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Julius von Bismarck, POLIZEI, 2015. Photo by Timo Ohler

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He Xiangyu, Tank, 2011-13. Plant-based-tanned leather. Photo by Timo Ohler

Fire and Forget is military jargon for a type of missile guidance that can hit its target without the launcher being in line-of-sight. The expression is symptomatic of a new type of warfare in which the people firing, killing and destroying are emancipated from the fear for their own life and the direct physical -or sometimes even visual- contact with the victim(s) of their shooting.

The exhibition Fire and forget. On violence currently on view at KW in Berlin asks whether this loss of direct physical confrontation has led to a new definition, production and perception of violence.

The show follows four main threads: the first one explores how Borders are decided and enforced to contain political, economic, cultural, religious, or ethnic tensions. Affect explores the long-term impact that violence from a distance has on the human psyche. Memory/Remembrance investigates whether history and commemoration inhibits or heighten violence. The final section looks at how the Event of violence itself reflects how each new situation is once again a singular moment of release, and of a decision for violence.

Fire and Forget is a brilliant and timely exhibition. However, while walking from room to room, i kept wondering why most works were not accompanied by descriptions and commentaries. Some of the pieces on show as self-explanatory, others left me frustrated. I could guess they were interesting and coherent with the whole show but i missed the elements to fully understand why.

Fortunately, i am a blogger and had plenty of time to waste online looking for the missing pieces of information...

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Kris Martin, Untitled, 2010. In the background, works by Henning Rogge and Hrair Sarkissian. Photo by Timo Ohler

Many Europeans (and Americans) tend to associate the Middle East with violence and several pieces in the show brought some much needed nuance to our prejudices.


Sharif Waked, To Be Continued, 2009

Sharif Waked's film, To Be Continued, follows the format of the "living martyr" videos made by a man or woman declaring in front of a camera their determination to carry out a suicide bombing mission.

In this video, however, the protagonist, played by Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, doesn't read his last will. Instead, he reads a lengthy excerpt from One Thousand and One Nights. By mixing the familiar and feared figure of the suicide bomber with poetic texts, Sharif Waked confounds our expectations of masculinity in the Islamic world.

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Hrair Sarkissian
, Execution Squares, 2008

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Hrair Sarkissian
, Execution Squares, 2008


Video interview with Hrair Sarkissian on Execution Squares

Hrair Sarkissian's series Execution Squares shows fourteen public squares in three Syrian cities (Aleppo, Lattakia and Damascus) at sun rise, the time when executions usually take place in the country. The condemned person is often brought to the square at 4.30am, and their body is left there until around 9am so that citizens can witness the scene on their way to school or work.

In the late 1990s and 2000, the practice became less frequent in Damascus because the capital had become more internationally visible, Sarkissian explained in an interview. But they kept doing it in other cities such as Aleppo, where at least one person was hanged every month.

The artist was as a schoolboy when he passed one of these squares and saw three bodies hanging in the street. The image has haunted him ever since. Sarkissian's images show empty streets, there is not hanging body to gape at, no trace of violence. Yet, once you know the story, the photos seem to be haunted by the brutality that took place on those squares.

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Roy Brand, Ori Scialom and Keren Yeala Golan, The Country Sand Printer, 2014. Photo by Timo Ohler

Nowhere does daily border violence manifests itself so stringently as inside and around the ever expanding Israel land. Walls, watchtowers, constant controls and other obstacles regulate the movements of Palestinians.

A room in the show is almost entirely occupied by The Country Sand Printer, by Roy Brand, Ori Scialom, and Keren Yeala Golan. The machine traces the evolution of the Israeli state through its settlements, reprinting over and over the expansion of Israel into the sand. A mechanic metal needle lightly draws lines in the sand, ensuring that traces of previous plans remain visible while new lines demarcate new territory borders.

A nearby video by Armin Linke, Road Block at Gaza City, Netsarem Settlement Beach Road (sorry couldn't find any image of it online and i didn't take any of the work while i was visiting the show) seems to respond to the invasive printing machine. The film shows how an event as banal as a roadblock near Gaza City forces Palestinians to make long and uncomfortable detours by foot in order to get to their intended destination. Colonization isn't just a theft of land, it is also a theft of time.

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Henning Rogge, Mascheroder Holz, 2011

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Henning Rogge, Altwarmbüchener Moor, 2013

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Henning Rogge, Projensdorfer Gehölz, 2013

Like Sarkissian
, Henning Rogge documents in photos the scars left by violent events. This time however the traces are still visible. His series shows how nature has adapted to the craters left by the bombs launched during World War II in Germany. After the war, the craters have slowly become part of the landscape and ecology, offering new pond habitats for animals, including endangered species.


Damien Hirst, Do It, 1995-96

The ultra short video above reminded me how good Hirst can be. The artist takes a gun and explain very quietly the best way to shoot yourself.


NEOZOON, Buck Fever (excerpt), 2012

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NEOZOON, Buck Fever (video still), 2012

Buck Fever explores the emotions that surround the violence perpetrated against animals. The film is a You Tube collage of hunter amateur recording the moments directly preceding and following the shooting an animal.

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James Bridle, Drone shadow, ongoing project. Photo Timo Ohler

Guided missiles and drones are clear examples of Fire and Forget technology. James Bridle's silhouette of a drone painted on the street in front of KW reminds us that, in spite of being located far away from the battlefield, drone operators fire but do not forget. Studies have shown that the pilots can still develop mental health problems like depression, anxiety as well as other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

More images from the show:

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Joachim Koester, The Place of Dead Roads (production still), 2013

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He Xiangyu, Tank, 2011-13. Plant-based-tanned leather. Photo by Timo Ohler

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Daniil Galkin, Tourniquet, 2015

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Fire and Forget. On violence, installation view. Photo: Timo Ohler

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Emily Jacir, Bank Mirror, Ramallah, April 22, 2002, 2002

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Ala Younis, Tin Soldiers, 2010

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Ron Amir
, Malek, 2004

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Chto Delat, Time Capsule. Artistic report on catastrophies and utopia, 2014/2015. Photo: Alexander Koch / KOW

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Mircea Cantor, Shooting, 2005

Fire and forget. On violence was curated by Ellen Blumenstein and Daniel Tyradellis. The show remains open until August 30, 2015 at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin.

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The Glomar response refers to the US government prerogative of power to "neither confirm nor deny" the existence of information. The expression was created by the CIA in 1975 in response to media inquiries about a covert program which involved the Glomar Explorer, a salvage vessel built to recover a sunken Soviet submarine. The form of non-denial denial is symptomatic of the times we are living. Nevertheless, the ever-increasing opacity of political and social processes accelerated by computer code and secret law is countered by the growing ability of individuals and activists to use those same networked technologies to investigate and act with ever greater agency.

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James Bridle, Seamless Transition. Inflite Jet Centre, Stansted airport Photograph: Picture Plane

The Glomar Response is also the title of James Bridle's solo show which will open tomorrow at NOME, a gallery in Berlin dedicated to the interweaving areas of art, science and political activism. Bridle's exhibition will present a series of works that use computer code, investigative journalism, and visualization to explore hidden spaces and classified information. Whether they investigate CIA torture, automated police surveillance, relics of British imperialism or immigration, the works on show demonstrate the impact that politics has on technology and architecture.

"Politics are encoded into the architecture and the technology," the artist told me during a skype discussion. "They betray the intent. But we still need some literacy in order to be able to decode the situation so my work aims to make these codes visible but it also calls for the need to raise this literacy.

There's also another aspect to these works and it's that i'm not entirely convinced by this process. I think that there are limits to what you can do. None of these works is going to lead to huge changes in the system. The pieces in the show also speak of that frustration."

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Diego Garcia (Waterboarded Documents 001), 2015. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de

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Chagos (Waterboarded Documents 002), 2015. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de

Bridle will premiere the work Waterboarded Documents in Berlin. The installation is made of research documents surrounding the operation of websites and domains that end in .io. These web domains, popular with a number of trendy companies, are linked to the island of Diego Garcia and the other islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory. But most people who use these domains are unaware of the dark story of these islands.

The islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory form an archipelago that was forcibly depopulated in the 1970s by the United Kingdom, at the request of the United States which needed an unpopulated island to set up a military base. Ironically, the base is called Camp Justice. Because of its strategic position, the US used it as a base during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a CIA black site and transit point for the extraordinary rendition programme.

The British government has consistently denied any illegalities in the expulsion. Moreover, in 2010, the British Cabinet announced that most of the archipelago would be turned into the world's largest Marine Protected Area, a move that will prohibit commercial fishing as well as oil and gas exploration in the area. Leaked documents seem to confirm Chagossians' suspicion that this MPA was created to prevent the islanders from returning to the islands.

The case has not been heard by any international court of law as no appropriate venue has been found to accept the case.

The navigation charts, maps and other documents shown in the gallery have been submitted to waterboarding, just like some of the people 'interrogated' in the framework of the rendition program. The water damage also alludes to claims made by the British Government that files relating to the UK's role in the CIA's global rendition operations could not be released due to accidental water damage. Finally, these damaged documents illustrate the complicity between contemporary technological networks and older forms of entrenched and imperial power.

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Inflite Jet Centre, Stansted airport Photograph: Picture Plane

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Special Immigration Appeals Court, London. Photograph: Picture Plane

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The interior of Inflite Jet Centre. Photograph: Picture Plane/The interior of Inflite Jet Centre

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Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, Heathrow. Photograph: Picture Plane/Picture Plane

Bridle is also showing Seamless Transitions, a work that demonstrates the quality of his investigative practice and that makes tangible and visible sites shrouded in invisibility and secrecy.

Developed in collaboration with digital imaging studio Picture Plane, Seamless Transitions puts into images three unphotographable sites of immigration judgment, detention and deportation in the UK: the Special Immigration Appeals Court, whose design is informed by the need to present secret evidence; Harmondsworth Detention Center, a privately run prison near London Heathrow Airport; and the Inflite Jet Center, a private terminal at Stansted Airport that the Home Office uses to deport rejected asylum-seekers.

Bridle reconstructed the spaces by collating witness accounts, planning applications and open source information in the hope that the resulting animation would raise a debate about the legal procedures of immigration and detention. Moreover, the work looks at the use of new imaging practices to carry out investigation in the absence of other visual media such as photography.

Having no pictures available of a phenomenon has become a technique of not talking about it, he told ICON. Physical representations make more tangible the kind of things people find it difficult to talk about because they are non-physical, digital or complex.


James Bridle Interview - Seamless Transitions

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James Bridle, Fraunhofer Lines 004 (Information Commissioners Reports, 2008-2012), 2015

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James Bridle, Fraunhofer Lines 005 (David Miranda), 2015

The third piece exhibited at NOME is Fraunhofer Lines, a series of visualizations from a variety of sources, including the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture and the UK Information Commissioner's reports on automated police surveillance. These documents, released following Freedom of Information requests, have been analyzed with computer vision to reveal the extent of redaction and the discrepancies between different documents. They are named and patterned after the gaps in the sun's spectra discovered in 1814 by physicist Joseph von Fraunhofer, which both revealed the absence of certain frequencies of light reaching the earth's surface and pointed toward new methods of analysis and understanding.

And i'll end the story with video for anyone who doesn't get a chance to see the exhibition in Berlin this Summer:


re:publica 2015 - James Bridle: Living in the Electromagnetic Spectrum

James Bridle - The Glomar Response is at NOME gallery in Berlin from 25 July until 5 September 2015.

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Paolo Cirio, Overexposed (Michael Hayden), 2015

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Paolo Cirio, Overexposed (Michael Hayden), 2015

Over the past few months, artist Paolo Cirio has been quietly collecting pictures of high-ranking U.S. intelligence officials on social media. He then blew the photos up using High Definition Stencils (an OS graffiti technique he invented), spray-painted the reproductions of the misappropriated photos and plastered the copies onto the streets of cities like New York, Paris or London.

The individuals targeted in the Overexposed series are some of the officials responsible for programs of mass surveillance or for misleading the public about them. Their names are: Keith Alexander (NSA), John Brennan (CIA), Michael Hayden (NSA), Michael Rogers (NSA), James Comey (FBI), James Clapper (NSA), David Petraeus (CIA), Caitlin Hayden (NSC), and Avril Haines (NSA).

Cirio tracked down these portraits through open-source intelligence (OSINT), an information-gathering method that uses the internet, including social media, as an investigative tool. OSINT is used by government agencies, law enforcement, corporations and people involved in marketing. But activists and journalists are also routinely relying on it for their research. The portraits brought to light by Cirio are photographs and selfies of government officials taken in informal situations by civilians or lower ranking officers.

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Paolo Cirio, Overexposed (Keith Alexander), 2015

By making private portraits of members of the CIA and NSA part of the public domain, both through his street interventions and the detailed documentation of the research he published on his website, the artist invaded the private life of these government officials (though not as much as they might invade ours) and literally gave a face to U.S. intelligence services. The work holds a satirizing mirror to the people participating to operations of mass surveillance, commenting on the need for public accountability and pushing to its most uncomfortable limits the trends for 'overly mediated political personas.'

Cirio's political satire reverses the contemporary means of propaganda, exposing the extent to which a public image can be captured on camera and exploited by the very same systems that intelligence officials seek to control. Overexposed derides the watchers with embarrassing pictures over which they have lost control, effectively turning the tables on them and their advocacy of mass surveillance and lax privacy practices.

An exhibition of Overexposed is opening tomorrow at the NOME gallery in Berlin (keep your eyes peeled for their programme in the future because they work with some of the most thought-provoking artists engaging with digital technologies) so i contacted the artist to get more details about the series:

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Paolo Cirio, Overexposed, (Michael Rogers), 2015

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Paolo Cirio, Overexposed, (Michael Rogers), 2015

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Paolo Cirio, Overexposed, (Michael Rogers), 2015

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Paolo Cirio, Overexposed, (Michael Rogers), 2015

Hi Paolo! To be honest, when i first read the description of the project, i was expecting some blurry portraits and no name at all. But in the series you go full on: the individuals are very recognizable and their identity is given. Do you expect to get into trouble with this work?

The legal question is not really about the officials because they are public figure, so the use of their photos fall under parody laws and free expression. The controversy is actually about the ownership of those photos and from where they were obtained, in most of the cases the selfies were taken by civilians, random people or acquaintances of the intelligence officials. On my website you can find the original photos where you have the individuals together with officials in the snapshot taken with smartphones and uploaded directly on the social media. I think so far they still don't know that their pictures ended up on public walls around the world. I don't know how they will react yet, the project was published just a few weeks ago.

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Paolo Cirio, Overexposed (Caitlin Hayden), 2015

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Paolo Cirio, Overexposed (Caitlin Hayden), 2015

And since you actually have a history of getting into trouble with your work, could you explain us which part these (mis)adventures, legal threats, cease & desist play into your work?

It's not just about getting in troubles, instead it's about generating legal reactions that reveal contradictions on the inadequacy or abuse of the laws that I want to criticize. In same cases, confronting the subjects of my performances on the legal terrain lets everyone understand which are the actual power structures that generate particular social conditions.

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Paolo Cirio, Overexposed (James Comey), 2015

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Paolo Cirio, Overexposed (James Comey), 2015

According to the press release, you used your HD Stencils graffiti technique and spray-painted hi-re reproductions of the photos onto public walls. How do you select the locations for these street interventions?

I paste these reproduction of photos mainly in popular street art locations, where people often take pictures that end up on the social media again. This exposes these officials even more through having their pictures in recirculation on the social network with the glamour of the street art.

And how do you go from street graffiti to art gallery? Do you feel that your work, and these stencils in particular, gets another meaning or has to be framed in another way when you change the exhibition context from public space to white wall space?

Beyond the public art interventions made for a wider public, I'm interested in formalizing the pieces as pop art and appropriation art, bringing them in the realm of the art world, which for me it is also a distribution system. Eventually they became historical portraits of figures that mark our time of expansion of cyber-warfare and astonishing programs of mass surveillance, which hopefully we will only remember as an awful war against civil society of the past. Also my technique HD Stencils offers very particular aesthetic qualities that can be fully appreciated with maximum perfection of the works made for the art gallery.

Thanks Paolo!

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Paolo Cirio, Overexposed (James Clapper), 2015

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Paolo Cirio, Overexposed (John Brennan), 2015

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Paolo Cirio, Overexposed, 2015

The exhibition Overexposed opens at the NOME gallery in Berlin on 22 May and remains on view until 20 July.

A detailed catalogue of the show is available for download (PDF.)

Previous mentions of Paolo Cirio's work on the blog: Unstable Territory. Borders and identity in contemporary art, Cultural Hijack, Notes from WJ-Spots Brussels, History and future of artistic creation on the Internet and The Digital Now - 'Drones / Birds: Princes of Ubiquity'.

Last panel, last post about the Drones event organized by the Disruption Lab Network in Berlin a couple of weeks ago.

Compared to my previous post (Eyes from a distance. Personal encounters with military drones), the talks from the panel Tracking Drones, Reporting Lives zoomed out from the personal perspective and brought together a data journalist, a documentary director and an artist whose work examines the drone issue:

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Missiles being loaded onto a military Reaper drone in Afghanistan. Image BIJ

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From left to right: Tatiana Bazzichelli, Marc Garrett, Jack Serle, Tonje Hessen Schei and Dave Young

Data journalist Jack Serle, who works at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, as part of the Covert Drone War research team, is involved in the Naming the Dead project which attempts to reveal the names of the civilians and militants killed by the drones in Pakistan since 2004. Film director Tonje Hessen Schei is currently showing in theaters across the world DRONE, a documentary that focuses on the CIA drone war. Artist, musician and researcher Dave Young presented The Reposition Matrix, a workshop series that investigated the military-industrial production and use of military drones through collaborative open-source intelligence and cartographic processes.

The panel was moderated by Marc Garrett, director and founder (together with Ruth Catlow) of the community and art space Furtherfield. In his intro to the panel, Garrett reminded the audience of the role that artists have played in exploring the dark sides of drones, sometimes even anticipating their power as the video BIT Plane demonstrates. In this work (shown at the Furtherfield exhibition Movable Borders: Here Come the Drones! two years ago), Natalie Jeremijenko and Kate Rich from the Bureau of Inverse Technology operate a radio-controlled model airplane over the Silicon Valley. By filming the aerial views, the BIT Plane can be seen as a precursor to the emerging DIY surveillance video enabled by the new availability of drones.


Bureau of Inverse Technology, BIT Plane

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Another project mentioned by Garrett in his intro to the panel: Joseph DeLappe, The 1,000 Drones - A Participatory Memorial, 2014

The talk of the first panelist, Jack Serle, focused on the BIJ's Covert Drone War, a research aimed at providing a full dataset of all known US drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

When the investigation started, there was online one version of drone attacks and it was coming from Washington. Their official line was that drones were surgically precise and that they were so efficient that no civilians were killed in the strikes:

It's this surgical precision, the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al-Qaida terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it, that makes this counterterrorism tool so essential.

But the data coming from Pakistan quickly demonstrated that the reality was otherwise.

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From The Reaper Presidency: Obama's 300th drone strike in Pakistan, December 3, 2012

BIJ's work is based on open source data such as media reports, NGO reports, court documents, information leaked by governmental sources, accounts from eyewitnesses, etc. The observation of this data enables also the BIJ to pick out patterns revealing some uncomfortable facts about the war on terror.

For example the BIJ noticed that sometimes a strike would hit a building in Pakistan and that another strike would be launched on the same building 20 to 40 minutes later. The same pattern was observed elsewhere. It reveals that when the CIA was hitting a building, they were in fact waiting for the rescue team (made of both civilians and militants) to come and pick up people who had been injured in the strike. This is obviously a very bloody tactic.

Another pattern observed involved strikes hitting funerals. The CIA exploit a local custom: local commanders often attend a man's funeral. But of course the people who take part in the funeral and were injured or killed by the drones are not necessarily militants. Many of them are civilians.

There's more details about these two practices in Chris Woods and Christina Lamb's article CIA tactics in Pakistan include targeting rescuers and funerals.

By gathering numbers, names and other evidences, the Naming the Dead project counters secrecy and anonymity. Concealing as much as possible is a key element of the drone program, it enables it to continue its activities unquestioned.

Serle explained that with the Drone War Project, the BIJ doesn't want to morally judge the technology per se. Instead the work of the team aims to bring transparency and enable people to make changes.

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The funeral of Akram Shah, a government employee, killed with at least four other locals, all civilians, in June 2011. Image THIS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images, via BIJ

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A Pakistani tribesman sifts through the rubble of his house after an attack in January 2006. Photo: Tariq Mahmood/AFP/Getty Images, via BIJ

Next in the panel was Tonje Hessen Schei, the director of DRONE which was screened later in the evening (and which i'd recommend you see.)

The film looks at drone under different angles: the families of Pakistani victims of drones, the human rights advocates and activists, the drone pilots (namely Brandon Bryan) and the vast and incredibly lucrative industry which interests lay in keeping this war going on forever and ever.

The director talked about the relationships between the entertainment industry and the military, her disappointment at Obama who had promised to close Guantanamo Bay and who's now sending drones to kill people, etc.

One of her main concerns regards Europe which knows what is happening and remains silent. The United States is setting a worrying new standard of warfare with the drone program and it's only a question of time before we see Russia, Iran, China and other countries use drones to go after anyone they regard as a threat to their country. When that time has come, how will we be able to counter it? How are we going to say that the practice is illegal when we've done nothing to stop the United States?

Drones have changed warfare and its future. They've become the new normal even though there has never been any proper debate about the ethical, moral and legal challenges they present.

A survey found that 66% of the U.S. people is in favor of drone strikes. Perhaps the percentage would me much lower if people were actually presented with all the facts. There has been a wide media coverage of the DRONE documentary in both the UK and Norway but the film is still very much under the radar in the U.S.

The trailer of the documentary is very catchy and spectacular. It's part of the strategy of the film director who wanted to relate to mass culture and appeal to the broadest audience possible.


DRONE, the trailer

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Image from the documentary DRONE. Google Earth

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Image from the documentary DRONE. Photographer: Lucian Muntean Copyright @ Flimmer Film 2014. All rights reserved

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Image from the documentary DRONE. Archive Footage

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Image from the documentary DRONE. Photographer: Noor Behram Copyright @ Flimmer Film 2014. All rights reserved

The last speaker in the panel was artist Dave Young who made a series of valid points:

- The war on terror operate often in deserts. This is what Deleuze calls a 'smooth space', a surface that can be interrupted, moved and reconfigured without leaving any trace.

- Young also talked about The Reposition Matrix, a series of workshops dedicated the use of cybernetic military systems such as drones and the Disposition Matrix, a dynamic database of intelligence that produces kill-lists for the US Department of Defense. Working together, workshop participants developed a 'cartography of control': a map of the organisations, locations, and trading networks that play a role in the production of military drone technologies. The artist explained how some of the information used in the workshop came from unexpected sources: such as google satellite maps where sometimes the shadow of a drone would appear on a view or facebook where many soldiers post photos of their life. So in the background of selfies or group portraits, one can glimpse the base where they are working.

- During World War II, Norman Wiener worked on a research project at MIT on the automatic aiming and firing of anti-aircraft guns and guided missile technology. He studied how a missile changed its flight path through the use of advanced electronics. What intrigued him was the principle of feedback that was used, i.e. the missile gave feedback regarding its position and flight path towards its target. It then received instructions for small adjustments to its flight path in order to further stabilize it and to arrive at its target, etc. (via) His research was abandoned after the war but the concept of continuous feedback between the missile system and its environment can actually be extended to other systems and this eventually led him to formulate cybernetics.

- Young's account of the tactics deployed by the U.S. army during the Vietnam war was equally fascinating. Some of the technology does indeed foreshadow the use of drones. One was a 'people sniffer', a detector that could 'smell' human urine and sweat and thus detect enemy soldiers in hidden positions. This Operation Snoopy (because that was its name) and other tactics are presented in the 1969 video Bugging the Battlefield


Bugging the Battlefield, 1969

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Personnel detector pamphlet. Photo: National Archives, via War is Boring

- another important point Dave Young made is that the military is always trying to remove the agency of the soldier. A soldier can be disobedient, he or she can question an order or strategy.

Don't miss DNL's next event: CYBORG: Hacktivists, Freaks and Hybrid Uprisings, it will take place on May 29 and 30 at Kunstquartier Bethanien in Berlin.

Previous posts about the Drones event: Eyes from a distance. Personal encounters with military drones and The Grey Zone. On the (il)legitimacy of targeted killing by drones.

More notes from the Drone event organized by the Disruption Lab Network in Berlin a couple of weeks ago (the first post, The Grey Zone. On the (il)legitimacy of targeted killing by drones, is over here.) Eyes from a distance. On Drone-systems and their strategies brought together a former drone operator, investigative journalists, criminal law researchers, artists and critical thinkers to reflect on the following issues:

What is the politics and the regime of power beyond drone-systems? Which are the consequences both on militant networks and civil society of an increasing automatism of conflicts? Can we track down the hidden strategies that move target-killings? Can we understand better drone technology?

The symposium was brilliant. For many reasons: the impeccable choice of speakers, the variety of perspectives, the stimulating Q&A with the audience. But i think i should salute the fact that many women participated to the conference, both as speakers and as members of the public. This will hopefully be a inspiration to conference organizers who believe that technology is a 'man thing.'

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Predator Cockpit. Photo Bryan William Jones via Wired

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Brandon Bryant keynote for Eyes from a distance. On Drone-systems and their strategies. Photo by Disruption Network Lab

But let's get to the talks of the first evening. Two of them were given by people who have or used to have a direct, daily experience of drones.

i was incredibly moved by Asma al-Ghul's video contribution. She is a journalist and author from Gaza who writes about human rights, social issues and is never afraid to openly criticize Palestinian ruling authorities. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the international award for courage in journalism. On August 3, 2014, at least nine members of her family were killed in an Israeli airstrike. She was not allowed to get out of Gaza (more about that below) and sent a video to tell us about everyday life under drone surveillance and sometimes attacks.

The other speaker was Brandon Bryant, a former U.S. Air Force pilot who joined the Predator drone Program in 2006 and left in 2011 when he started questioning the ethics of the program and his own role as a soldier. He has since shared with the world his battle with PTSD, his guilt over killing people and his concerns about the U.S. drone operations.

Bryant also recently set up Project Red Hand to expose mechanisms of corruption, manipulations and wrong doings.

You can watch Bryant's presentation on YouTube but here's a small summary.

0warrior-gq-magazin-2013-01.jpgBrandon Bryant. Photo Ethan Levitas for GQ

When the GQ article came out in 2013, it was titled Confessions of a Drone Warrior. The word 'warrior' offended him. Drone technology made him feel like a coward, not a warrior. He could kill a human being at the other end of the world at the click of a button. 'What's more cowardly than that?'

And since the technology is used by the U.S.A., a country supposed to be the most powerful in the world, then he believes that the U.S. is the worst type of coward. Instead of leading by example, the U.S. is acting like the bully in the playground.

When you're a drone operator, you're a low class sniper. No one respects you in the military. You don't have to do the hard stuff. Yet, you are given the responsibility to take someone else's life without really being given the information necessary to understand what's going on and who exactly you've just murdered. You are told to look for people doing 'nefarious things', but we have no understanding of these people's culture. The first time Bryant had to shoot, he was told to fire at 3 individuals simply for the fact that they were carrying weapons.

Bryant also believes that as citizens we have responsibilities as well. Our duty is to raise our voice whenever there is a concern about the involvement of our government in the drone program. And if you're not American and think this doesn't really concern you, do check out his video, towards the end he describes the role of Europe and in particular Germany in making the drone operations possible.

Bryant's talk was very moving, especially when he revealed that 'back home' people don't want to hear his story. His brave decision to speak out and denounce the lack of ethics of the drone program was not seen with a kind eye, he even received threats from friends and colleagues who said he deserved to be shot for raising his voice.

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Smoke and flames are seen following what police said was an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip July 9, 2014. Photo Stringer/Courtesy Reuters, via CFR

Israel is the world's number one drone exporter. It has been experimenting the technology with deadly consequences on Palestinians for years so it wasn't surprising that the DNL had invited two writers from Gaza to Berlin to share their experience with us. Unfortunately, it was also no surprise to learn that neither Ebaa Rezeq nor Asma al-Ghul had been allowed to get out of Gaza.

However, Asma al-Ghul sent a video to tell us about life under drones in Gaza. Alghoul couldn't come to Berlin because of the closure of the borders. She is blacklisted for some unknown reason (like half the population of Gaza, she explained) and wasn't allowed to go beyond the Erez checkpoint controlled by Israel.


DNL #1 "DRONES. Eyes from a distance" - Video-message by Asmaa Al-Ghul

Gazans are very familiar with drones. They have lived through 3 wars in 8 years and even a child is able to recognize the arrival of a drone. They are so much part of everyday life that people in Gaza are giving the drones nicknames such as as 'Buzzer' or 'Zanana', onomatopoeia that come from the ugly sounds they make in the sky. In fact, drones have taken such a part of people's culture that they started calling 'zananas', the intelligence men who follow people or simply nosy people.

Drones cause serious stress and anxiety among the population. A drone evokes war and death. Once you hear it coming, you brace yourself for a bombardment and the death of people. On a side note, it's impossible to ignore their presence if you are watching TV because they ruin the transmission. "Every Israeli aircraft is dreadful,' she explained. "Apaches, F-16s and drones. Especially the F-16, when they break the sonic barrier and make severe explosions in the sky. "

Some Israeli drones are used for reconnaissance purposes, others fire missiles. Some do both.

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An Israeli drone flies above the Gaza Strip. Photo via Occupied Palestine

From 2008 to October 2013, Israeli drones have killed 911 Palestinians like Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 2004 and Ahmed Al-Ja'abari in 2011.

"It's been six months since the war ended,' she says and war is still inside of us. People keep asking us whether there's a war coming. Since the end of the war, 40 people who live by the border-line areas have been killed by drones. One of them was a resistance fighter. Over 60 boats have been destroyed. 66 civilians including fishermen were detained by the Israeli forces in the post-war six-month period.

These statistics show there's no peace, there's no real truce and people feel they are threatened all the time."

A study recently released by Aid agencies in Gaza shows that over 100,000 Palestinians are still displaced. The situation is catastrophic. Gazans live in complete depression, in addition to unemployment and poverty.

Young people still dream of change, of reconciliation, of a new life to be born.

In addition to the domestic obstacles which cripple the population, Gaza is also facing political arrests and lack of speech freedom for journalists. The West Bank is not any better than in Gaza. Any journalist who criticizes president Mahmoud Abbas on Facebook can get into trouble, for example. Even the political reconciliation is far away now. It's the first anniversary of the Beach Camp accord this month and nothing has been applied.

The next event of the Disruption Network Lab will take place on May 29-30 in Berlin.

Previously: The Grey Zone. On the (il)legitimacy of targeted killing by drones.
Photo on the homepage: Illustrative photo of an IDF soldier operating a reconnaissance drone. (photo credit: Tsahi Ben-Ami/Flash90).

Last week, i was in Berlin for the talks and screenings organized by the Disruption Network Lab, a platform of events and research focused on art, hacktivism and disruption. DNL opened its program with Eyes from a Distance. On Drone-Systems and their Strategies, a conference that explored the politics and the regime of power beyond drone-systems. A couple of the talks have already been uploaded online. They will all be there eventually and in the meantime i'm going to dutifully post my notes from the conference.

Starting with the brilliant panel of the first evening. The Grey Zone. On the (il)legitimacy of targeted killing by drones, moderated by journalist Laura Lucchini, explored drone strikes under the perspectives of an investigative journalist, a criminal law researcher, an activist and a blogger/journalist who lives in Gaza under the constant surveillance of the Israeli drones (more about her in a later post but go ahead if you're curious...)

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Grey Zone panel. From left to right: Laura Lucchini, John Goetz (investigative journalist), Chantal Meloni (criminal law researcher) and Marek Tuszynski (activist, Tactical Tech)

The grey zone is of course the dangerous, blurry area where drone attacks operate. The practice of targeted killing by drones raises many questions: "How many civilians have been killed as collateral damage during these strikes?" "And even if we're talking about militants, how can the killings be justified when there has been judicial supervision? "If these drones can reach their targets anywhere, then how is the battlefield defined?" "87 countries (and counting) are now equipped with military drones, which they use mostly for surveillance. Only 3 countries use drones for targeted killings: the U.S., Israel and the UK. Where will this stop?" "And if these targeted killings are illegal, why does Europe keep silent?"

0geheimerkrieg.jpgThe first panelist was John Goetz, an American investigative journalist and author based in Berlin. He wrote, together with Christian Fuchs, the book Geheimer Krieg (Secret War) which reveals how the war on terror is secretly conducted from covert U.S. bases in Germany.

Goetz's presentation attempted to reconstruct one day of a drone attack in Somalia and as the narrative unfolded, we got to hear about Germany's involvement into these military operations, the way the U.S. gather intelligence in foreign territories and how innocents end up being caught in the line, if not directly targeted due to inaccurate information.

As he explained at the conference (and as an article in The Intercept further confirmed), drone strikes wouldn't be possible without the support of Germany. The Germans might not launch the attacks themselves but they provide intelligence and they coordinate the strikes that target suspected terrorists in Africa and the Middle East, but that also kill civilians.

The U.S. drone war in Africa is controlled from U.S. bases in Germany, namely Ramstein and Stuttgart. Germany is also responsible for gathering human intelligence. There are many Somali immigrants and asylum seekers in Germany and as they arrive, they are asked about streets, shops, location of members of Al-Shabaab, etc. Any information that could be used by the "War on Terror" is immediately relayed to U.S. intelligence officers.

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Image Der Spiegel

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US Air Force Base Ramstein. Photo Der Spiegel

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Transatlantic cables connect U.S. drone pilots to their aircraft half a world away. (Josh Begley, via The Intercept)

The second speaker was Chantal Meloni, a criminal lawyer and the author of Is there a Court for Gaza? A Test Bench for International Justice, a book about the crimes perpetrated during the Operation Cast Lead against the Gaza Strip.

Meloni put the issue of targeted killing by drones into a legal framework.

Since 2004, up to 5,500 people have been killed by drone strikes in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. These are countries the U.S. is not officially at war with.

Killing has supplanted capture as the centerpiece of the U.S. counter terrorism strategy. Opposition to drone killing is growing but it is not as effective as the opposition to torture was. A reason for that might be that the legal framework for drone strikes is more complex.

Drone strikes have escalated under the Obama administration and they are characterized by a lack of transparency: states don't disclose who has been killed, why and who are the collateral casualties. Obama doesn't disclose the identity of the people on the kill list. There is no public presentation of evidence, nor any judicial oversight. The level of opacity is actually ridiculous. The little information we have is provided by media reports, leaks or testimonies.

An analysis by the human rights organization Reprieve found that US operators targeting 41 men have killed an estimated 1,147 people. So who are the 1,106 individuals? We don't know, most of them remain unnamed. What is sure is that the collateral damage shows that drones are not as 'surgically precise' as the U.S. claims.

Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown professor and former Pentagon official under President Obama, sums up the situation: "Right now we have the executive branch making a claim that it has the right to kill anyone, anywhere on Earth, at any time, for secret reasons based on secret evidence, in a secret process undertaken by unidentified officials."

We associate the start of the drone attacks with the U.S. and their post-9/11 counter-terrorist strategy but the military use of drones started long before that, in Israel, a country that has the longest track record for targeted killing (aka "targeted prevention") of Palestinians. Targeted killings can be defined as the state-sponsored practice of eliminating enemies outside the territory.

Nowadays, most of the drones sold around the world are used for surveillance purposes but it has been forecast that in 10 years every country will have armed drones.

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Photograph: Guardian

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% of total UAVs (1985-2014) supplied by exporting country (via The Guardian)

60% of the world export of drones come from Israel. Israeli manufacturer Elbit is producing the best selling model: the Hermes drone which was used in the latest attacks on Gaza. 37% of the killings that occurred during the attacks on Gaza can be attributed to drones.

One can see the appeal of drones for governments and policy makers: they are relatively cheap, they are claimed to be 'surgically precise', they make it easy to kill without any risk and they allow the army to reach their target in areas that would otherwise be difficult to reach. But do their use comply with the martial law?

Targeted killings are generally unlawful under international laws.
There are two different regimes to consider under international laws: the one applicable during war time and the one applicable in times of peace.

The laws under war time are more permissible regarding the use of lethal forces. However, the right to use armed force is not unlimited. Civilians, for example, need to be protected from direct attacks.
Outside the battlefields, the use of lethal forces is more restricted. You can use lethal force only when it is absolutely necessary. For example, when you have to protect human life from unlawful attacks. And even in that case, you may only use lethal forces if there is no other alternative.

States have thus expanded the concept of war on the battlefield as to include situations that should in fact be regulated by law enforcement agencies. The 'war on terror' is a total war for which no end nor boundaries is conceived. The number of enemies is infinite too. Governments justify the use of lethal forces by claiming that this is 'anticipatory self-defense' but, under the laws applicable under war time, the self-defense argument allows killing only when all other solutions, such as capture, have been exhausted. Most targeted killings outside the battlefield constitute thus premeditated deprivations of life, violations of the right to life.

When killings cannot be justified they constitute war crimes and other states have the duty to investigate and not leave dormant this huge accountability vacuum.

Tactical Technology Collective, Unseen War (Exposing the Invisible)

The final speaker was Marek Tuszynski, the co-founder of Tactical Tech, an organization 'dedicated to the use of information in activism.'

Tuszynski's talk focused on a series of short documentaries called Exposing the Invisible. The films look at the investigative work of journalists, artists, reporters, activists and technologists who explore publicly accessible data in order counter mainstream reports and go further than traditional journalistic investigations. One of the documentaries, Unseen War examines the physical, moral and political invisibility of US drone strikes in Pakistan.

He argued that counter powers should build their own intelligence practice.

The operations in Pakistan might be located far away but they concern us because
- the use of drones legitimizes a state of permanent surveillance, it makes it ok to gather all kinds of information about an individual,
- they legitimize multi-layered total surveillance systems in which the data collected by drones is accompanied by information provided by human intelligence on the ground,
- they legitimize two aspects of surveillance: one is the schematization of behaviour. You're not targeted because of who you are but because of how you behave. Models of behaviour are built and based on these models a system will determinate who is bad and who is good. Besides, they legitimize systems that detect misbehaviour. If someone is doing something different from the normal patterns, this person has to be put under surveillance.

But there's no reason to be passive, we need to protect ourselves because surveillance doesn't require machines flying above our heads, we are already providing a vast quantity of valuable indormation when we use social media and that data can be used to analyse our digital behaviour. To protect yourself from intrusion to privacy, check out Tactical Tech's Security in-a-Box website.

Image on the homepage via BBC.

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