The Reposition Matrix
The title of the show is pretty self-explanatory. Because, yes! The drones are indeed getting closer. Nowadays UAVs aren't just shooting at terror suspects and innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, they also have civilians uses such as monitoring orangutans and other endangered species or helping farmers check the condition of their crops which is obviously valuable and exciting. But drones are also enrolled to increase control and surveillance over our heads: the German railway network is deploying them to combat graffiti-spraying 'gangs' and a European commission document suggests that, in the coming years, drones could be used in crisis management, law enforcement, border control and firefighting. Human right activists are calling for "greater clarity and transparency about when and how these tools are deployed." Eric King of Privacy International also told The Guardian that "the secretive way in which surveillance drones have been put into operation, and the failure of the police to recognise and address the human rights issues involved, has created a huge potential for abuse."
The exhibition addressed these issues with projects that range from the chillingly premonitory Bit Plane by Bureau of Inverse Technology (1997) to Young's most recent research projects. One of them is TELEWAR, a book and video made in collaboration with The Force Of Freedom (the book is available for free in PDF and it makes for a very informative reading about the uses and impacts of new warfare technologies.)
As part of the TELEWAR project, the group of artists were also showing military patches used on drone programmes. You can get some for cheapo on ebay and if you really are into creepy military patches, i can't recommend enough Trevor Paglen's collection of Emblems from the Pentagon's Black World (more in I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me.)
But let's get back to business because the reason why i wanted to interview Dave Young is that a couple of weeks ago he headed the workshop Movable Borders - The Reposition Matrix at the Furtherfield gallery.
Participants were invited to contribute to Movable Borders, Young's ongoing research project that investigates shifts in the permeability of territorial and political boundaries and the role that technology plays in the 'reterritorialisation' of the borderline.
The workshop focused on the use of cybernetic military systems such as remotely piloted aircraft (drones) and the Disposition Matrix, a dynamic database of intelligence that produces protocological kill-lists for the US Department of Defense. Together, participants were challenged to collaborate on developing a cartography of control: a map of the organisations, locations, and trading networks that play a role in the production of military drone technologies.
Since i only had a brief chat with Dave Young at the opening of the Furtherfield show, i decided to ask him a few more questions via email:
Hi Dave! The Reposition Matrix aims to create an "open-access database that geopolitically situates the organisations, locations, and trading networks that play a role in the production of military drone technologies." First of all, i'm curious about the source of the information that you collect through this project. Where do you find it? I guess some of it must be hard to come by? Concealed? supposed to remain out of reach of the public?
The fascinating thing about this project, for me at least, is how one public thread of information begins an almost overwhelming process of unraveling. A mention of a drone crash in a very public news source leads to the military crash report subsequently released under an open government initiative, which then mentions an external non-military public company involved in the piloting of the drone that day, who publishes some information about their involvement in military operations in their annual reports, and so on. The information is perhaps not deliberately concealed as such, but is hidden in the mass of documentation, hyperlinks, and search terms provided on governmental and corporate websites. Past participants have often expressed their surprise at what is deliberately revealed by companies - on their social media profiles, for example. These companies are often proud of their contributions to national defense efforts, and occasionally can be perhaps a little over-generous in the information they volunteer online. In the context of a single Facebook post, a corporate image can seem innocuous, but when cross-referenced with the correct secondary source, you can begin to reveal something otherwise concealed.
And how is the open-access database going to be kept alive? How and who updates it? Where can we read it?
The database is being compiled and added to by me personally at the moment, but I am developing a collaborative framework for use in the workshops which I will test out over the next few weeks. The database will be made available over the Summer (date to be announced!), and will form the basis for future workshops.
Another thing i've been wondering about is the way that you handle the data you find. Most of it i guess is obviously genuine information but how about the data coming from conspiracy theorists, or from people who have an interest at spreading as much dis-information as possible, etc? Is this something you consider?
This is an interesting question, and often leads to a good discussion in the workshops about how to filter sources. Participants have to debate what is important, and what can be considered trustworthy - or indeed if a fabricated theory can indeed be an important part of the map.
Most of the information participants work with is released 'genuinely' - as I said above, through official channels by public companies or governmental open data programmes, although it is important to place these too within the context of an agenda. The trustworthiness of the information we work with is always up for debate, and can be divisive amongst the participants, but in general, what tends to happen is we treat each thread of information as part of a wider network. Curiosities discovered during the workshop will corroborate or conflict with each other. This is where the world map becomes a useful interface for physically aggregating the found information, as participants can immediately begin to see a formalisation of their research, and can ask questions of it as it develops.
The drones and the US kill list seem to be far away from the kind of culture and preoccupations we have in Europe... Or are they? How much impact does the Disposition Matrix (a database that United States officials describe as a "next-generation capture/kill list." ) and drone program have in Europe? Why should it matter to us?
I think for the participants of the workshop it quickly becomes apparent that the production and military use of drones is truly a global issue. Washington quickly has links to London, Berlin, The Hague, Seoul, UAE, Turkey - the list goes on (and on...) What we can see emerging at the moment are the formation of alliances, power blocs that collectively invest in drones and share them and the information they collect as a trans-national resource. It is interesting to attempt to unpack this and examine how such alliances function as a network of power and control.
As for the disposition matrix, the use of an algorithm or protocol to compile a capture/kill list is really something worth having an open and frank discussion about. To me it really speaks of a wider societal shift which I find problematic, specifically these processes of monitoring and individuating populations. Indeed a well-treaded debate with many unresolved fundamental issues, but despite this, it can only be said that it is becoming increasingly embedded in governmental thinking.
Also, it is important to explore how and where these technologies function - while it is unknown for now how much impact the disposition matrix has in Europe, similar protocols are becoming increasingly pervasive here, particularly in countries such as the Netherlands, the UK, Germany, France, to name but a few. They may not be applied to such direct efforts as targeted killing, but they do appear to operate in welfare systems, immigration control, predictive policing, among others.
You recently organized a workshop at Furtherfield in London. Participants were invited to investigate drones and the Disposition Matrix. Can you describe briefly what happened? What the participants managed to achieve?
The workshop opened with a discussion framed around a few specific questions I wanted to put to the participants, as I was keen to encourage a critique of some of the conventional ideas regarding the use of drones that appear regularly in news reports. The participants were very open, willing to engage and question each other which was fantastic. Their backgrounds were quite diverse too, with a mix of artists, academics, social scientists, etc, and the ensuing discussion really reflected this. Following that, the participants formed small groups and began to work together on the world map. Each group worked with their own base document, researching its contents and trying to visualise its geopolitics through this process of mapping.
So, one example is a group who began looking at Wikileaks cables detailing US fears that Iran was using 'proxies' to get components required to build their own drone and evade trade embargoes. They began to draw the trading networks Iran had allegedly built up onto the map, criss-crossing West Asia, North Africa, Europe, and Japan.
What is interesting is where different groups collided on the map - important nodes in the network predictably appear in Washington and the FATA regions of Pakistan. Often some surprising locations pop up too, usually reflective of the backgrounds of the workshop participants as they try to investigate any connections between the drone war and their own politics and places of origin.
I'm also fascinated by the description of Google Boundaries, "a series of images taken by the Google Streetview car as it encounters border checkpoints. The project is an investigation into the geopolitical systems that influence Google's streetview product, re-situating its task of mapping the streets of the world as being an invasive, territorial act." Could you explain what you meant by that? And how you came to investigate border checkpoints through the eyes of the Google Streetview car?
The Google Street View car has famously made the debates about privacy and digital rights visible - people who in the past felt perhaps unthreatened by Google's data-harvesting all of a sudden saw it as an invasive act. They could suddenly see their own houses - perhaps even themselves outside, in all their vulnerability. I became more interested in this idea of Street View as a colonialisation while researching The Reposition Matrix. When you zoom out as much as possible with Google Maps, you can see the territories that have Street View - a strange hierarchical geography revealed by a blue overlay on the map. Recently, Iran have announced they will release their own "Islamic" version of Google Earth as they see Google's services as a threat to their national security, so there are strong territorial politics at play here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/10/iran-plans-islamic-google-earth
I know this is still a work in progress but what have you discovered so far?
I started by trying to "road-trip" across the US-Mexico border control using Streetview. You can't pass through them like you often can in Europe - frequently the Street View car seems to get as close as possible to the border then turn back at the last moment. It is interesting to examine historically contested borders - the Israel 1949 Armistice Borderline shows a border control officer looking straight at the Street View car, gun hanging from his shoulder.
Examining the border crossings begins to illustrate the materiality of Google's task, and the beuraucratic issues operating in the background. Despite Google's omnipresence in the cloud, the Street View car is often caged in by boundary politics. They are regularly adding new Street View data to the map, so I'll be curious to investigate how this changes over time.
Any upcoming projects, areas of investigation or exhibition you want to share with us?
There are some more Reposition Matrix workshops coming up over the following months - Dublin as part of the Glitch Festival on the 15th June, another one at V2 on July 6th, Share conference in Croatia 18-20 July. People are of course very welcome to get in contact and come along to the workshops if they'll be in the right place at the right time! More information available on http://movableborders.com.
There are some more projects that are part of the Movable Borders series, following on with these investigations of alternative territorialisations and geographies. One of them requires some research into the history of cocktails and mixology, which I am particularly excited about...
More images of the workshop at Furtherfield.