The Aesthetics of Drone Warfare: A Conversation with Tomas van Houtryve and Mahwish Chishty / by Beryl Pong and Sophie Maxwell

Mahwish Chishty, Reaper, gouache and gold flakes on paper, 30” x 20”, 2015

This conversation took place on 4 November 2019 at the Curzon Cinema in Sheffield, UK. The event was organised by Beryl Pong and Sophie Maxwell, and hosted in collaboration with the Festival of Social Science. It is part of the Aesthetics of Drone Warfare project, funded by a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award, which brings together artists, academics, non-profit organizations, and the general public for understanding the cultures of drone warfare. This evening, in particular, was an occasion for two artists—Tomas van Houtryve and Mahwish Chishty—to share their motivations and research behind their drone-related artwork.

Our thanks to the speakers, and to Sonia Kennebeck, whose documentary National Bird (2016) was screened prior to this panel discussion. The film, which is referred to by the speakers throughout, interviews three whistleblowers on the US drone program, and it documents the filmmaker’s journey from the United States to Afghanistan to meet the victims of collateral damage.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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Beryl Pong: I read somewhere that drone operators are cubicle warriors. It’s an office job, but not really an office job. And [Kennebeck’s film] really tries to create empathy for those whose lives are affected by drone warfare. I’m focusing on the word empathy because this is a key word that gets brought up in debates around drone warfare. The American writer Teju Cole, for instance, has said that there’s an empathy gap in drone warfare, that we somehow fail to feel for the other side, because of the distance, or the illusion, or the mediatisation involved.

Tomas, empathy is a word that you use in your artist statement. You write that ‘underpinning [your] work is a belief that human activity becomes increasingly absurd and dangerous when it loses empathy. [You] agree with Albert Camus when he said that “by definition a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.”’ What do you mean by empathy and conscience, here? Someone like Obama, whom we saw speaking in the film just now, justifies drone warfare by saying that it is more conscionable, that it’s a surgical strike, that you observe someone’s signature behaviour and that you minimise collateral damage.

Tomas van Houtryve: I think it creates illusions of empathy, and it does create some arguments that some of the people who participate in the [drone] program, who spoke in the documentary, try to debunk. [The operators] said it wasn’t that accurate, that you couldn’t tell until after the strikes were completed who you’d hit or not. Using words like surgical strike, I think, is ascribing more accuracy to this weapon system than it has.

I also think [the idea] that we can only do carpet bombing or supposedly surgical drones strikes is also a false dilemma to get ourselves into – not that much carpet bombing happens in the world anymore. We can put that aside and still question, do we want drone warfare to go on, is this the way that we deal with threats and react to communities and other parts of the world? Do we want a permanent presence watching them, deciding on a moment’s notice from the sky whether they can live or die or not?

I also think about it from the point of view of a photographer. At some point, you want wars to end, usually! How does that happen? It can be defeat, but it can also be that, at some point, empathy kicks in. In the United States there were some very powerful pictures during the Vietnam War. I’m thinking of the one of Kim Phuc, the girl that was hit with napalm and is running naked away from a napalm attack. That had an incredibly powerful impact in the United States – when it was published, it generated empathy. Now, the way that drone warfare is carried out, it is often shrouded in secrecy and it happens at moments when there cannot be very many independent witnesses, and so that kind of picture that you saw in the Vietnam War does not appear in the drone war.

Luckily, Sonia Kennebeck has been able to interview some people after the fact but that’s very different from witnessing it in a way that you can see people’s faces and see how they are reacting to the horrors of war. I think that [it’s] important to close the gap between what politicians say and what’s actually happening on the ground. Politicians are very good at making promises and saying, ‘this is wonderful,’ but what’s happening on the ground—we don’t see much of that in the drone war.

BP: Could you show everyone some of your artwork?

TvH: Sure. What I did try to address [is] this sort of gap between what is happening in the drone war and our lack of a visual record of it, in the way that we might look at conflict photography from previous conflicts. I researched drone strikes using sources like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch. They (after the fact) try to compile lists of who has been struck, what’s happened, [to] triangulate the information, and then they make that publicly available.

I read through a lot of these drone strike reports and this is the kind of information you can get: in December 2013, a US drone reportedly struck a wedding in Rad`a in central Yemen, killing twelve people and injuring thirteen. I thought, how can I bring that home in a visceral way, the same way that Vietnam War photographers brought that home to the public that was sending troops off to Vietnam. What I decided to do was buy a drone and fly over situations in the United States that mirrored those that appeared in the strike reports. In this case, it was a strike upon a wedding. I took my drone to a wedding in the United States and flew over it and captured it from a drone’s eye point of view.

Tomas van Houtryve, “Wedding”, Blue Sky Days, gelatin silver print, 100 x 66 cm, 2013

In 2006, a drone strike on a religious school in the village of Chenagai reportedly killed up to 69 Pakistani children, so this is an image of a schoolyard in California. I think there are also some visual cues that get quite interesting here that bring out some of the other issues that appear in the drone war. There’s no crazy manipulation going on in these photos, it’s just a shift in perspective. We’re not used to seeing people from straight down. I think we’re very quickly disoriented, there’s almost a feeling of vertigo or disorientation. But this is merely a black and white photo taken straight down at a time of day when people’s shadows are about as long as them.

Tomas van Houtryve, “Schoolyard”, Blue Sky Days, gelatin silver print, 100x 66 cm, 2013

In 2009, a drone strike on a funeral in South Waziristan reportedly killed 69 Pakistani civilians. This strike has been investigated very thoroughly by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. To capture that scenario, I took this photograph of a grave being dug before a funeral in the United States. What was interesting in that investigation is that it’s not just that civilians are killed because of misidentification or because the video feed isn’t quite good enough to see the difference between children and adults, or merely because people are categorised as military aged males and lumped into the category of combatants. There also seems to be this sort of cat and mouse game going on. The US military was trying to get a very high-level Taliban commander; they couldn’t get this person targeted, and so they decided to kill one of his Lieutenants. A funeral was held for that Lieutenant and then they struck the funeral, killing the mourners. It was a specific choice that the funeral should be part of the battlefield and they did not actually get the Taliban commander during that funeral – it wasn’t until later.

Tomas van Houtryve, “Funeral”, Blue Sky Days, gelatin silver print, 100 x 66 cm, 2014

Another thing that comes up if you read the strike reports, especially the ones that are concerning human rights activists, is something called the double-tap strike. A missile will fire on, let’s say, a suspected militant, and then compared to a normal manned aircraft the drone will linger on longer and longer and see what happens. What they’ve noticed is that if people try to rescue the target, drag them out of the house or drag them out of the car, then the first responders are also fired on in a second strike. Under the laws of war, there should be a clear distinction between firing on a combatant and firing on first responders or medical personnel, or bystanders who are aiding a combatant. To evoke that situation, this is a car that caught on fire and these are firefighters who have sprayed foam on it and are responding to it, and this would be the kind of situation where the drone would strike again.

Tomas van Houtryve, “Double tap”, Blue Sky Days, gelatin silver print, 100 x 66 cm, 2014

Finally, I wanted to take an image to evoke the idea of the military-aged male. [For the US military,] anybody over sixteen years old [who is] male is presumed to be a combatant unless there’s a posthumous investigation proving otherwise. This is the reason that you have such a huge discrepancy between the counted numbers of civilian casualties by human rights organisations, and the numbers that are occasionally released by the US military, where they say ‘we’ve killed very few civilians and many, many combatants’ and then the human rights organisations—who obviously don’t consider everybody a military-aged male—try to look into it and figure out who was who. So you have this huge gap because of the way things are counted, and it starts to obscure just how much collateral damage you actually have in drone warfare compared to manned aircraft.

Tomas van Houtryve, “Military Age Males”, Blue Sky Days, gelatin silver print, 100 x 66 cm, 2014

BP: Why the use of black and white photography? And why is Blue Sky Days your title?

TvH: Black and white because I interviewed a former US military drone sensor operator and asked how the drones see the world. And the most common way that they see it is in infra-red, black and white basically, and we saw quite a bit of this grainy footage [in National Bird]. That’s the standard way that the drone sees… infra-red with white which is hot or white which is dark, they can flip back and forth to try to get different kinds of contrast. I was trying to look for something that echoed that surveillance aesthetic.

When I first started, there weren’t that many drone photography pictures but I think everybody sees them all the time now, you flick on your television screen and they’re filming some castle or car ad and everything’s shot by a drone. They tend to be colourful, sort of beautiful, and include the horizon. But what struck me about the drone surveillance imagery, and the way [some operators] describe it, is [that it’s like] seeing the world through a soda straw. You have very little context, you don’t see the horizon, and things like shadows can often play a sort of outsized, distorted role. I was trying to mimic that.

The title, Blue Sky Days, came from a very particular strike report. There was a thirteen-year-old boy in Waziristan, who was with his grandmother and younger sister, and a drone struck and killed the grandmother and he and his younger sister were maimed. They were eventually invited to testify before the US congress in Washington in 2013, and in his testimony this boy, Zubair Rehman, said ‘I do not like blue skies anymore, because the drones are flying when the sky is blue. I now prefer grey skies.’ The idea that a child could become fearful and hateful of the blue sky had an incredibly profound impact on me. I remember being a kid and loving running outside when the sky was blue. These drones, since at least 2002, have been flying over Afghanistan and Pakistan, so the entire childhood of somebody has had a sky possibly looking back at them.

BP: Mahwish, you’re looking at similar issues to Tomas, but with different media, and from a very different angle. In particular, there’s a cultural specificity to your drone artwork. It’s unique in that you’re very much concerned with Pakistan, which has seen numerous US drone strikes. In your artist statement, you say that you are interested in the juxtaposition of terror with the representation of cultural beauty. So here we have not empathy but juxtaposition, which I think insists on maintaining rather than reducing the gap. So, why juxtaposition, and what is the role of beauty in all of this?

Mahwish Chishty: I want to start by showing a still from a Hollywood movie called Good Kill. We were talking about how drone operators are so removed [from combat] and I was really struck by this scene in the movie which is right outside the bunker when the drone operators are entering. There’s a sign saying ‘You Are Now Leaving the US of A’ which meant psychologically entering another space, another dimension, another country, to go to war. But then, again, within 24 hours to make that shift between being somewhere else for a few hours and then going home and cooking dinner, living normal civilian life, [that] is very striking to me.

I’m trained as a miniature painter from Pakistan. The training was in a traditional style of painting that dates back to the 13th Century Persian, Mughal and Indian style. I reference that in my work and the way that I paint, because I’m struck by a lot of the techniques that are used. I started painting with a tea-stain, which is a technique commonly used in miniature painting. I think it gives the tone that you would see in aerial imagery of the drone. And [I use] arbitrary perspective, colours, symbolism, hierarchy – hierarchy in terms of depicting certain figures at a specific scale – [this] is important when it comes to miniature painting, because the more important a person is, the larger they are painted. When I started painting, took the important aspects of miniature painting that I wanted to use to talk about drones.

Mahwish Chishty, MQ-9 / Predator, gouache and tea stain on paper, 24” x 12”, 2011

I had been living in the US since 2005, and the first time I went back to Pakistan was in 2011, when I noticed a lot of differences in terms of the news media and all the coverage that they were getting about the US drone program that was conducted at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. I had a couple of discussions with my cousins and family members, and that is what triggered me to go back to the US and start doing my research. I’ve been looking at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to collect data and information. I also started at images of drones online.

I want to talk about somebody who wrote me when I was doing my research in 2011 – an artist [Mark Miller] who was doing renderings for Wikipedia. He was talking to me about how, when he was looking for an image of an RQ170, he couldn’t find any images. The only ones that he could find online were very grainy photos. He used a photogrammetry technique to smooth out the pixels of each of those photographs to create his own 3D renderings that he then published on Wikipedia, and [he] felt like it was his duty for taxpayers to know where their money was spent. His images were borrowed by all the news media channels when a [drone] incident happened.

[When I looked for] images and found them in repetition, I started questioning the authenticity of these photographs – who is the photographer? Where is the photographer? And then looking at the same photograph used in a newspaper to create a visual narrative was really appealing to me. I started by creating my own narrative through my paintings. I had studied that a Hellfire missile is dropped horizontally, and before hitting the ground it goes completely vertical. While there is no video footage showing [the] exact way it happens, I felt that this is something I can show in my work.

You talked about the juxtaposition [of terror] with cultural beauty – when I talk about cultural beauty I’m thinking of truck art, which is a way of decorating moving trucks that carry goods all over the country, but they are all highly decorated in patterns, a lot of symbolism and iconography, and also the socio-political messages that they convey are really intriguing to me. I’m really interested in understanding what is the reason behind these moving vehicles that are functioning vehicles but also operate as objects that communicate messages. They are so opposite to drones that are hard, metallic, cold, not visible but present at the same time in this region. I’m combining these two very opposite elements together to create my work.

BP: Tomas’s images are in black and white; yours are colourful, and it relates to truck art. What is the role of colour in your work? My other question was about scale, because you work on miniature painting and you have some miniature installations where drones become toys, able to be handled by someone. Some of them are toys to begin with. They are so small—you can see the whole thing in one blink of an eye—which is not what we normally think of when we think about drones. What are you hoping to achieve with this play in scale and with colour?

MC: Scale, colours, intricacy and patterns all are a way for me to lure the audience into the work, get closer to the work, get more intimate with it. I see the use of bright colour almost like it would be in nature, like [the fact that] brightly coloured animals are more deadly. It is hinting on that aspect of the sinister, the deadly side of what drones actually are.

Mahwish Chishty, Drone Shadows, enamel on plastic, dimensions vary, 2016-17.

BP: This is your installation Killbox. Could you explain what a Killbox is, because I think the idea of a Killbox is about being able to read behaviour and open up a space where you can kill someone, [which] is central to what we’ve been thinking about.

MC: For my paintings I was using stock images online to create the silhouettes of the drones, and then started painting on the patina, on the surface of the drone itself. It wasn’t until I had exhausted all online resources that I started to purchase these 3D models of drones that I would construct, then photograph, then use the silhouettes to start a painting. I started using the objects themselves as installations, but also the frame and the structure that these were embedded in when they came to me – I felt like [they] looked [like] and mimicked the aerial view of that landscape in many ways.

I created these clay slabs in which I had embedded the actual plastic frames as impressions, and below are the impressions of charcoal rubbings on Mylar… [to create] an aerial view. Killbox itself is a term that is used in terms of the kill radius, so a hellfire bomb is dropped and around that there is a specific radius where anybody who is in proximity would absolutely die, and then there is injury radius, and so on and so forth. I really wanted to allude to that. Also, most of my paintings are very different in terms of perspective, because the paintings are more confrontational, the drawings are right in front of you and you’re facing it. Whereas [here] there is a removal of the drone altogether, but it alludes to the presence of something being there that is looking over this kind of landscape.

Mahwish Chishty, Killbox, charcoal on paper, dimensions vary, 2017 (top); Mahwish Chishty, Killbox, red clay, dimensions vary, 2017

TvH: From my research some of the things that surprised me [are] about the inaccuracies that are built into drone warfare. It’s not just that the resolution is not good enough or something like that, but the very way that they do it is by deductive reasoning based on metadata.

So what does that mean? You have big data companies, you have things like the NSA [National Security Agency], GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters], that are vacuuming up as much information as they can. One of the things they’ll do is that they will create a phone tree of all the phones in Pakistan, for example. They’ll identify the phone numbers of a few known terrorist suspects, and then they’ll see who those suspects call, and from that they can put other people under suspicion. Then the drones themselves have things that will spoof a cellular mobile phone tower inside them, and so if there are calls going on nearby, that call will pass through the drone and then they can geolocate somebody. Then they can point the camera on it.

So, based on the activity that you do on a telephone, and what you look like from the air, this is then the judge, jury, and executioner of whether you should live or die. I’ve titled a few of my photos with some of the terms that they come up with – they have things like ‘signature behaviour,’ so one of the things of signature behaviour is if you’re a young man, and you’re doing physical training, well this is something that a soldier might do. This could be suspect behaviour, and therefore that adds to your possibility of being killed. You can imagine how something like this can go wrong for example – what if three terrorism suspects call the same pizza place to order pizza? Should they therefore be struck with a drone strike? The whole way it operates based on metadata and deductive reasoning can lead you into trouble no matter how accurate you think it is.

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Speaker Biographies

Mahwish Chishty is a multimedia artist who initially trained as a miniature painter in Pakistan. Her work combines traditional artistic practice with her interest in contemporary politics, particularly the relationship between the US and Pakistan. In 2017, Chishty was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in the same year she held a solo exhibition of her drone art at the Imperial War Museum, London. Her 2018 installation, Naming the Dead, was shortlisted for the ArtPrize. She is currently Professor of Art at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Tomas van Houtryve is a conceptual artist, photographer, and the author of Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism (Editions Intervalles, 2012) and Lines + Lineage (Radius Books, 2019). He has been the recipient of prestigious honours including the Roger Pic Award (2019), CENTER Producer’s Choice Award (2018), CatchLight / Pulitzer Fellowship (2017) and many others. Blue Sky Days (2013) was first published by Harper’s magazine as a 16-page spread, the largest photo essay in the magazine’s history.

Author Biographies

Beryl Pong is a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow in English at the University of Sheffield, and the Principal Investigator of the Aesthetics of Drone Warfare project. She is the author of British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime: For the Duration (Oxford University Press, 2020), the editor of a special cluster issue on “Wartime” for Modernism/modernity, and her essays have appeared in Journal of Modern Literature, Literature & History, and elsewhere. Her ongoing research interests centre on the conjunction between the creative arts and theories of war and time.

Sophie Maxwell is a PhD candidate in the School of English at the University of Sheffield, and the Project Coordinator for the Aesthetics of Drone Warfare. Her thesis explores the ways contemporary visual artists recontextualise the visual strategies of military drones, such as surveillance and targeting, to interrogate the effects these weapons have on visual culture. She is particularly interested in how subjectivity affects the creation of meaning in art. Her PhD is funded by the Wolfson Foundation.