Invisible Shadows: Overturning Secrecy in Drone Technology

Meredith Hoy
School of Art
Arizona State University


Drones, or umanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have become central components of the arsenals of contemporary warfare. Because they are remotely controlled, they impart a sense of Godlike distance between the operator and those under attack, potentially mitigating guilt or responsibility by erasing the immediacy of presence. Drones tend to leave behind a great deal of collateral damage, killing hundreds within their blast radii. One trend amidst art production is the exhibition or “making visible” covert operations and the suppression of information about military technologies. An incisive look at these technologies and a decisive attempt at a critical interpretation of their contribution to contemporary ways of seeing is necessary in a time in which “our technical infrastructure is becoming ever more invisible.”[1]

Several issues arise when considering the implications of the utilization of drone technology both in the military-industrial complex and in artistic adoptions of their technical capabilities. Both in a metaphorical and a literal sense, drones act as an extension of networked technologies such as the Internet insofar as they perform as the eyes of the network of satellite communications, data collection, and instructional codes. Artist James Bridle has concurred with this estimation, stating that “one way of looking at drones is as a natural extension of the internet in terms of allowing sight and vision at a distance. They’re avatars of the network for me.”[2] Drones function as nodes in a complex network of location-aware surveillance technologies that are guided and deliver information about their activities via satellite. They are instructed to attack after the covert gathering of data, but outside of the military, no one knows exactly how this information is gathered about targets. Moreover, as Nadav Assor has remarked, drones are constructed not as a singular technological entity, but rather as a conglomerate of individual mechanisms including code, motors, mechanics, and electronics.[3] Both in their individual physical makeup and in relation to one another, they operate as engines of distributed activity enacted as a result of internal and external linkages, between the mechanisms that constitute them as devices, and between the data that drives them to attack at various points of a global network of locations.

Drones are instruments that are both known and visible (they can sometimes can be seen overhead) and unknown and invisible. Artist Trevor Paglen has commented about the recent history of drone deployment that as early as 2003, “if you were driving through Nevada you would sometimes see them.” However, “that base is on complete lockdown now.”[4] The early visibility of the technology has been suppressed, and drone operations have become increasingly covert. The public has some idea of their presence, but they become shadows of themselves, seemingly immaterial because they go unnoticed. See, for example, the project entitled “Drone Shadow” by Bridle, in which he creates chalk outlines of drones on the ground similar to those inscribed around the bodies of murder victims by law enforcement. This project emphasizes the physical presence of drones in the skies above, as well as our propensity to ignore or simply not perceive signs of that presence, such as shadows (both literal and metaphorical—i.e. “living under the shadow of the drone”).

Despite their seeming omnipotence as agents of surveillance and catalysts of violence, drones exhibit a marked potential for glitch that is frequently experienced and sometimes exploited by artists who have appropriated them for creative ends. There is a high rate of catastrophic crashes in projects that use inexpensive drones, such as Lee Montgomery’s experiments with the Parrot.AR drone, Greg Riestenberg’s with the SCOTUS drone, and Suzanne Treister’s piece called “the Drone the Filmed the Opening of its Own Exhibition,” during the opening of which the artist was forced to buy a new drone when her first crashed. In Art2Drone, one project specifically addressing the phenomenon of the drone crash is Ricardo Dominguez, Ian Alan Paul and Jane Stevens’ “Drone Crash Incident”. Staged on the UC San Diego campus, “as a form of critical fiction or disturbance theater,” the “crash” was manifested theoretically through publicization.[5] The artists created and distributed different elements of “hard evidence” of the drone’s existence, including press releases, documents, photographs, and other communication mechanisms. The status of the crash as simulation rather than actuality did not fail to produce responses amongst officials within the University of California system. The malfunction of the drone, instantiated by the crash, is also the very thing that establishes its existence and renders it visible. The crash disrupts the capacity of the drone to control a territory through, first, disembodied vision and second, the brutal deployment of firepower.

As the technology becomes more fail-safe it also becomes more powerful, and therefore more dangerous. Montgomery likens this difference to riding a bike versus driving a car. But the difficulty, danger, and potential for glitch in drones are the very properties that appeal to artists working with them. Artists, unlike perhaps military controllers of drones, are interested in the instabilities and unpredictable nature of technology, and work to foreground this in their experimentations with it. Revealing this instability undercuts the sense of omnipresence/omnipotence associated with the military use of drones in contemporary society. It shows them to be flimsy, prone to error, and also opens up the possibility of productive critique wrought by repurposing drone technology.[6]

In the context of Art2Drone, Jim Jeffers has turned drone technology towards the goal of providing protection instead of perpetrating destruction: in his project “(Fantabiography) Flyover 16”, he generates “a fantasy drone surveilling and protecting locations on the earth.” The project exists as fantasy because it assembles a network of points, rather than utilizing physical drone technology. Many drone projects use photographic evidence of the “drone’s eye view” either to expose the sinister aspects of distantiated drone vision or to reveal the specificities of place (as an order of protection), in the case of Jeffers’ piece.

Although Drones are largely imagined as technologies that extend the human threshold of visibility, several projects in Art2Drone explore manifestations of auditory phenomena potentiated by drones. In Richard Johnston’s music video for the song “Weightless,” physical actuation of audio signals on the body (specifically reduction of stress and heart rate) are augmented by the creation of a visual component—an abstract video compiled using drone technology in which the flight of the drone creates a three-dimensional choreography (which the artist calls a dance) to illustrate the movements within the song. Another project deploying sound, this time the generation of sound through movement rather than the generation of movement (visuals) driven by sound is Maria Judova’s “Composition for the Drone.” In Judova’s project, the drone becomes a sonifying instrument by collecting data and converting it into sound. Rather than the omniscience of the drone’s eye view, this renders an experience of a small quadrilateral area that incorporates a different register of the human sensorium. A third project based on sound is Simon Remiszewski’s “Drone Conditioning.” In this case, the sound produced by the drone is not generated by outside data or detourned towards an abstract musicality. Instead, the sound communicates far more literally. As drones fly above Pakistan and Yemen, inhabitants experience the ever-present buzzing of the devices overhead. They are both terrified by the sound and become conditioned to it, perhaps becoming accustomed to a life of fear. Remiszewski’s intervention brings the drone “home” to the US, asking US citizens to place themselves within the experiential threshold of the distant and often faceless “other” constructed in the popular imagination. In this way, the seemingly great divide between two cultures is narrowed, and the perpetration of violence by the unmanned vehicles is brought to the attention of those who might rather ignore it. In his artist’s statement, Riemiszewski invokes the power of satire, turning a potentially acerbic critique towards humor. “By introducing you and your loved ones to the sound of the drone long before they’re hovering above your neighborhood, you can preemptively eliminate such stress and anxiety!” This ironic tone serves to dispel a purely fearful reaction to the buzzing sound of overhead drones, instead provoking a more reflective view not only of the outright destruction perpetrated by drone technology, but also its more subtle effects.

In sum, drone technologies, typically conceived as sinister instruments of the military-industrial complex, have been adopted in a variety of ways by contemporary artists. In some cases, these artists launch a powerful and prescient critique of the dangerous aspects and impacts of these devices. In others, their capacities for surveillance and violence are turned towards other aims, such as their potentiation of sentiments of care and protection and their activation of visual and auditory stimuli that reduce the stress levels of the viewer/listener. Regardless of particular artists’ point of view on the potential for good or harm of drones, the omnipresence of this technology has provoked a need for an active consideration of its social and political implications. As world-shaping agents, artists occupy a unique position, as they have regarding other political technologies and issues, in their ability to critique through the creative use and repurposing of this powerful, unstable, and contentious technology.

[1] Harger, Honor. “Drone’s Eye View: A Look at How Artists are Revealing the Killing Fields.” Accessed January 10, 2015

[2] Davies-Crook, Susanna. “Art in the Drone Age.” Dazed. Accessed January 10, 2015.

[3] (from the creators project the complexity of drones in art)

[4] Davies-Crook, Susanna. “Art in the Drone Age.” Dazed. Accessed January 10, 2015.

[5] Paul, Ian Alan. “Drone Crash Incident.” Accessed January 10, 2015.

[6] Rothstein, Adam. “The Complexities of Drones in Art.” The Creators Project. Accessed January 10, 2015