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Rajeev Basu Makes Evil Surveillance Drones Look Pretty

He's taking the whole invasive, murderous thing out of them and making them beautiful.
Jamie Clifton
London, GB

Drones have been getting a lot of bad press as of late, which might have something to do with the fact that they're mostly used to destroy the homes, livelihoods and existence of hundreds of innocent families in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan whose only crime is living near people that some other people on the other side of the world don't like very much.

Oh, and the fact that American congress passed a law recently allowing the use of domestic drones, meaning, in a few years, authorities will be able to hover little camera-enabled, bastard spy-planes outside your window and check up on you to make sure you've stopped illegally downloading music, selling heroin, committing large-scale fraud or any other little misdemeanour you'd be perfectly happy to get along with at the moment without the fear of someone poking their nose through your curtains.


There are also already 130 organisations with permission to fly drones over UK airspace – something all those whining liberal lefties and their friends who don't like having their very basic privacy invaded by flying war machines from the future probably won't be very happy about. So it's a good thing that London-based artist Rajeev Basu has put together Drones of New York, a project where he commissioned a bunch of great illustrators to make some designer drones, then mapped them on to Google Maps so you can see what it'll look like when they're flying around in five years time: terrifying and invasive, but kind of pretty. I spoke to him about the project.

The Adhemas Batista-designed drone.

VICE: First off, can you explain what sparked this idea for you?
Rajeev Basu: I’ve been wondering about drones for a while, as they always seem to pop up in the news. But I never really knew what to think. It’s not until I read this one CNN article that I thought it might be an interesting topic to explore creatively.

Are commercial drones something that worry you?
I feel like it’s one of those things we can’t totally understand until we have them buzzing over and around us. We're aware they're coming, but, in the mean time, all we have to go on are YouTube videos of synchronised drone dance displays or hype from the media. Probably because most governments are still trying to work out the fine details on their use themselves.


Did you do a lot of research into the scale of commercial drones and nerd out over it? Or was it more an aesthetic idea? 
No, I did my research. I read in a few places that there may be up to 30,000 drones in US skies by 2020 and you can see lots of businesses getting stuck in as the drone industry booms. Chris Anderson (the former editor of Wired) is a high profile example of someone who quit their day job to redirect their energy into this industry.

What kind of planned uses for them did you find out about? 
Well, there is, of course, surveillance. I’ve heard about some companies developing facial recognition technology to be used by drones in assisting with crowd control. There are also potentially lots of civil applications, like monitoring crops, assisting police services and helping explore and map areas. And then there’s Tacocopter, which made people think their Taco would be delivered direct to their door via a Taco drone. It's a funny parody site, but perhaps not such a far off idea after all.

The Kyle Platts-designed drone.

That would be amazing. Tell me about the artists you've collaborated with and the brief you gave them about designing drones based around specific areas of New York. 
First off, they're all artists whose work I’ve always really admired but never had a chance to collaborate with until now, so that's something great to come out of it so far. And the brief was that I custom built an application that lets you insert a 3D drone into any street in the world using Google Street View. Then my collaborating artists had to imagine a drone idea and choose any New York street to fit their theme so we could see the drone in context.


What kind of thing does that involve? 
Well, for example, the John Lennon Memorial drone by Kyle Platts permanently circles the block where he was shot down in NY. The Astroland Guide drone by Antonio Ladrillo welcomes some young visitors to a theme park in Coney Island, NY. And the Coca-Cola drone by Ian Stevenson flies around Times Square, NY and holds the record for longest in-air promotion.

Have you had anyone trying to make genuine offers to buy a drone from you?
No – no offers. Although people have mistaken an earlier project of mine as a real site, believing that I really was selling drones.

I'd buy them, so I get the mistake. Tell me a bit about your greeting cards. The "Congratulations, You're Fired" one is my favourite.
That's one of my favourite projects. It’s so simple and stupid. I made these “greeting cards" after going to card shops and never being able to find a card with what I actually wanted to say. So I made some instead. The funny thing is that, although they're stupid, there’s a truth to all of them, which is why people connect with them.

Didn't you try to sell them to some card companies?
Yeah, I sent them off to all the major card stockists to see how they’d do, and Barneys, Target and Hallmark all rejected them, predictably. I also sent them to KFC and Pepsi, but KFC didn't reply, which made me sad. I asked Pepsi whether Pepsi Max had any hallucinogenic properties that may have the caused the creative streak that lead me to making the cards, and they said they were glad their product inspired such creativity, but said the only ingredients in there were the ones listed on the bottle, sadly.


Lastly, what's this "Nice 2 Scam You" project on your site about?    
That's my latest art piece that's showing at the Los Angeles Centre for Digital Art (LACDA) from February 7th. It’s a series of three interactive print pieces. On each print is a small screenshot of a real spam email, surrounded by lots of blank, empty space. Gallery goers are invited to "put a face to the faceless spammer" by imagining who they think the spammer really is and drawing them directly onto the prints. The result will be hundreds of interpretations, bringing these spammers to life. Also, each of the pieces are on sale at $1.2 million (£765,000). For real.

Wow. Thanks, Rajeev! 

Rajeev's drone installation is on at the Museum of Moving Image in New York as part of the DVD Dead Drop exhibition from February 8th to March 14th. 

Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamie_clifton

More drones:

Look Forward to the Year of the Drone

In Which I Fix Gun Control in America

I Built a Stealth Drone in My Dormroom