“All the drones were dead and gone by the end,” my friend laughed, filling me in on the last hour of opening night at First Person View, the Knockdown Center’s drone-centric art exhibition. The show lifted off last weekend after months of planning; unfortunately/fortunately, my friend’s account of all the mayhem I’d missed by leaving early wasn’t 100 percent accurate. “The show will go on!” Vanessa Thill, who co-curated the show, assured us. “Crashing is all part of the fun.”
When we first got acquainted with the project, the curators were planning a drone obstacle course, enlisting artists and drone hobbyists to help them build it and subsequently navigate it in a sort of race. But the project changed over time, and instead of having visitors engage with drones by simply flying them around, the curators wanted people to dig deeper. Rather than focusing on the drone itself, the curators chose to emphasize drones’ ability to provide a “mediated experience of vision” which, considering our love affair with screens, is “now a major part of how we consume imagery and gather information,” Thill explained.
What makes drones an equally exciting and terrifying technology is their capacity for remote surveillance. Essentially the unmanned aircraft have eyes of their own. “What is unique about the drone is its camera that allows for viewers to get a different perspective, to be able to see something with an eye that can be maneuvered at quite a distance,” Thill told us.
So what does this have to do with art? Well, it gets us thinking about art from the perspective of the viewer, for one. “For me, this is fascinating,” Thill explained. “In the modernist tradition […] the eye is really privileged as the floating locus of sublime knowledge, whereas the viewer’s body was seen as kind of unimportant and undifferentiated.”
Of course with the advent of post-modernism and subsequently feminist and minimalist critiques, this assumption has been picked apart. The beholder has become much more important when it comes to art. And while the advent of the internet and especially social media have expanded opportunity for participation in the arts (via both consumption and production) the way we look at art and who looks at art have become essential parts of the discussion. (Just look at digi-artist Molly Soda, whose work is defined by and imbued with her interactions with other people who she engages with, or responds to, on the internet.)
Whereas my own sense of uneasiness about drones– at least, the recreational ones flying around Knockdown Center as we speak– has subsided somewhat since my first encounter with them at a call-for-submissions preview back in May, I noticed that very same distrust and even fear all over the faces of exhibition-goers on Saturday. On one hand it seems that even these playful drones are inextricable from their association with warfare, secrecy, and destruction; on the other hand, maybe this hesitancy has something to do with the fact that we still find drones, well, weird.
While enthusiasts have made it their personal mission to portray drones as harmless toys (the kind that are being remotely piloted by hobbyists anyway) the artists at First Person View approached these stealthy unmanned planes from a more complex and less credulous perspective.
Exhibition participants like Cara Francis– an actress, writer, and performance artist– and her piece Remote (also shown at the New Museum in January, though in a slightly different form) acknowledged our ambivalent attitude toward drones by highlighting their playful elements and practical potential as well as their deeply sinister connotations.
Whereas a drone enthusiast we spoke with in the planning stages of the exhibition referred to hobby drones as “cute,” Francis admitted that despite her extensive work with drones, she still has a very complex relationship with them. “I definitely have a friendship with my drone, as much as I can have a friendship with an extension of myself. But no, I don’t think I’ve become more comfortable with them,” she explained. “Like any weapon, [drones] are an extension of the pilot’s body, basically and they can be used as either a tool or a weapon.”
But I wondered if Cara drew a distinct line between battle drones and these plastic playthings. “It feels like the drones that we’re falling in love with, that we’re so excited to get our hands on to fly around and look as stuff with, I guess they’re like the little siblings,” she said. “They’re like the drone-light that’s more palatable.”
She also pointed to the sticky aspects of turning drones into cuddly critters. “There’s an interesting thing about kids playing with cap guns and army figurines, and liberal kinds of parents being uncomfortable with that these days, and then adults playing with these little facsimiles of these really big killing machines,” Cara mused. “I know that essentially they’re not that, it’s really just the technology being used in an entirely different way, but it’s still interesting.”
When I approached Francis’ installation at First Person View I found the artist staring hard, intensely focused on piloting her drone while one brave participant after another stepped up to face the hovering aircraft. “Hello I am a drone,” the hovering bot announced to one woman, floating ever closer to her face. “My name is Speedy Gonzales.”
Actually, the drone’s voice– deep, raspy, and buttery at the same time– sounded more like Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied purr in the sci-fi romance Her than the high-pitched chirp of a racist mouse. Remote, as a participatory installation, involves a drone that Cara’s programmed to engage directly with volunteers. It starts out by asking them questions ranging from the banal to the bizarre, hovering ever closer in the process.
“Talk to me,” it beckoned. “How do you feel about me?”
The woman, looking a little disgusted and squinting as if in pain, stared straight into the eyes of the drone. What was she looking at that made her so uneasy? I found out later on that volunteers are actually looking at an image of themselves.
“They know I’m not going to hurt them. But I think sometimes people still feel freaked out by it,” Cara explained. “I get the drone really, really close to them and they can see what it sees, because I have the feed on the monitor. And people kind of turn around and see that the drone is right in their face and it sees their face, and then it flies over them and they can see an aerial view of themselves.”
No wonder it looked as if the participant was going through a painful experience — she must have felt at least a little violated with that drone all over her. It hovered so close to her face that a sudden twitch of the neck could relegate her to cyclops-hood.
After some initial hesitation, the volunteer finally answered the drone’s question: “I find you strangely attractive and terrifying, pretty much like everything in my life right now.”
Her brutal honesty made it seem as if she was almost starting to trust this horrifying robot plane. Almost. “We’re consistently fascinated with serial killers,” Cara mused. “I think there’s a lot of romanticism around them and that’s kind of what I see the drone as, a really handsome serial killer that everyone wants to know more about.”
So was this woman allowing herself to be seduced by this sultry-voiced drone? Maybe. The only way to know for sure was to wait and see if she accepted Speedy’s request for a dance.
“There are definitely some sexy undertones I bring into the performance because I think that things people get really excited about buying, they become kind of sexy,” Cara laughed. “So people get weirded out by that.”
Remote not only shows participants an unfamiliar perspective of their own body, it captures those images as well. “I’m really just collecting data, basically, collating images,” Cara explained. “But I think it’s important to think about the question, ‘How much of that becomes overreach? How much of that becomes too much?'”
As a means of mulling over that central question, Cara compiled the footage captured last Saturday into one long video that will be looped at Knockdown Center until she returns for the second performance on Saturday, August 29. The video captured exactly how Remote teases out a range of emotional responses in people.
While the first volunteer gave into the drone’s requests with some hesitation, a younger guy looked as though he was even more disturbed by the whole thing. “Confusion comes first, I think, like, ‘What am I supposed to do with this thing? Am I supposed to talk to it?’ I think that’s a natural response to being asked to interact directly with something that is hovering over the uncanny valley,” Cara recounted. “Also titillation because people think it’s funny and weird. Then again some people are totally freaked out by it.”
But drones’ ability to inspire a flurry of emotions is just part of what drew Cara to using the technology in her performance art. “I tend to be attracted to things that are controversial, and drones are just so polarizing,” she explained.
When Cara first started experimenting with the flying machines, she said, “we were almost exclusively using them in war. But over the last few years their profile has shifted from the big drones we’re using to kill people to now, where I think 80 percent of drone technology is being directed toward commercial uses now. And that’s fascinating.”
First Person View is open at Knockdown Center in Maspeth, Queens from now until September 12. Fly your own drones any day and catch Cara Francis and her performance of Remote on Saturday, August 29 and at the exhibition closing Saturday, September 12.