“To See Without Being Seen: Contemporary Art and Drone Warfare”

St. Louis

at Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum


The latest in a series of exhibitions at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum to explore themes of war and trauma, “To See Without Being Seen: Contemporary Art and Drone Warfare” is compelling and unexpectedly beautiful. Featuring a small selection of works at once oblique and didactic, the show fascinates because its central objects—military drones—are evoked without ever clearly appearing.

Ancillary military sites and drone silhouettes fill in. Works by Trevor Paglen and the Center for Land Use Interpretation offer images of air force bases and military communication nodes. Captured across vast distances using satellites and “limit telephotography,” the subjects are variously blurred, miniscule and decontextualized, the infrastructure of warfare rendered visible yet still mysterious. The hieroglyphic drone shapes that appear in several works can have a similar effect. For James Bridle’s Drone Shadow (2012-ongoing), a Predator drone’s outline has been painted on the ground outside the museum’s entrance, a “shadow” that suggests an aircraft overhead when there is none. 

It is appropriately difficult to see actual military drones in the exhibition, and the viewer is asked instead to see as drones do. Aerial views dominate, approximating the perspective of military drone operators. With the exception of Paglen’s Drone Vision (2010), a loop of a hacked video transmitted from a drone in flight, works rely on accessible analogs, both historical (Gulf War missile footage in Harun Farocki’s Eye/Machine III, 2003) and commercial (several works use Google satellite views or images recorded using recreational drones). Experienced serially, these overhead perspectives disorient, inviting viewers to consider drone visuality’s capacity for distortion and dehumanization. 

Viewers are generally not, however, invited to see what military drones see: the foreign front. While important aspects of drone warfare—its attendant sites, its visual paradigm, a sense of looming threat—are (by degrees) made visible, the wars in which drones are actually deployed are merely implied. Just one work, a video slide show of Bridle’s social media project Dronestagram (2012-ongoing), depicts foreign drone sites—and at considerable remove, offering Google satellite images of strike sites taken prior to attack. Every other document of drone warfare depicts launch, testing and control sites in the West.

Such absences define the show. It only gestures toward the increased use of drones by police forces. It does not address the ways in which recreational and commercial drone use shapes public understanding of this technology—or its sometimes radical (mis)use by activists, journalists and graffiti artists. This narrow focus, however, lends “To See Without Being Seen” its considerable grace. Designed with poetic restraint, the exhibition coheres into a single contemplative architecture. Installed fluidly along a path of open hallways and enclosed video rooms, individual pieces receive generous space but never fall out of the larger composition. The trade-off of breadth for poetry is affecting.

There is another interesting trade in play. While the show makes extensive use of documentary photorealism, it does not serve to demystify so much as to plumb the deep sense of unknowing that pervades this moment of unconventional warfare and surveillance societies. Drones are emblems of this moment, but they represent only one part of it, and when the exhibition’s final section opens up to a broader context, a sense of play and possibility emerges. Works by Adam Harvey, Shinseungback Kimyonghun and Hito Steyerl explore surveillance technologies (and their limits) while also introducing vibrant colors, bizarre costumes and quirky humor. It is a pleasurable, expansive last note, but the contrast underscores the exhibition’s more reverential approach to the sublime object of the drone.