Art in the Lou: Contemporary art and drone warfare at the Kemper
The Kemper Art Museum’s current special exhibition, “To See Without Being Seen: Contemporary Art and Drone Warfare,” includes pieces from international artists that critique drone warfare. Through the use of videos, photography, online art and installations, the artists share their distressful findings on this secretive practice by our government and military.
The exhibition is a learning experience on the United States’ use of unmanned aerial vehicles to collect information about the lives of others globally and to track, monitor and target individuals. Furthermore, the art in this show reveals some of the imaging and technology behind this constant surveillance.
Last Wednesday night, Chris Woods, author of “Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars,” spoke in Steinberg Auditorium, in conjunction with the drone exhibit. His recent book is an expose into the world of drone warfare, and his work as an investigative journalist reveals the conflict of drones and national security issues. Woods won the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2013 and has worked on many cases of U.S. drone strikes.
In the very last few minutes of Woods’ lecture, a fire truck roared by outside of Steinberg on Forsyth Boulevard. It was ironic timing, as Woods had chosen to end with a silent video of Mosul, Iraq, a city known as an Islamic State (ISIL) headquarters, that was attacked about four weeks ago by the U.S. Woods explained that the city is still under occupation by ISIL and has been for over two years.
More than 2 million civilians reside in Mosul, and it has been bombed more than anywhere else in our war against ISIL.
“I thought I’d show you the reality of the city strikes,” Woods prefaced the video by saying. “This is what we do.”
The coalition’s own propaganda video filled the screen, showing the effect of the bomb dropping on the city from a bird’s eye view. Although the video itself was silent, the unplanned wailing fire engine outside of the art school could not have had more perfect timing to encapsulate the danger and immediacy of the issue he shared with the Sam Fox School audience. The bomb was dropped on Mosul University, where plenty of innocent students and professors work.
The art in the Kemper exhibition similarly acts as a wake-up call to its visitors. In the first section of the show, entitled “Bringing the War Home,” artists disclose what it’s like to be in a “home” where drones are omnipresent, always watching from above. The daily paranoia that comes with living in a targeted area is expressed through the artists’ use of vertical perspective or the automatized bird’s eye view of the U.S. military drones on top of our own cities.
A total of 12 large black and white photographs span the first wall of the exhibition. Although titled “Blue Sky Days,” Tomas van Houtryve’s photojournalistic works evoke anything but pleasant outdoor vibes. The pieces are taken with drone cameras, providing the viewer an understanding of the drone’s field of vision, the issues with its limited perspective and the high, yet rarely addressed, chances that our drones kill innocent civilians in these “targeted” attacks. The name of the piece was inspired by a 2013 quote from a Pakistani boy who preferred gray skies and feared blue-skied days, since clear skies meant high visibility for the drones flying above his city and higher chances of death that day.
Woods’ talk touched on a lot of the interviews that he, too, was able to conduct in writing his recent book. But rather than quoting civilians who spotted the drones above them, he learned from former CIA agents and intelligence generals, who anonymously spoke out against the effects of drones.
While we may target dangerous individuals and are made to believe that these are precise strikes protecting our country, it became clear from Woods’ many interviews that even the special forces drone operators and high-ranking officials admit that what we’re really doing with these drones is killing many innocent people. The secrecy of these side effects and the fact that none of these deaths are formally apologized for by the government is a point that comes up both in the artwork and in Woods’ research.
“What kind of message is it where we never acknowledge or apologize for the innocents we kill, no matter how noble our war ends,” Woods asked of us.
In the second section of the exhibition, titled “Tracking and Targeting,” artist James Bridle attempts to publicize the true consequences of drone strikes with his project “Dronestagram.” Bridle follows the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and reports satellite images of the drone strike locations from Google Maps onto his live Instagram account. The information about these strikes is broadcast on social media through his use of visual evidence and captions which unveil the number of civilian casualties. The images themselves are as blurry and warped as the messages that the government rarely admits to the public.
Bridle’s dissemination of the truth on a constant feed fights against the blocked-off nature of these military activities. Visitors at the exhibition can sit in the installation space and view these images individually on the big screen or scroll through the “Dronstagram” account on the Kemper Museum’s provided iPad.
A theme of perpetuating these images that are usually so cloudy to the public continues into the third section of the exhibition, called “Countersurveillance.” Mirroring the photojournalistic installation of bird’s eye-view works by Tomas van Houtryve, at the entrance to the exhibition, a similarly ubiquitous and wall-to-wall layout of photographs brings the show to a close.
Shinseungback Kimyonghun’s “Cloud Face” is a collection of photographs of clouds, identified as human faces by the face detection software that drones use to target individuals. The soft, beautiful sky landscapes that fill these compositions are the opposite of what a human’s vision would identify as violent and dangerous. Kimyonghun’s work hits the nail on the head in terms of showing how erroneous drone strikes can be. How can a computerized algorithm act in place of a human’s judgment when other humans’ lives are at risk?
The drone age is so prevalent in our world, yet so hidden from our contemporary understanding.
Experience the eye-opening installations and immersive videos for yourself by visiting the exhibition before it closes next week. “To See Without Being Seen: Contemporary Art and Drone Warfare” is at the Kemper Art Museum until next Sunday, April 24.