A white, life-size outline of a reaper drone lays in front of Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery of Art at the corner of 17th Street and E Street, only a few blocks from the White House. The work, titled "Drone Shadow 004," is part of a small exhibit – five in all – at the museum's Gallery 31, which examines the use of drones.
"They are very charismatic objects that allow us to talk more openly about a whole range of political and technological decisions," James Bridle, the artist behind the exhibition, says. "I want people to see in the work the larger questions about technology and its uses, and not just the dark glamour of the drones themselves."
Technology's evolving relationship with humans is not just evident in the subject matter of Bridle's work, but also the means he uses to create it, often employing widely accessible Internet tools to create and disseminate his art. Bridle coined the term "The New Aesthetic" for his approach, which he describes as "an ongoing research project around issues of computation in the world and peoples understanding to technology."
Inside the gallery, the exhibit, titled "A Quiet Disposition," features a projection of the artist's "Dronestagram," an Internet project in which Bridle uses Google Maps to find satellite images of sites reportedly targeted by drone strikes and post them to various social media outlets. "A Quiet Disposition" also includes photographs of drone bases themselves, captured by similar means. "It's an attempt to turn that kind of intelligence gathering back on its makers," Bridle says.
The exhibit's title refers to the "disposition matrix," the term used by the Obama administration for how it determines who to target in drone strikes.
"It's an extraordinary term in and of itself. It's a technical term that's designed to make the thing even more obscure than it already is," Bridle says.
"A Quiet Disposition" marks the first major U.S. show for the British-born artist. Most of his work has been available online and in installations in his native London and in Istanbul.
"Doing it in Washington, particularly this close to the White House, obviously has a very strong resonance — not least with a president who was elected on the promise of cutting down on certain excesses on the security state, but has actually increased the drone program massively," Bridle says.
Exhibit curator Joe Hale, director of the Corcoran's college exhibitions, adds, "This is a city that represents the brain of the empire we are part of."
"A Quiet Disposition" is being shown in conjunction with a larger war photography exhibit at the Corcoran opening later this month that chronicles photographs from the Mexican-American War through present day battles in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"We wanted to do something that talks about not just the history of the visualization of the battlefield, but what's going on right now, and that is mostly drones," Hale says. "War is changing very rapidly, including how we sensitize it and how we bring it back in to the public view and the public discourse, [and] how we think morally about the implications for what we do."
The juxtaposition of Bridle's work with the more conventional war photography and footage brings to light not just how the battlefield has changed, but how we come to see it as well.
"Two hundred years ago newspapers were sending illustrators to the battlefields to draw them and tell their readers exactly what was going on. These events now take place in places that no journalist goes to. There's no soldiers on the ground. There's no media on the ground." says Bridle, admitting that unlike war artists in the past, he hasn't physically been to the very places he portrays.
"For me there is a connection between that and a whole range of technologies of invisibility. The use of technology to put things not only beyond public view, but beyond, public discussion and criticism as well," he says.