[Longreads] The Complexities of Drones in Art
Artists weigh in on the difficulties, dangers, and rewards of working with drones.
Photo: James Medcraft, from The Making Of LOOP>>60 Hz: Transmissions From The Drone Orchestra.
It seems that drones circulate through the news cycle every day. There are ongoing debates about the ethics of their use in war. They feature heavily in William Gibson's new novel. Wrist-launched selfie-drones might be a future must-have Christmas gift. But drones are not all targeted killings, cyberpunk mystique, and wearable gadget magic. As artists are finding out through their work, the technology is not science fiction, but a series of experiments and recovered failures.
The first thing we have to understand is that a drone is not just a single technology, but a network of technologies. Artist Nadav Assor calls them a black box. Assor's recent show, Angels, featured a drone that hovered in the gallery when it detected visitors, chanting religious songs and setting off a light display. “It’s like saying 'working with computers',” he told The Creators Project. The drone is “a very complex mechanism that is really a whole bunch of different things: sensors, its own code, motors, mechanics, and electronics. It’s a million things in this one package.”
Every aspect of the drone presents its own challenge. Anab Jain, co-director of design practice Superflux—which is working on an upcoming installation of potential drone futures and the infrastructural technologies that would support widespread drone use across a variety of cities—describes the way failure enters the design process: “Every time you try and go to the park and test it, then the third time it fails. It’s been such an iterative process.” Jon Ardern, Superflux's co-director agrees, explaining that the hardest part of working with drones is “the breadth of the various parts that you need to bring together and understand to make something fly and make it safe. When I first started researching, you’d watch a few videos and you might get something in the air and suddenly something fails. There are a lot of things to get to know.”
We see videos of drones navigating windows, conducting acrobatics with ease, but the algorithms that allow a multirotor to stay in the air are complex mathematics, difficult for even technologically-skilled artists to crack. Sterling Crispin, Tim Wood, and RJ Duran collaborated on a performance piece called Catch and Release, in which Wood dances with a drone. Crispin explains the math behind the dance: “I have something moving around in space, and I want it to go to this point in space, so I can just use trigonometry and calculate the angle between those two locations and we're set,” he originally thought, but it isn't that simple. “We used quaternions, a series of four numbers that describes the location of a point on a four-dimensional sphere, it's a way of describing rotational angles that don't lock up.There's this thing called gimbal lock, where traditional ways of measuring angles, with X, Y, and Z, don't really work.”
Even when all the pieces work perfectly, the results can be unpredictable. Lee Montgomery tells of the trial and error in his quadrotor light-painting images, Constellations in The City. “It was a real struggle to get the drone to do the precise shape that we had outlined for it. It was like six or seven times that we had to go out to this alley for an hour or so, and hope that it would do the shape that we wanted it to.”
While we include many aircraft in the drone category, they are widely distinct and have unique strengths and weaknesses. The Parrot AR. drone is a popular choice for artists like Montgomery because it is inexpensive and can be controlled with a laptop. Graphic designer Greg Riestenberg and his collaborators, for example, were able to use Twitter messages to control the SCOTUS drone by connecting two Processing programs to the Parrot's laptop interface. But the cheapest technology and the easiest to hack may not be the most durable or controllable. On a budget for his MFA project, Riestenberg bought a refurbished model—“I think the axis is off, something wrong with the motor speeds. It just finds the nearest wall and crashes into it.”
Catastrophic crashes were a common tale with inexpensive drones. Said Montgomery, “A small gust of wind will flip it, and a slight crash will damage the plastic gears that make the propellers turn, and you're done.” Suzanne Treister also used a Parrot in her self-explanatory installation, The Drone that Filmed the Opening of its Own Exhibition, but was forced to run out and buy a new one on short notice when it crashed.
With a little more investment and work, bigger drones can prove more stable and reliable. ArduPilot software and the Pixhawk hardware are components championed by the online forum DIY Drones and its sponsor company, 3D Robotics. Lee Montgomery, Nadav Assor, and Superflux are all currently using this technology. However, with an increase in function comes an increase in difficulty and danger. Montgomery compares the trade-off for stability and safety as a drone increases in size and complexity to "the difference between riding a bike and driving a car when you're really young. The car is this intimidating, multi-ton piece of machinery where if you lose your attention and slam into a tree, you've both damaged an expensive piece of equipment and possibly injured yourself or someone else.”
If drones are so complicated, difficult, flimsy, or dangerous, why work with them? To many artists, therein lies the appeal. Crispin and his collaborators incorporated the Parrot's weakness into their piece. “Once the drone inevitably crashes somewhere, there was this reconciliation and formal mourning process where Tim would go into the center of the room and change its battery and reset it, very deliberately and ritually,” explains Crispin. “The piece progressed with three successive crashes planned into the performance.” Similarily, Montgomery considers himself “an experimental artist more than just an electronic artist,” and allows room for error by submitting to the process instead of struggling to realize a specific vision.
For Nadav Assor, the unpredictability of drones was a key to his eventual product. “I could have had a much fancier technological solution for making it float in space, unobstructed,” he says. “What I had were these piano wires, nearly invisible, so it couldn’t break away. It couldn’t go anywhere. But in the end, I liked them because they turned into even more of a restrained machine.”
And despite the challenges, the technology is notable for the effect it achieves. A flying robot may not realistically be delivering packages to our doorstep, but it is still a flying robot. Says Treister, “The drone made a great film of my exhibition, especially when it took footage from high up in the space and swooped down towards the works, hovered in front of them and appeared to scrutinize them as if it was really seeing them.” Anab Jain notes the power of the drone in flight as well: “Even if you’re building it, until it flies, until it comes up to you, you just don’t get what it means.”
Future generations will no doubt draw their own conclusions about our current use of drones. Today, artists are connecting our envisioned drone-futures with the history of technology and continuing older conversations with their new forms and experiments. Sanaz Mazinani, for example, uses images of drones as a technological element of war in her intricate photo collages. “The physical visualization of these drones is that they are majestic and beautiful […] But then I use that to talk about war, in a way. War is something that’s hard to talk about. It’s depressing, it’s sad.”
Isabella Streffen, whose Hawk & Dove traces the history of aerial technology from drones back to zeppelins, the Wright Brothers, and early ballooning, finds greater challenges in the societal discussions about technology than in the technology itself. “I find the discussion and hysteria around drones and their uses the most difficult thing. I find a lot of work being made and the framing of the discourse very patriarchal, and therefore I’m quite dismissive of it. There aren’t many women making work in this field, or at least, getting it shown, but where they are, the work is very challenging to accepted positions.”
Sterling Crispin feels a sense of responsibility when working with new technologies, not just to produce art, but to think about the longer-term possibilities for technology and humanity, "like being an R&D lab for humanity. To be experimental and come up with positive things that could be done with the technology. I've been approached by drone startup companies that want to use them for strip mining, surveillance... it's all power, and aggressive monitoring, and stripping the earth of its resources. We don't need those things, we need to cultivate civilization.”
In choosing to work with drones and all of the accompanying difficulties, dangers, and dilemmas, these artists are doing just that. In each shattered propeller, in each programming glitch, and in each new conversation with a viewer who might be captivated, excited, or frightened by drones, there are traces of how this technology will function and be received in the days ahead.