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Posts tagged ‘North America’

Cooking up interdisciplinarity (with added artist)


Participants at NAKFI 2015 take part in movement experiment. Photo: Keck Futures

Participants at NAKFI 2015 take part in movement experiment. Photo: Keck Futures

Discussions about the future of science and technology have increasingly considered how interdisciplinary working might contribute to science’s discoveries and technology’s innovations. The National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) was launched in the US in 2003, a program designed to “stimulate new modes of inquiry and break down conceptual and institutional barriers to interdisciplinary research”.

The central tool of NAKFI is an annual themed “think-tank” style conference, attended by 100 participants selected from an international open call. Participants work in interdisciplinary groups to try to address urgent scientific or societal challenges. Afterwards, they can apply for seed grants to enable further pursuit of their ideas.

Previous NAKFI conferences have brought people together from science, engineering and medicine. For the first time in the 2015 conference, the academies decided to include artists and designers. The intention was explore how bringing together arts, design, sciences, engineering and medicine can help to stimulate innovation, as well as how such collaborations might encourage public and academic discourse around critical societal, scientific and environmental issues.

Silhouette of man in front of installation

Ruth West et al., Atlas in Silico, installed at NAKFI 2015. An interactive art installation featuring the entire first release of 17.4 million metagenomics sequences from the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition.

David Edwards, a biomedical engineer and founder-director of Le Laboratoire, an art/science innovation space in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was asked to chair the 2015 NAKFI steering committee and invited me to be a member. This role involved helping to select participants from the open call, generating ‘seed ideas’, and mentoring some of the groups during the conference. I was impressed by the openness of the committee to the possible forms and impact that projects resulting from the conference might take. Most members were scientists or technologists, but had appreciation of the arts from different perspectives.

So does NAKFI work, as an initiator for innovative projects, and as a contribution to breaking down institutional and systemic barriers to interdisciplinary research? NAKFI has funded many interesting looking projects through the process in the past, so perhaps that ticks the first part of the question. Whether it has had a long-term impact on interdisciplinary research in the US can probably only be answered by a longitudinal and attitudinal study of participants and their institutions.

It’s difficult to draw any conclusions as yet from the 2015 conference, including the effectiveness of adding artists into the mix, partly because it’s early days in the development of the proposed projects. The ideas and the content of the discussions are embargoed until Spring 2016, however I think I’m allowed to make some general observations.

As with earlier conferences, the goal was to come up with concrete project proposals. However, the type of impact of the project could be cultural/artistic, as well as educational, social or scientific. Participants were allocated to ‘seed idea’ groups, whose composition was largely led by participant preference, which – whilst apparently a good idea – meant that one group I was mentoring contained no artists, while a second held no scientists. This was a bit of a lost opportunity, as I felt both groups would have benefited from the absent expertise and perspective, although they came up with strong outline proposals.

One realisation I had, observing the conference unfold and speaking with people who had attended previous conferences, was that the group dynamics this year were far more animated than in previous years. One person remarked that back in 2004 there had “nearly been a stand-up fight” between two group participants, but that was a far cry from the impassioned debates, emotional arguments, group upheavals and reformations that characterised 2015’s conference. One organiser suggested it was because the artists were more “desperate” for funding, but I wonder if it isn’t more to do with the tendency (even tradition) for artists to offer the dissident voice, to question consensus and to seek alternative ways of doing things. It’s important too to emphasise that it was not only artists reassigning themselves to other groups, and that some artists stayed in groups where they were uncomfortable, but I like to think that these tendencies of artists I mention can actually benefit such an experimental process.

NAKFI seed group developing idea. Photo: Paul R Kennedy

NAKFI seed group developing idea. Photo: Paul R Kennedy

In accepting the committee position, I was driven by my interest in exploring the role of contemporary art in society, and particularly its potential inter-relationships with science. While interdisciplinary research and education have been enduring interests for me, I’ve been less involved with the innovation agenda, but it seems to me that engaging the interest of policymakers and those in industry can help to strengthen interdisciplinary research involving artists. In the USA, the agenda of ‘STEM to STEAM’ (transforming research, innovation and education policy by placing art and design at the centre of science, technology, engineering and medicine) is being discussed in the National Academies of Science, major universities, and even the US House of Representatives. So I was interested in the NAKFI conference as a testing ground to explore the potential role/s for art within innovation.

And then too I have an underlying urge, which I know I share with many artists, to initiate projects that may have clear practical benefits for people. This tendency in art is something that, in an art historical context, the Arts Catalyst will be exploring at our new centre in London in its opening exhibition: ‘Notes from the Field: Commoning Practices in Art and Science’. Perhaps the role of art is to experience and understand the problem, rather than to seek a solution. But this act of problematising can itself inflame a desire to transform those situations.

Huntingdon Beach, where we stayed for NAKFI 2015. Photo: Alana Quinn

Blue skies at Huntingdon Beach, where we stayed for NAKFI 2015. Photo: Alana Quinn


Aerocene – flight without borders

black balloon, person suspended, white desert, blue sky

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, pilot launch at White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Rubin Center for the Visual Arts


In the dunes of White Sands desert, on Sunday 8th November 2015, for the first time in the world, a registered solar heat powered balloon carrying a human person floated for more than 2 hours without touching ground and without burning any gas.

Tomás Saraceno’s work is as conceptually rich as it is aesthetically captivating. His pursuit of a borderless existence in the sky unfolds in a bewitching succession of floating structures, transparent aerial habitations, and human-scale suspended webs. Saraceno’s artistic visions seek to defy the constraints – social, technological, political and cultural – that bind us to a ground-based, bordered, fossil-fuelled, restricted existence. And he underpins these visions with relentless research, technical experimentation and scientific collaborations.

Saraceno’s sculpture Aerocene last week had its pilot flight in the dramatic landscape White Sands desert, New Mexico, in an event organised by the Rubin Center for the Visual Arts in El Paso, curated by my former colleague Rob La Frenais with Tomas Saraceno Studio. This extraordinary flight marked the first milestone in a Saraceno’s new project the Aerocene, which takes forward his vision in the flights of aerosolar sculptures that are inflated by air, lifted by the heat of the sun alone, and transported by the wind.

Black balloon lying in desert

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, air heating as the sun rises, White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Ewen Chardronnet

The artist has been experimenting with solar balloons for some years, driven by his dream of habitations in space without polluting the atmosphere with black carbon. Black carbon particles (soot) are emitted by hydrocarbon-fueled rockets and a recent scientific study has indicated that, if the space transport industry grows significantly in coming years, this black carbon could contribute to global climate change. Emissions from 1,000 private rocket launches a year would persist high in the stratosphere, potentially greatly altering global atmospheric circulation and distributions of ozone and contributing to polar temperature rises and sea ice melt.

Saraceno’s siting his new launch in the New Mexico White Sands desert area – where the first rocket launches in the United States were made and where the first tourist spaceport in the world is located – is therefore particularly significant.

Black balloon, white desert, blue sky, person suspended

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Ewen Chardronnet

Prior to the launch, Saraceno put out a call for people to be part of a collaborative action to help the launch of his new solar balloon. The experimental flight was preceded by a conference ‘Space Without Rockets’ at the Rubin Center, organized to explore the vision, potential and contexts for the project.

On the morning of Sunday 8 November, around 25 people, including Saraceno’s team of engineers and balloonists, arrived well before dawn at the White Sands Missile Range entry point for security clearance by the US Army (having previously submitted our passport information), which controls a large part of the White Sands area.

We drove out in a convoy of cars across the desert, as twilight spread across the flat landscape. After an hour’s driving, with the sun coming up over the distant mountains, we arrived in the launch site in the heart of the white sand dunes.

black balloon, person suspended, white desert, blue sky

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Studio Tomás Saraceno

Saraceno’s black solar balloon was stretched out across the white sand, partially inflated with air. It lay rather limply and lop-sided in the cool dawn air, awaiting the full power of the sun’s heat to emerge. Miraculously, despite an ominous weather forecast that had made some of us a little reluctant to get out of our warm El Paso hotel beds at 3am in the morning, the sky was clear and nor was there a breath of wind.

The Aerocene sculpture materializes more than ten years of research by Saraceno and his team on material properties, thermodynamics and atmospheric science. In principle, as the sun warms the air within the balloon, the air molecules becomes less dense than the outside air, causing the balloon to rise without the burning of propane or the use of lighter-than-air gases (helium or hydrogen).

The flight of this prototype balloon was planned as a tethered flight, always connected to the ground by ropes, as its venting and control had not been tested. The radical action was to lift a person off the ground by the power of the sun itself. In the early morning, the balloon looked as though it could barely lift itself, let alone a person. But, as the desert heat gathered force and the sun’s energy bounced back off the dazzling white sand into the balloon, adding to the heating effect, the balloon gathered strength. With Marija, an experienced balloonist from Croatia, suspended by a skydiver harness below the balloon, it lifted off the ground, controlled by the volunteers holding its ropes. A gentle breeze moved the balloon along the dunes and between them.

As the sun rose further, the balloon’s strength increased, lifting Marija higher. Danja from the Studio took Marija’s place and was allowed to rise to a height of perhaps 100 feet. The balloon strained against its tethers. Six people hung onto each rope to prevent the balloon taking off. Tomas was finally persuaded to take his place below the balloon, and a few others followed him, careful checks on the harness and attachments taking places each time. The balloon became a formidable beast striving to rush upwards to its home in the blue sky. More people joined the ropes to control it. After a few hours, the expert balloonists decided it had become too powerful to control and, after some less than successful testing of the venting, the balloon was gradually brought to the ground and emptied of its blisteringly hot air.

black balloon, person suspended, blue sky

Tomás Saraceno flies his Aerocene, White Sands Desert, 2015.

Saraceno’s fascination for structures in the sky stems from his family’s exile from Argentina (when the artist was a baby) because of the Perón dictatorship. When he returned there ten years later, he felt it was no longer his home, a place where he didn’t belong. Since then, he has travelled a lot and has become interested in challenging how the nations, divisions and borders we inhabit are created on Planet Earth.

His conceptual challenge of the territorialisation of the earth by a move into the sky seems particularly relevant at this time, Europe’s new border crisis, and appropriate for exploration in El Paso, situated on the tense border between Mexico and the USA. Saraceno’s is a utopian project, both in terms of finding a new way of existing borderless, and of reaching the skies and space without polluting them.

But another factor seems apparent in the Aerocene’s connection to a more elemental and human-centered mode of existence. Our severe control over our environment and the elements (as I realised shivering in the glacial air conditioned terminal of Houston airport looking out over a shimmering landscape on my connection to El Paso) has physical and environmental impacts, as detrimental to us, I suggest, as they are beneficial.

Suspended above the desert under a vast black solar balloon, I could feel the sun burning my face, the slight breeze moving me gently, the force of the balloon tugging upwards. I looked out over a white desert dazzling under a violently blue sky, and at the scraps of vegetation struggling in this landscape, and felt the immediacy of the possibility of flying up and off in whatever direction – and across whatever border – the elements might choose, should my colleagues on the ground let go of those two slight ropes. It was an intensely sensorial experience that left me feeling profoundly alive.

black balloon, person suspended, white desert, blue sky

Nicola Triscott flies Tomás Saraceno’s Aerocene, pilot launch at White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Studio Tomás Saraceno

Exploring the border of art and space: the “territory of the imagination”

A projection in a cave

Astrovandalistas, Imaginario Inverso (installation – cave)

I have spent the last few days with a very special group of people in El Paso, Texas, on the US-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, and in White Sands, New Mexico, a region where the space program had its beginnings and that is now home to a high number of emerging commercial space programs.

The occasion was the opening of Territory of the Imagination: At the Border of Art and Space’ at the Rubin Center of the Visual Arts at the University of Texas at El Paso, curated by Kerry Doyle, a program of exhibitions, workshops and events highlighting the work of artists engaged in disruptive, alternative, and collective interactions with space and space technology, particularly artists from Latin America and the US-Mexico border region.

The program has been such a rich and thought-provoking experience that I want to blog about it in two parts, the first addressing the exhibition and the issues raised in it, the second focusing on Tomas Saraceno’s project Aerocene and the ‘Space Without Rockets’ conference, programmed by Rob La Frenais.

The four elements of the exhibition are the Astrovandalistas’ Imaginario Inverso, Matters of Gravity, Arte en Orbita and Tomas Saraceno’s Aerosolar.

Astrovandalistas is an artist collective interested in the effects of the industrialisation of our social imaginary in contexts where corporate and government interests supersede the individual and collective concerns of citizens. For Territory of the Imagination, they are running a series of workshops with communities in El Paso and Juarez and preparing a laser communication system to enable the creation of futuristic narratives about the border region. They are using lasers, in a reinterpretation of NASA’s laser communication technology for terrestrial purposes, both to transmit and engrave these narratives into stones. At the opening event, their preliminary research could be viewed both in the gallery and in a cave on the hillside.

Man shows device in cave

Astrovandalistas, Imaginario Inverso, laser device in cave installation

Engraved rocks in front of projected film with mountain

Astrovandalistas, Imaginario Inverso (installation)

Matters of Gravity (La Gravedad de los Asuntos) presents the artistic outputs of a two-year programme of research (advised by The Arts Catalyst) by a group of Mexican artists, organised by Nahum Mantra and Ale de la Puente, into the nature of gravity and zero gravity, including a zero gravity flight at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia.

Woman flies an ancient contraption in a zero gravity flight

Tania Candiani, Machine for flying, Besnier 1673, Matters of Gravity

Picture of a giant hourglass with sand floating inside

Ale de la Puente, An Infinity Without Destiny, Matters of Gravity

Arte En Orbita was a selection of films from an Ecuadorian exhibition of the same name, curated by Pedro Soler and Fabiane Borges, featuring a number of contemporary postcolonial space agencies – from Latin America, Africa and Palestine – that have appropriated technologies and imaginaries of space for their own use.

Person in crude silver spacesuit

Kongo Astronauts, Arte En Orbita

Tomas Saraceno’s Aerocene (which will be the subject of a separate blog post) shows his work developing an alternative system for transport in the sky and potentially in space through solar balloons. The exhibition of photographs and videos ‘Becoming Aerosolar’ sets the context for furthering his research and discourse in the conference ‘Space Without Rockets’, curated by Rob La Frenais, and the attempted launch of his prototype solar balloon Aerocene in the White Sands desert (see my next blog post!).

A giant balloon made of old carrier bags floats in the air

Tomas Saraceno, Museo Aero Solar, 2009

The projects in Territory of the Imagination connect the sociopolitics of space technology with issues of the territorialisation of space. Whilst the drive to explore space and visit other celestial bodies is visionary and open-minded, the space industry tends to replicate and propagate existing habits of thinking and ideologies from earth, such as American concepts of ‘progress’ and ‘frontier’, transferred from American historical narratives into the discourse of the space industry.

Since the 1960s, social imaginaries of space became largely synonymous with the national and international projects of Apollo, the ISS, space probes, Mars landers and Hubble. With the emergence of commercial space programmes – and New Mexico is where much of this is taking place – this imaginary is changing. A new ideological framework for space endeavours is emerging in which private enterprise is seen as the determining factor: space has become a place to be exploited for commercial ends. Is this the outer space of our own imaginings, those of us affected by space activities and, argues the United Nations’ space treaties, collective custodians of space as a ‘global commons’ but uninvolved in its industries?

It seems important that we question the ideologies shaping the new space age. Developing alternative social imaginaries of space is a critical part of this questioning. The space programme was historically shaped by the visions of artists and writers, and the same process could apply today. Artists, such as those in Territory of the Imagination, who engage in tactical, interrogatory or playful interactions with space themes, or who appropriate the images and technologies of space in ways that connect people to new bodies of knowledge, are developing alternative poetic and progressive imaginaries of space, and contributing to a vital societal and cultural dialogue, in which people from many cultures and across disciplines can take part.

A personal update – seeking the view from Stateside

Neal White with Tina O'Connell, 1x1, Transformer, Washington DC, 2012

Neal White and Tina O’Connell, 1×1, Transformer, Washington DC, 2012. Photo: Tear – Tidal Basin (c) the artists *

I’m excited to let you know that, for the next 12 months, I’ll be based in Washington D.C., from where I’ll be exploring opportunities for the Arts Catalyst in the US, as well as – after 21 years leading the organisation – taking a semi-sabbatical to extend my own research and writing.

One exciting initiative that I’m involved in is as a member of the Steering Committee for the US National Academies’ Keck Futures Initiative ‘Art and Science, Engineering and Medicine Frontier Collaborations: Ideation, Translation & Realization’. The conference at the heart of this initiative takes place next week in Irvine, California, and brings together a diverse group of participants (selected from an open international call) to explore how arts, design, sciences, engineering and medicine can stimulate a renaissance of innovation to solve real-world problems, and create concrete projects that can lead to educational, cultural, social and scientific impacts. As a steering committee member, I’ll be mentoring a couple of the ‘seed idea’ groups that I’ve been involved in putting together: Developing Programs to Engage and Empower Communities to Address Threats to Ecosystems, and Creating Open Data Culture.

Another couple of conferences I’ll be participating in during the year are Aerosolar: Space Without Rockets at the Rubin Center for the Visual Arts in El Paso, Texas, this week, curated by my former colleague Rob La Frenais, where I’ll be talking about the peaceful uses of outer space and attending an experimental balloon launch by artist Tomas Saraceno at White Sands, and the Association of American Geographers (AAG)’s annual meeting in San Francisco, on a panel about Geographies of Outer Space, convened by Julie Klinger and Dan Bednar of Western University in Canada, in March 2016. Also on the space-related side of my work, I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of a book to which I’ve contributed a chapter, The Palgrave Handbook of Society, Culture and Outer Space, a vital collection of texts from a broad range of disciplines that examine outer space as a dynamic and contested field, edited by Peter Dickens and James S. Ormrod. Whilst on the pricey side for most of us, I’m sure many institutions will order a copy for their libraries and I’ll ensure that the Arts Catalyst has a copy in its reference library. We’re also thinking about holding a seminar or event in London next year to explore and open up some of the book’s key themes and ideas.

During the coming year, I’ll continue to oversee the Arts Catalyst’s artistic programme whilst handing over most executive leadership to an interim Managing Director. I’m therefore delighted to announce that we’ve appointed Gary Sangster as Arts Catalyst’s Interim Managing Director. Gary has an exceptional international track record as a museum director, curator, educator and writer, and brings his vast wealth of knowledge and experience to the company. This all comes at a very exciting time for Arts Catalyst. Following our highly successful crowdfunding campaign, the Arts Catalyst’s new Centre for Art, Science and Technology opens in Cromer Street, King’s Cross in January 2016 (I’ll be back in the UK for the opening). Our opening project at the centre will be ‘Notes From the Field: Commoning Practices in Art and Science’ – details upcoming.

You can follow my work both in the USA and the UK (and anywhere else I get invited to!) via this blog and my twitter.

* Image: Neal White and Tina O’Connell’s 1×1, as part of 5×5, comprised 1,000 small vials of “tears” – water collected in Japan after the earthquake and Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant disaster (my small role in this project was in facilitating the collection of the water from Japan). Visitors were encouraged to pour the water on a cherry tree bringing about a symbolic rebirth, drawing on the specific historical connection to the gift of the Cherry Trees to Washington DC one hundred years ago. 1×1 reflected upon the range of experience and responses to the Tsunami and Fukushima Diaichi catastrophe in Japan a year before the project.

Fracking futures – HeHe’s experimental drilling cuts out the middle man

HeHe, Fracking Futures (2013). Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and FACT

HeHe, Fracking Futures (2013). Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and FACT

As David Koch – the wealthy industrialist whose company is responsible for the dumping of a three-storey high city block sized pile of petroleum coke (a byproduct of oil sands refining) in Detroit’s Assumption Park – funds a new plaza at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, I’m prompted to wonder what we in the UK arts sector will get up to in response to Government calls for reductions in public subsidy to be replaced with corporate and personal philanthropy, as per the American model.

Viewing the ongoing hubbub around BP’s ongoing sponsorship of our major institutions, Tate, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House, how can we finance our work without sparking quite such a furor? And anyway, how much do we want to benefit a multinational?

Petcoke piles along the Detroit river. Byproduct of tar sands oil refinement at the Marathon refinery in Detroit Michigan. Photo: James Fassinger

Petcoke piles along the Detroit river. Byproduct of tar sands oil refinement at the Marathon refinery in Detroit Michigan. Photo: James Fassinger

In The Arts Catalyst latest commission with FACT, Liverpool, artist group HeHe (Heiko Hansen and Helen Evans) propose a radical solution: cut out the middle man, let’s extract our own fossil fuels.

In FACT’s ground floor Gallery 1, HeHe have begun initial exploratory tests to extract shale gas through an innovative process known as fracking, turning the space into an experimental drilling site. Fracking is short for ‘hydraulic fracturing’: pumping a highly pressurised mixture of water, sand and chemicals underground to extract gas. The process opens fissures in subterranean rocks, releasing the gas trapped several miles beneath the earth’s surface. HeHe’s initial explorations have already discovered that the area directly beneath FACT consists of Holywell shale and might hold at least 20 trillion cubic feet of gas. This energy will be used to ensure the future operation of FACT and the energy created will be exported directly to the local community.

Whilst fracking is a controversial procedure which has caused mass public debate in the US and currently in Britain – and certainly there will be some unquantifiable subterranean noise and minor ground tremors in the gallery, as well as probable minor explosions and effluent discharge – it’s all being done with public safety and public benefit as a priority.

HeHe’s Fracking Futures ties into a long history of mining and extraction in northwest England, and looks to the contemporary context wherein sites around Blackpool, Manchester and Southport have been, or are currently, in the process of being approved for fracking. This artists’ installation aims to draw attention to current debates surrounding the process, both economic and environmental.


HeHe, Fracking Futures (2013). Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and FACT for ‘Turning FACT Inside Out’

Some responses to War at the speed of light …

James Bridle, Dronestagram, 2012

A couple of recent interesting blog posts have picked up on my War at the Speed of Light: artists and drone warfare post a few weeks ago, which reviewed Omer Fast and Trevor Paglen’s works at the Brighton Photo Biennial.

Geographer Dr Alan Ingram, in his post Making geopolitics creepy and cool with art, fascinatingly analyses the use of particular words in the comments books at Fast and Paglen’s exhibitions: ‘stunning’, ‘cool’, ‘creepy’, ‘ugh’, ‘*shudders*, ‘oh no…’, ‘weird’, ‘wow’, ‘huh?’, by way of François Debrix, JJ Charlesworth, and neuropolitics (more please, Alan, this is a fantastic subject!). Ingram’s excellent blog Art and War is part of an academic research project exploring the responses of artists and art institutions in the UK to the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq,

Meanwhile, Honor Harger’s Drone’s Eye View: a Look at How Artists Are Revealing the Killing Fields, whose venue Lighthouse in Brighton hosted the Paglen show, introduces James Bridle’s significant body of work on drone warfare. Bridle’s Drone Shadow is an ongoing investigation into the shadow of the drone, in which one-to-one representations of the MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) are drawn to scale on urban landscapes, while his new project Dronestagram, launched this month, is a social media project on TwitterInstagram and Tumblr which posts a drone’s-eye-view of strike locations.

Thanks to both!

Also, in case you’ve missed it, I draw your attention to Culture+Conflict, a UK-based not-for-profit agency, founded in 2011 by Michaela Crimmon, Peter Jenkinson and Jemima Montagu, which focuses on the role of the arts and culture within conflict and post conflict situations across the world.

War at the speed of light: artists and drone warfare

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet Is the Best, 2011, digital film stills © Omer Fast

“We call it in, and we’re given all the clearances that are necessary, all the approvals and everything else, and then we do something called the Light of God – the Marines like to call it the Light of God. It’s a laser targeting marker. We just send out a beam of laser and when the troops put on their night vision goggles they’ll just see this light that looks like it’s coming from heaven. Right on the spot, coming out of nowhere, from the sky. It’s quite beautiful.”
– quote from Omer Fast’s 5000 Is the Best, 2011.

Paul Virilio, in his 1998 book ‘The Vision Machine’, predicted a machine that “will be capable of seeing and perceiving in our place”. A key concept in Virilio’s writing is dromology, or the logic of speed. The one and simple rule of technology development has been that of ever-increasing speed, and this rule seems to define fundamental aspects of warfare and society. Real space has been supplanted by real time because we can receive information from everywhere on the globe in real-time, reducing human perception to a kind of ‘polar inertia’.

Last week, US immigration officials’ detention and interrogation of Pakistan politician Imran Kahn – a vehement critic of US drone attacks in Pakistan – as he boarded a flight from Canada to New York, threw a spotlight on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in warfare. UAVs, or drones, are aircraft either controlled by ‘pilots’ from the ground or autonomously following a pre-programmed mission. They basically fall into two categories: those used for reconnaissance and surveillance, and those armed with missiles and bombs. Although British and US Reaper and Predator drones are physically in Afghanistan and Iraq, control is via satellite from a USAF base outside Las Vegas, Nevada. Ground crews launch drones from the conflict zone, then operation is handed over to controllers at video screens. Armed drones were first used in the Balkans war, but their use has dramatically escalated in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

Angel Nevarez and Alex Rivera, LowDrone

Contemporary artists have increasingly vigorously engaged with the subject of war and its consequences over the last decade, since the commencement of Bush’s global “war on terror” and the Iraq War. Unsurprisingly, there have been a string of recent artists’ project exploring the rapidly escalating use and impact of drones in surveillance and warfare, such as Angel Nevarez and Alex Rivera’s remote-controlled “low-rider” spy drone, positioned at the United States-Mexico border and controllable by anyone with an Internet connection, and photojournalist Noor Behram’s brave documentation of the human toll of drone strikes in Pakistan.

Trevor Paglen, Reaper Drone (Indian Springs, NV Distance – 2 miles), 2012

Two artists’ exhibitions in the recent Brighton Photo Biennial, whose theme was ‘Agents of Change’, address the subject of remote warfare and surveillance through works that at the same time unpick the role of the photograph or video in the propagation of ideas, and question the assumption of the documentary as truth-telling.

Trevor Paglen is known for his meticulously researched documentation of “black sites” of secret government activity, which he photographs using specialized equipment. His show at Lighthouse, Brighton, featured photographic works drawn from two series: Limit Telephotography, in which the artist adapted astronomy telescopes to reveal classified, covert US military installations, including drone bases, in remote parts of south-west USA, and The Other Night Sky, his photographs of classified American surveillance satellites. Paglen’s photographs are an uneasy blend of abstract allure, art-historical references, and disquieting subject matter. They draw our attention not only to the geography of covert operations – the remote sites, and the militarisation of sky and space – but also to the mechanisation of vision and its implications in a global arena of political tension and warfare. His distant photographs of partially visible airplane hangers, drone aircraft and strange installations are blurred, the images of spy satellites use long exposure to show the bright arcs of satellite paths. The exhibition also includes Paglen’s 2010 video work Drone Vision, a stream of unencrypted video intercepted by an amateur satellite hacker.

Trevor Paglen, Keyhole Improved Crystal from Glacier Point (Optical Reconnaissance Satellite; USA 186), 2008

Omer Fast’s latest chilling narrative film work 5000 Feet Is the Best explores remote warfare and its psychological impact on a drone pilot. Fast’s unsettling video-works construct contemporary stories through a masterly grasp of storytelling, reworking time, facts and personal perspective, exposing of the problematic assumptions of objectivity and truth. He often presents his films in a looped structure, with no obvious start or end point, and challenges our absorption in the tale by revealing its construction – showing the actor auditioning for a part, for example, or repeating a section but altering it.

5000 Feet Is the Best is based on conversations that the artist had with a former Predator drone aerial unmanned vehicle operator with post traumatic stress disorder, now working as a Las Vegas casino security guard. As I enter the space, the film shows an overhead shot of a boy on a bike cycling across an arid landscape towards a settlement. The voiceover is of an interview with a former drone operator explaining the detail that he could see when the drone is at 5000 feet or above: “the kind of shoes a person was wearing, if they were smoking a cigarette, their posture”.

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best, screen shot, 2011

The film interweaves and blurs reality and fiction. It is structured around three dramatized sequences. Each starts in the same way, in dark hotel room, the pilot (an actor) sitting on the bed facing his interviewer, presumably Fast. Each time Fast asks: “What’s the difference between you and someone actually in an airplane?”, and the pilot answers, “Nothing, we’re doing the same thing”, to which Fast replies “But you’re not a real pilot”, provoking each time a different outburst from the drone operator, who then falls into telling a story, sometimes seemingly unrelated, which we watch dramatised unfold on the screen. One story is about a man who poses as a train driver, operates the train smoothly for an entire day, but is arrested that night breaking into his own home (having left his keys in his borrowed uniform). The interviewer asks: “Was the man in this story someone in your unit?” The drone pilot replies shortly: “No. It’s a metaphor.” A second story is of a couple in a casino who engage in a seduction scam to rob casino customers. The last story is of a family – personified as a white, American family – who abandon their home to avoid some unknown trouble, only to meet a tragedy on the road. “Mom, Dad, Johnny, and little Zoe” pack their belongings into a station wagon. On a lonely dirt road, they see a group of men planting an improvised explosive device. The image cuts to the view from a drone. The family’s car drives slowly towards the men. There is a humming noise from the sky …

The stories are interspersed with the audio of the interview, where the drone pilot talks of his work and of his psychological trauma over his responsibility for killing: “You see a lot of death … doing this. You had to think there is so much loss of life that is a direct result of me.”

Remote warfare aims to distance the public, as well as the operators of the drones, from the people “over there”. Paglen’s work exposes the covertness and mechanics of such warfare technologies, while Fast attempts to remake the perceptual connections between “us and them” to show that, despite Virilio’s prediction that such technologies will lead to the ‘automation of perception’, killing is still a personal and human experience, even when mediated by speed-of-light telepresence.

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best, screen shot, 2011

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