Index of Rhizome Today for August

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Rhizome Today is an experiment in ephemeral blogging: posts written and published each morning, and unpublished within a day. The latest post can always be found at http://www.rhizome.org/today.

After some discussion about the best way to wrap up each month's posts, we've decided to publish a list of topics and people covered on Today during the preceding month. Here is the index for Rhizome Today in August, 2014. 

Topics

  • Amazon (8-Aug, 11-Aug, 26-Aug)
  • ARE.NA (20-Aug)

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Constructions of Truth In A Drone Age: "Forensis" at HKW, Berlin

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“Threshhold of Detectibility” Top: the roof of a building in Miranshah, Pakistan, that has been hit by a drone-fired missile. the form of destruction is masked in the photo’s pixelation. Source: Digitalglobe, inc., March 31, 2012 Bottom: Still from footage broadcast on MSNBC of the aftermath of a March 30, 2012 drone strike in miranshah, pakistan, showing the entry hole of a missile through the ceiling of a room. Visualization: Forensic Architecture. Page from Forensis program.

Any act of looking or being looked at is mediated by technology. This is true of any scientific process too, where each tool or method of looking is developed with a purpose in mind which influences the data that it produces. This is precisely what forensic investigation reveals: not only the reality of an event, but also the intention of a viewing mechanism and the political weight of that intention once made visible. Representations of warfare illustrate this as successfully as any art object.

As part of the exhibition Forensis, now on view at Haus der Kulteren der Welt in Berlin, Forensic Architecture and SITU Research investigate drone strikes in situations where state-mandated degradation and pixelation of publicly available surveillance footage is a legal regulation rather than a visual constraint, and drones are designed to evade the digital image. Missiles are developed that burrow through targeted buildings, leaving holes that are smaller than a low resolution pixel. Attacking at "the threshold of visibility," the legal, political, and technical conditions equally attempt to remain invisible. The job of forensics is then to recover them.

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The Age of Drones

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Detail from ESSAM, Drone Campaign Poster (2012).

If the epoch of a technology is signaled by the simultaneous appearance of new potential uses and looming ethical questions, then without a doubt we've entered the age of the drone. In mid-October, individuals from the drone industry, aviation policymakers, lawyers, engineers, makers, activists, and artists gathered at the first Drone and Aerial Robotics Conference (DARC) in New York City to draw together the swarm of questions and possibilities that this technology engenders.

Defining "drone" is no small part of the problem. Those who work in the industry shy away from the "d-word for many reasons, not least of which is the image of the "drone strike." The US government is using the more innocuous acronyms of UAV (unmanned/unpiloted aerial vehicle) or RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) to simply evoke the technology's long-accepted use as surveillance tools—with which to guide other weapon strikes. But an acronym makes for crappy branding, and it seems the word drone is here to stay.

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Drone's Eye View: A Look at How Artists are Revealing the Killing Fields

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Jaar, Yemen, October 18 2012 / 7-9 killed.
Image from Dronestagram by James Bridle

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, has become one of the most potent weapons of contemporary warfare. Remotely controlled by operators thousands of miles away from the theatre of war, drones carry out aerial attacks which leave hundreds of people dead. The increasing amount of ‘collateral damage’ from US drone strikes on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, recently lead prominent politician, Imran Khan, to lead a high-profile protest against their use.

Drone Vision by Trevor Paglen

Artists have been actively documenting the impact of the use of drones in warfare for some years now.  Trevor Paglen’s Drone Vision, recently on show at Lighthouse in Brighton, provides us with a chilling “drones-eye-view” of a landscape, enabling us to see what drone-operators see.

Five Thousand Feet is the Best by Omer Fast

The utterly compelling and disturbing film installation, Five Thousand Feet is the Best by Israeli artist Omer Fast, tells the story of a former Predator drone operator, recalling his experience of using drones to fire at civilians and militia in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At one stage of the film, he describes the use of what marines refer to as “the light of god”, the laser targeting marker, which is used to direct hellfire missiles to their intended target.

“We call it in, and we’re given all the clearances that are necessary, all the approvals and everything else, and then we do something called the Light of God – the Marines like to call it the Light of God. It’s a laser targeting marker. We just send out a beam of laser and when the troops put on their night vision goggles they’ll just see this light that looks like it’s coming from heaven. Right on the spot, coming out of nowhere, from the sky. It’s quite beautiful.” (quoted from Five Thousand Feet is the Best).

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Guide to Future-Present Archetypes Part 4: The Commodity Swarm

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"Bomb the Drone" (Demilit project)

A certain thread of theology holds that angels are not actual entities; they are human characterizations of god’s infinite will, manifested in singular points of time and space that we can only represent as corporeal actions by supernatural beings. Drones are the same. The Unmanned Aerial Vehicles themselves are made of very real alloys and composites, flown with very real bands of electromagnetic energy emitted from satellite and ground station, launching weapons with exothermic warheads resulting in very real deaths. But “Drones”, as we have come to know them, represent an intensely collapsed political, economic, and social cosmology. They are singular points of world-historical militarism, state control, and technological specialty, orbiting high above our heads, the new astrological wanderers of our mortal fates. Dare we ask the rhetorical question: how many drones can surveil the head of a pin? MQ-1 Predator, MQ-4 Global Hawk, MQ-9 Reaper, RQ-170 Sentinel: these names are the basis of a new hierarchical choir of angels, as cataloged by Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft.

Drones function in our current Future-Present, as a category conglomerated from many components. A MQ-4 has very little to do, technologically, with a smartphone-controlled quadrocopter. The relationship between them, which we fetishize into the category of “drone”, is a composite of factors and values so intricate as to border on the cosmological. It is true that they both fly, with different types of remote control. They both contain cameras, so that a person can see a visual field from the vehicle’s perspective. They both contain technological advances that are not entirely new innovations, though their widespread use and public recognition is a relatively recent event. And yet, one is an expensive toy, while the other changes the geopolitical landscape as a weapon of war. It is only when their use, political significance, and market value are networked to their technological construction that they become equivalent in the Future-Present cosmology. 

If angels are too metaphysical a means of getting at the cultural function of such a unifying concept, let us utilize a more atheistic church, another sort of holy ghost. Drones are technology, commodified. Commodities are objects, abstracted from their strict material origins, and invested with a surplus of market-meaning. An automobile, for example, is not so much the frame riding on four wheels; it is not pivotal object of the American Dream; it is more than a single class of “Sport Utility” use-case or a particular brand name. It is all of these things. It is a history of technological advancement, a society’s main means of transportation, and a set of cultural value signifiers, condensed into a single object. What does precision milling equipment have to do with “Tell Laura I Love Her?” Everything and nothing. Technological commodities exists in multiple dimensions of technology, culture, economics, and politics simultaneously. What we perceive is the object, but behind it, is its cosmological network. We watch a video of a drone swarm in a college laboratory. We hear a news report about a drone strike on the other side of the world. We dream about the future of airspace regulation over drone-like inventions that don’t exist yet. We interact with all of these threads when we think, talk, or work with drones...

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Between Early, Prime and Afternoon: Omer Fast at the Wexner Center

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Installation view of Omer Fast: 2001/11 Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University
Courtesy of gb agency, Paris, and Arratia Beer, Berlin Photo: Mark Steele

“We were going for the ‘faceless Modernism’ look,” says curator Christopher Bedford during a tour of the two-video exhibition “Omer Fast: 2001/2011” at Ohio State’s Wexner Center. (I’d visited the Columbus museum days before Bedford’s appointment as the Director of the Rose Museum at Brandeis University.)  “We attempted to recreate the environment that one would inhabit while watching primetime news in 2001,” he says, as we peruse the aesthetically innocuous, comically “normal” room surrounding Fast’s 2002 video CNN Concatenated.  “It all comes from Ikea,” explains Bedford, “and we were actually a bit fearful that this lamp may be a bit too tasteful.” The lamp looked like a rolled-up, bioluminescent albino armadillo, though surprisingly slightly tasteful. Nearby, a television sits center stage in a faux-mahogany entertainment set, an oversized silver ampersand “accent piece” next to it. From the television blares a jerky monologue enunciated by varying, always-pristine news anchors. Each individual word is a frame depicting a flash of a different newscaster—some reporting on 9/11—which are strung together to form sentences. (Hence “CNN Concatenated,” the latter word meaning “to link together in a chain or series.”) Fast utilizes a sort of supercut stylistically reminiscent of “The Clock,” yet its source material is hundreds of hours of taped new programs throughout post-9/11 2001. Rapidly oscillating through various TV personalities, the monologue is distinctly divorced from anything a news anchor may usually utter: 

Listen to me I want to tell you something

Come closer

Don't be upset and don't get emotional

Just get near me and pay attention please

Look, I know that you're scared

I know what you're afraid of

You mistrust your body

Lately it has been looking more and more foreign

It's been doing strange things

....

 

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Guide to Future-Present Archetypes Part 1: The Spark

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This is the first in a series of six essays, drawing on interviews with speculative thinkers finding and defining the technologies of the Future-Present.

Near Tappi Saki, Aomori (via Pink Tentacle

It is the 21st Century, and history has delivered us into a time when aerial swarms of hypertextual futurist essays sling bombshell proclamations down upon us, guided down the invisible path of a laser beam. With each new detonation our grounding worldview shakes with tectonic intensity, as what we have always known as “the future” is driven to critical fission when hitting the present. Behold, this new technology: the “Future-Present”: where our dreams collide with reality. There is no fantastical World of Tomorrow, and there is no reality in which we know the real from the imagined. There is only the waking dream of the categories’ simultaneous coexistence. In this world, cities explode, the network sings like razor wire, a caustic, aerosolized powder rises up from pavement beneath our feet, people wearing masks shout instructions over our heads. The dream is still going on, a double exposure of ideas over impact weapons. It is difficult to say whether we are excited, or terrified, or bored, or confused. But we understand this, don’t we? We must say we understand this. There is no one else that could understand this, other than us. What would it mean, if no one understood the future?

 

Electronic Countermeasures GPS enabled quadcopter, Tomorrow's Thoughts Today (video)

 

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Reality Drone TV

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Former President George W. Bush standing next to a Predator Drone in 2007. White House photo by Eric Draper.

On a monthly basis, the US military collects over 10,000 hours of footage from Predator Drones that needs to be watched an analyzed. The Warholian challenge of sifting through the amassed footage and waiting for a moment of interest to the intelligence community has overburdened the military's viewing capacity. The load is only expected to increase with an over-extended drone program at the US-Mexico broder and the introduction of enormous new surveillance suites in Afghanistan and beyond.

The military turned to stalwart consultant geniuses the RAND Corporation. RAND's final report, The Future of Air Force Motion Imagery Exploitation: Lessons from the Commercial World [PDF], turned to a group of people most familiar with waiting patiently for a payoff: America's reality television producers. RAND consulted with producers from reality TV hits as diverse as Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami and Rock of Love: Charm School. Wired reports that the operations of a reality TV production and military drone footage analysis are not so different:

The volume of footage exploited in a reality TV control room, the report states, “is comparable in scale” to what an Air Force ground station processes. Operations in both scenarios run 24/7, with operators required to “record and report events in near realtime.” And in both settings, footage can be mundane for hours on end — until unusual or important events occur unexpectedly.

“You can’t have someone staring at the empty Jersey Shore living room for 24 hours a day,” Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who did not contribute to the report, tells Danger Room. “But when something crazy happens at 3 a.m., you want to be ...

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Drone Desire

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Jordan Crandall will perform his "philosophical theater" Unmanned at Eyebeam on Feb 25. The following is drawn from research previously posted to Nettime.

Nestled amid the sagebrush along the California side of the U.S./Mexico border is a small DIY drone airfield.  Makeshift and unkempt, devoid of pavement and infrastructure, it is unremarkable in the absence of the gathered assemblies of amateur pilots, planes, and spectators for which it is intended.  One might well overlook it, yet perhaps in some way it serves as a model of sorts, a harbinger of airports to come:  a preview of what drone airfields might look like, writ large, in their absence of traditional control platforms and optical infrastructures.  Much like this one, the unmanned airport would contain no centralized control tower presiding over the runway and no lighting tracks reflecting its contours.  There is no need for a commanding view from above.  The distributed and windowless drone, devoid of any interior, requires no human sightline for its flight.  In an operational sense, its trajectory is not visual.   Geometries of looking, whether from a cockpit or a control tower, have been replaced by networks of sensing.  Interior/exterior relations, at least in any conventional, spatially-continuous sense, diminish in their structuring relevance.... 

 

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Drone Ethnography

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Trevor Paglan, The Other Night Sky

Suppose you wanted to build your own drone—well, hold on a minute—why do you want to build your own drone?

What do you mean, “why?” The answer is, you'd go to Dronepedia  first, and then to DIY Drones , where you'd find out where to get started with a simple kit or pre-made drone.

But suppose you just wanted to find out some of the latest info on the US government's top secret drone projects. Don't even ask me why, it should be obvious. You'd want to do like artist Trevor Paglen , and travel to remote testing locations to snap photographs of strange shapes taking off from military bases, along with the planespotters. Either that, or travel to  Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and now Somalia  with a good pair of binoculars.

And then if you want a little bit a speculation about drones, you pick up the paranoid defense blogging of Danger Room  or the design-fiction of sousveillance and cyborg specialists like Tim Maly . And then you—

Okay. I thought it was clear, but if you want me to spell it out for you, I will. You are obsessed with drones. We all are. We live in a drone culture, just as we once lived in a car culture. The Northrop-Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk is your '55 Chevorlet. You just might not know it yet.

I have thirty-five browser tabs open, and each contains a fragment of the drone-mythos. Each is a glimpse at a situation, a bird’s eye view of the terrain. So many channels, showing me the same thing: near-infinite data collection. With the help of Google, I’m drone-spotting—I'm turning a new critical perspective that I'm calling Drone Ethnography, back on itself.

All of us that use the internet are already practicing Drone Ethnography. Look at the features of drone technology: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Surveillance, Sousveillance. Networks of collected information, over land and in the sky. Now consider the “consumer” side of tech: mapping programs, location-aware pocket tech, public-sourced media databases, and the apps and algorithms by which we navigate these tools. We already study the world the way a drone sees it: from above, with a dozen unblinking eyes, recording everything with the cold indecision of algorithmic commands honed over time, affecting nothing—except, perhaps, a single, momentary touch, the momentary awareness and synchronicity of a piece of information discovered at precisely the right time. An arc connecting two points like the kiss from an air-to-surface missile. Our technological capacity for watching, recording, collecting, and archiving has never been wider, and has never been more automated. The way we look at the world—our basic ethnographic approach—is mimicking the technology of the drone. 

Epistemological change in inevitable, but there is more going on here than a revolution in research tools. There is a feeling I can only describe as the presence of “The Swarm”, a fundamental aesthetic of the drone-mythos. It's an unexpected mythological evolution that has come about along with the technological evolution. There's nothing groundbreaking about myths accompanying new technology. But this mythos is different. The industrial revolution didn't see a burgeoning number of DIY textile mills. This is more along the lines of the birth of the automobile—a seemingly simple invention that not only revolutionized its particular task, but also changed society.

 

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