Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, or more colloquially, “drones”) are a controversial technology. Though the earliest versions (remote operated aircraft) originated during WW I, and saw important and deadly innovation through WW II and the Vietnam War, they only came to greater widespread public knowledge within the last decade and a half, as the post 9/11 wars on terror expanded in Afghanistan and Iraq, and drones strikes reach into Pakistan, Yemen, and now Syria.
Used for both surveillance and weapons delivery, they are an integrated part of modern warfare and intelligence gathering. UAVs are prized for their efficiency, efficacy, and safety, and praised for creating a more “humane war”. They are airborne for days at a time, over conflict zones, controlled by pilots sitting safely at their screens, 8,000 miles away in air-conditioned trailers outside of Las Vegas, Nevada.
Many Pakistanis understand that their government lacks the capability to suppress the Taliban, and therefore accept CIA drone strikes as a temporary, if unsavory necessity. In the West, as the public’s awareness of drone usage increases, questions are being raised about the ethics and implementation of the technology. Concerns about the distance, both geographically and psychologically, between the operators and the targets; between the justifications and the decision makers; and between the all-seeing eye of the drone camera and real cultural understanding, are also being raised. This international group of artists, engineers, writers and activists are among those asking those questions and expressing those concerns. They are all searching for greater accountability.
Lisa Barnard works with victims of missile attacks, drone pilots and psychologists, trying to uncover the secrecies surrounding the use of drones by Western governments. Trevor Palgen’s hacked drone video, Drone Vision reveals a “drone-eye” view and questions information security between operators and the machines they pilot.
David Birkin’s Severe Clear ask viewers to rethink notions of justice and responsibility during the “war on terror”. Mahwish Chishty‘s paintings open a dialogue between drones and folk-art truck painting, juxtaposing traditional Pakistani culture with contemporary, 21st Century concerns.
Technology writer and artist James Bridle, and interactive designers Pitch Interactive, examine the unknown and virtual spaces within contemporary war. Both are interested in bringing us closer to understanding the realities and consequences of the technology we use.
Pakistani lawyer Mirza Shahzad Akbar has spent the last decade collecting photographic-evidence and testimony about drone-targeting errors and bringing lawsuits against the Pakistani government and the CIA. He, like these artists, believes that the United States should hold itself to a higher standard. “This is not about taking the Taliban side or the American side,” says Mr. Akbar in a recent New Yorker article.* “Our work has been about the fact that there is no transparency or accountability”
Jennifer Ward, Curator
* Steve Coll. “The Unblinking Stare.” The New Yorker Nov. 2014
Lisa Barnard, Ellipses, 2014. From the project Mapping the Territory,
project Whiplash Transition. Courtesy of the artist