Don’t Believe What You Screen (Drones)

Big Brother

 

Today, the army only occupies the territory once the war is over. (Virilio, 2000)

 

By Umar, Brandy & Dushan.

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Don’t Believe What You Screen was conceived to create an affective space to evoke a measure of the discomfort and threat experienced daily by populations under constant surveillance — with the prospect of death at any moment — by drones. Turning the ‘self’ into the ‘other’ through machine-mediated vision — as if surveilled by a drone — the disembodied gaze is presented on all-sides of the viewer, re-articulating the role of the subject as victim, pilot and voyeuristic drone. This installation works to build awareness and discussion of systemic surveillance and its relation to militarism, state-sponsored power and associated unanswerable violence.

State power & violence is remotely enacted daily through ‘drone strikes’ throughout the Middle East and South Asia. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are deployed and operated by pilots thousands of miles away with little concern for ethical considerations or threat of recompense. Transmitted in grainy black and white or infrared-night-vision, cameras and screens mediate the distant pilot’s vision with perceived technological precision. Digital/optical “zooming”, heat-signatures and instrumentation have replaced human-sight, biological colour spectrums and bodily “situational-awareness” — opening up a muddled, lethal ambiguity that confuses farm tools for guns and weddings for “insurgent” meetings.

The reality of drone warfare is complicated, bizarre, and full of consequences for “both sides.” Although obscured by the extreme technological and power imbalance, drone pilots often suffer from PTSD, becoming victims of their own distant violence, all the while sitting only a few miles from home. UAVs are geographically closer to their victims than operators by many orders of magnitude — buzzing, watching and bombing 24hrs a day, 7 days a week — airborne 7/11s of surveilled death. In a confusing near-virtual space, small-screen warriors witness a real theatre of war virtually — kill, then clock out — only to commute to another theatre where hyper-realistic visions of virtual war are depicted on the big screen.

Note: For an in-depth and linguistically stunning exploration and critique of machine-mediated vision, see Paul Virilio’s War & Cinema: The Logistics of Perception &/or Vision Machines (1989 [1984])

Surveying Projected Surveillance
To avoid what felt like simplistic notions of connection, we consciously reoriented the project away from directly relating to social media or creating a “product based” solution; instead focusing on a discursive political art-installation. In creating Drones, lines of inquiry quickly expanded to include the dangers of ubiquitous surveillance, the moral ambiguity of UAVs, aggressor-victim relations and aggressor as victim, communication gaps and lags, the effect of screens on accuracy and judgement, the cause and use of fear through (continual) sound/visual exposure to a threat, and mass media and personal culpability through inaction and apathy,

After lengthy (and disturbing) research, discussions, diagrams, drawings and confusing conversations, Drones began to take form. We were fortunate to be made of a group with close ties and experiences with the core concepts of our project. Most notably (and disturbingly), Umar experienced the threat and effects of drone warfare directly; while Brandy, coming from China, offered numerous insights, feedback and thoughts on ubiquitous surveillance and state-power. These encounters were immeasurably informative and irreplaceable as direct involvement most often is. Lastly, Dushan’s experience teaching & researching for the course Illustrative Activism and editorial illustration helped to round-out the project’s scope. All in all, constituent experiences that offered an excellent basis to take on a project of this size.

Top Secret Prototyping & Development Processes
Initially, Drones was sparked by Processing/OpenCV video tracking, linked to an Arduino with a servomotor, allowing for a physically-tracked object.The prototyping and development stage(s) were extensive and difficult, thanks to the complication of the subject, richness of resources, extensive and varied range facts (exacerbated and obfuscated by state-secrecy and military propaganda), and the difficulty in building an experience in a space/environment so removed from the scenes of drone warfare. Investigative research on drones, pilots, victims and governmental policies (both current and future) were extremely unsettling — cementing our commitment to explore and reveal this relevant and timely project.

Continuing our investigation, we realized the potential difficulties brought on by machine-mediated vision, finding it unimaginable that decisions of life and death were enacted at such great distance with seemingly sparse information. Questions arose of truth perception, pilot post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and incapacitated communication between aggressor and victim.

From Hyper-Complicated to Simply Complicated
As previously mentioned, project ideation went through numerous iterations as we explored room layout, affective possibilities and addressed technical issues. The following are a few of the variants:

  1. Our original intention was to build a 2-user experience: one as pilot, the other, as victim — where both parties would be confronted with a vision of the other. This first version turned out to be unwieldy on all fronts, requiring an excess of space, materials, equipment and programming. The concept of re-mediated/open communication between the pilot and victim was an interesting revelation suitable for further consideration.
  2. Following pilot-victim re-mediation, we searched for ways to remove communicative barriers (physical, electronic, mental, psychological) by (a) exploring the use of open spaces where both ‘actors’ could interact freely and exchange places; (b) re-linking via electronic communication (twitter, wi-fi, video, and/or mic & speaker); and (c), creating a (physically) circular experience where victim and pilot exchanged places after a ‘successful’ strike, as a sort of revenge/punishment model.
  3. Using multiple pilot & victim interfaces/apps for a more ‘game-like’ experience: where texts or app interactions allow people to ‘strike’ each other dependent on their being assigned a
  4. Data-driven experiences using real-time stats to connect the user to the real-world battlefield — sending notifications/badges of ‘successful strikes’ or implying the user was killed, maimed or caused an attack due to a perceived geo-locative action.

Final Concept

  1. Place a “primer” where the user receives a facial scan for identification purposes. This was achieved using processing and a basic face detection example. The moment a face is detected, a video is launched containing a series of photos of classmates, teachers, activists, terrorists and logos of governmental organizations associated with surveillance (FBI, CIA, Interpol, etc). These  unwelcome associations create the appearance of unwarranted suspicion and surveillance.
  2. The darkened smoke-filled room is quiet, with only a tablet lying on the ground the only (visibly) interactive element available.
  3. Once the tablet is picked up, a button is released, setting off series of alarming sounds (a collage of militaristic & communicative effects) while (on 3 sides) large projections of the subject are presented — viewed from above in drone-like vision; replete with crosshairs and target-distance information.
  4. Blob tracking is enabled, causing a laser to track/target the viewer , producing an immanent threat.
  5. The tablet ‘targets’ can be pressed (evoking the action of striking), causing a series of facts to appear about drones. The full-screen fact can be pressed/clicked again to return to the main map page.
  6. Once the user returns the tablet to its stand/spot, the (physical) button is pressed, causing the video to close, but the monotonous sound of the drone flying overhead to continue in the darkness. This creates a contemplative space for the viewer and, serves as form of ‘death light’, playing off of the term ‘lights out’…

 

Ideal Scenarios

In working through Drones, a host of scenarios were suggested, considered and ultimately ruled out due to time, equipment and spacial constraints. Some thoughts on ‘ideal’ project options & situations are as follows:

  • Ceiling mounted projectors (or short-throw key-stoning) to allow for brighter video & remove potential cast shadows, ideally images take entire wall without seams.
  • Multiple lasers, from very high above in imitation of drone-targeting, with 3D movement for full-room tracking (width, depth).
  • Smooth walls and surfaces for distraction-free viewing.
  • Surround sound to create a realistic sound-scape, using distance as an audio component
  • Actual face scanning and capture with possible real-time web-crawlers to dig up & assemble personalized initial entrance scans — enhancing the surveillance theme. This scan could also unlock the room for the viewer to enter only after entering a name & scanning.
  • Darker room for better mood-lighting and effects.
  • Smooth floor suitable for rubble piles & other ephemera to build a war torn, damaged/distressed.
  • The addition of a final stage — after the tablet is returned — where a large face/eyes (of East Asian/Middle Eastern background, centrally projected ) stares silent and unblinking at the viewer, representing ‘the other’, flipping reality on its head.
  • Alternately, further projections could reveal bodies lying around the viewer after a few moments of darkness. Presented in silence (or with drone-buzzing), potential for a memorable (and disturbing) experience would be highly likely.
  • In a similar vein, the tablet could also be used as augmented-reality viewfinder which reveals bodies, dolls, personal effects, etc.

As both Kate & Nick stated, Drone’s scope & potential is massive; something that could be built upon for many months in order to achieve the perfect effect/affect on the viewer and spread an important message. We strongly believe Drones could be successfully developed and made suitable for events like Nuit Blanche or professional gallery spaces.

 

Diagrammatic Network

Network Diargram

 

Coding the Drone (Github)

 

Sketches & Design

 

Screenshots

 

 

 

Circuit diagrams

ArduinoSwitch_BreadBoard ArduinoSwitch_Schematic ServerMotor_BreadBoard ServerMotor_Schematic

 

Videos

 

Projected video space & scanner: https://vimeo.com/80695898

 

Tablet: https://vimeo.com/80934126

 

Observable Context

In response to a question raised during critique: Drones are surveillance with a consequence. We would argue that it is a misconception that (the use of) drones and (the act of) surveillance are separate entities. With autonomy as a benefit, all consequence —in this case death — is granted solely to the drone, as the capacity to kill belongs to the drone alone. Those targeted for surveillance or elimination can neither protest nor kill, a fait accompli.

An inquiry back: “How and why were drones and surveillance seen as separate entities?” This seems at best a sort of hopeful denial — or worst, willful ignorance — as the projected reality of 30,000 drones over North America by 2020 is too nauseating to consider. Easier to divide and separate as concepts, but a freakish prospect when viewed in unity; conjoined twins made palatable as long as we can’t see the other.

This quote from the Guardian, speaks well on this point and our intent (emphasis ours): “Perhaps there’s also an element of magical thinking here, the artist hoping to denude the death effect of the drone through the spiritual power of religious belief. The frequency of use and destructive power of drones is frightening and our complicity in this process isn’t so much a condemnation of those who would seek to repress the information, as it is of those who imagine it’s simply not happening. Bridle and Goodwin are recuperating the unimaginable back into the world, and that is honourable work.” — The Guardian, Oct. 25, 2013

Another surprising (and vaguely horrifying) tendency noted during the critique was the reference of to the projected images as “game-like.” This starkly illustrates the cognitive disconnect experienced by general public when relating to machine-vision. A disconnect slyly seized upon by governments, police forces, the military and corporations to continue expanding Big Brother styled policies. Games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare — one of the first to institute drone-like imagery — are based on reality, not the other way around. This confusion of the virtual with the real is indicative of an increasing trend, where classical ‘reality‘ —where our minds physically reside — is re-shaped through the ubiquity of screen-based imagery, the increasing realism of graphics and the gamification of our daily lives. Admittedly, Call of Duty, and other games similar in nature, were an important starting point in our conceptualization and research for this project.

The Guardian article, Drones Through Artists’ Eyes: Killing Machines & Political Avatars.
proved informative by possibilities shown by the works numerous artists.

As our research reveled (by the countless deaths of civilians), the screen deceives, which begs the question: What are the moral, social, political and policy obligations necessitated in response to the inherent ambiguity of screen-based warfare?

A fantastic visualization of drone effects can be seen at drones.pitchinteractive.com

To reiterate and expand the points above, here are additional facts outlining the use and effect of drones:

  • Drones are actively deployed in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen. Iraq, Libya and Somalia; with further alleged usage in Mali and Iran.
  • Many drone pilots are based at the near-opposite side of the world, up to 7400 mi (12000km) distant from the ‘theatre of war‘.
  • Current ‘battlegrounds’  are most often heavily populated urban environments, where guerrilla warfare tactics combined with ambiguity in target-acquisition often result in civilian death
  • With a 2 second communication/control lag, further deaths and mis-targeting occur as civilians may unexpectedly move into a target-zone.
  • The United States plans to have 30,000 drones operating over North America by 2030, controlled by a variety of interests, including policing, military, corporations, tracking companies, and private individuals.
  • By 2030, the RAF plans to have 2/3rds of its fleet unmanned by 2030, while current aircraft in development is claimed to be the last manned jet fighter
  • Personality strikes — where a targeted individual or group is known —  are responsible for over 2,500 deaths in Pakistan alone, have a “success rate” of only 1.8%.
  • Signature strikes,  “…target individuals whose identities are unknown, but who exhibit certain patterns of behavior or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity.” The current strategy employed are based purely on “suspicious behavior”. From, http://www.international.ucla.edu/news/article.asp?parentid=131351
  • All adult males 18-65 are considered “enemy combatants”; a loose “legal” term first enacted by the Bush administration to initiate kidnapping, torture and assassination. Unrecognized in international law, this dangerous faux-legal framework is still in use, and even expanded upon, by the Obama administration.
  • The United States uses a “Double Tap” strategy, where a target is bombed twice in a short timeframe, most often killing and maiming first responders (emergency personnel) neighbors, children, citizens, etc.
  • Repeated “Double Taps” cause a breakdown in the social fabric in the affected areas, causing further unnecessary harm and death, as people no longer come to the aid of the injured for fear for their own lives.
  • Living under constant fear, some people have compared drones to a mosquito. “You can hear them but you can’t see them.”
  • Congregation appears to be a qualifying factor for drone strikes; owing to numerous multi-person killings, people no longer attend parties, weddings or funerals.
  • Parents no longer send children to school because schools have been targeted,
  • Victims report a heart-breaking loss of faith in the concepts of“law” & “justice”. A victim whose wife and 2 daughters were murdered in a drone strike revealed there are no legal processes to register the wrong done to him to receive recompense, press charges or proclaim their innocence.
  • “Bugsplat is the official term used by US authorities when humans are killed by drone missiles… deliberately employed as a psychological tactic to dehumanise targets so operatives overcome their inhibition to kill; and so the public remains apathetic and unmoved to act. Indeed, the phrase has far more sinister origins and historical use: In dehumanising their Pakistani targets, the US resorts to Nazi semantics. Their targets are not just computer game-like targets, but pesky or harmful bugs that must be killed.” From, Al Jazeera

Bonus titles alternates: Drone of Arc; Drone, Drone, Drone, Goose! ; Terminator 6: Drone Alone

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References

Al-Jazeera (n.d.). The growing use of public and private drones in the U.S.. Retrieved December 3, 2013, from http://america.aljazeera.com/watch/shows/the-stream/the-latest/2013/10/7/the-growing-use-ofdronesintheus.html

A Drone Warrior’s Torment: Ex-Air Force Pilot Brandon Bryant on His Trauma from Remote Killing. (n.d.). Democracy Now!.
Retrieved December 3, 2013, from http://www.democracynow.org/2013/10/25/

Drone Wars: Pilots Reveal Debilitating Stress Beyond Virtual Battlefield. (n.d.).LiveScience.com.
Retrieved December 3, 2013, from http://www.livescience.com/40959-military-drone-war-psychology.html

Download Stanford/NYU Report | Living Under Drones. (n.d.). Living Under Drones. Retrieved December 3, 2013, from http://www.livingunderdrones.org/download-report/

Dronestre.am. (n.d.). Dronestream. Retrieved December 3, 2013, from http://dronestre.am

Piloting A Drone Is Hell. (n.d.). Popular Science. Retrieved December 3, 2013, from http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2013-08/psychological-toll-drone-warfare

The Guardian, Frost, Andrew.Drones Through Artists’ Eyes: Killing Machines & Political Avatars. Retrieved November 20, 2013,
from http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/oct/25/drones-through-artists-eyes-killing-machines-and-political-avatars

Virilio, Paul. (1992). “Big Optics”. trans. J.Von Stein & Peter Waybill (ed.), On Justifying the Hypothetical Nature of Art & the Non-Identicality within the Object World., 82-93 Koln: Galerie Tanja Grunert.

Virilio, Paul. (2008). “Open Sky”. (Radical Thinkers). trans. Julie Rose. Verso Books.

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