A few months ago, the gift shop of the New Museum in New York took on a decidedly different character. Among the art magazines, books, posters, and pens were shiny silver drone-proof hoodies, hats, scarves, and burkas. The metallized clothing blocks thermal-imaging surveillance used by drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, and was conceived by artist Adam Harvey and designer Johanna Bloomfield after Harvey had learned that one of his artworks was published in a classified document. First shown as a pop-up installation in London, the Privacy Gift Shop has now expanded to an online store. And it’s just one of many ways drones are invading artists’ imaginations.
“A decade ago, privacy discussions were much less common,” Harvey says of the influx of drones into the art world. “Having an ‘anti-drone’ hijab available for purchase in a museum gift shop all of a sudden makes that less taboo, less shocking, and more accessible.”
Since the passage of the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which fast-tracks the use of commercial drones to September 2015, artists have increasingly turned their attention to aerial robots. A number of drone- inspired exhibitions worldwide are both challenging the politics of drones and exploring their viability as art objects.
In Montreal, this year’s Le Mois de la Photo, the international biennale devoted to photography, titled its monthlong program “Drone: the Automated Image” (see review, page 107). Curator Paul Wombell says that when he wrote his proposal for the theme, “the drone was in the media, and in particular the issues of surveillance and the ethics of using the drone.” He sees the drone as a “metaphor for technology extending human vision”—a clear talking point in the work of participating artists Mona Hatoum and Thomas Ruff, as well as Trevor Paglen, whose “Drones” series captures brilliant-colored skies with mysterious tiny specks in the distance. (Hint: they’re drones.)
Like Harvey and Bloomfield, other artists have found that discussions of the drone can drive long-term endeavors, often taking place in cyberspace. Rajeev Basu’s web project “Drones of New York,” originally made for the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, hosts a countdown to commercial drone use in the United States. The clock is accompanied by digital renderings by a dozen designers— including eBoy, Saiman Chow, Craig & Karl, and Simon Thompson—who imagine armed drones bedecked in artful camouflage, polka dots, graffiti tags, and advertisements flying low over New York City streets and inside museums.
Meanwhile, Dronestagram, started by James Bridle, repurposes photos taken by unmanned aircraft, in the form of an Instagram account dedicated to drone’s-eye views and captions detailing U.S. drone strikes. To viewers, it blurs the line between art and political commentary —exactly as Bridle intended. “If art can be employed as one of a range of tools for investigating these issues, then it’s useful for me,” Bridle says. “But I think we need to be very wary of glamorizing the drone in any way, which is all too easy with such charismatic technologies, even deadly ones.”