The Drone in Social Imaginaries
Abigail Susik


As new technology impacting the cultural sphere, the drone distinguishes itself in its unusually disparate applications as an amusing hobby toy, a banal commercial tool, and a terrifying prosthetic weapon. The drone encompasses a double affective potential to appear as both laughable, endearing, and pet-like— or— as nightmarish, uncanny and symbolic on a primal level. If the drone itself currently possesses a riven identity given these wildly divergent applications, then it is no surprise that social imaginaries about the drone are likewise fragmented. Given the incredible quotidian proximity of advanced technologies to our bodies in the current moment, and also the heightened pace of the production, development and obsolescence of these technologies, the manifestations of what might be called technological social imaginaries are possibly more conflicted and illegible than in previous spans of modern history.

Surveying the contributions to the Art2Drone exhibition, it becomes clear that what I call in a sociological sense “social imaginaries,” or the intersection of shifting collective and individual imaginative attitudes, are accordingly divergent and impassioned in relation to the drone at present. As evidenced by these curated works, drone technology awakens a remarkable range of ethical, anachronistic and psychosomatic reactions. Art2Drone conjures mythologies and prophecies from ancient religion and myths; anticipates apocalypses, dystopias, and techno-futures; suggests the genetic evolution of technology as anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, or A-life; revivifies profound metaphysical fears and fantasies of omniscient surveillance, fatal overexposure, and imminent mortality.

Beyond the question of art shaping social imaginaries, apprehending and comprehending some of these diverse iterative paths of drone art offers the opportunity for rapport with and implementation of a kind of drone technology that escapes the dominance of media rhetoric and also the pragmatism of the commercial sphere. Between the extremes of technophilia and technophobia await myriad avenues of possibility, if not necessarily promise. The Art2Drone works come together as a kind of inadvertent think tank for the extended         pro-suming or DIY applications of drone mechanisms, just as they condense and clarify latent and explicit cognitive reactions to the wave of drone production— in particular the unique concatenation of dread and wonder that often accompanies new technologies that have evolved out of war cultures. While the drone is obviously a war machine, reconnaissance tool, hobby toy and vehicle of commerce, among other things, Art2Drone conjectures: might it not also be a dancer, landscape painter, musician, friend, pestilence, savior, god or pranksterish vandal?

Like the Italian Futurists, who fervently responded to the advent of automobile, aeronautic and bomb technologies in the first quarter of the twentieth century, contemporary artists recognize the dialectical implications of the drone as a remarkable novelty that paradoxically also signals the waning of a range of cultural phenomena. The cultural relevance of the landscape tradition as defined by the horizon line, the privileged physical mastery and training of the artist’s eye, and the aesthetic insularity of “represented” reality, among other things, are all put into further question by the drone’s imaging capacities. For the Futurists, the car, airplane and mortar presented an immediate redefinition of aesthetics on both a macro and micro-level, proclaiming the destruction of the edifice of tradition as such, but also unveiling stylistic effects like blurred motion, all-over composition, and radically disproportionate scale.

Yet, whereas the Futurists dogmatically identified with the advantages of these new technologies and celebrated the hybrid aesthetics of beauty and violence resulting from them, contemporary artists are unable to assemble in a unified avant-garde to take a unanimous position on the ramifications of the drone for culture and art. Certainly the aesthetic qualities of the drone as ghostly, uncanny, automatist and hypnotizing are explored in artistic responses such as the examples included in Art2Drone, however as of yet there have been understandably no proclamations comparable to the radicalism of the Futurist orientation. The vagaries of historical relativism considered, the current aesthetic equivocation about the drone is productive. This is the case even if the equivocation does not for the most part stem from a position of social agency but rather from the confusion of the media vortex, a now-entrenched cultural habit of techno-pessimism, and most importantly, the extensive deployment of the war drone by the United States in a sequestered manner.

However, the question of agency does play a part in the expression of social imaginaries about the drone, and this agency arises through art. Unlike the Futurists, who did not employ their favored emergent technologies to make art, probably as a result of the fact that these technologies were either unobtainable or unwieldy, contemporary artists just as frequently make art with drones as they do about them. Accessibility and adaptability are vastly increased in the case of the drone, hence art and techne are able to merge once again to a notably heightened degree— and with that art and warfare also become more proximate. The ability to utilize the drone for art production therefore offers a historically unique opportunity for artists themselves to shape the evolutionary path of this technology, and additionally to activate an applied commentary on the often bellicose impetus for technology innovation.

Due to its prosthetic and visualizing capabilities, the drone is readily assimilable to the artist’s practice as a method of shaping and reflecting the physical world. This practical application of the drone for art is highly significant, but nevertheless such developments have not yet outweighed the immense psychological impact of the other kind of drone unavailable to artists— the spying and killing war drone. This polymorphous identity of the drone as approachable tool and foreboding, distant force, render it complex and explosive aesthetic material. A relative of the balloon, the unmanned submersible, the security camera, the helicopter and the satellite, the drone is not so unprecedented in its traits that it exceeds historical associations. Yet, the implied potential of the drone to achieve an alarming level of ubiquity, oversight and mortal dominance in the atmospheric layer between earth and space, sways its appearance in social imaginaries and also therefore in art.