Close up at a distance

KURGAN Close up at a distanceStuart Elden trailed Laura Kurgan‘s Close up at a distance: mapping, technology and politics earlier this year, and it’ a sumptuous book.  The main title is a good summary of the techno-cultural field produced for drone strikes, but Kurgan’s focus is different: it’s on satellite imagery.  Now Trevor Paglen has provided a summary review for Bookforum:

Imaging technologies, explains Kurgan, “let us see too much, and hence blind us to what we cannot see, imposing a quiet tyranny of orientation that erases the possibility of disoriented discovery.” Part of the problem is a matter of perspective: The view from above is less an expansive panorama than a view through a keyhole. This vantage is also highly susceptible to ideological forces. When Colin Powell sat before the UN advocating the invasion of Iraq, he brought satellite images showing a handful of trucks and buildings. This data, he claimed, provided evidence of “active chemical munitions bunkers” operating outside Baghdad. “The facts speak for themselves,” he said. Of course, as Kurgan points out, the images did anything but that, and Powell needed to do a great deal of misleading speaking on their behalf to make them show anything close to what he claimed they did.

But Kurgan does not want to write off the “visual regime” of satellite imagery entirely. In fact, much of her work makes use of visual data culled from mapping, geolocation, and overhead-imaging technologies, and in Close Up at a Distance she argues that the need for interpretation is precisely what makes this kind of information so significant. For her, the “imaginative leaps” required to turn data into stories don’t always have to be carried out by the Colin Powells of the world: Such interpretive work can also advance movements for social justice or anti-imperial politics—such as when Pakistani journalists used Google Earth to document an unacknowledged American Predator-drone base in Baluchistan. In a series of deftly rendered case studies, Kurgan demonstrates how understanding satellite images—their production, interpretation, and distribution—is “a civic responsibility and a political obligation.”

Lisa Parks has travelled over much of the same ground and to brilliant effect, but Kurgan’s emphasis (she’s Director of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia) is on a series of artistic re-workings of satellite imagery to produce radically new and insistently critical ways of seeing, of re-imagining what we see (and what we don’t) – which is why Trevor, as both artist and geographer, is such an apposite reviewer.


Predatory eyes

Following from my last post on the art of bombing – on artists who have attempted to render the aerial perspective of conventional bombing – Honor Harger (from Lighthouse) provides a useful review of artists who are doing the same for drone strikes in his ‘Drone’s eye view’.  Honor writes:

The work of artists such as Trevor Paglen, Omer Fast, and James Bridle exists within a long tradition of artists bearing witness to events that our governments and military would prefer we didn’t see. But Bridle’s work is also part of an ongoing collective effort from both artists and engineers to reveal the technological infrastructures that enable events like drone-strikes to occur.

Omar Fast, 5000 feet is best (2011)

Honor is referring to James Bridle‘s Dronestagram and related projects that I noted earlier, and to Trevor Paglen‘s Drone Vision (see also his other drone-related projects here).  Trevor’s work includes an interview and video clip from Noor Behram, a Pakistani photo-journalist who has been painstakingly documenting CIA-directed drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. He’s best known for his harrowing images of the aftermath of drone strikes, but he also shot this video of a drone over his own house:

“Witnessing a drone hovering over Waziristan skies is a regular thing,” says Noor Behram, who shot this video outside his house in Dande Darpa Khel, North Waziristan.

For more than five years, Behram has been documenting the aftermath of drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the hub of the CIA’s remote assassination program. When Behram learns of a strike, he races towards ground zero to photograph the scene. “North Waziristan,” he explained “is a big area scattered over hundreds of miles and some places are harder to reach due to lack of roads and access. At many places I will only be able to reach the scene after 6-8 hours.” Nonetheless, Behram’s photographs are some of the only on-the-ground images of drone attacks.

“[The few places where I have been able to reach right after the attack were a terrible sight” he explains, “One such place was filled with human body parts lying around and a strong smell of burnt human flesh. Poverty and the meagre living standards of inhabitants is another common thing at the attack sites.” Behram’s photographs tell a different story than official American reports that consistently deny civilian casualties from drone attacks: “I have come across some horrendous visions where human body parts would be scattered around without distinction, those of children, women, and elderly.”

For Behram, this video is nothing exceptional. “This was like any other day in Waziristan. Coming out of the house, witnessing a drone in the sky, getting along with our lives till it targets you. That day it was in the morning and I was at my home playing with my children. I spotted the drone and started filming it with my camera and then I followed it a bit on a bike.”

The third artwork in Honor’s triumvirate is Omer Fast‘s fictionalised Five Thousand Feet is the Best, which I included in my list of Readings and Screenings on drones back in August.  There’s a clip below, though the full presentation runs to 30 minutes:

The film is based on two meetings with a Predator drone sensor operator, which were recorded in a hotel in Las Vegas in September 2010. On camera, the drone operator agreed to discuss the technical aspects of his job and his daily routine. Off camera and off the record, he briefly described recurring incidents in which the unmanned plane fired at both militants and civilians – and the psychological difficulties he experienced as a result. Instead of looking for the appropriate news accounts or documentary footage to augment his redacted story, the film is deliberately miscast and misplaced: It follows an actor cast as the drone operator who grudgingly sits for an interview in a dark hotel. The interview is repeatedly interrupted by the actor’s digressions, which take the viewer on meandering trips around Las Vegas. Told in quick flashbacks, the stories form a circular plot that nevertheless returns fitfully to the voice and blurred face of the drone operator – and to his unfinished story.

He-111 Luftwaffe bombardiers viewWhat is particularly interesting to me are the ways in which ‘seeing like a drone’ is and is not like seeing through a standard bombsight: the techno-optical regime through which conventional bombing has been conducted differs from the high-resolution full-motion video feeds that inform (and misinform) the networked bombing of late modern war.  Those feeds significantly compress the imaginative distance between the air and the ground, but they do so in a highly selective fashion.  Today’s remote operators, who may be physically thousands of miles away from the target, nevertheless claim to be just 18 inches from the conflict zone, the distance between the eye and the screen, and they (un)certainly see far more of what happens than the pilots of conventional strike aircraft.  But in Afghanistan, where remote operators are usually working with troops on the ground, they become immersed in the actions and interactions of their comrades – through visual feeds, radio and internet – whereas their capacity to interpret the actions of the local population is still strikingly limited.  So it is that local lifeworlds remain not only obdurately ‘other’ but become death-worlds.

Patches, the Pentagon and Pakistan

In 2010 artist-geographer-writer (and an old friend) Trevor Paglen published a collection of unofficial US military patches that showed the fraying fringes of the Pentagon’s secret operations: I could tell you but then you would have to be destroyed by me: emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World (Melville House, 2010).

As Steven Heller wrote in the New York Times,  ‘issuing patches for a covert operation sounds like a joke . . . but truth be told, these days everything is branded. Military symbols are frequently replete with heraldic imagery — some rooted in history, others based on contemporary popular arts that feature comic characters — but these enigmatic dark-op images, in some cases probably designed by the participants themselves, are more personal, and also more disturbing, than most.’

Danger Room posted several selections from Trevor’s collection here (and follow the links back for eight – yes eight – more) and here; there are also more here from MilSpecMonkey

Trevor’s wryly serious research has resurfaced twice this week.  Lowen Liu at Slate tried to unpick the stitches from one patch, from the agency that designs, builds and operates America’s intelligence satellites, the National Reconnaissance Office (“Vigilance from Above”), to investigate its use of an anagram from the movie Sneakers – “Setec Astronomy” (Too Many Secrets).  Trevor drew his attention to a 2008 memo from NRO:

Recently, two journalists compiled an article mentioning how symbols used in unclassified logos and patches can reveal information about National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite identities and missions that are otherwise classified. … All briefed personnel are reminded … [of] the grave responsibility of protecting that information from improper and unauthorized disclosure and compromise. Failure to comply with these obligations can result in irreparable harm to the nation.

Liu was left wondering whether Sneakers took “Setec Astronomy” from the NRO… Who knows?

You might also shrug your shoulders and think “Who cares?”, except that those patches can indeed disclose information about the projects they simultaneously conceal and reveal.  And this week Chris Cole at Drone Wars UK published a selection of patches worn by USAF and RAF drone pilots. Described as “morale patches“, designed to raise the morale of the units they represent, most of these don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about their remote operations – the casual way they turn killing into a cartoon is remarkable, but it’s there in the names of the aircraft they fly:

And Trevor has one other that speaks more directly to American drone operations in Pakistan and beyond than anything else I’ve seen: