Kathrin Maurer’s The Sensorium of the Drone and Communities

Picture by ArtHouse Studio.
Kathrin Maurer. The Sensorium of the Drone and Communities. MIT Press, 2023.

The critical study of drones is primarily known for critiquing the drone’s militarization and its aerial, surveilling gaze. Kathrin Maurer’s The Sensorium of the Drone and Communities begins elsewhere: “drones can be blobs.” A “blob”—which can refer simultaneously to a rounded mass, bait for fish, or the unstructured collection of data—encapsulates drones as shifting and fluid forms. Maurer is thinking with Agi Haines’s 2015 art project Drones with Desires, which envisions a drone that is elastic, “fleshy,” and “alive,” bound to “artificial neural networks” derived from Haines’ own brain scans (1). Through aesthetic encounters between human and machine, Maurer argues that deviant drone practices, particularly those conducted by artists and civilians, can in turn enact modes of collective resistance. While acknowledging the drone’s militarized roots—or its inception as “the brainchild of capitalism and the military” (65)—Maurer advocates for a shift in drone studies, embracing embodied, nonviolent, and sensorial drones that can exert transformative possibilities. Through a Deleuzian attention to what she calls a drone assemblage, Maurer charts aesthetic and consumer drones across four distinct modes of knowing: the sensorium, the body, the earth, and the nonhuman.

Part One, an extension of the introduction, consists of a single opening chapter on the sensorium of the drone. This section begins with a brief history of drone studies as one synonymous with visuality: a “vertical and synoptic view of the surveilled area” that embodies the military’s scopic regime (19). To illustrate nonscopic drone sensing, Maurer plays with an oft-used and historically grounded comparison between drones and their fellow air-bound entities, birds. Her attention to the role of pigeons as photographers in the early 20th century forges a unique lineage between aesthetic drones and non-human photography; both have unpredictable potentials and depend upon weather and wind conditions. In this state of precarity, the drone’s sensorium provokes and evokes senses beyond visuality, towards haptic and kinesthetic encounters. Bringing together Jacques Rancière’s aesthetic theory with theories of community from Ferdinand Tönnies and Jean-Luc Nancy, Maurer shifts this visual regime to imagine new and dynamic forms of “being-in-common and dwelling together” (31-2). Community for Maurer then is an assembled “configuration of networks, data technology, and entangled subjectivities” that depend upon both human and nonhuman agencies (189). As Maurer writes: “This book goes in search of new forms of communities associated with drone technology” (34).

Split into two chapters, Part Two examines the body of drone by considering embodied sensing and facial recognition. Chapter Two’s media-historical framework opens the door to subjects ranging from Lady Gaga’s drone dress to the Human Uber, contemplating the body as an organism capable of traversing both machinic and human domains. Facial recognition is another mode reflective of this boundless and expansive assemblage, and Maurer illuminates the potential for technologically capturing the details of bodies—hair, eye color, shape, and size—as restorative and imaginative data. Chapter three uses the 2012 visual installation Cloud Face by artistic duo Shinoseungback Kimyonghun as an example. Imagining faces in the clouds, Cloud Face grapples with apophenia, or the sensation of seeing things that are not there, as a phenomenon observed in both drones and humans. These ghostly projections elucidate the essential role of imagination in the dissenting and restorative drone assemblage.

Part Three of The Sensorium of the Drone and Communities contemplates how drones can “critically reflect on environmental damage and our exploitation of the earth” (123). This section establishes a broadened dialectic, contemplating planetary renewal, recycling, and growth within the context of drone studies. She argues that drones “can not only display an alternative [to the visual] mode of sensing but can also be reappropriated as a medium of political protest” (119). Chapters Four and Five move from historical comparisons between drones and hot air balloons to fraught futures and “postcarbon” worlds. These chapters highlight the drone’s capacity to sense volumetrically: “to sense spaces up from the ground into the sky, below the ground into the earth, and in-between layers, niches, and volumes, and voids on the surface” (142). Agricultural and pesticide drones become sites for ecological harm and renewal as Maurer imagines moving the drone assemblage towards modes of “giving back, sharing, recycling, and restoring” (142).

Maurer concludes her exploration of drone assemblages and communities through nonhuman sensing: swarm, animal, and viral encounters that further adapt and expand the parameters of the drone. Like previous sections, Part Four weaves together analysis of consumer and aesthetic drones alongside discourses of communal dissent. Chapter Six defines swarm sensing as a hive mind reflected in the drone: an “intelligent whole” that has a “dynamic of emergence and self-control without a center” (150). Within this decentralized ontological state, Maurer returns to Deleuze, imagining a “multidirectional, versatile, and motile” rhizome of “aesthetic imaginaries of drone swarms” (152). This swarm adopts what she calls a zoosensoriality, or an embodied animal sensing that emphasizes drone assemblages as fluid models of human control. Chapter Six uses viral sensing to discuss the pandemic drone, one that connected and witnessed in times of human isolation, mobilizing technological tools for collectivity and healing.

Embodying, measuring volume, virally sensing, swarm sensing: Maurer’s aesthetic drones’ form communities that challenge the formal heritage of drones as military objects. Nonetheless, she returns again and again to ethically probing the drone’s militarized origins. Her ambivalence is captured in her conclusion:

Is the only lesson these drones can teach us is that they facilitate a surveillance state where the military dictates our way of life, and that all humanitarian drone initiatives have an unacceptable imperialist and colonialist agenda? On a pessimistic day, I might say yes: even when they appear to be humanitarian, drones are always complicit with the military and the surveillance industry. But on other days, I am not willing to stop there (176).

In being unwilling to “stop there,” Maurer’s question moves with us, tumbling forward into more unpredictable and unprecedented weather and wars. As spaces of indeterminacy, uncertainty, and precarity, the aesthetic drone becomes, like other art forms, a “prism through which we can observe our communities” anew (13). In this refraction of light, Maurer establishes the aesthetic and consumer drone as a wieldable tool of dissent and renewal. The political relevance of the drone assemblage is constantly renewed—most recently, the use of military drones in the war against Gaza and of humanitarian drones searching and bearing witness from above. How might the consumer and aesthetic drone become a sensorial aid in a moment such as this? How can the consumer drone act as a constituent of dissent, subversion, and even renewal in the midst of such loss? Can Maurer’s drone form sway us towards new modes of collective resistance? Now, more than ever, we need to reclaim drones out of the orbit of the military’s monopoly on its uses and representations. Maurer’s book provides one point of departure, but it will take the collective enterprise of shifting drone studies as a whole to see if we are able to reach escape velocity.

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