A dystopian performance for drones


Nicolas Maigret, Drone.2000, 2014. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ

Nicolas Maigret, DRONE.2000, 2014

GAMERZ in Aix-en-Provence is probably the only festival in Europe that doesn’t bat an eyelid when an artist proposes to organize a performance in which drones modified to be fairly dumb roam freely and menacingly over a room of spectators. This might not sound scary until you realize that a dumb drone is even more dangerous than a smart drone.

The two UAVs of the DRONE.2000 performance are guided by the simple algorithms of a Roomba robot. Clearly, that’s not enough intelligence for them as they bump against the walls, fly far too close to the audience, dart green arrows over the heads and emit a noise that has been amplified to the point of discomfort. This could have ended in tears and bruises (but it didn’t.)

The only direct experience most of us have of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) is fairly benign. We know them through hacking, art, cinema or video games. One day, these flying machines will also deliver our parcels, help coordinate firefighting efforts or keep a ‘benevolent’ eye over sports games. How far should their autonomy and power go? Do we trust them? Do we trust the ones who manufacture and control them?

Drone.2000 is part of a series of works by Nicolas Maigret that reminds us of the military origins and use of technologies that have reached the mainstream. Here, trusting the autonomy of the machine is not only a discursive concept, Maigret writes, but a true experience shared with the audience, triggering off their reactions, tensions and commitment of their bodies in situation of real danger..


Nicolas Maigret, Drone-2000, 2014. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ


Nicolas Maigret, Drone.2000, 2014. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ

I was in Aix-en-Provence for the opening of the GAMERZ festival but had to leave before the start of the performance so i asked Nicolas Maigret to give us the lowdown on his work:

Bonjour Nicolas! Which model of drone were you using in this performance?

These are Parrot AR.Drone 2.0. The advantage of this model is that it is widely used and very hack-able. A large community is working on hijacking it for different uses. (see: nodecopter = hackathon, ardupilot.com = auto-pilot, copterface = facial recognition …)
It is quite cheap and it is really is somewhere between the toys, the connected object, and the semi-pro equipment.


Nicolas Maigret, Drone.2000, 2014 (Preparation before the performance.) Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ


Nicolas Maigret, Drone.2000, 2014 (Preparation before the performance.) Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ


Nicolas Maigret, Drone.2000, 2014 (Preparation before the performance.) Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ

Can you explain how you modified the drone?

The challenge was really to confuse the public, to have it face the autonomy of the machines (in this case flying ones). And add to that a confrontation with instability, fragility, and the potential danger of algorithms that govern the autonomous behavior of these machine.

To do this we have reproduced the primary behaviors of a robot / vacuum cleaner like iRobot Roomba. Which means that the Drone is absolutely not aware of his surroundings, it only knows its height and rotates randomly from time to time when it bumps against an obstacle (walls, etc). We blocked the cameras normally used to stabilize the position, the Drone is literally un-intelligent. He does not know the position of the other drones either.

These changes entail an underlying sense of danger, a sort of sword of Damocles that is quite striking. Especially since these same drones falls down rather frequently (whether there is a public or not).

Each drone is also equipped with vibration sensors under the propellers. These sounds were gradually amplified during the performance, until the beating blades gets a real physical presence. This activates a martial connotation in the brutality of the contemporary sounds – this aspect recalls the sound approaches of the Futurists (or their reactivations such as Jean-Marc Vivenza’s Aérobruitisme Dynamique). However, the Futurists harboured a progressive and inclusive form of hope, whereas I believe that we now have a very different rapport, we feel a growing distrust towards the widespread propaganda of technological innovations that have very little in common with yesteryear’s myth of progress.

How did the public react? Were they aware of the danger?

Public reactions alternated between discomfort, nervousness, and humor.

The awkward movements of the Drones quickly made the danger tangible. Initially, most of the audience intuitively chose to stand near the walls, on the sides of the room. I think this was the time when anxiety was at its peak. Then people gradually got closer or they sat down around the space. Some even tried to interfere with the flight of these Zombie Drones. Ironically, the walls of the room, which were the places where most people gathered, were also the places where the drones usually fell.

It should be noted that the Drones also intermittently emit a laser target in the shape of a cross towards the public, openly evoking the military and oppressive parallel of this same technology that has quickly been gamified for the general public, in particular with drones plug and play like AR.Drones. (see the project blurb.)


Nicolas Maigret, Drone.2000, 2014. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ


Nicolas Maigret, Drone.2000, 2014. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ

Drone.2000. i love that name but the 2000 is ironic, right? it makes me think of all those shops called ‘Fashion 2000’ “Car dealer 2000” in the 1980s and 1990s.

The title is clearly ironic. At least it summons an imaginary future as it existed in the past, especially one related to the autonomous flying objects that we encountered in sci-fi and anticipation literature, film, comics, tv series.

I think there is something of the self-fulfilling prophecy in these generational fantasies inspired by sci-fi, the entertainment industry, and more generally the effect of the zeitgeist. Indeed, entire generations grow up with a common imaginary, whether they are dystopian, critical or not. Later, as they are adults, some mechanically attempt to achieve a more or less faithful realization of that imaginary. (This is also a key point of Jean-Baptiste Bayle’s Terminator Studies, or of Nicolas Nova‘s latest book). I think that’s part of what we’ve been seeing over the last 20 years through a series of gadgets and “innovations”, emerging notably from the Californian ideology and more generally from the new ruling class of the engineers.

The title, Drone.2000, conjures the vision of a future that is already gone, that seeks to disrupt the mask of fascination associated with innovation, and that also tends to generate a tension between our aspirations to consume science-fiction artifacts and the ideology they carry.

The term drone crystallizes fairly well this tension between, on the one hand, a fun and fascinating artifact coming from the world of model-making and on the other hand, a new paradigm in the relationship to the “clean and surgical” war (Grégoire Chamayou, Drone Theory) or a probable near future characterized by widespread surveillance and control.

It is for these reasons among others that I wanted to make the Drones completely autonomous and disturbing, a symbolic intersection between these three references.

Merci Nicolas!

Drone.2000 was produced by M2F Créations – Lab GAMERZ, Grégoire Lauvin and Nicolas Maigret.

Also by Nicolas Maigret: The Pirate Cinema, A Cinematic Collage Generated by P2P Users.