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Visualising the Drone: War Art as Embodied Resistance

15 10 9
16.05.2018

War art is a practice of international security. Painting war is not just an exercise in aesthetics, but an ethical position. In war art, aesthetics and ethics are indiscernibly linked. War art has historically asserted established and emerging international power relations; provided testimonies and interpretations by those who witnessed war; functioned as a bastion to protest against war; made invisible subject positions visible; been used as propaganda tool by governments and as a way to make citizens empathise with the causes of war. War art is a battleground, as much as warzones are. Joanna Bourke (2017: 22) has recently commented that ‘[w]ar licenses the militarization of art.’ And, indeed, we could add that war licences the militarisation of the artist’s body and mind. Some artists are commissioned by war memorial, thus becoming ‘official’ war artists, while others go to warzones independently to witness, unconstrained, war. Others yet engage with war from afar, using their imagination, or focusing on the home-front. The representations and subjectivities produced through war art intersect, reproduce, or contest discourses of war.

As a battleground of war, war art raises important ethical questions about the aestheticisation of violence and the anaesthetisation of publics. In this intervention, I explore the question that every artist interested in war has to grapple with: How can artists represent war without reproducing it, without making war into a beautified spectacle for public consumption devoid of critique, and without militarising their body, work, and art? I suggest that the answer to this question is a fine balancing between embodiment and disembodiment, that is, the exposure of certain bodies, and the concealing of others, the militarisation of certain experiences for the demilitarisation of others. Militarisation and demilitarisation, and embodiment and disembodiment are not zero-sum games.

I elaborate this suggestion with reference to Australian artist Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox, who has produced a series of paintings, gouache and watercolour on paper, which engage critically with drone warfare and the attendant system of surveillance. The series is titled Dronescapes. Most of the artworks can be viewed on the artist’s blog available at https://kathrynbrimblecombeart.blogspot.com.au/, which also offers insightful posts about the artworks, the process of creating them, as well as about the practices of drone warfare. The reflections which follow have been drawn from an attentive examination of the paintings and the blog, and from extensive conversations with the artist.

Drone warfare is a hidden war, not only because drone operations and killings, especially so-called ‘collateral damage’ of mistaken targets, are underreported in news media, but also because drones can loiter in the sky without being seen. Furthermore, drone warfare is hybrid to the extent that it merges military and civilian spaces in new ambitious ways, and ambiguous to the extent that the deployment of drones is for surveillance as much as for targeted killing. Surveillance and killing are not necessarily consequential, but are certainly intrinsically related. Drone operators are defence personnel residing, often times, in civilian centres in the global north, whose job is to collect data about individuals who might potentially be targeted for killing (Grayson, 2012; Holmqvist, 2013; Wilcox, 2015). Drones make warfare look surgical, clean, and as if there is nothing to see (Gregory, 2012). Against this backdrop, Brimblecombe-Fox has realised that it is paramount to represent and uncover drone warfare in ways that reveal the invisible. Yet, not many public artists are in the business of doing so.

Militarised drones do not fly over Australian skies. But it did not take long for Brimblecombe-Fox to realise that while these types of drones are physically distant from her and Australians, we are all implicated in drone warfare. Her painting Not a Game speaks to that. It shows a drone linked to satellites and a control station, which is represented near civilian centres. The links are made visible in the painting through uncanny lines which reveal the drone’s connectivity to dual-use military/civilian technological infrastructure. While the drone is depicted surveilling and collecting data, it is armed with missiles. The drone is ready to transform targeted surveillance into targeted killing at any time. The radiating lines emanating from the drone are depicted with two different colours, exposing the drone’s wide area surveillance signals as well as potential........

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