This year’s Brighton Festival features an installation ‘Under the Shadow of the Drone’ by James Bridle. The installation consists of a full scale outline of a drone, reminiscent of the chalk outlines of murder victims we used to see in crime and detective dramas. Below is an image of a previous installation and text accompanying the work in the Festival catalogue.
“The unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, has become one of the most potent weapons of contemporary warfare. Remotely controlled by operators thousands of miles away, drones carry out aerial attacks which leave hundreds of people dead. They are one of the most controversial weapons of war, and Under the Shadow of the Drone makes them visible on our streets.”
“The stark marking out in an unexpected public space of a drone’s silhouette forces us to consider the implications of a drone attack on our own community. It raises questions about how military technology can obscure, conceal and distance us from the political and moral responsibility. It also continues the long tradition of artists bearing witness to events that governments and the military would prefer we did not see.”
I have not yet seen the installation in Brighton; however, while I find the issue and timing pertinent, the first thing that struck me was the relationship between the text and the installation. The work relies on being stumbled upon and perhaps being surprised at the scale and form of the drone seen in the context of a familiar urban surroundings. Yet, the idea that it ‘forces us to consider the implications of a drone attach on our own community’ is a stretch. It may lead some observers to do so but I cannot see how it is implicit in the work through its specific form and execution. This work, like much artistic production today, does not take form seriously enough. The ideas that underlie artworks today are perhaps more political and critical than they have ever been yet it seems that too often it is the words describing the art that does most of the work. One could argue that seeing the drone outline could lead one to think about this or that specific idea, but only in the sense that word association games can link any one thing to another. I see the installation and think ‘drone’, then ‘scary’, then ‘could it happen here?’ and so on. But I could also think, ‘drone’, then ‘dome’, then ‘Brighton Dome’, then ‘Brighton Drone’ and enjoy the word play for its own sake. Maybe this makes the work that much more meaningful – each of us starts from the installation and ends up somewhere different. But this is a now an all-too-common postmodern red herring. Anything, constructed or not, is the starting point for a set of subjective associations (think of a cloud). Clouds, however, are not art, but this drone installation is. Note that I am not disputing whether this is or isn’t art, but trying to understand how its form relates to the generation of meaning. If we buy the word association game, then anyone can make anything and it would all be of equal value. But if making something, particularly art, implies the forming of something, a construction, organisation, and putting into specific relationships forms, spaces, materials and viewpoints, then the specific form of a work is decisive. This does not mean that it says one thing and one thing only; it does mean that it sets up specific parameters and suggestions about where you take your imagination. The drone, for me, is as minimal as it can possibly be and therefore as open interpretively as it can possibly be. It constructs the loosest of possible relationships and it leaves the least amount of room for the form of the thing to add other meanings or values. About the only thing that I can think of that makes use of the specific form is the relationship between the outline and the idea of the chalk outline, relating one form of murder to another. It is possible that its precise position and orientation suggest other ideas – but by now I have become too distrustful of art to imagine it does (not at all because of this particular work but because of the general culture of art). I keep imagining what the work would look like if it were actually rendered like a shadow. How would we react stumbling across it then? Would we look upwards to see what cast it? Could the cast shadow relate to the position of the sun at a particular time of day? What would it mean at night? Anything I imagine about this work only reveals how limited it is as conceived and executed. But I could live with that if it weren’t for the text – perhaps it was not written by the artist and not his fault. But we have to accept that artworks live amongst the words they generate though critics, academics, scholars, the press and Sotheby’s.
“It raises questions about how military technology can obscure, conceal and distance us from the political and moral responsibility.”
No it doesn’t, it simply doesn’t. There is nothing in the way that the work is designed or executed that logically leads to such questions. If there is a link it is so weak and tenuous that if I stencilled the words ‘Drone Attack’ on the pavement I could lay claim to the same statement in exactly the same way. If such weak links are sufficient then it suggests that there is no real difference between the outline and the pair of words – any starting point can lead to any finishing point.
“This work compels us to consider the prejudices that disabled people face in everyday life.”
“This work raises questions about soldiers wounded in battle and the poor treatment they receive by their governments once they have returned home.”
“This installation addresses the relationship between man and machine and the emerging bionic world that awaits us with continuing technological infiltrations into the body.”
We can think these things; there is nothing to stop us. But as a graphic or physical installation there is no inherent motivation that links the design and execution to such statements. When certain of Picasso’s forms suggest the curve of a woman’s body, a violin and a bottle all at the same time, these are not free associations but part of a deliberate context set up by the artist. If we wish to speak about challenges to how we perceive art suggested by the work of Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings this supported by the material, structure and composition of the work.
This may sound like a return to the idea that meaning is determined by the author or the work itself, but that is not what is meant here. The fact that forms set up interpretative conditions and delimit field of exploration and thought does not mean that it controls what the viewer takes from the work. It also does not mean that unintended interpretations or meanings are not possible. The idea that meaning is either determined by the author/maker or that it resides in the observer is a false choice that simplifies the way meaning is constructed. If we accept that both parts, form and viewer, play a role then we should be able to ask questions about the conditions set up by the form, technique and execution of a work of art.
What I see at play in the Drone installation is a method whereby an idea or concept, rich in allusions and layers, is reduced to an iconographic presentation. The iconic presentation acts as a pointer to content that it does not actually contain – that is, the allusions and layers of meaning are not actually embodied in the work; it does not emanate from the work but from its supporting documents.
Image from http://geographicalimaginations.com
All of this is not really meant as a critique of this particular work. There may a rich set of allusions and meanings that are directly suggested by, or emanating from, the drone installation. What is being critiqued here is the implication made by the text – that one can simply ascribe thoughts and meanings and that we are completely free in this regard. This has never been the role or purpose of art. If anything, artists have always strived to say something and to speak about something through their work. But the choice to do so through a visual medium has been because it can speak in a way that is unlike written or spoken language. Thoughts are not reducible to language. A visual medium has the capacity to transmit content that eludes language; it can step outside the linear transmission of thought and act of coding and decoding. Because of this it is sometimes able to be more precise than language or deliberately less precise. But like a language, you must understand the medium, be able to manipulate it, contort it, and use its rules and limits to your advantage. This means taking form-making seriously and makes form serious business.
Finally, my interest in form and the laziness with which it is treated lies in architecture. I use this particular installation because it is a conveniently clear demonstration of the problem. But imagine that most architecture today, as it is being taught and built is doing much of the same thing as contemporary art. Solutions are produced as iconographical exercises that bear no relation to place, use or inhabitation or form is simply a by-product of a process where meaning is said to reside in narratives, design processes or anywhere that is not the form itself. In both cases, close attention to, and care for, the physical thing as the place where body and building meet, where we meet the world physically and tactilely and in turn realise our own physicality, is avoided…and sometimes, I think, feared.
“…[T]he sort of individualism that scorns and fears connections with other people as threats to the self’s integrity, and the sort of collectivism that seeks to submerge the self in a social role, may be more appealing than the Marxian synthesis, because they are intellectually and emotionally so much easier.” Marshall Berman