Drones – unmanned aerial vehicles capable of sustained remote surveillance and precise missile attacks – are, probably, so called due to their particular and pernicious sound. It is a gravid silence, however, that distinguishes Surveillance, Patrick Lowry’s exhibition at Hardwick Gallery in Cheltenham, comprising a full-scale replica MQ-1 Predator drone. Lowry’s painstakingly accurate model, cramped into a space barely large enough to contain it (a wing has been truncated in order to fit it into the gallery), has an air of a captured wild animal. Grounded, blinded and out of its element, it mutely seethes. Resentfully submissive to our gaze; the watcher becomes the watched.
There was another silence around Surveillance – the silence of the artist. Patrick Lowry was, of course, not literally silent. During the five days he spent constructing the model in the gallery he was amiable to discussion and questions regarding his project. I mean, rather, that Lowry has resisted giving up too much information about his intentions. The accompanying literature is minimal – a short, straightforward press release and a drily technical information sheet detailing the specifications of the MQ-1 Predator (which, in itself, seems to emphasise a gap between abstract knowledge and experience). Artists are, too often, called upon to explain their work – to reveal their intentions – as if the artist alone holds the key to a true and singular meaning. The meaning of any artwork, however, is not the sole province of the artist and is neither singular nor static. Instead, meaning multiplies and fluctuates through a complexity of exchanges between the work, its viewers, its environment and a host of other variable contextual and cultural factors. Lowry’s relative silence allows a space around Surveillance in which these exchanges may occur – allowing it to endure as a set of shifting possibilities rather than close down as a single statement.
This openness was reflected by Hardwick gallery in its organization of the launch event for Surveillance. A symposium, with speakers and readers from the divergent worlds of art and investigative journalism, provided an opportunity to explore nascent ideas around Lowry’s work from a range of perspectives.
Investigative journalist, Chris Woods, a leading authority on the history of armed drones and author of Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars, was the first to speak. It was interesting to compare Woods’ initial experience of Surveillance with my own. I, a self-proclaimed aesthete with a profound ignorance regarding drone warfare, had a vague, unspecified sense of unease in the presence of the work. Chris Woods, on the other hand, with his extensive specialist knowledge, was genuinely and specifically shocked to encounter this uncannily accurate doppelganger of a devastating machine. Woods dented my ignorance with a sobering elucidation of the rapidly developing field of drone warfare. Another, distinctly sinister, kind of silence emerged from Woods’ talk: That is the closed silence of secrecy and power. The “first drone age”, Woods stated, saw the “absolute technological dominance of two nations: The United States and Israel”. Together they constituted a “fiercely guarded duopoly of asymmetric drone power”. Israeli journalists are forbidden, by law, to mention the existence of armed drones and no images of them are to be found in the public domain.
The role and responsibility of investigative journalism in confronting secrecy and power are relatively straightforward and self-explanatory. The role and responsibility of art in the politics of power, on the other hand, are more difficult to determine. Indeed, there remains no consensus as to whether art should have any such a role or responsibility. The problem of how art can meaningfully engage with political, ethical and social matters, without resorting to propaganda and/or dogma, has concerned many artists since, at least, the second half of the twentieth century. It is a problem pertinent to the approach of the second speaker, artist, writer and curator, Theodore Price. Power, secrecy and invisibility are central concerns in Price’s practice. He states his interest in “how we represent things we cannot see”. For artists this is not about an arbitrary creation of visual and narrative speculations – such as those to be found in The Daily Mail and on rolling news channels – when images and hard facts are not available. Art, rather, has the capacity to map a state of not knowing, as much as knowing, and to find expression for our frustrated need for answers against ‘the unreasonable silence of the world’.1
In 2013 Price initiated COBRA RES, a collaborative project inviting artists, writers and academics to respond each time the covert and powerful British government crisis committee, Cobra (an acronym for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, where the committee originally met), convened. Some parallels may be drawn between Theodore Price’s COBRA RES project and Patrick Lowry’s Surveillance. Both projects involve a kind of mimicry; a denatured imitation of the imagery and mechanisms of power. There is a resemblance to parody and satire which critique and expose through exaggeration, subtle corruption and a refusal to collude the absolute seriousness of power. This is, perhaps, more pronounced in some of the works produced through COBRA RES which include contributions from The Guardian cartoonist, Steve Bell and assorted card games, including ‘NATO Happy Families’ and ‘Black Box Trumps’. Patrick Lowry’s replica, meanwhile, performs a quiet kind of parody through a precise visual imitation of what it, emphatically, is not.
Returning to the gallery after the symposium, artist, Clare Thornton, read an extract from the prelude to Drone Theory by philosopher, Grégoire Chamayou. The extract comprises a section of an official (censored) transcription of the radio transmissions and cockpit conversations of a U.S. Predator drone crew in Nevada, as they track a convoy in Afghanistan, trying to determine the level of threat. As Thornton read, the assembled audience tensed into an absorbed hush and Surveillance retained its brooding silence. In the stillness, the ambient electrical hum of the building could be discerned – a quiet drone.
- This refers to Albert Camus’ definition of the absurd which, he writes, is born of the ‘confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.’ Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (London, Penguin, 2000), 32.
© Linda Taylor 2016