Notes about A screaming comes across the sky. Drones, mass surveillance and invisible wars , Laboral's new exhibition that addresses the ethical and legal ambiguity of drones, mass surveillance and war at a distance.
Drones are very much part of today's culture. You can buy one on amazon and fly it as if it were a sophisticated kite. You also probably read how they are (or will be) used to deliver urgent medical supplies, shoot movies, monitor crops, track wildlife or gather information after a natural or manmade disaster.
In many people's minds, hobbyist and civilian uses of UAVs have overtaken the military role and origins of drones. No surprise here as what governments are doing with drones, who they are killing and how is a mystery for the public. And even often for government officials, as this video shown by curator Juha van' t Zelfde during Laboral's drone conference illustrates:
Drones have been operating and killing since the early 2000s. Yet, we still have fairly few or no statistics regarding civilian casualties. The Bureau of Investigative Journalist does a great job at counting strikes and casualties in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. Data gets blurry when it comes to attacks in other countries such as Afghanistan. And a lack of transparency goes hand in hand with a lack of accountability. The wars are fought in remote countries by invisible technologies operated in the name of people who have only a very limited knowledge of what is happening 'on the war front' and this situation contrasts with the ability that satellite images have given us to see and explore the world. The irony is illustrated by James Bridle's ongoing series of aerial photographs of military surveillance drones, found via online maps accessible to everyone.
The title A screaming comes across the sky is taken from Thomas Pynchon's novel, Gravity's Rainbow, which explores the social and political context behind the development of the V-2 rocket, the first long-range ballistic missile and the first man-made object to enter the fringes of space. The rocket was developed by the German military during World War II to attack Allied cities as a form of retaliation for the ever-increasing Allied bombings against German cities. Today's technologies of war, such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones, and their laser-guided Hellfire missiles, bear resemblance to the V-2 in their ability to operate unseen and to strike without warning.
In the post-PRISM age of mass surveillance and invisible war, artists, alongside journalists, whistleblowers and activists, reveal the technological infrastructures that enable events like drone-strikes to occur.
I've now seen quite a few exhibitions that explored the politics, ethics and meanings of drones. A screaming comes across the sky manages to bring a fresh and compelling perspective on the issue by taking sometimes a more oblique, metaphorical approach to drones. While the curator selected some of the most iconic works dealing directly with drones today, he also looked at artists who are interested in questions of surveillance and control but in a rather poetical, symbolic or even sometimes humourous way.
Martha Rosler's Theater of Drones is a great introduction to the subject of drone warfare. The banner installation was first exhibited in Charlottesville, the first city in the United States to pass a law restricting the use of drones in its airspace
Talking about the drones, Rosler said: "They appear to make war invisible, but of course in the countries that we're bombing, and where people are being killed, they are a terror fact of everyday life. They don't terrorize us, because we have this classic split, which we also had during the Vietnam War of over here and over there are two different worlds, and they're not really connected."
The banners list a series of chilling facts about drones: "The Air Force has plotted the drone future to 2047. The Pentagon plans to increase funding by 700% over the next decade." "Since 2004, drone strikes have killed an estimated 3,115 people in Pakistan. Fewer than 2 percent of the victims are high-profile targets. The rest are civilians, and alleged combatants. " And this little gem of a quote by a Pentagon official:
"They don't get hungry. They're not afraid. They don't forget their orders. They don't care if the guy next to them has just been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes."
The same room also showed works developed by fabLAB Asturias. The prototypes, platforms and maps bring the drone issue into a context closer to citizens' daily interests and experiences (a dedicated post about fabLAB's drone experiments is coming up!) Their projects also remind the public that the U.S> military doesn't have the monopoly of questionable use of drones. Using them for surveillance, border control and in military contexts is very much part of the European agenda as well.
Quick tour of the other works on show:
As part of his ongoing research on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Lot Amoros placed posters around Egypt to inform people how to protect themselves from Israel's Heron drones. Israel is the world's leading exporter of military drones. As this video shows, Israeli drones and other weapons meet with great success on the international market as they have been repeatedly tried and tested on Palestinians.
The instructions of the Dronism document were directly quoted from real Al-Qaida drone documents. All al-Qaida references or aggressive languages were removed and replaced with peaceful instructions for the sole purpose of offering innocent civilians a series of tools to protect themselves from unmanned aerial vehicles, using common materials and trash to construct frequency inhibitors, camera blinders, etc.
Amoros also intended to send the instructions to Palestine on board a tiny DIY drone. It turned out that flying the quadcopter over the border into Palestinian territory was too dangerous. The artist and activist did however succeed to send the instructions via underground tunnels.
I was so glad to get another chance to see Grasso's wonderful On Air again. , The film, shot in 2009 in The United Arab Emirates, looks at traditional hawk hunting. The bird in the movie is equipped with light and sophisticated surveillance equipment. Once let to roam free above the land, it becomes a spying tool, recording every dune and village it flies over. The images are fascinating but they are also threatening.
The movie and its paranoia-inducing music reminds us that a technique to use pigeons for aerial photography of enemy lines during wars was developed as early as 1907. The practice might not have vanished completely. A few years ago, articles reported that Iranian security forces had captured a pair of "spy pigeons," not far from one of the country's nuclear processing plants.
Which brings us nicely to Alicia Framis's History of Drones. Her taxidermied work presents the pigeon as the predecessor of today's drones. In 1908, German apothecary Julius Neubronner patented aerial photography by means of a pigeon photographer. The invention was tried out for military air surveillance in the First World War and later.
Besides actually being used in military contexts as a means of surveillance and collecting intelligence, they were indeed unmanned aerial instruments, which might had a different historical importance if it wasn't for the quick and strong progress in the field of aviation. In this new work, Framis creates a light-hearted reminder of the evolution of aerial espionage.
MQ1 Predator Drone Shadow
Check out the video below for more details about Bridle's interest in drones:
The talk is available in spanish as well.
Really like this work. I wrote about it Here.
A video showing 56 remote-controlled toy helicopters taking to the sky to great chaos.
A screaming comes across the sky. Drones, mass surveillance and invisible wars is at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial (Art and Industrial Creation Centre) until 12 April 2015. In collaboration with Lighthouse.
Related stories: Flone, The Flying Phone, A dystopian performance for drones, KGB, CIA black sites and drone performance. This must be an exhibition by Suzanne Treister, Under the Shadow of the Drone and The Digital Now - 'Drones / Birds: Princes of Ubiquity'.
I just spent a few days in Ljubljana for BIO 50. It's a design biennial and i know i keep shouting around that i often find design dull and pretentious but that particular biennial was anything but boring. Or pompous. But more about that in later posts.
The event positioned design as a space for collaboration, experimentation and enquiry. Nine themes were explored and the one that i -surprisingly- found most fascinating dealt with the future of transportation. Called Engine Blocks, the project was led by designers Gaspard Tiné-Berès and Tristan Kopp of Re-do Studio who chose to work with Tomos, a Slovenian manufacturer of mopeds.
The result of the collaboration focuses on the mechanical essence of vehicles and uses one Tomos engine as an ever-adaptable, hackable and interchangeable element that can be transferred to different vehicles, machines and contexts.
The Engine Block group envisions a not so distant-future when instead of buying the latest model of a vehicle or machine, people will be able to take (post-)post-industrialisation into their own hands and use a unique modular engine that they can re-purpose and customize to their specific needs.
Re-Do-Studio, Engine block
Engine Block is for me what design should be: it is imaginative, critical and down to earth. It doesn't pretend to change and save the world but that doesn't stop it from suggesting valid ideas, scenarios and models.
I asked the members of Re-do Studio more details about the project:
I found it amazing that one engine could end up being able to power so many different tools and vehicles. But was the whole process as easy as it sounds? Can you really plug one engine into different context and make it work? Is there really no limit to what this engine and a bit of imagination can do?
Well this particular engine is quite a simple one so it wasn't such a big problem to make it work on the different machines, but it obviously needs a bit of time to attach it properly before you can run the machines. And about the efficiency, it's an engine that has been design to power a small scooter so obviously it's not ideal for the other machines, but our intention was not to make the most efficient machine more to talk about how industrial product can always be used for a different purposes than what it was designed for.
What were the most challenging moments and steps in the Engine Block project?
So, the project started with a Slovenian industrial partner, TOMOS the brand that produced the engine, and about 2 month before the opening of the show they went bankrupt and told us that they was not allowed to give anything from the factory.... not even an engine ...
So that was quite challenging, but it actually triggered a larger reflection and debates with the participants that enriched the project and helped us push the statement further, we then decided to change the scenography and to make a sci-fi style movie, enlarged the group and everybody had a great time conceiving and shooting the movie so we think that everybody actually made an advantage out of this problem, so it was great...
Why did you decide to show the final works as museum pieces?
The project is showing a close and apocalyptic future where the economic crisis destroyed the local industry, and a guy fixes old tools by using a unique engine to run all of them. This idea of standardised components and especially energy source has been there for years in the industry and it is the most rational way to run a range of tools, but lately industrial product tend to produce more and more unaccessible, unfixable and unadaptable goods. We basically state that humans will always finds ways to hack and tweak even the most complex industrially-made product, to propose more rational and sensible way to use them.
So the idea of showing the product as archeological piece was to express this idea of a important shift in the design world when people had to go back to put their hand inside the goods and finds ways to fix them, stating that even if the industry would collapse the people will still go back to the most logical solutions...
So to try to make it clear; we are showing a near future but in the past tense, with archeological pieces that express the importance of a big change or rupture in the relationship people have with goods and the moment we might have to go back to fix and hack them again rather then buying the latest versions.
Thanks Gaspard and Tristan!
Visual artist Melle Smets and researcher Joost van Onna followed the travel of discarded cars from Europe to Ghana and ended up at Suame Magazine, near the town of Kumasi, in Ghana. In this area, 200,000 artisans are working in 12,000 workshops, stores and factories to repair and give a new life to European disused vehicles.
Smets and van Onna then collaborated with local craftsmen and mechanics to build a African concept car in three months. The vehicle is called SMATI Turtle. SMATI because it is the acronym for the Suame Magazine Automatics Technical Institute, an engineering training centre for the artisans. And Turtle because the vehicle is strong and sturdy like the reptile.
The completed car was even inaugurated by Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II, King Asantehene of the Kingdom of Ashanti.
The show opens on October 8 and i caught up with project leader Melle Smets to have him talk about his adventures in African mechanics.
Hi Melle! The text describing the project mentions the Buafo. Was this pickup truck prototype at the origin of your project? Where did the idea for the Turtle 1 come from exactly?
The Buafo was a car from the 70ies. From this vehicle we extracted a lot of essential idea's of what a African car should be. The existence of this car was unknown to us until a old mechanic from the neighborhood told us this story. Then we started to look for it and found one around the corner of our workshop. The reason we searched for this vehicle was the fact that we don't know anything about cars, and needed a lead to start working from.
And once you had the idea for the Turtle 1, what happened? You and Joost van Onna just turned up in Ghana and put your project into a full working prototype?
The idea to build a car came much earlier. We wanted to research the potential of a society without formal structures. Suame Magazine looked like the most incredible example of a city which was also a working car plant. Something we could hardly imagine as we thought car assembling is a very high tech business. Because the place is very hectic we thought of a narrative to tell the story of the informal car assembly line. This is how the idea came to built a car from scratch and go from workshop to workshop to learn the process and tell the story.
How did you navigate the Suame Magazine and find the right people to work with?
We went there a year earlier to scout the area and try to find a partner. This became Suame Magazine Industrial Devellopment Organisation. They liked the idea as a PR stunt for their NGO. They are a umbrella organisation for all guilds.
Apart from being skilled and resourceful, what did local people bring to the project in terms of creativity, ideas?
The car is developed by the whole neighborhood in terms of storytelling, throwing idea's, bringing in their networks and their labor. We tried not to take the lead in design and organised every step in the proces as a communal decision. For example the car design is done by wooden sticks. On the other hand people started to use the project to draw the attention on SMIDO by the media. This free publicity was good for the project but also good for growing the network of SMIDO members. In terms of work, we had to pay people to actually do the job.
And conversely, what did you bring that the Ghana craftsmen needed? They were already repurposing car parts after all....
The most lucrative thing we brought them is a story. The Turtle became a National story which they used to get access in the highest networks of the country. And this is where the real business is done. Wright now they are making contracts with Danida (Danish devellopment organisation from Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark) for over 2 million dollars to set up a new land for a car production fascility.
The project involved building a car in 12 weeks. Why was this timeframe important to you?
Do you think it would make sense for western consumers to have a car culture driven by the moto "let's make things simple"?
We need to seriously start thinking in terms of what we really need and want, instead of try to build a paradise of things around us.
Of course our infrastructure is evolved in a way we need sophisticated cars to be save driving 140 KM/hour. But it would be healthy to keep rethinking the whole concept of traveling. There are a thousand ways we can go from A to B. Why we make ourselves dependent on this system? The concept of a highway is a hundred years old and in the time they made it up there were fantastic idea's to get from A to B in total different way. We would like to remind people on this freedom of choice but also responsibility to give meaning to our environment.
And is there any commercial interest for the prototype (or an adapted version of it) outside of Africa?
Not that I know of. But we also never put energy in this. I envision a car production future where every continent has its own species of cars. The climate, economy and landscape demand certain needs to a vehicle. Technology will make it possible to manufacture more on demand and more specific adjustments.
Turtle 1 is part of a broader project that looks at "the stream of discarded cars to Ghana in order to document their hitherto unknown destination." So which kind of images, videos and discourses do you bring to European destinations where you show the Turtle prototype?
We do lectures to governments, sit in advisory boards, work with industry on new idea's. Next to this we did some exhibitions on car shows, art festivals to show drawings, photo's and video's. Every member of the team had it's own medium. You will see on the exhibition. There was also a lot of media coverage on television, news papers and magazines in Germany and the Netherlands.
The prototype is called Turtle 1. Does it mean that there will be new and improved models of the Turtle? More generally, what's next for the project?
We are now working together with the Dutch car industry on a vocational training program. The ambition is to start this program in Suame Magazine next year. In the Dutch Design week we organise workshops around this businesses case. See Word doc for more detailed concept.
Check out the vehicle at the DISNOVATION exhibition, on October 8th- December 6th, at Le Bel Ordinaire, Billière, France. The 14th edition of the festival itself will run November 13th -16th, 2014, at Le Bel Ordinaire + associated venues in Pau & around. Programme curated by Nicolas Maigret and Bertrand Grimault.
In the second half of the 19th century, the Mexican government partnered with British companies to built the railway line that would connect Mexico City with the Atlantic Ocean. This iconic railway infrastructure now lies in ruins, much of it abandoned due to the privatisation of the railway system in 1995, when it was decided that transporting people was simply not profitable enough. Many passenger train lines were thus cut off, the infrastructure was left to rot and communities became geographically and economically isolated as a consequence.
Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, aka Los Ferronautas (from ferrocarriles which means railway in spanish), wanted to travel along the ruins of the passenger railway system and investigate the remains of what they consider a misuse of common resources and therefore a political issue.
But to drive around the rusty lines, they needed to build their own light vehicle. The result is a half car half spaceship hybrid called SEFT-1 (the Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada, in english Manned Railway Exploration Probe). But SEFT-1 is much more than a vehicle. Los Ferronautas call it a research tool because it allows them to investigate notions and promises of progress. The vehicle is also a transmitter of non-eletronic stories, it enabled the duo to visit and interview communities which the privatization of the railway has been left behind.
As they traveled through the country in 2010 and 2011, the artists shared their discoveries online, mapping their trajectory, archiving objects found by the tracks, writing down anecdotes, uploading photos and interviews with the people they met along the way.
I've been following the work of Los Ferronautas ever since i read an article about them in the always excellent blog Arte en la Edad del Silicio so i'm really happy that they finally have their first London exhibition, SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe: Modern Ruins 1:220, thanks to The Arts Catalyst and Furtherfield Gallery.
The show opens tomorrow 20 June between 6 and 8pm and there's a tour of the exhibition with the artist on Saturday. The vehicle will be on show of course but there will be more:
For this new exhibition, the artists are inviting British expert model railway constructors to collaborate by creating scale reproductions of specific Mexican railway ruins, originally built by British companies, exactly as they are now. One gallery becomes a space for the process of model ruin construction. The room's walls will show the pictures, documents, plans and other materials used as reference for the meticulously elaborated ruin construction. With this action a dystopian time tunnel is created.
I'm really looking forward to discovering what Los Ferronautas will do in collaboration with the model makers. Already, they have reproduced in photo and using their own vehicle a scene painted by José María Velasco in 1881. During a presentation they gave on Saturday at a London LASER04 session, they announced that the whole landscape would be recreated by British model enthusiasts.
SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe
SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe: Modern Ruins 1:220 is at Furtherfield in Finsbury Park from 20 June until 27 July 2014.
Few people would associate the words "English heritage" with car showrooms, repair garages, filling stations, traffic lights, inner ring roads, multi-storey car parks, and drive-through restaurants. Yet, the exhibition Carscapes: How the Motor Car Reshaped England draws our attention to the country's motoring patrimony and shows that the car's impact on the physical environment needn't be reduced to ruthless out pours of concrete and "wayside eyesores".
The first motor cars entered the country in the late 19th Century. New buildings, signage, rules and systems had to be invented for dusty roads that so far had only been crisscrossed by horse traffic. It is only recently that we have started to value the infrastructures that have facilitated their construction, sale and maintenance of cars. "It took the best part of 100 years for the railway infrastructure to be appreciated," argue Kathryn Morrison and John Minnis in the book Carscapes: The Motor Car, Architecture, and Landscape in England, "now it is the turn of the car."
Many of these buildings, road signs and infrastructures have disappeared, others are under threat of being demolished or are decaying beyond repairs but English Heritage has started to list motoring heritage sites in England. The exhibition at Wellington Arch shows archives images, contemporary photos and a series of motoring memorabilia. It also explores the impact that motor car have had on the planning of cities, towns and on the countryside.
Below are some of the most spectacular buildings and road systems i discovered in the exhibition:
Bibendum aka the Michelin Man!! Michelin Building on London's Fulham Road is now a restaurant but it was built to house the first permanent UK headquarters and tyre depot for the Michelin Tyre Company Ltd. It also function as advertisement for the company with its corner domes that resemble sets of tyres and the large stained-glass windows starring the cheerful "Bibendum."
The building opened for business on 20 January 1911.
When the Lex (now NCP) car park opened in Soho in 1928, its architects were catering for the rich men who could afford the luxury of a car. The Art Deco architecture thus also housed a cafe (for car-owners) and a separate canteen for chauffeurs.
The photo above shows one of the earliest filling stations to open in London. It was built by F.D. Huntington in 1922. Each pump was manned by a uniformed attendant.
This was one of the six filling stations built by the Automobile Association in 1919-20, the first to be opened in Great Britain, and originally selling only British-made benzole.
In 2012, English Heritage granted listed status on two 1960s petrol-station canopies - one on the A6 near Leicester (photo on top of the page but check out also this night view) and the other at Markham Moor, Nottingham.
When it opened in 1931, the Ford factory on the banks of the Thames at Dagenham was the largest car factory in Europe. The nearest building in this 1939 photograph is the power station. Behind it, fuel for the power station and furnaces is unloaded from ships via a double-decked jetty.
Coventry Inner Ring Road built between 1962 and 1974 is one of the most highly developed and tightly drawn inner ring roads of any city in England.
The Wellington Arch was built in 1828 but Victorian traffic jams meant that in 1883, the Arch was dismantled and moved some 20 metres to its current location. Between 1958 and 1960, to further ease congestion - this time from motorised transport - Hyde Park Corner was altered and the Arch separated from Constitution Hill by a new roadway.
Metallurgique was a Belgian company which opened the first car showroom on Regent Street in 1913
Carscapes: How the Motor Car Reshaped England is at the Wellington Arch until 6 July 2014.
On Thursday i went to Artissima. Turin's contemporary art fair lands in the agenda almost straight after Frieze and compared to the London's fair, it feels lighter, fresher, edgier. It also demonstrates a greater attention for the design -in all its forms- of the event. I'm a fan.
That evening I've discovered a dozen of artists whose works i'll mention in the coming days (or weeks given my propensity to write at the speed of a banana.)
Let's start with Tatsuki Masaru whose photos were exhibited by Gallery Side 2 (Tokyo). The artist spent a decade following the Decotora (an abbreviation for "Decoration Truck") subculture, photographing the trucks of course but also their drivers and in the long series of "Japanese do it better", these vehicles have a panache and extravagance that never reach bad taste.
In an interview to Photoeye, the artist explains that the phenomenon is subject to trends and economic woes: There was a peak in say 1980, that was the peak time in terms of the number of decorated trucks existing in Japan. This trend got started somewhere in the '60s when Japan's economy was growing and people were starting to spend money decorating their trucks. In the beginning it was like, "Who has the most number of lights on the truck," that kind of competition. But then in the '90s there started to be a little bit more specialization, and one area which became popular was Gundam, which are like Japanese transformer movies, and anime type of decoration, so there are some stages to its development. Recently, because of the economic difficulties like Japan's recession, and governmental regulations, traffic laws and all that, the [truckers] can no longer do the things they used to do. So in a way, they're sort of going back to the '70s style, which is a little bit less lighting, more heavy on the paintings, a little bit more subdued decorating style so they cannot get busted by the police.