What is a Drone? Technology at the service of contemporary art

Some thoughts on the current use of “drone” technology in the art industry

Published: Jun 30, 2014
What is a Drone? Technology at the service of contemporary art

Recreation of "The Drone Aviary". Museo Victoria & Albert, Londres.

By Marta Lorenzo Jaudenes,(@MartaLorenzoJ)My Art Diary

I have posed myself this very question and, in particular, its applications and uses in the art field when I started to write this post. Well, as a quick definition, a drone is any unmanned aerial Vehicle (UAV).

Actually, they have been mainly used in the military field, from the first and second World Wars, in their simplest version, with remote-control aircrafts designed for training the strikers or for attack missions. With the arrival of the great technological advances in the 1980s and, in particular, in the 1990s, its use in “war” issues continued growing, and now-a-days it is sad to think that they are used by the armies of more than 50 countries. However, if we forget about the dehumanised image of drones as evil machines created to attack: What are their artistic applications? How about in the field of heritage protection? Over the last years, thanks to the advancements of technology and their decrease in prices, together with the ability to communicate freely with the Internet, now it is possible to rethink their utility. Thus, in the following video we can see the CAAC (Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo) of Sevilla with a drone’s eye view. These recordings taken as part of the IV congreso Protecturi "Challenges and horizons in the protection of historic heritage”, celebrated at the end of March this year, showed the potential in terms of reach, quality and functionalities that drones can provide in the fields of protection, heritage and culture. Basically, they make it possible to access, explore and then visualise areas difficult to access for restoration professionals.

 

El CAAC de Sevilla a vista de drone - Protecturi - Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo from Joan Lesan on Vimeo.

No doubt, a relevant use in the protection of our artistic heritage. But drone technology has been also applied to contemporary art. Thus, the hacker artist KATSU, considered as one of the most popular graffiti artists of the 1990s New York City scene, has developed a system to attach a spray can to a quadricopter, thus creating the so-called “first graffity drone of the world”. This unmanned aircraft is capable of spraying canvases of walls hundreds of meters high, thus enabling the artist to access areas previously inaccessible. In April this year in the contemporary art fair of Silicon Valley, KATSU showed the results obtained with canvases created with his “graffiti drone”. In the following link you can see the process video. In an interview the artist explained how he understands the use of technology applied to art: “It is necessary to think what will be the effect of the machine in the creation. What are the implications of being capable of throwing some strokes on a 10 meter wide canvas hanging at a height of 25 meters? Painting this way was previously impossible”. Now-a-days our Smartphone is a virtual extension of our ego that is constantly with us, and Katsu wonders whether drones will some day be able to fulfil the same function but on the physical plane, with our bodies. This clearly triggers questions regarding authorship. Who is the artist now? I can think of several well-known and controversial contemporary artists like Damien Hirst or Ai Weiwei where this notion is completely lost and, even though they control the artistic process, “their” works are made entirely by a studio.

 

Image of the stand showcasing the canvases of KATSU. Fair of Silicon Valley. Source: www.goodfellasmagazine.com

Another example of the use of drones this time within a museum, will be shown from September at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London during the Design Festival of the British capital city. It will consist of an installation developed by the prestigious studio Superflux (they have exhibited at the MOMA of New York City and at Ars Electrónica, among other venues) called "The Drone Aviary". In particular, 15 drones will fly over the John Madejski garden of the museum to interact in a recreational way with the visitors, thus getting away from the dark side associated with the military use of these small flying objects. How could daily life be in a future city where human beings would interact with this type of technology? Sounds just like a science-fiction film. It’s scary even to think of it!

Free hardware systems such as Arduino and affordable methods of digital manufacturing such as personal 3D printers and laser cutters have resulted in many projects with increasingly complex and feasible designs. The FabLAB of LABoral is a hotbed of ideas and projects. However, What is a fab Lab? It is a short name for Fabrication Laboratory, and initiative started by the prestigious MIT-Massachussets Institute of Technology. FabLabs are fundamental spaces for artists working with the new technologies, they provide them with access to machines that they usually cannot afford and they foster, as well, the exchange with other professionals, which helps not only individual, but also collective creativity. A FabLab shows how digital manufacturing is challenging traditional design processes.

Regarding specifically drones, LABoral has been researching this technology for several years. A good example of this is the winning proposal of the grant Next Things in 2013, “Flone, The flying phone”, where the winning collective turned a Smartphone in to an autonomous flying device, like a "multimedia drone", that could be programmed to perform tasks like taking photographs or recording a video. The aim was to make air space accessible for any citizen as a research platform, providing a wide range of applications to be explored, using only a mobile phone.

Image of the “launching” process of "Flone, The flying phone" at LABoral last year.

This year, the Grant Next Things, a joint call by LABoral and Telefónica I+D, has been awarded to the artist Sam Kronick, who is currently developing his residency at the art centre of Gijón with his project  “Slow Internet Café”. Last June 1 Sam developed in the park of La Providencia in Gijón his action “The eyes of the cloud”. The aim of this action was to make us reflect, using drones, upon our daily relationship with the Internet, and its implications.

Sam used a drone, which was actually a router with wings that provided wi-fi connection free-of-charge in a limited space and that was equipped with a camera that captured, not birds-eye views of humanised territories, but, staring at the sky, images of the clouds. As Montaña Hurtado explained in a post on this same blog “The public of this action that connected to the wi-fi network received in their smartphones the images of the clouds captured by the drone, but they could not do any other thing. They could not use the Internet freely. All they could do was staring at the clouds to stop and think about the plans of the Internet giants to colonise third-world countries with drones, drones that each year cause thousands of civilian casualties and that are used by governments for spionage purposes”. What have we lost when we assume that we all communicate according to the same regulations dictated by the network? Privacy, diversity, everyday reality?

For all those who want to learn about electronics, aerodynamics and digital manufacturing, I remind you that LABoral offers this summer several courses aimed at introducing participants to a “manufacture/use/repair/recycle” consumption model, opposed to the capitalist “buy/use/discard”.

 

 

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