Big Data and Bombs on Fifth Avenue

Big Data, No Thanks

James Bridle has posted a lightly edited version of the excellent presentation he gave to “Through Post-Atomic Eyes” in Toronto last month – Big Data, No Thanks – at his blog booktwo.  It’s an artful mix of text and images and, as always with James, both repay close scrutiny.

If you look at the situation we are in now, a couple of years after the Snowden revelations, most if not all of the activities which they uncovered have been, if not secretly authorised already, signed into law and continued without much fuss.

As Trevor Paglen has said: Wikileaks and the NSA have essentially the same political position: there are dark secrets at the heart of the world, and if we can only bring them to light, everything will magically be made better. One legitimises the other. Transparency is not enough – and certainly not when it operates in only one direction.  This process has also made me question my own practice and that of many others, because making the invisible visible is not enough either.

James talks about the ‘existential dread’ he feels caused not ‘by the shadow of the bomb, but by the shadow of data’:

It’s easy to feel, looking back, that we spent the 20th Century living in a minefield, and I think we’re still living in a minefield now, one where critical public health infrastructure runs on insecure public phone networks, financial markets rely on vulnerable, decades-old computer systems, and everything from mortgage applications to lethal weapons systems are governed by inscrutable and unaccountable softwares. This structural and existential threat, which is both to our individual liberty and our collective society, is largely concealed from us by commercial and political interests, and nuclear history is a good primer in how that has been standard practice for quite some time.

newyorker-720-loIt’s a much richer argument than these snippets can convey.  For me, the high spot comes when James talks about IBM’s Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (really), which turns out to be the most explosive combination of secrecy and visibility that you could possibly imagine.

I’m not going to spoil it – go and read it for yourself, and then the title of this post will make horrible sense.  You can read more in George Dyson‘s absorbingly intricate account of Turing’s Cathedral: the origins of the digital universe (Allen Lane/Penguin, 2012).

Under American Skies

I’ll be in Berlin in December for a conversation with James Bridle about drone wars and related issues, and I’m already looking forward to it since I’m a great admirer of his work. I particularly admire the way in which he challenges so many of our assumptions about ‘looking’ through his presentations about militarised vision and violence, and I’ve noted before the filiations between his various projects and Josh Begley‘s.

Tomas van HoutryveSo I was interested to read about photographer Tomas van Houtryves (right) project Blue Sky Days.  He begins with an arresting observation with which both James and Josh would be only too familiar:

‘Although a huge amount of [full motion video] footage has been collected [by US drones], the program is classified, and few people have ever seen images of the drone war and its casualties. This seems like a paradox in our thoroughly media-connected age. How can America be involved in a decade-long war where the sky is buzzing with cameras, and yet the public remains totally in the dark?’

But his response to the question is distinctly different: he repatriates the drone wars from Pakistan to the United States (here the most appropriate comparison is with Omar Fast‘s 5,000 Feet is the Best).

Tomas van Houtryve 1

To do so, Tomas travelled across America with a small quadcopter drone bought from Amazon.com attached to his camera.  His concept was simple, Rena Silverman explains in the New York Times:

Take the idea of foreign drone strikes and instead target similar domestic situations, putting them under surveillance using his drone in public spaces. He made a list of hundreds of different strike reports, gleaning as many details about the circumstances…

He rented a black car with tinted windows and placed himself, his drones, his batteries and lists in the car. He spent six weeks in late 2013 averaging between seven and 10 drone flights daily, sleeping in a different town every night. He would pull the car into an empty lot, get out, launch the drone for about five to 10 minutes — about as long as its power lasted — take footage, land the drone, drive away and recharge the batteries while en route to the next location…

He followed his list carefully, trying to imitate “signature strikes,” referring to a May 2012 New York Times article in which some State Department officials complained about the lax criteria for identifying a terrorist “signature.” The joke was that “three guys doing jumping jacks” could be enough suspicious activity for the C.I.A. to conclude it could be a terrorist training camp. In other words, targeting people based on behavior rather than identity.

Tomas van Houtryve 2 copy

He photographed people exercising in Philadelphia, their shadows long and pinned against the grid of a park. He noticed more “signature” behavior while driving through San Francisco, where he encountered a group doing yoga [above]. When Mr. van Houtryve recently printed the image, he asked viewers if they thought the subjects were praying or exercising. It was a toss-up.

Although these images are not quite ‘what drone attacks in America would look like’, as Pete Brook suggested in WIRED – Tomas’s drone was flying much lower (‘only about six stories high’) and these images are pin-point sharp: there’s none of the ambiguity of infra-red heat signatures here – none the less that last sentence really says it all.  Images do not speak for themselves and interpretation counts for everything – which is why, as I’ve repeatedly argued, it matters so much what pilots, sensor operators and image analysts are pre-disposed to see.

It turns out that a particular incident provoked Tomas’s project – the murder of Mamana Bibi at Ghunda Kala in North Waziristan on 24 October 2012, which I described here –  and also gives it its title.

Zubair RehmanIn October 2012, a drone strike in northeast Pakistan killed a 67-year-old woman picking okra outside her house. At a briefing held in 2013 in Washington, DC, the woman’s 13-year-old grandson, Zubair Rehman, spoke to a group of five lawmakers. “I no longer love blue skies,” said Rehman, who was injured by shrapnel in the attack. “In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.”

There’s more from Tomas at Harper’s here, which originally co-sponsored the project with the Pulitzer Center, and you can see more of his drone’s eye view images at the National Geographic here.

There’s also a revealing interview conducted by Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone here; it contains all sorts of interesting observations, but one in particular resonated.  Asked about the tension between the beauty of his photographic compositions and the horror of what he is seeking to convey, Tomas says this:

‘The base subject that I’m trying to raise awareness about and get people to think about in less abstract terms is the foreign drone war. If you take the time to read through the particular airstrikes, a lot of them are quite horrifying. But on the other hand, as a photographer, I know that beauty is one of the tools that we use to get people to look at a picture. Beauty has a lot of power, so there’s a tension between trying to seduce people with the language of photography, which is beautiful composition, and trying to reveal something that might be uncomfortable or difficult to digest, once people fully grasp it.’

Another of my art icons, elin o’Hara slavick, says something very similar about her mesmerising sequence of aerial images of places bombed by the US, Bomb after bomb (see also Brian Howe‘s discussion here and my own in ‘Doors in to Nowhere’ [DOWNLOADS tab], from which I’ve taken this passage):

‘She adopts an aerial view—the position of the bombers—in order to stage and to subvert the power of aerial mastery. The drawings are made beautiful “to seduce the viewer,” she says, to draw them into the deadly embrace of the image only to have their pleasure disrupted when they take a closer look. “Like an Impressionist or Pointillist painting,” slavick explains, “I wish for the viewer to be captured by the colors and lost in the patterns and then to have their optical pleasure interrupted by the very real dots or bombs that make up the painting.”’

A tart reminder that there are multiple ways of ‘just looking‘.

The art of Homo Sacer

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 James Bridle‘s new installation, Homo Sacer, has opened at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool, as part of its Science Fiction: New Death exhibition:

Explore how our relationship with technology has blurred the lines between the real and the virtual; making our everyday lives feel increasingly like science fiction. Artists including James Bridle, Jon Rafman, Mark Leckey, Larissa Sansour and Ryan Trecartin, plus award-winning science fiction author China Miéville present works which explore how technology is creating new ways of living (and dying), of fashioning identities and the growth of cult-like communities.

The exhibition runs until 22 June, and you can (at least virtually) walk through it with Regine here.

There’s not much detail or documentation of Homo Sacer yet  – though see the image above – but James promises a video clip soon.  Meanwhile he explains:

The installation consists of a projected “hologram” in the entranceway to the gallery, of the kind increasingly found in airports, railway stations and government buildings. The hologram speaks lines from UK, EU and UN legislation, as well as quotations from government ministers, regarding the nature of citizenship in the 21st century, and how it can be revoked, which potentially fatal consequences.

BEN YOUNG Homo sacer

Other artists have been inspired by Giorgio Agamben‘s discussion(s) of Homo Sacer too (and, for those who take the Latin stubbornly literally, Femina Sacra), of life knowingly and deliberately exposed to death.  (If you want an artful preview of the final volume in Agamben’s series, The use of bodies, you can read Adam Kotsko‘s ‘What is to be done?  The endgame of the Homo Sacer series’ here.)  But back to art.  There’s Ben Young‘s Homo Sacer (above), for example, philosopher-artist Adolfo Vásquez Rocca‘s Homo Sacer (below), and and Tarek Tuma‘s haunting Homo Sacer series of canvases showing the faces of suffering in Syria (see here and here), which almost viscerally captures the double meaning of ‘sacra’, sacred and accursed.

ROCCA Homo Sacer

In a related vein, as I noted previously, there’s the State of Exception installation which showed what undocumented migrants abandoned as they crossed the US-Mexico border; first staged at the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities, it’s currently at Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art.  (The wall of backpacks conjures up an after-image of the suitcases on display at Auschwitz, and although they gesture in different directions – one where movement comes to a hideous full stop and the other where flight takes off – both are redolent of Agamben’s preoccupations).  For a more wide-ranging view of States of Exception, see Angel Calabres‘s much earlier collaboration here, which trades on Agamben’s work to explore prison subjugation, torture and slaughter houses…

And this in turn brings me (back) to Abdelali Dahrouch‘s installation, Homo Sacer (2009) (below), which is a meditation on the waterboarding of ‘enemy combatants’ by the CIA:

Dahrouch

Agamben’s work has inspired not only visual artists.  There’s Christoph Winkler‘s dance-work Homo Sacer, for example, now ten years old,  which tanzjournal described like this:

The choreographer has truly succeeded in formulating a position that is both an aesthetic and ethical one. Life may be a sacred possession – in the face of sanctioned (war) crimes it becomes a disposable commodity. Dance cannot intervene in this state of affairs. But it can champion life, by displaying it in its vulnerability. Homo Sacer is not only in this respect Winkler’s most impressive piece to date.

Sophiensaele Homo Sacer

And Frankfurter Rundschau like this:

One after another, the other seven dancers climb out of the resting niches. All look distraught in the glaringly lit space, whose angularity contrasts with the fragile bodies. Following abrupt impulses, the dancers break out of themselves, only to quickly fall back into the frozen pose. Humans fleeing and hesitating in the same moment, developing an icy atmosphere of vulnerability … But in the following choreographic sequence, in which the dancers seem to be wrestling with themselves as if the truth were strangling them in its grasp, is a brilliant scene in which the ensemble intertwines and connects into complex structures that, only moments later are again severed. Energy shoots up like suddenly occurring memories – symbolizing the sudden convulsion of that very “base existence”…

And there’s even music – although Martin Kücher released only 250 copies of his solo jazz album Homo Sacer…  You can also listen to Vancouver’s own Dubstawk‘s remix Homo Sacer here.

Martin Kuchen homo sacer

All sorts of artworks have been used on the cover of Agamben’s texts, of course, and they can be revealing too: I know it’s often wrong to judge a book by its cover (but not always), and my favourite essay in Geographical imaginations is in fact my reading of the cover of David Harvey‘s The condition of postmodernity.  In any case, it’s interesting to track movements in the other direction and to see how artists engage with texts – particularly if you believe that artwork is part of the research/investigative/analytical process rather than merely one of its products.

Imag(in)ing drones

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The USAF has at last published its RPA Vector: Vision and enabling concepts, 2013-2048, outlining its projected future for Remotely Piloted Aircraft: you can download it here.

I’ll be working my way through this in detail in the next several days, but scanning its 100 pages my eyes were drawn to Figure 4 on p. 18.  Noting that the Air Force is transitioning to an all-Reaper flight, the images is captioned ‘MQ-9 firing an AGM-114 Hellfire.’

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As James Bridle noted, the image is everywhere; it’s also nowhere: a fake.

At first, the feeling was just unease. Staring at it for some time, seeing it endlessly reproduced across the web and in print, it began to seem unreal, a fiction, too smooth, too perfect. But that’s an effect of drones: they always appear otherworldly…

Of course, it’s not just that. The Canon Drone is indeed entirely unreal. A close inspection, and comparison with other Reaper images, including 09-4066, bears this out almost immediately. The level of detail is too low: missing hatches on the cockpit and tail, the shape of the air intake, the greebling on the fins and body. That ‘NY’ on the tail: it’s not aligned properly, it’s a photoshop. Finally, the Canon Drone’s serial, partly obscured, appears to be 85-566. The first two numbers of USAF serials refer to the year an aircraft entered service: there were no Reapers back in 1985 (development didn’t even begin until 2001).

The Canon Drone does not exist, it never has. It is computer generated rendering of a drone, a fiction. It flies over an abstracted landscape…

In fact, as Alexis Madrigal revealed last year, the image is a computer rendering produced by Michael Hahn:

“I had never seen an image of a drone actually firing a missile so that is what I decided to create,” he said. And suddenly, everyone else, who also had never seen a drone actually firing a missile, had a way of seeing with their own eyes.

Strange then, that the US Air Force – which surely has seen countless drones firing countless missiles – should resort to a computer-generated, photoshopped image.  And an inaccurate one at that.

Unseen war

I’m off to Beirut in early January for CASAR’s conference on Transnational American Studies, where I’ll be talking about CIA-directed drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.  Even though Judith Butler had to cancel, it’s still an excellent program, including Paul Amar, Lisa Bhungalia, Brian Edwards, Keith Feldman, Waleed Hazbun, Craig Jones, Amy Kaplan, Laleh Khalileh, Vijay Prashad, Jeremy Scahill (and a screening of Dirty Wars), and an evening performance of Robert Myers‘s drone play, Unmanned.

I have about a week to get my own act together, so it’s welcome news that the Tactical Technology Collective has released a series of short films, Exposing the Invisible, the most recent of which – Unseen War – focuses on the FATA.

Unseen war

There are also transcripts of the full interviews that make up the 7 ‘chapters’  of the film: Sadaf Baig from the Centre for International Media Ethics (CIME) at the London School of Economics; Taha Siddiqui, an independent journalist in Islamabad; Safdar DawarAlice Ross from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism; Noortje Marres from Goldsmiths, University of London; and James Bridle (who needs no introduction for readers of this blog).

Sadaf and Safdar are both very informative about FATA, and James provides an excellent introduction to his stream of work on drones.

Militarized vision

Before I started my odyssey through Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone (which will continue next week), I had discussed multiple ways of thinking about the relations between visualities, political technologies of vision and drones.  Much of the work that I pointed to takes place in the borderlands between investigative journalism and visual art: hence my interest in (for example) James Bridle, Omer Fast, and Trevor Paglen (for a quick review and further links, see here).

Two additional essays have crossed my screen, appropriately enough, which contribute to these discussions.

The first is Matt Delmont‘s ‘Drone encounters: Noor Behram, Omer Fast and visual critiques of drone warfare’ [American Quarterly 65 (1) (2013) 193-202]:

‘Drones draw their deadly power from …  twin claims to visual superiority: the ability to see and to resist being seen.  At the same time, however, artists, scholars, and human rights activists have used the visual to contest the expansion of the drone program.’

The first of these, as Tim Mitchell showed in his classical expositions of what, following Heidegger, he called ‘the-world-as-exhibition’ (which has continued to haunt much of my work since Geographical Imaginations), is a profoundly – and appropriately – colonial/imperial impulse.  You can find a suggestive discussion of Heidegger’s original exposition of ‘the conquest of the world as picture’ directed specifically at today’s drone wars in Joseph Pugliese‘s ‘Prosthetics of law and the anomic violence of drones’ [Griffith Law Review 20 (2011) 931-61] and, eventually (!), an extended account in The everywhere war.

What interests Matt is the critical ability to reverse the impulse – to make the unseen seen/scene – and turn the visual back on itself, and that’s exactly the point sharpened in exquisite detail in Henrik Gustafsson‘s ‘Foresight, hindsight and state secrecy in the American West: the geopolitical aesthetics of Trevor Paglen’ [Journal of visual culture 12 (2013) 148-164]:

‘Combining geographic research and artistic practice, self-professed ‘experimental photographer’ Trevor Paglen implements such a dialectical method in his ongoing project to map and photograph the sprawling black sites of the US military and intelligence community. Paglen’s images rarely show human agents, other than the blurry figures boarding an unmarked aircraft, or the blackened-out faces on fake passports. It is concerned, instead, with the agency of space. Moving between imaginative geographies and what Paglen refers to as ‘facts on the ground’, it investigates how the former produces the latter, how imaginative geographies materialize.’

It’s a beautifully realised reading that pays particular attention to what geographer Don Mitchell famously called ‘the lie of the land‘.  In Don’s terms, this was the extraordinary capacity of the landscape – as at once material fabrication and enframed visuality – to conceal through its very physicality the work involved and embodied in its production.  In much the same way, Henrik suggests, Trevor’s work offers a series of strategic reversals, détournements, of the ‘dark geography’ of the national security state inscribed in and on the landscape (and the skyscape).

Paglen Untitled (Reaper Drone)

As my last post showed, I hope, my interest in the aesthetic-imaginative has not diminished my commitment to the archival-documentary (or my admiration for projects like these or Oppenheimer’s The Art of Killing that so artfully bleed the one into the other).

In that vein, I’ve returned to the incident I discussed last time – the US combat helicopter attack on unarmed civilians in New Baghdad in July 2007 – and started to compare what happened there with the even deadlier attack on three vehicles carrying civilians down a dusty mountain road in Uruzgan, Afghanistan in February 2010 which I discussed in “From a view to a kill” (DOWNLOADS tab) (that strike was also carried out by US attack helicopters, but the vital ‘visual responsibility’ was the work of a surveillant Predator crew.)

Collateral Murder2

My intention is to work towards an extended essay on ‘Militarized vision‘ that will, I hope, take critiques of the politics of vision beyond the full motion video feeds from drones. I’m working my way through transcripts of both incidents, the video clip of the Baghdad attack released by Wikileaks, and the military’s own investigations of both incidents.  The interrogations and conclusions from the investigations are crucial, I think, not only for providing additional information and even insight, but also for adding an understanding of the juridical layer involved in the scopic regimes at work.  The reports have much to tell us about what flight crews and ground troops saw (and didn’t see) on the days in question (above) and about what is possible for the military to see (and not see) after the event (below).  I’d already worked my way through the Uruzgan investigation in detail for The everywhere war, but re-reading it alongside what Wikileaks called “Collateral Murder” is proving to be an illuminating exercise.

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More later, though my next posts on Chamayou (and what will be a separate post on the juridical individuation of later modern war) will provide some of the necessary context.

Drones and the Quiet Americans

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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.

Quiet AmericanAnd 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.