Following on from the Coded Conduct exhibition in London in April, James Bridle’s new work A Quiet Disposition opens at the Corcoran in Washington DC later this month, running from 19 June to 7 July. He explains the background to his ongoing project on networked technologies and the in/visibility of military violence like this (my emphases):
“The Disposition Matrix” is the term used by the US Government for its intelligence-gathering and targetting processes. Overseen by the National Counterterrorism Center and in development for some time, the Matrix is usually described as a database for generating capture and “kill lists”, but the criteria for both adding to and acting on the information in the database is not public. One of the outcomes of the process is the ongoing, undeclared CIA drone war in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. These attacks have killed an estimated 3105 people in Pakistan alone since June 2004, including 535 confirmed civilians and 175 children. (Sources: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, New America Foundation.)
The architectural theorist Keller Easterling uses the term “disposition” in other contexts, to refer to the propensity or temperament of forms which produce actions. Disposition is found not in activity itself, but in the relationships or relative positions of the objects that produce action. Consider a motorway: you can describe the movement of the cars, but the active form is immanent in the concrete itself; the motorway has a disposition. If such forms can be said to have a disposition, to what extent can they be said to possess agency?
For Easterling, architectures and infrastructures perform aspects of their being: not merely spatial objects, they shape the world around them on many levels: legal, political, technological. The sociologist Erving Goffman in turn uses the term “disposition” to describe the entire performance, including – in human terms – gesture, posture, expression and intent. These subtexts are capable of overwhelming what is being merely said: the distinction between the aesthetics of what is being depicted, and what is actually being done.
Drones – the armed, unmanned planes in action around the world – are dispositional. Their significance is not wholly in their appearance, but in how they transform the space around them; both the physical space (the privileged view of the weaponised surveillance camera at 50,000 feet) and the legal, national and diplomatic spaces that as a result permits new kinds of warfare and assassination. And the Disposition Matrix is an organising principle: not a thing, not a technology, not an object, but an active form, a reorientation of intent into another dimension or mode of expression. In another sense, the Disposition Matrix is the network itself, the internet and us, an abstract machine, intangible but effective. Finally, the Disposition Matrix is an attitude and a performance.
And the quiet disposition? The central insight that animates much of James’s recent work around the New Aesthetic is, as he says in the lecture posted below, that ‘drones … shorten time and space very effectively but instead of using those same networked technologies to make things clearer or to bring empathy they use it to obfuscate and hide.’ You can see this – or rather not see it – in the extraordinary secrecy that cloaks so many of the sites of air attack. 160 years after the dawn of mass-mediated warfare, it is (as he says) sobering to think that we know less about what is happening in Waziristan today than the British public knew about the campaign in the Crimea. Hence Dronestagram and similar projects. Even though the drone ‘has almost become synonymous with America and with a certain way of prosecuting war’, however, James prefers to see drones as shells or, better, prostheses, ‘extensions of the network itself’. For this reason The Quiet Disposition seeks to turn the network on itself, a sort of auto-immune cyberattack, through an intelligence-gathering software system (like the Obama administration’s ‘disposition matrix‘) that lives online, constantly scanning the web for reports about the drone programme and using AI to effect connections between them.