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'Drones At Home' Exhibition Explores Increasing Use Of Drones By Civilians

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October 24, 2012 1:24 p.m.


Jordan Crandall, professor and chair of the UC San Diego Visual Arts Department.

Related Story: 'Drones At Home' Exhibition Explores Increasing Use Of Drones By Civilians


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Jordan Crandall, professor and chair of the UCSD visual arts department.

CRANDALL: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Give us a concept or maybe I should say your concept of what is a drone. How does the concept of drones differ from robots?

CRANDALL: Oh, drones are essentially robots. You could think of them as robotic apparatuses. And it's -- they're flown remotely, they have no pilot at the helm, and they're part of a very complicated distributed network of many different types of players. You can regard them as robots, robots always exist in this spectrum between full automation and partial.

CAVANAUGH: Do you give your audience members or the people who attend your performances a brief history of drones?

CRANDALL: Not really. That might be a good idea.


CRANDALL: We open the show, which actually opened several months ago, with a timeline of drone development. And it was interesting constructing a timeline because you could look back to vehicles that were used in World War II for example, and some of the experiments in automated weaponry.

CAVANAUGH: Like the buzz bomb, right?

CRANDALL: Yes, exactly. There were many apparatuses that were experimented with, and some of them were actually put into play. So there's a long history of automated warfare technologies and technologies of flight that led us to this moment of the ascendance of the drone, per se.

CAVANAUGH: When we talk about present day drones, I think most people are not clear about who controls them or who is held accountable for their use.

CRANDALL: Yeah, that's what makes it a very interesting, fascinating object of study. Because the closer you look, the more complicated things become. And it's very important to understand how the network works, and who the players are that are involved in drone operations because you have to look much more -- it's harder to find them. And they're often situated in different locations around the world. So the people who -- the crews that fly the planes might be located across the world, aircraft that are flown in Afghanistan for example are often flown by operators who are housed here in the U.S. on the west coast. And they're all operating in conjunction with different types of agency. Sometimes the military and intelligence agencies operate together, and also private companies are involved, not to mention people involved with logistics and support.

CAVANAUGH: So it's an entire system to keep this thing that isn't alive alive.

CRANDALL: Yes, in fact, unmanned system or unmanned plane is almost a misnomer because it takes about 170 personnel to keep one predator aloft for 24 hours. So in fact, they really aren't so unmanned when you look at it.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. In some way, if you think about the risks people in the military and law enforcement take to do the work that they do, in some ways, the drone sounds like a dream come true.

CRANDALL: For law enforcement, in terms of reducing risk, yeah, that's often the ways in which they're fought for. And one of the very destructive rationales for the use of drones is that they do lessen the risk for human personnel and pilots and crews. So you could say in many ways that they are safer, and they don't put our own troops at risk as much. Of course there's a risk in many other aspects of their use, but not in that area.

CAVANAUGH: Why are you so fascinated with drones?

CRANDALL: That's a good question. They foretell something about where we're headed in our culture. They're figures for something at work in society. And they are very much emblematic of the kind of world that we find ourselves in increasingly, with all manner of distributed and embedded technologies. And these are technologies that are helping to rethink and rework who we are, where we're located, how we relate to each other, how we spoke, how we act, how we imagine. And so they're really symbols of something that's at work. And they open up an idea of a landscape, of a world where we're no longer really at the center of things in the way that we thought.

CAVANAUGH: I got that point by reading about your work, and people I think are probably just -- some people, at least, instinctively made uncomfortable with the concept of drones peeking in on their lives in one way. But you propose that drones are actually changing the notion of humans being at the center of their own world. Can you talk to us more about that?

CRANDALL: Yeah, it's interesting, philosophy for the past one years at least has been occupied with the relationship between humans and the world. And it's kind of understood that that's the fundamental relationship, and humans are at the center of things. And what is increasingly happening as we have -- all manner of technologies that are endowed with the ability to think, and to some extent to act, and in some instances with a minimal degree of our own direct human involvement, we're sharing the world with all manner of intelligent agents. And even when we act and think we do so in concert with many different types of actors, both human and not. So there's something really interesting philosophically in that. Soy if that's the case then, and we all know, of course, that through our technologies, they change us, the way we understand ourselves, what does that say about who we are now? Who are we becoming?

CAVANAUGH: I read something about small hobby drones being popular in somewhat areas of California. People fly them and mount little cameras on them and see how far they can go. When you have something like that that's so direct, one person who's accountable for one drone and one camera, that seems to make sense. But the kind of thing that you talked about, when you're talking about these predator drones, that there are perhaps more than 100 people involved in getting that thing, maintaining that thing, plotting a course, who is responsible for what that drone does?

CRANDALL: That's the question, often. Because they afford the possibility of eluding responsibility, of passing the law onto someone else. And it's very slippery. So what interests me in the productive power of the crash, and why actually Unmanned looks at failures, at crashes, in the crash some of these aspects come into play. And we start asking questions that we wouldn't ask otherwise. Who was operating the drone? You know? How is the decision made to engage? And those kinds of things. You mentioned about hobbyists, and that brings into another component that is really very important, the fact is that -- droning is something that filters into everyday life. And it's something that is happening at the level of our military, and of our national government, in many other areas, and even in use along the border, for example. But it is also something that enters into everyday life. And we have a kind of drone imaginary that's in place. And we have drone hobbyists who are building drones and meeting together in local groups and sharing resources on websites. So we have this interesting phenom that operates at the level of the home, in the backyard, in everyday life, all the way up to the highest levels of national defense.

CAVANAUGH: You mentioned how drones are being used at the Mexican border. This particular phase of the art exhibit is called drones at home. How are drones being used on our border?

CRANDALL: Yes, and so then what we had wanted to look at, and my co-organizers of the project, Ricardo Dominguez, and Sheldon Brown, we wanted to develop a series of events and presentations and discussions that look at the increasingly domestication of drone use. Increasingly we have drone operations occur right here on our national borders particularly in the border with Mexico. And are being used by state agencies. Border Patrol, for example. And so we have a phenomenon that's increasingly happening in our own backyard.

CAVANAUGH: When people go to see drones at home, what are they going to be seeing and experiencing at the gallery?

CRANDALL: We have several different phases and different projects going on. Right now, we have a workshop that's going on with several different artists who are showing work, and one of them, for example, Alex Rivera, is doing a home-built hobbyist drone that he's been working on using human bones as part of the apparatus. And it's actually quite disturbing. But the work in this way is very provocative. It's speculative about different kinds of uses of zones. It's critical work, it's investigative work into drone technologies. It's work that also activates the imaginary through science fiction, cinema, video games.

CAVANAUGH: So it doesn't sound like this is really -- it's not a political piece so much as it is broader than that.

CRANDALL: Yes. We didn't really want to make the project so directly political. Certainly it's very important to politicize the phenomenon, and there are lots of things to be talked about. We opted instead to think about -- and there are certainly political dimensions to what we're doing, but we wanted to find ways of looking at it through many of its aspects, many of its permutations, and allowing audiences to really make up their own minds about what to think about it.

CAVANAUGH: One of those permutations that you've talked about is the erotic quality of drones. I just don't see that.


CRANDALL: Well, in this project, I've done a performance called Unmanned, and my performance happened already, and there's some documentation about it. And I invented seven different character who is all have different relationships to drone use in some way or another. And one of them is a kind of philosopher. So he really talks about drone erotics. And it's interesting to talk about because, yeah, you could see that there's an allure to the drone. You can see it as an object of seduction.

CAVANAUGH: And power.

CRANDALL: And power, and power can be quite erotic. And so there's an eroticism that's activated by a dynamic of power. But also there's an element of fear inside too. And that's a powerful cocktail for eroticism. Eroticism understood in a more literary, artistic way as a kind of machinery, you know, it's not necessarily just about erotic desire but about a kind of pushing/pulling mech mechanism, a kind of motor.

CAVANAUGH: It sounds to me that you expect people to have a lot to think about and a lot to talk about after they come out of it.

CRANDALL: Absolutely.


CAVANAUGH: What is it that you hope they do take away from it?

CRANDALL: I think we need -- one of the things that artwork can really help to contribute is to think about new metaphors for understanding culture and looking at technology. I would like to think that we would come away with it with a questioning about or rethinking a little bit about where we fit a world of increasing automation, and what kind of ethics -- I might say that as really in contrast to politics, what kind of ethical questions might we want to ask about it, what kind of people do we want to be?

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that Drones at Home Phase 3, is on view now at the Gallery @ Calit2, in La Jolla. Thank you for coming in.

CRANDALL: Thank you.