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On the High Line, a popular tourist attraction in New York City, visitors to the west side of Lower Manhattan ascend above street level to what was once an elevated freight train line and is now a leisurely stroll and architecturally intriguing. Here, walkers benefit from an opening similar to a park; with other walkers, they discover urban beauty, art and the wonder of camaraderie.
At the end of May, a Predator drone replica, suddenly appearing over the High Line promenade at 30e Street, may appear to be scrutinizing the people below. The ‘gaze’ of Sam Durant’s sleek white sculpture called ‘Untitled, (drone)’, in the form of the US Army’s Predator killer drone, will unpredictably sweep the people below, spinning atop its tops. 25 feet high. steel pole, its direction guided by the wind.
Unlike the real Predator, it won’t carry two Hellfire missiles and a surveillance camera. The drone’s deadly features are omitted from Durant’s sculpture. Nonetheless, he hopes this will spark discussion.
âUntitled (drone)â is intended to animate questions âabout the use of drones, surveillance and targeted assassinations in remote and near locations,â Durant said in a statement, âand whether as a society we are agree with and want to continue these practices. “
Durant sees art as a place to explore possibilities and alternatives.
In 2007, a similar desire to raise questions about remote murder motivated New York artist Wafaa Bilal, now a professor at NYU’s Tisch Gallery, to lock himself in a cubicle where, for a month, and at any time of the day he could be targeted from a distance by a paintball gun explosion. Anyone on the internet who wanted to could shoot him.
He has been shot down over 60,000 times by people from 128 different countries. Bilal called the project “domestic tension”. In a resulting book, Shoot an Iraqi: Art Life and Resistance Under the Gun, Bilal and co-author Kary Lydersen recounted the remarkable result of the âDomestic Tensionâ project.
In addition to descriptions of constant paintball attacks on Bilal, they wrote about netizens who instead struggled with the controls to prevent Bilal from being shot. And they described the death of Bilal’s brother, Hajj, who was killed by an American air-to-surface missile that killed Hajj in 2004.
Grappling with the terrible vulnerability to sudden death felt by people all over Iraq, Bilal, who grew up in Iraq, chose with this exhibit to partly feel the pervasive fear of suddenly and without warning being attacked from a distance. He made himself vulnerable to people who might wish him harm.
Three years later, in June 2010, Bilal developed the artwork âAnd Countingâ in which a tattoo artist inked the names of major cities in Iraq on Bilal’s back. The tattoo artist then used his needle to place “dots of ink, thousands and thousands of them – each representing a victim of the Iraq war.” Dots are tattooed near the town where the person died: red ink for US soldiers, ultraviolet ink for Iraqi civilians, invisible unless seen in black light.
Bilal, Durant and other artists who help us think about the American colonial war against the people of Iraq and other nations are surely to be thanked. It is useful to compare the projects of Bilal and Durant.
The immaculate, unspoiled drone may be an apt metaphor for 21st century American warfare that may be entirely distant. Before heading home for dinner with loved ones, soldiers across the world can kill suspected militants miles from any battlefield. Those murdered by drone attacks may themselves drive along a road, possibly towards their family homes.
U.S. technicians analyze miles of surveillance footage from drone cameras, but such surveillance does not reveal information about people targeted by a drone operator.
In fact, as Andrew Cockburn wrote in the London book review: âThe laws of physics impose inherent restrictions on the image quality of remote drones that no amount of money can overcome. Unless photographed at low altitudes and on a clear day, individuals appear as dots, cars as fuzzy spots.
In contrast, Bilal’s exploration is deeply personal, connoting the anguish of the victims. Bilal went to great pains, including the pain of the tattoo, to name the people whose dots appear on his back, the people who had been killed.
While contemplating “Untitled (drone)”, it is disturbing to remember that no one in the United States can name the thirty Afghan workers killed by an American drone in 2019. An American drone operator fired a missile at a migrant worker encampment resting after a day of pine nut harvesting in the Afghan province of Nangarhar. 40 other people were injured. For US drone pilots, these casualties may only appear as dots.
In many war zones, incredibly courageous human rights documentary filmmakers risk their lives to record the testimonies of people who have been victims of war-related human rights violations, including drone attacks on civilians. Mwatana for Human Rights, based in Yemen, studies human rights violations committed by all parties to the war in Yemen. In their report, Death falling from the sky, civil harm caused by US use of lethal force in Yemen, they examine 12 US airstrikes in Yemen, including 10 US drone strikes, between 2017 and 2019.
They report that at least 38 Yemeni civilians – nineteen men, thirteen children and six women – were killed and seven others were injured in the attacks.
The report teaches us about the important roles that the killed victims played as family and community members. We hear of families deprived of income after the murder of wage earners, including beekeepers, fishermen, workers and drivers. Students described one of the men killed as a beloved teacher. Also among the dead were university students and housewives. Relatives who mourn the deaths of those killed are still afraid of hearing the hum of a drone.
It’s now clear that Yemen’s Houthis were able to use 3D models to create their own drones which they fired across a border, hitting targets in Saudi Arabia. This kind of proliferation was quite predictable.
The United States recently announced its intention to sell the United Arab Emirates fifty F-35 fighter jets, eighteen Reaper drones and various missiles, bombs and ammunition. The UAE has used its weapons against its own people and has run horrific clandestine prisons in Yemen, where people are tortured and broken as human beings, a fate that awaits any Yemeni critical of their power.
Having a drone set up above the people of Manhattan may get them to participate in a larger discussion.
Outside of numerous safe military bases in the United States – from which drones are flown to kill Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria and other countries, militants have staged to several times artistic events. In 2011, at Hancock Field in Syracuse, thirty-eight activists were arrested for a “die-in” in which they simply lay down at the gate, covering themselves in bloody sheets.
The title of Sam Durant’s sculpture – “Untitled (Drone)” – means that in a sense, it is officially unnamed, like so many victims of the American Predator drones it is designed to look like.
People in many parts of the world cannot speak for themselves. Comparatively, we don’t face torture or death for protesting. We can tell the stories of those now killed by our drones, or gaze at the sky in terror.
We should tell these stories, these realities, to our elected officials, to faith communities, to academics, to the media, to our family and to our friends. And if you know someone in New York, tell them to look for a Predator drone in lower Manhattan. This fake drone could help us face reality and accelerate an international push to ban killer drones.
Kathy Kelly ([email protected]) is a peace activist and author working to end America’s military and economic wars. Sometimes her activism has taken her to war zones and prisons.
A version of this article first appeared on The Progressive.org
Photo credit: Sam Durant, Untitled (drone), 2016-2021 (rendering). Proposal for the High Line plinth. Commissioned by High Line Art. Courtesy of The High Line.