After the AAG Conference in San Francisco next month I’m heading across to UC Davis for a conference on ‘Eyes in the skies: Drones and the politics of distance warfare‘, organised by Caren Kaplan (5 April if you’re in the area). The event is sponsored by the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Surveillance Democracies and the Mellon Research Initiative in Digital Cultures.
The program includes a presentation from Joseph DeLappe and a panel on his work. His own presentation is on Killbox, a game on/about drone warfare.
Killbox is an online game and interactive installation that critically explores the nature of drone warfare, its complexities and consequences. It is an experience which explores the use of technology to transform and extend political and military power, and the abstraction of killing through virtualisation.
Killbox involves audiences in a fictionalized interactive experience in virtual environments based on documented drones strikes in Northern Pakistan.
The work is an international collaboration between U.S. based artist/activist, Joseph DeLappe and Scotland-based artists and game developers, Malath Abbas, Tom Demajo and Albert Elwin.
If you want to know more about kill-boxes, incidentally, I provided a detailed discussion in one of my commentaries on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone – you can find it here: scroll down – and there’s a recent essay by Scott Beauchamp for the Atlantic on ‘the moral cost of the kill-box’ here:
Kill boxes might have been one strategic reason why the Gulf War only lasted 100 hours.
In particular, kill boxes proved an efficient way for the Air Force to dismantle opposing militaries. This worked in 1991, and again during the first years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In these early stages, using a kill box required positive identification of an enemy target, a process called PID, before engaging. “We have to visually identify the target and we have to determine whether it’s a hostile [military] target. We determine that it’s not friendly by using visual recognition features and through ground elements of the nearest friendly positions,” Air Force Major Greg Defore told National Defense Magazine in 2003. In other words: Servicemen look at who or what they’re going to shoot with their own eyes before shooting to make sure the person or object is actually the part of the enemy’s military forces. “You may be 100 percent sure that a vehicle is not a friendly and still not engage. It could, for instance, be a humanitarian food truck or a farm vehicle,” Defore said.
This strategy worked well during the initial invasion of Iraq, but only because the opposing team was wearing a jersey, so to speak. It was possible to look at a truck and know whether or not it was hostile. But as a conventional war degenerated into a complex quagmire of militants engaged in guerilla warfare, that sort of certainty wasn’t possible any longer. As Major James MacGregor explains in his paper, “Bringing the Box into Doctrine: Joint Doctrine and the Kill Box,” an officer from 1918 would have, with a little help, been able to understand the maps of the Gulf War: Enemy forces are here, friendly forces over here, that sort of thing. But today, the enemy could be anyone, anywhere. This type of warfare doesn’t naturally lend itself well to kill boxes. As the American military started using kill boxes in conjunction with drones in targeted killings, it effectively grafted a strategy from the past onto the present, a la Frankenstein. The military began using kill boxes in the so-called war on terror as a technique to exert force in “ungoverned spaces,” territories that are not controlled by a state and are populated by people who might not share American cultural values. Kill boxes are only used in places that are very different from the United States; military forces would never initiate a kill box Manchester or Ann Arbor, for example, even if a suspected terrorist lived there. Too many innocent people would be killed. The innocent people living in Afghanistan or Yemen, however, are apparently judged by a different standard. And this is the moral cost of the kill box: When used widely and indiscriminately, the tactic devalues human life.
Joseph has several other projects that address drone warfare, the most interesting of which (to me, anyway) is his ongoing visualization of drone strikes around Mir Ali in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (see above):
A collaborative project to create a large-scale installation to map, via sculptural and electronic components, the history of ongoing US drone strikes in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan. The work shown here includes 25 3-D printed paper reproductions of MQ9 Predator Drones, arranged in a pattern of documented drone strikes around the town of Mir Ali. This is a prototype for a much larger installation that, when completed, will feature over 405 paper drones – one each representing every documented drone strike in Pakistan. The drones will be arranged to create a map of drone strikes – each drone is individually lit by an addressable LED light which will go off in a staccato pattern – in the final installation the staccato pattern will be interrupted over time by individual drones strikes being highlighted in red and the incorporation of an LED panel on the wall that will note the location, date and number of people killed.
There’s a preview of the prototype, ‘Drone Shadow’, on YouTube: