Up and Away

How drone technologies reorder perception

“I, the machine, show you a world the way only I can see it. I free myself for today and forever from human immobility.” —Dziga Vertov


“Bed down locations” — that “bit of spy jargon” meaning “where an enemy sleeps” — are littered across the Afghan badlands, arid yet replete with wildflowers; the region’s steppes and valleys have acted as sites of refuge for millennia, shielding species from ice age cycles that would wipe other regions, like the British Isles, clean of life. Thwarted by geologic irregularity, British invaders in the 1860s nicknamed its bordering region in Pakistan “hell’s doorknocker”; today, the landscape continues to hide humans fleeing cross-continent invaders, as Afghan rebels throw foil tarps over their bodies or snuggle into earthmade hiding places to evade heat-seeking drones. At Laura Poitras’s Bed Down Location, part of her 2016 Astro Noise exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the enemy was you, clambering onto the knee-high platform, reclining beneath the screen suspended above to watch a soothing chroma-shift from day to night. Skies from over Somalia, Yemen, Nevada, and Pakistan cycled through projections, lulling you into watching for the streak of a drone crossing, like a shooting star, overhead.

Powder blue, pink and white, and velvet black skyscapes were rendered HD as dreams. You were meant to form an affinity with those living under these heavenly slices, as familiar constellations reminded you of others “born under a bad sign,” fated to death on the wrong side of asymmetrical wars. Drifting, other associations floated light as clouds: red morning, sailor’s warning; blue skies smiling at me… The endless clarity of those skies began to feel unsettling. You remembered 13-year-old Zubair Rehman’s testimony at a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., 2013: “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.”

Regardless of your own agency, you were at the very bottom of a vertical hierarchy of power

On your back, you were offered a flipped view, reversing the sightline of American power relations. Hardly ever glimpsed from the ground up, drone target sites are visualized via satellite feed, if ever seen at all. Dusty roads and the outsize pixels of buildings make up the barrenness of bird’s-eye view. You were reminded of Charles and Ray Eames’s film Powers of Ten: how alarmingly quickly, as the camera pulled ever farther from Earth, the picnicking couple was swallowed up by the planet. In a convenient analogue to the top-down way people are surveilled and managed, your relationship to the drone, here, made one thing clear: Regardless of your own agency, you were at the very bottom of a vertical hierarchy of power, a speck observed by a system that sees — and therefore controls — all.

Bed Down Location wouldn’t look out of place in a natural history museum of the distant future: “world’s-eye view, circa 2016.” But its soft lighting, reminiscent too of the light cycles used on transoceanic flights to ease jet lag upon arrival, invokes psychic transit; Astro Noise’s curator, Jay Sanders, likens it to the sublime sky-slices of James Turrell. The suspended screen is passive in the way it ought to be, its dream time allowing the drone to represent more than just its violence. Within its body coheres military and industry, surveilled and surveiller, capitalist superpowers and radicalized minorities. Trevor Paglen writes that “focusing too closely on individual images is entirely to miss the point.” Instead, he says, we must ask what work an image does in the world — what relationships, incidental or intended, does it form? And what consequences result from these changed ways of seeing?

Not since the atomic bomb has a war technology been so fetishized or so obsessively depicted. In Anne Imhof’s Angst II, it swoops over bored crowd and languid performers, and it appears again atop an enormous dollop of buttercream for Heather Phillipson’s 2020 Fourth Plinth commission, flocked to artifice as a fly to shit. In art or life, the drone’s inclusion no longer heralds a de facto politicization. Lighter than air, its sky-borne form is now stunningly mundane: It tails extreme-sports athletes, makes Amazon deliveries, and allows for a genre of selfie that, thankfully, emphasizes its subject’s insignificance. As opposed to the taming of violent technology that consumer use suggests, it is the civilian sphere that is becoming increasingly weaponized. Drip-fed and cushioned through everyday pleasure and convenience, technologies of tracking and surveillance have become an acceptable part of everyday life, in turn becoming inextricable from how the drone is read across contexts. Its eye-in-the-sky connotation retains characteristics both omniscient and voyeuristic. Dread persists.

In the room before Bed Down, you can spy O’Say Can You See (2001-2016), a film of New Yorkers hooked by the freshly smoking ruin of the Twin Towers. Wide-eyed, slack-jawed: the cliché of utter shock is faithfully represented in the footage Poitras scooped from the scene. Its chopped-and-screwed soundtrack, intentionally alien, brings to mind William Basinski’s hours-long sound piece The Disintegration Loops. Basinski had been a prolific collector of sound since the ’80s, recording incidental Americana — “the clicking electric buses, the grasshopper legs, the trolleys creaking” — on magnetic tape. He stored his collection badly, letting the loose tape dangle from a tree branch he’d bolted above his desk, entrails left to spoil in the sun. When the Twin Towers were struck, the story goes, Basinski watched from his Brooklyn loft, feeding the rotten recordings through his stereo at full doomsday volume. “Something clicked,” writes Sasha Frere-Jones for the New Yorker: The DeLilloan smoke cloud, spied from a distance, intensified Basinski’s creaking decay. The resulting Loops are weird, wobbly, stuck in recursion. Noise unspools into loose drifts, the echo of collapse in slow motion. Repetition becomes eerie with an image of plummeting trauma, of the rising cloud of debris that undoubtedly contained human ash.

Did the drone as we know it spawn in the horror clouds of 9/11? The end of the world in the everyday, already commonplace elsewhere, became newly permanent in white America. And just as Disintegration Loops drew a new, uncertain form out of destruction, so too did the United States, re-emerging from its ashes as a paranoid totality. Though truly effective surveillance drones have existed since the Vietnam War, the War on Terror marked the beginning of the U.S.’s devotion to a more lethal drone program. “Lifetime” costs, describing mere acquisition, are projected at over $12.3 billion; of this budget, $6.8 billion has been spent since the program’s inception in 2002, and the Pentagon estimates operations and maintenance costs are about 10 times higher than this. Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone estimates that the program is 75 percent complete, at least in terms of acquiring enough aircraft to continue missions indefinitely.

Media narratives pushed an idea of humans beyond humanity, missing the fundamental simplicity of terror: violence as a last resort

George W. Bush’s administration sculpted an enemy in its desired image — irrational, anti-Western, predisposed to “hate freedom” — and then went to war against it. The question of the suicide bomber, a ghostly and mutant construct, became existential as well as political. Killing oneself in order to kill others reversed the system of organized warfare, which depended on the glory of survival in order to declare victory. How does combat take place against an enemy who has no fear of death? Extremism invited little empathy. Instead, media narratives pushed a monstrous idea of humans beyond humanity, missing the fundamental simplicity of terror: violence as a last resort. “Death was shape and meaning; of course the despairing would seek it; of course it would ennoble them,” writes Annie Julia Wyman of the late John Berger’s sympathetic view of suicide bombers. Berger, whose Marxism shaped his generous, popular approach to cultural criticism, saw small difference between a terrorist act and capitalism, whose brutalities served to motivate strikes against it.

The drone has become as ordinary to the war machine as the fighter jet. It has been designed as terrorism’s perfect nemesis, the imagined inhumanity of radicalism flushed out by a nonhuman hunter. Drones see no civilians and no sovereignty. They reverse the wishful rally for “no nations, no borders” with the “autonomous zone of slaughter” they carry like snails do their shells. The groundlessness of drone warfare, where not only the lines of the horizon but the lines of the border “shatter, twirl around, and superimpose,” grants the drone complete authority where it flies. Its rule is projected downward, a tyranny of presence, and whatever its vision touches becomes its own. What is the War on Terror but one waged on “a feeling”?

In previous wars, there was at least quiet between airstrikes. The drone offers not even this false respite. Instead, its patrols texture the atmosphere with uninterrupted dread, the thrum of its rotors delivering death notes even when missiles aren’t being launched. Its unrelenting buzz is a form of psychological torture. “No matter what we are doing, that fear is always inculcated in us,” said an interview subject in Pakistan who survived a drone attack on his taxi cab and was injured by a second that struck while he ran. “Drones are always on my mind. It makes it difficult to sleep. They are like a mosquito. Even when you don’t see them, you can hear them, you know they are there,” said a father of three. A sound ceiling is formed, a non-architectural element that brings a top-down infrastructure closer.

Residents of the drone dome come under frequent Hellfire — the official term for drone strike missiles, which incinerate bones and homes upon contact. Marines have nicknamed the weapon’s laser-tracking feature “the light of God” on account of both fatality and omniscience. Traveling from North to South, from West to East, drones enforce that centuries-old asymmetry. As always, whether apocalypse is reality or fantasy depends on a person’s doomed or auspicious birth under the signs of power and capital. Doling out fate, godlike in its judgement, the drone is one of its horsemen.

Bodies emit self-betraying frequencies, streaming pheromones, radiant heat, cellular signals, the minute tick of a slowing pulse. Unknown to you, while you are reclining and observing in Poitras’s Bed Down Location, bio- and meta-data is gathered and broadcast into the exhibition’s final room. It’s a nod to a real National Security Agency tactic, where surveillance pods fixed to the bottom of aircraft “vacuum up massive amounts” of metadata from entire towns in order to sift out their targets. Contained in the body-to-technology structure of Bed Down Location is that of military seeing. It replicates a relationship between watcher, watched, and command center, emphasizing the creepy mundanity of observing from a distance. Looks travel but are never exchanged. Laid out on the slab, however, Poitras’s viewers look like they’re awaiting abduction and not destruction. Unlike the drone’s true victims, it’s clear they’re untouched by the paranoia the exhibition aims to evoke.

Surveillance is a prominent theme in Poitras’s work, her most well-known documentary being Citizenfour (2014), on Edward Snowden. Astro Noise, the exhibition, was named after a communiqué from Snowden to Poitras: an encrypted file of the same name containing evidence of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance of the American public — a paradigm-shifting reveal of global surveillance that was, at that point, yet unknown. As unruly (and misattributed) as hysteria, the risk of terrorism justified sweeping privacy violations. These were not seen as war on the “home front,” but instead became a procedural formality as habitual, and apparently essential, as linking one’s hands above one’s head for an airport body scan. (These very same scanners were at first scandalized as indecent exposure.)

If the drone offers higher quality targeting than before, it is also more acutely flawed. The abstract field guides the missile to the child, or the market

Linger for a second with the drone over the splayed bodies, and consider its metaphor. In Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald wrote of his childhood ability to see the known world made whole by the flight-paths of swallows; from feathered body to body, a tenuous volume was created, giving form to the unruled air. Today’s aeronautics find a dark mirror in Sebald’s fancy, slicing up the heavens to transform our worldly understanding “from the horizontal to the vertical, from the two-dimensional space of the old maps of army staffs to geopolitics based on volumes.” Those who control the sky determine events on ground level.

In the sublime skies over Nevada, Trevor Paglen photographs vast sky-scapes in candy blue, sherbet orange. From a distance, the pictures look like stock sunset photos made more appetizing with softness. But hidden, to be sifted from the grain, are Predator drones on test flights through restricted airspace. Because “the drone is a vision machine that is intended to remain invisible,” Paglen’s elegant unveiling undoes its in-built power relation. By making clear what can be seen, questions about what’s not begin to freewheel around the drone’s granular form.

The tension of seeing what can’t be seen appears physically in Paglen’s work. In The Other Night Sky, classified satellites appear as starry smears above the American landscape, while in Limit Telephotography, atmospheric distortion turns “black sites” mirage-like, though only poetically does it destabilize the image’s truth. “In some ways, it is easier to photograph the depths of the solar system than it is to photograph the recesses of the military industrial complex,” he writes. “Between Earth and Jupiter (500 million miles away), for example, there are about five miles of thick, breathable atmosphere. In contrast, there are upwards of 40 miles of thick atmosphere between an observer and the sites depicted in this series.”

Up in the thinner climate, space’s militarization has departed far from the message of Earthling unity pushed in the 1960s, when this rhetoric was at its peak. Imagine seeing for the first time the world as a sphere: glimpsed first as a shadowy crescent over the moon, then as the “Blue Marble” — the first and last whole-Earth image taken by a human being, shot in secret from a Hasselblad on Apollo 17. Eventually, the terror of Earth’s fragility — described by astronaut Eugene Cernan as suspended “with no strings holding it up” within “a blackness … almost beyond conception” — would turn human sight back inward: the fool’s wealth of commercial satellites that now litter the sky occupied with mapping and quantifying the world below, or broadcasting trash back down to us.

Our planet has never been more intimately known. The world as seen by Google has become a palm-size, sky-spanning tool that allows for navigation without disorientation, exploration without conquest. Google Maps is a beloved application used to map road trips and commutes, to find new bars and restaurants, and to plan trips abroad or see places never traveled to. A user saving her favorite locations marks the satellite map with a star, turning a city’s aerial view into a sentimental constellation. The breadth of this gentle influence is owed to the CIA-funded Keyhole, a Californian company dealing in “geospatial visualization.” Its first major flybys were of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Sold at a cut rate to major news networks and broadcast into every living room in the U.S., crisp aerial images of Baghdad in flames would boost the company’s cachet. A year later, Google would acquire Keyhole for a cool $35 million, absorbing the program’s components into what is known as Google Maps today.

“Rather than saying the 3-D satellite image has been ‘demilitarized’ as it has entered civilian life, it may be more accurate to say the transference has draped the planet with a militarized image of itself,” writes Stephen Graham in his book, Vertical. Under the satellite’s eye, Earth’s fragmentation into visible yet fluctuating jurisdictions becomes clear. As its geography solidifies, it undergoes another kind of distortion, thickening the space between satellite and surface with an ever shifting set of legalities. Like the hand-shaped bone within a whale’s flipper, a sudden uptick in the drone’s civilian use retains the imprint of its military origins, microcosmic of the yin-yang that is the military-industrial complex itself.

The visual hierarchies of periphery and focus are cultural, honed by the crosshairs and the viewfinder after the animal logic of light upon retina. In the human, all secondary senses have drained into the eye’s central vessel, turning “seeing is believing,” that old adage, into truth’s principal qualifier. But though military sight first prioritized focused vision with its technologies of acute sighting, it now subverts focus’s significance — convenient, now, for an entity so dependent on secrecy and obfuscation. In War and Cinema, Paul Virilio tracks the fall of direct vision in the age of total warfare. The constraints of lived time have been broken by the battlefield, “always a field of perception,” producing ways of seeing that can “extrapolate” from the heat  and light trails of human activity: a particularly violent clairvoyance.

It is impossible to write about drones without writing a litany. I see Daoud and Murtaza, slain in Afghanistan ages three and four; Umm al Shaya, shot down with her children in Waziristan; and Bibi Mamana, murdered as she picked okra outside her family home. I see Tariq Aziz, targeted for speaking out against the torture of the drone hovering above his home. They are visible in a ledger called Naming the Dead, which sifts names, and sometimes faces, from what’s left by a drone strike.

In a war zone, all life becomes anomalous. The possibility of the drone’s missile reshapes the pattern of daily life into one almost unintelligible to those who don’t live under its reality

Drones have taken the lives of thousands — though how many, exactly, continues to be contested. While the U.S. government claims it’s killed between 64 and 116 “non-combatants” in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism puts its count at a maximum of 806. This on top of the 2,753 terrorist-associated deaths to date, though in an article for the Los Angeles Times, David S. Cloud observes that any male of military age is presupposed a combatant by the U.S. military — casting something as broad as gender to be a key criterion of innocence.

Drone pilots depend on unreal detail, the tennis shoes their target wears, the color of their clothing, the weapon they allegedly draw from its depths — signaling, unknowingly, to their watchers: shoot. But drone pilots bow to slushiness, a lack of clarity, the abstract or pixelated field that guides the missile to the child, or the bystander, or the wedding, or the market. If the drone offers higher quality targeting than ever before, it is also more acutely flawed, imbued with the hubris of supposedly flawless sight. The imagined clarity of seeing is an analogue to the overconfident tone of the drone pilot’s rhetoric, a sureness of mission uncomplicated by shoot-outs and face-offs, turning to a unilateral act of power the human exchange of seeing and being seen.

Drone pilots cruising over Pakistan’s Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa region would, however, see faces on-screen. Unfurled across rooftops and laid out on fields, high-contrast and massively scaled poster portraits of child victims look back up at the sky. Titled #notabugsplat, the posters are the work of an anonymous Pakistani art collective who installed these images as soft defense. The project’s title counters American military slang that equates victim with “bug splat,” also meaning the irradiated spread of collateral damage on a tactical map.

“A lot of the kids in this area wake up from sleeping because of nightmares from them and some now have mental problems. They turned our area into hell and continuous horror, day and night, we even dream of them in our sleep,” 13-year-old Mohammed Tuaiman told the Guardian just weeks before he was slain. From above, the drone pilot parses the life patterns of civilians, sifting from the flow the anomaly that will indicate the target. But in a war zone, all life becomes anomalous. The possibility of the drone’s missile reshapes the pattern of daily life into one almost unintelligible to those who don’t live under its reality.

“Would you feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?” says Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles in postwar noir The Third Man. His speech is flat, gangster-affected; he’s looking down into the murk of the carnival from the ferris wheel’s revolving zenith, seeing only ants in the people below. “If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stopped — would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”

Lime, just a hundred feet above in a glass cabin, easily pictures bullets rending the crowd. Arguments around the drone’s morality mostly center on its split of subject from action, but everyone knows that atrocity can be conceived with proximity, too. What good does a child’s portrait do when soldiers are already groomed to see the enemy as less than human? These acts of killing are more psychopathic than incidental; slouched in dimmed control rooms, drone pilots stay unmoved by the possibility of slaughtering innocents. Empathy is foreclosed by aggressively constructed difference, as the drone’s unsympathetic perspective embodies that of a highly racialized state. Contrast the hometown fraternizing with this essential testimony: “I saw all the bodies completely burned, like charcoal,” says Tuaiman’s brother, after the boy was incinerated by Hellfire missiles. “When we arrived we couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t move the bodies so we just buried them there, near the car.”

Alex Quicho is a writer and cultural analyst in London. Her writing on futures, sex, and power in art and design has appeared in Adult, Mask, and Canadian Art.