Technologist/artist/writer James Bridle has made a career out of studying the ways digital technology has changed the way we experience the world, altered our perceptions, and affected our thinking. One of his many accomplishments has been to coin the phrase the "New Aesthetic" –– a term he (and now many others) have adopted to describe the ways technology has blended the virtual and the physical.
Bridle's latest endeavor is an installation piece titled Under the Shadow of the Drone (set be unveiled at Brighton Festival, May 4 – 26) that focuses on one of the more maudlin outgrowths of the New Aesthetic. With nothing more than a white painted outline, Bridle has asked viewers to engage with the usually silent military aircrafts, and the very real consequences they cause.
Military drones may be one of the clearest examples of the New Aesthetic, if also one of its most insidious manifestations. "One of the main themes has been how we come to understand what technology is and what it does," says Bridle. "I have a political interest in drones as well, but beyond that, they stand for all aspects of these invisible technologies that have a great effect on the world but are kind of largely hidden from view."
It's this hidden nature of technology that Bridle is interested in uncovering. "One of the common issues that comes up when people are talking about drones is that people don't have a strong understanding of what they're talking about," Bridle tells us. "Drones can mean all kinds of things – in this case we mean military drones. And we realised we didn't even have a strong realization of what these things are like."
This lack of clarity led Bridle and his team to consider why, exactly, it is that people have such trouble envisioning these machines that are fighting large portions of the war on terror. "We can't visualize them, we can't build strong mental models of them," he says. "I had a little plastic model of one on the table, but had no sense of the physical reality of something like this. And that spiraled into another discussion of the visibility and tangibility of network technologies in general –– the sense that non-visible, non-tangible technologies have an effect on the world."
A desire to create that tangible, touchable, physical presence for these otherwise ghostly aircrafts led to the inception of Under the Shadow of the Drone.
"We decided to actually sketch out one of these things to scale, just to actually see a 1:1 representation of it. And that's what we did, and it became a really interesting point to start a discussion when you could actually look at a physical representation of them," he says. The resulting outline in the streets of this year's Brighton Festival won't be the first time Bridle has constructed the installation (he outlined a drone in Istanbul last year, as well as one in a parking lot.) This time, though, he's teamed up with digital culture agency Lighthouse, where he served as Resident Technologist last year.
The "shadow" is a scale recreation reminiscent of the chalk borders of a fresh crime scene. "The only thing I ever really ask is [to paint the drone] somewhere you can get quite a good viewpoint on it. A location where it is quite visible, quite public. Hopefully it will make quite a striking image." (To put things into military perspective, the coordinates of the installation will be 50.818463, -0.12926.)
Under the Shadow of the Drone is just the latest way that Bridle is raising public awareness about drones. "If you study technologies you quickly begin to run backward into the military origins of a lot of them. Whether that's the origins of computers in ballistic missile calculations and artillery, the Internet with its origins in the Cold War, or many contemporary technologies as well; Kinect comes from military vision projects. So drones come out of that particular history. It took me awhile to figure out why military drones strike such a chord. That was happening in parallel with my investigations into the visibility of technologies. It was quite a long time before I made the connection in my head at least between them."
With his now famous Instagram account Dronestagram: A Drone's Eye View, Bridle collected images of drone targets along with bluntly matter-of-fact descriptions of the carnage they incur.
"Dronestagram is another one of these projects that tries to address that kind of invisibility issue," he says. "You hear about some of the places these strikes are occurring, but you don't necessarily see them. And that's kind of odd in this day and age. Ever since the advent of mass media, we tend to be filled with images of battlefields themselves. We have maps, and reports, and journalists on the ground. The wars that drones enable don't take place like that. We don't see them. It was an attempt to render the battlefields visible, to point out that these are real locations where people lie. To try to give some sort of imagery to that discussion." Appearing in your Instagram feed between images of foam art cappuccinos and fluffy pets, the aerial photographs and their matter-of-fact descriptions of casualties are absolutely jarring.
Asked what he would like visitors to Brighton Festival to come away with, Bridle says he hopes to ignite a spark of curiosity. "I would like them to, if anything, become interested in the subject. The things we put out in this way are really just starting points. Maybe they could become interested in military technologies and what they do in the world, and maybe technology as a whole."
Under the Shadow of the Drone by James Bridle, Brighton seafront. Produced by Lighthouse and Brighton Festival. Photographs by Roberta Mataityte.