by DAVID AXE
After 11 years of remote warfare including no fewer than 1,000 drone strikes, a 32-year-old London artist has begun chronicling the targets of U.S. robotic attacks on the photo-sharing service Instagram.
According to creator James Bridle, “Dronestagram” — also on Tumblr and Twitter — is meant to “visualize the invisible and raise awareness around issues of drone strikes, secret wars and the obfuscatory effects of contemporary networked technologies.”
For every drone strike reported by Bridle’s sources, the artist posts an overhead image of the targeted community. “They are the names of places most of us will never see,” Bridle writes. “We do not know these landscapes and we cannot visit them. What can reach them are drones.”
It’s not the first DIY effort to track America’s robot-heavy shadow wars. But Dronestagram is arguably the most elegant.
Among others, New Yorker Josh Begley has developed a mobile app that maps robot attacks, although Apple has repeatedly found reasons to reject it. Invisible Children, the aid group responsible for the viral “Kony2012” film, runs a interactive Website for tracking the complex movements of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group in Congo.
Bridle’s site is simpler, cleaner and arguably more effective for its understatement.
Dronestagram is only a few weeks old. Owing to its age and the Afghanistan omission, the photo-blog includes just a small fraction of all reported robotic strikes. “But if it raises awareness and provokes more discussions around these issues as well, then all the better,” Bridle tells Offiziere.
We emailed the artist several questions about the project.
Offiziere: Where did the idea of Dronestagram come from?
James Bridle: Researching current drone warfare statistics, I found lists of locations of actual strikes, and wanted to know what these places actually look like. We have built tools for this too, so you can go on Google Maps and — with a bit of work — find the actual landscapes where these things are happening, but which most of us rarely see and never visit.
I wanted to put the images of these landscapes where people would see them. It’s not making visible if they remain unseen. The idea of the drone’s camera posting to Instagram puts it in the same place people go to look for images of their friends’ daily realities. It is a natural fit for scenes of a wider, more graphic reality.
O: Why drones? Why not some other political or military event?
JB: Drones are particularly interesting for a number of reasons, but for me they represent a certain kind of usage of new technologies: to radically extend individual agency through the network, to enable surveillance as well as action, to distance the viewer, to obscure and obfuscate.
Drones can be made to stand for many kinds of abuses of technology, but very specifically in this case we see how they enable a potentially endless and definitely illegal cycle of violence to be perpetuated by states, with almost no critical or judicial oversight.
O: Why the interest in armed drones but not unarmed drone surveillance? And why not track airstrikes by manned aircraft, as well?
JB: I have a strong interest in surveillance as well. I believe that surveillance and violence are inherently linked by the unequal power relationship between viewer and viewed, perpetrator and victim. All surveillance platforms eventually become weaponized, or emerge out of weaponization.
In this case, I am interested specifically in drone strikes because they allow us to focus on particular locations, particular landscapes, and I am interested in them outside the field of conventional warfare, as extensions of illegal and indiscriminate intelligence wars, in (currently) Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, to which use drones appear particularly suited.
O: Why only U.S. drones?
JB: I would be very interested in including a wider range of incidents, but this information is very hard to find — indeed, that is one of the points of the project.
Plenty of other nations are using drones, often in deeply questionable moral and legal conditions. Dronestagram is merely a small step atop a far more important and difficult visualization: collecting and verifying information about these activities, which are not released officially by the perpetrators, who know the victims have no possibility of reply.
O: Have you ever NOT posted about an attack because you doubted the accuracy of the original news report?
JB: No. I draw the reports from a reputable source, and I always check their multiple original sources, including translating foreign-language reports, to confirm their findings.
O: How destructive do you think drone strikes are? What’s your response to the government claim that drone strikes are “precision”?
JB: My response is: bullshit.
Multiple independent, academic and accredited studies have found that drone strikes are indiscriminate and overwhelmingly result in civilian casualties. See for example the Stanford/NYU Clinics report “Living under Drones” which found massive civilian death and trauma as a result of drone strikes, widespread and institutionalized international law-breaking, and no evidence that such strikes in any way make the perpetrator states safer.
As if we needed to be told, again, that covert, illegal wars endlessly perpetuating cycles of violence was a bad thing. The official narrative of drone strikes is worse than incorrect. It is massively damaging to everyone involved, morally repugnant and a stain on all our consciences.