visual art

FotoFest Exhibition Shines Spotlight on Hidden World of Drone Warfare

Sensor features provocative work by six international artists.

By Michael Hardy April 24, 2015

Mahwish Chisty, Untitled, 2015.

FotoFest: Sensor
Thru May 9
Silver Street Studios
2000 Edwards St. 

Yesterday, President Obama announced that US drones had accidentally killed two innocent hostages, an American and an Italian, in a strike against an Al Qaeda camp in Pakistan in January. The news was merely the latest development in the controversial recent history of American drone warfare, which began in Afghanistan after 9/11 and has since expanded into Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries. Although early versions of so-called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles were used in World War I, UAVs, better known as drones, have come to play a leading role in US counterterrorism operations over the past decade.

Sensor, an ongoing exhibition at Silver Street Studios presented by FotoFest, showcases work by six international artists who critically examine the implications of our increasing reliance on drones in combat zones around the world. Approaching the mammoth Silver Street complex, you find yourself walking over a life-sized painted outline of a Predator UAV, a sinister-looking machine with a 50-foot wingspan similar to the one that killed the hostages in Pakistan; inside the warehouse-like exhibition space, there’s another outline of the even larger Reaper UAV. (See an earlier example of the same work below.) Both were created by British artist and writer James Bridle and are intended to give viewers a visceral sense of the drones’ menace—these are not the small, innocuous drone copters that deliver Domino’s pizza.

James Bridle, Drone Shadow 007, London, 2014

“Bridle says that you have to draw the world in order to understand it,” said the exhibition’s curator, Jennifer Ward. “And I think that’s so true.” 

The other artists in the exhibition “draw the world” in other ways. Trevor Paglen, whose work also appeared in the Contemporary Arts Museum’s 2013 show about contemporary graphic design, displays a video taken from a hacked drone feed, allowing viewers to see what the UAV’s American-based controllers saw. Lisa Barnard takes classically composed still-life photographs of Hellfire missile fragments from the mountains of Pakistan’s Waziristan region. She also creates gorgeous blue aerial landscape photographs of the same region, evoking a drone's-eye perspective of the world (see below). 

Lisa Barnard, Landscape #8, from the series Too Thin, Too Blue, 2012. Project Whiplash Transition, 2010-2014

Ward said that some visitors, attracted by the photographs’ beauty, were shocked to learn what they actually depicted. “They were drawn by Lisa’ blue landscapes, but they didn’t really realize what they were looking at,” she said. “They were intrigued and kind of put off by being captivated by an aesthetic image and then learning what it’s really about. It’s like her photographs of the missile parts—they’re aesthetically pleasing, but then you realize that that these are used to kill people.”  

Sensor follows in the long tradition of socially conscious FotoFest exhibitions; previous shows have addressed global warming, the war on drugs, and border issues. Last year’s FotoFest Biennial was dedicated to photography from the Arab world, much of it explicitly political. Ward first became interested in the subject of drone warfare back in 2010, when some of Paglen’s work was included in a FotoFest exhibition. Then, in 2013, she encountered a digital work by the data visualization studio Pitch Interactive, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” that allows viewers to see data on every known drone strike carried out in Pakistan between 2004 and 2013, as well as every victim of those strikes. That work, which is available online and also included in the current exhibition, spurred Ward to find other artists whose work also addressed the subject. 

“That piece blew my mind,” Ward said. “You see information ordered and structured like that—every drone that’s been used, every Hellfire missile that’s been fired. It’s unbelievable, because we’re not given information about that. You hear about it in the news sometimes, but you don’t see the full picture.”

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