potential of the deployment of autonomous swarms of self-flying mini-drones equipped with Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities, cameras, sensors, face recognition and explosives. This chapter discusses drone surveillance from a data sensing point of view, problematizing the idea that drones can be autonomous machines without human influence.

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Rasmus Degnbol and Andreas Immanuel Graae

In this interview, Rasmus Degnbol describes his experience of documenting the migrant’s trail through Europe’s new borders from above. The interviewer, Andreas Immanuel Graae, inquires what kind of emotional distance as well as visual proximity the bird’s eye views of the drone creates between the photographer and the migrants. And he asks which practical and social challenges this vertical perspective implies – and how, according to Degnbol, it might help the viewer grasp the massive scale of the humanitarian crisis as well as the radical transformation of territories and communities in the age of drones and mass migration.

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The life, death, and rebirth of drone art
Arthur Holland Michel

Stemming from a year-long research initiative that has compiled a comprehensive portfolio of works encompassing the drone art movement, this chapter explores the features and functions of the many artistic interventions that have sought to address, interrogate, and often protest the advent of unmanned vehicles and their growing use in both peacetime and wartime skies. Focusing on the genre’s most active years, particularly in the period from 2010 to 2016, the chapter discusses the common assumptions, contradictions, and motivations behind these works, and describes their role in providing an arena and vocabulary for an effective and wide-ranging community and political discourse around drones and the attendant issues of transparency, human rights, privacy, and automation. Looking to the future of the movement, the author will theorise as to how the genre’s forms, functions, and communities will evolve in light of ongoing shifts in both prevailing public attitudes toward drones and the evolution of the technology itself, and ultimately ask whether ‘drone art’ as it has been understood and defined heretofore can remain a viable and influential proposition given the increasingly familiar, though no less resolved, technological realities and tensions of our drone-filled world.

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Imaging the human body in drone warfare
Svea Braeunert

The image operations of drone warfare oscillate between a disappearance of the human figure and its obstinate re-appearance. While drone crews fly their missions from bases in the US and hence put their bodies out of harm’s reach, people in the target regions are subject to the kind of warfare that targets individuals and reduces kill boxes to the size of the human body. However, if one takes operators’ testimonies and the number of civilian casualties into account, the drone’s optics regularly fail their task. What the drone is meant to detect are individual bodies; yet, what it actually transmits are abstract landscapes with human figures reduced to mere shadows. A number of artists have picked up on this dynamic between landscape and body that, according to art historical terminology, can be described as a tension between figure and ground. In order to trace that tension, the chapter will, for the first time, juxtapose works by Noor Behram and Seth Price.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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