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It's a Drone!

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Artbound's editorial team has reviewed and rated the most compelling weekly articles. After putting two articles up for a vote, the audience chose this article to be made into a short-format documentary.

In downtown San Diego, a series of recycled and modified steel containers create a temporary structure where art and public culture is presented, produced and embodied.

The means of transportation of goods in the global economy, and now its detritus, have been given another use by artists, architects and thinkers; this trash is now the Periscope Project. Constituted now by Charles G. Miller, James Enos and Molly Enos, they self- define as: "A space and cooperative activating a nexus of art, architecture and urbanism toward pedagogy, advocacy, cultural amenities and interventionist art/architecture projects. An intervention in itself, reasserting urban citizenship, visualizing alternative land use and development: an urban observatory for cities in flux. "

At the beginning of 2011, Periscope Project found a weird fiberglass container on Craigslist San Diego. On sale for just $300, the large trailer-like container was mysterious at first. It had the serial number 08-0248 and was manufactured by Plastics Research Corporation for General Atomics Aeronautical. Then its purpose was revealed. This beige mobile trailer-thing was used to transport the sophisticated unmanned flying/killing machine -- known as the Predator Drone MQ-1 UAV and manufactured in San Diego adjacent town, Poway -- to operation Enduring Freedom in Kandahar, Afghanistan. This was a deal they could not pass up. Periscope Project modified it into a habitable unit that now contains people and ideas instead of the remote-controlled flying weapon. Drone Readymade: Fine Military Detritus, as the large container is now known, seems to encourage visitors to explore the landscapes of the San Diego military industrial complex while becoming a statement, and a question, itself: Is it an RV? Is it a sculpture? Is it a prop? Perhaps it is all of the above, and more. This intervention, or mobile public art piece, roams around like a monumental ready-made piece decorated like a military aircraft. When a General Atomics employee saw them loading the object in a U-Haul truck he reported it as theft to the authorities. This resulted in Charles G. Miller and Keith Muller slammed face down, hand cuffed and sequestered by sheriffs, who later would recognize their contemporary art practice, thankfully considered at the end rather inoffensive and not real terrorism.

<em>Drone Readymade: Fine Military Detritus</em> outside gallery@calit2 | Photo: Calit2.
Drone Readymade: Fine Military Detritus outside gallery@calit2 | Photo: Calit2.

This object was recently parked in front of gallery@calit2 at the University of California in San Diego. It is part of the exhibition Drones at Home, which claims to explore "the strange allure of drones and the push for their domestication - by governments, corporations, and everyday citizens" and in this case, by artists and curators. Without a cockpit or human presence these objects seem a menacing streamlined modernist flying abstraction. Beside The Periscope Project, the show also includes the work by Matthew Battles, Trevor Paglen and the collaboration of Alex Rivera and Angel Nevarez.

 Inside <em>Drone Readymade: Fine Military Detritus</em> | Photo: The Periscope Project.
Inside Drone Readymade: Fine Military Detritus  | Photo: The Periscope Project.

Trevor Paglen presented video of drone strikes intercepted from satellite transmissions. The footage is the grainy black and white footage that dehumanizes destruction and turns it into spectacle. Alex Rivera is the filmmaker responsible for "Sleep Dealer." Fragments of this movie are presented in the show. In a future too close to the present, employers are able to keep underpaid workers outside the country by connecting them to robots that are operated online. Soldiers inside the country control drones to do their operations outside of it connected online as well. Life, sexual experiences and reality in general are contained and compartmentalized electronically without real human interaction. With artist, DJ and MIT faculty member Angel Nevarez they created the Lowdrone. This is a tricked out metal flake and lime yellow candy-colored remote controlled quad copter with an old school chassis that brings style into border surveillance streaming video of the border patrol movements over the actual fence. This low-n-slow appropriation of technology pays homage to not just a particular local subcultural practice but also points out the controversial use of drones around the border region where they are produced and where they are becoming an iconic part of its landscape.

<em>Lowdrone</em> | Photo: The Periscope Project.
Lowdrone  | Photo: The Periscope Project.

In drones, minimalist aesthetics less is not more. Less is undetectable. The lack of decoration and the special white paint used in them avoids communication and representation. The purpose of the new material is to be undetected by enemy radars. In fact, it is this particular aspect of the technology that the U.S. fears Iranians and others might steal and used to their advantage. The Drone Readymade: Fine Military Detritus of Periscope Project showcases typography and military iconography of more romanticized past wars, such as the marks of confirmed kills that pilots used to boast with pride in their aircraft. However, these new war machines do not have visible heroic top guns but instead rather unknown video gamers without a top player list.

<em>Drone Readymade: Fine Military Detritus</em> outside General Dynamics NASSCO | Photo: The Periscope Project.
Drone Readymade: Fine Military Detritus outside General Dynamics NASSCO | Photo: The Periscope Project.

Reality is always stranger than fiction and art. The Huffington Post recently published "Tacocopter Aims To Deliver Tacos Using Unmanned Drone Helicopters." A new start-up company in Silicon Valley is trying to deliver tacos ordered through a smartphone that beams the order and the GPS location information. You pay online and the tacos are launched from space to you instead of Hellfire missiles. However the U.S. government is blocking this brilliant civilian use of military technology. According to the founders of Tacocopter: "Current U.S. FAA regulations prevent ... using UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, like drones] for commercial purposes at the moment." This is at this point more a publicity stunt or a conceptual provocation than a real viable business that can deliver tacos avoiding birds, telephone wires and dronejackers.

<em>Drone Readymade: Fine Military Detritus</em>, North Island | Photo: The Periscope Project.
Drone Readymade: Fine Military Detritus, North Island | Photo: The Periscope Project.

Iran, China, Russia, Al Qaeda and the drug cartels are not the only ones trying to steal and copy drone technology. Art, culture, education and life in general in San Diego have to evolve from the surplus and leftovers of a lavishly military industry. This military industry perpetuates a global economy designed to move goods and capital and keep those who produce them away.


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