From the Other Side of the Screen.

A woman lives in a small town called Słubice. It is a border town in western Poland, closely linked to its German sister city Frankfurt (Oder), of which it was a part of until 1945. In this small town, as in the rest of the country, abortion is banned except in a few circumstances—sixty-nine percent of Poles view abortion as immoral and unacceptable. In this socio-cultural and political context, suddenly, a shadow overflies the sky. The woman looks up and has the feeling that something important is about to happen. The shadow starts getting darker as it comes closer, like an announcement of hope, and the sound gets louder from one second to the next. The shadow brings rain into a dry territory.

The woman is pregnant and wants to wield her abortion rights. But she can’t, or rather could not. The shadow is a small drone that is bringing abortion pills from a country where abortion is legal, and delivering it to this border town where abortion is severely restricted.

Before it was only a shadow, then it was a drone. Now, it is an angel.

*****

The image of the drone has been absorbed by our collective imaginary in so many ways, provoking everything from deep feelings of dread to the highest hopes of freedom. Important debates are currently taking place about military policies, political implications, and economies of the drone industry; nevertheless, and similarly important, are considerations about the social, psychological and emotional impact of living surrounded by the immanent presence of drones.

In Western countries—particularly those that have declared “war on terror”—and from the other side of the screen, it is difficult to know if a drone is documenting an event, filming a music video, monitoring weather, taking panoramic photos or bringing abortion pills into conservative countries. The myriad ways in which they can be used, from militarized killing machines to beneficial devices observing disaster situations, opens a debate that stretches wider than politics and economics to tackle humanitarian, social and ethical concerns. These, usually dismissed by politicians and policy-makers, are important because they deal with the intangible—traditions and context-based cultural interpretations.

The drone theme can be easily paired with science fiction and other new narratives, where a vehicle capable of flying without a pilot captures our imagination by the random beauty of the possibilities behind this idea. Sadly, we’re talking about the beauty of fear. Immanence—the divine presence—can be the word that better describes the feeling and thoughts that materialize when one hears the word “drone.” From the constant shadow over countries with targeted individuals, to the unstoppable Twitter feed that emerges when you search the hashtag #drone, the murmur of the drone’s presence in the sky resonates from miles away. Inner fear deriving from its presence can be defined as a transcendent experience—an experience beyond the normal or physical level—provoked by an element that is always there, even if you’re not able to see it. Is not a coincidence that the laser-targeting marker used to direct hellfire from a drone is called “the light of God” by marines and the military, according to video artist Omer Fast in his film Five Thousand Feet is the Best. Fast explains:

“… the Marines like to call it the Light of God. It’s a laser-targeting marker. We just send out a beam of laser and when the troops put on their night vision goggles they’ll just see this light that looks like it’s coming from heaven. Right on the spot, coming out of nowhere, from the sky. It’s quite beautiful.”


Illustration of the book ‘Atlas Marianus’ by Wilhelm Gumppenberg (Jaecklin, 1659)

The delusion of the omniscience of the drone subsequently causes the delusion of omnipotence, the fiction that a drone possesses unlimited power. In fact, all these feelings provoked by the constant shadow of the drone can be linked with otherworldly—even religious—traditions; feelings that are intertwined with concepts such as immanence, omniscience, transcendence and omnipotence. In this scenario, “you can run but you can’t hide” is a popular motto commonly used when referring to drone strikes, which entails a strong truth about the impossibility of hiding away not only in physical terms, but also in spiritual, emotional and psychological ones. This impossibility of hiding can be related to the Christian feeling of fear after committing a sin: you can hide from everybody but not from the eyes of god; as a Predator drone operator wrote in his memoirs: “…sometimes I felt like God hurling thunderbolts from afar.” But references stream not only from Christianity; mythological allusions can also be found in this context. One of the latest improvements in drone technologies is called Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System (argus-is), alluding in its acronym to the Greek mythological figure of Argos Panoptes—a giant with one hundred eyes—since it fuses together data from three hundred and sixty-eight cellphone cameras to create a composite image of 1.8 billion pixels. Drones are the creation of power structures, and what power structure is stronger than our own beliefs?


Illustration of how ARGUS IS array links together images streamed from hundreds of digital camera sensors. Source: Daily Mail

The drone phenomena should be understood as part of a wider ecosystem, which has two main bodies, one physical and the other intangible. The physical body is formed by species of devices: the drones themselves; the network that makes possible the connections between the drone and the pilot, even if they are thousand of miles away; the network’s vast infrastructure, in the form of data centers, internet connections and so on; and the physical places where the pilots spend their time controlling the distant targets. On the other side of the spectrum, the drone inhabits an intangible, seamless ecosystem formed by a set of emotional and psychological layers such as solitude, fear, loneliness, disbelief and ethical concerns. We can say, then, that we are all species belonging to this large infrastructure if we define it as “bare life,” referring to Giorgio Agamben’s notion of life reduced to its natural, biological dimension and excluded from the political community.

As such, all our ideas about drones are basically illusory. We’ll never know if author Richard Brautigan was predicting unmanned aerial vehicles when he wrote All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace; but it seems possible, since if we listen to conversations about drones, people tend to endow them with a soul. References to drone activities, military or not, abundantly use expressions such as “the drone can see enemies, target them…” This obscure humanization of the drone gives an ontological dimension to the debate. In that sense, the relationship between humans and machines goes far beyond the traditional; we need to reconsider our understanding of the human, and his role as a drone pilot, insofar as drones operate on a threshold in which life is both inside and outside the “killing machine.”

All these considerations reveal that we are somehow living in a post-utopian world, particularly when reflecting on the architectural and spatial manifestations of utopias, which have been commonly envisioned to overcome the aerial space, a formerly wide and open field for design experimentation. Today, it seems that the space for utopias has been conquered to become a battlefield; fantasy and fear vis-à-vis. “The sky here is not merely a space for flight. It is a space for the transmission and reception of command, control, communications, computation, and intelligence,” as Honor Harger wrote. Our fantasies are made of dreams, but what happens when there’s no more space for dreams? Constant dreamed of a New Babylon occupying the space above the ground with a pattern that can grow progressively, an open framework ready to cover all the surface of Earth; and by doing so, he transformed our notions of the politics of the atmosphere. Following similar formal principles, Yona Friedman developed his concept of Ville spatiale–the Spatial City–in the early 1960s. As in the New Babylon, La Ville Spatiale is raised on slender supports up above the earth; independent structures suspended over the old cities and the landscape. Moving upwards, above the first layer over ground, there is a whole set of avant garde projects intended to be built in the sky.


Urbland 2000 by François Dallegret, 1966.

Already in 1726 in Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift described Laputa, an island city floating in the sky with an area of ten thousand acres. In the twentieth century, highly influenced by science fiction, several floating city projects materialized as speculative proposals. In the 1920s, Hugo Gernsback suggested that ten thousand years hence “a city the size of New York will float several miles above the surface of the earth, where the air is cleaner and purer and free from disease carrying bacteria.” In 1929, Georgii Krutikov designed his famous Flying City. More recently, and among many others, we have the 1966 Urbland 2000 by François Dallegret. In these kinds of projects, the atmosphere suddenly becomes the basis for political action, as Mark Wigley has stated, because it becomes a space for negotiation. As it is now.


Illustration of Gernsback’s speculative article on what cities will be like in the future. Source: Wikimedia

How to understand and move through the dilemma of drones occupying a space for negotiation that is supposed to be a common space? We’re not talking only about the negotiations on the use of the air space, but of a set of rules that navigate in the vast waters of the unspoken. Regulations on aerial space are becoming stricter on a daily basis, and all the hidden layers of policies dealing with this topic are not as transparent as they should, affecting the way we adapt to them. Can we ask ourselves if being visible from the sky is legally considered being in public? What happens on the other side of the screen—that can be thousand miles away from the visible drone— in a space and time that is not visible at all? One of the biggest ironies of remote piloting is that aircrews have been removed from the dangers and humanity of their impact on the battlefield, while simultaneously attacks are increasing both in intensity and in territorial terms. The fear of the unknown becomes a way to govern and control.

However, this context can also be a perfect landscape to recover an utopian approach to airspace, transforming the battlefield in a space for dreams once again. Today, almost everyone can buy or build a drone, and all kind of uses have been envisioned for what was initially created as a weapon, from journalism to pizza-delivery drones. This is a natural reaction when a new technology is adopted for civic use, but after the hype and trendiness of “using-drones-for-everything,” we must admit that are several fields of action where drones can be—and are indeed helpful. In the past few months, researchers started using drones to look for corpses in hard-to-access locations, or to monitorize the size of seabird colonies seeking to understand how climate change affects the Australian coastline. In both cases, scientists rave about how effective the use of drones has turned out to be.

“The modern civilian is, in a sense, as close to warfare as we have ever been,” Henry Barnes recently wrote, pointing out how “through whistleblowers such as WikiLeaks, we have never been more aware of how our wars are being fought, even if the gaps in our knowledge are still huge.” We can add that this awareness allows us to understand and therefore to find the gap in the policies that sustain the uses of drones. There is an urgent need for a proper debate on the politics of the atmosphere again, and instead of accepting the weaponizing of airspace in praise of security, we should ask ourselves if we can reverse this approach and transform the silence and invisibility, from the other side of the screen, into a new political infrastructure based on an afterlife for the drone.

Beyond naiveté, this is not a conclusion, but an invitation to explore further the limits of what we know about drones, and turn this knowledge based on fantasy and fear into a new relationship between space and data. A drone transformed into a shadow, a shadow converted into a ghost, a ghost becoming real to inhabit the unknown. The unknown turned utopia.

***

This text by Ethel Baraona Pohl was published as the closing essay of the book Drone. Unmanned, Architecture Series. Edited by Ethel Baraona Pohl, Marina Otero Verzier, and Malkit Shoshan. Published by dpr-barcelona, as an e-Book in 2016, and as a paperback in 2018.

Drone is the the first volume of Unmanned. Architecture and Security Series, a research and publishing project which examines architecture’s role in the construction of the contemporary security regimes. The series discusses the consequences of the civilian appropriation of military technologies, and sets an agenda for design professionals to engage on a technological, cultural, and political level by putting forward forms of resistance.

This publication was made possible through the generous support of the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, the Het Nieuwe Instituut, and the Creative Industries Fund NL.

Header image: An ‘Abortion drone’ that took off from Frankfurt Oder in Germany, transports packets of Abortifacients abortion pills, for delivery in Slubice, Poland, 27 June 2015. Source: Exministries TV

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