The art of drone

Misappropriation has often been a principle of creation for digital artists. The current trend for drones provides both a new technological medium, as well as a reflection on a militant position re-engineered against the current geopolitical backdrop

The drone, this ‘non-identified violent object’ as described by philosopher Grégoire Chamayou in his book La Théorie Du Drone (The Theory of the Drone) now plays a part in our everyday lives. A topical subject referring to new concepts of ‘clean warfare,’ of ‘waging war remotely,’ in reference to targeted bombings operating in Pakistan, Syria and Iraq. But it is also an object used on a daily basis, for shooting films, managing agricultural enterprises or for personal entertainment, thereby creating a growing number of outlets for the companies that make them (Parrot, Skycatch, DJI being the principle ones).

Players on the digital scene obviously cannot turn their backs on this hi-tech context. The recent LeWeb 2014 in Paris, gathering some 4,000 protagonists in the digital economy, featured drones as one of its main themes by inviting big companies - Skycatch and its self-charging autonomous drones, Parrot and its universally accessible toy drone– to its series of conferences and meetings to promote the opportunities of this visibly lucrative business to the full.

The Drone Bebop, one of the leasure drone of the french brand Parrot 

These new flying objects and the prospects for partnerships around development and projects in collaboration with innovative specialised companies, noted with interest by digital artists and designers who are often entrepreneurs themselves, are an essential component of digital creation, as well as its industrial status. 

Flying Robot Rockstars, the musical ballet of flying drones by Kmel Robotics, sponsored by Lockheed Martin and Intel.

Designers and developers specialising in the production of experimental robotic devices–with their famous Flying Robot Rockstars, small flying musical machines -, the Kmel Robotics duo (Alex Kushleyev and Daniel Mellinger) recently approached the electric aviation company Yuneec International to produce small flying devices for photography, Flying Eyes, which has an entertaining profile and can be fully integrated into perfomative robotic ballet performances by Kmel Robotics such as their Quadrotor Show.

A troupe of 16 quadrotors (flying robots) dance to and manipulate sound and light at the Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors' Showcase 2012.

On more of a par with an art lab, other drone design experts consider design methods closer to the prototype. This is the principle of FlyLab, created in 2013 by Akim Amrani Montanelli around a community of specialists working open source and accommodating other integrated structures, like Yves Béranger’s Wemakedrones, in its workshops located in the second arrondissement in Paris. The principle here is to create professional and creative drones, particularly in terms of research on taking photos, commissioned by companies and individuals, and far from the gadget type of drone produced in industrial quantities– some prototypes are then able to fly at 80km/h and have a parachute! The fun aspect is also a consideration as shown by certain models, mapping drones for example and particularly drone crates capable of carrying 1.5kg.

Hakim Amrani Montanelli, FlyLab  © Camille Polloni/Rue89

The conceptual denunciation of drones

However, beyond these playful features the warmongering and confrontational nature implied by drones behind their fierce trajectories do not escape many digital artists.

Some of them have taken action, over the last few years against the purpose of drones often conceptually and symbolically. The American Joseph Delappe is one such pioneer. Accustomed since the start of hostilities in Iraq in 2003, to waging a denunciation of the war through misappropriation of official United States Army online video games (Dead-In-Iraq) and provocative digital image designs (The Walmart Terrorist,, where standard Middle Eastern terrorists encounter average American consumers), Joseph Delappe hijacked drones to multiply his denunciation with mainly conceptual and plastic versions.

1000 Drones Project ( en cours)  |  Me and My predactor (2014)

 In his project In Drone We Trust, he manufactures limited edition images of drones to stamp on dollars as a sign of protest. In Me and My Predator, he has designed a sort of self-monitoring object, comprising a plastic drone held by a carbon fibre stem that he keeps suspended above his head, ‘created for insecurity and comfort.’ His online memorial 1,000 Drones Project  aims to list the names of all civilian victims of drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan on a devoted site. Indeed his intention is to return to this geographical area for a new upcoming serious video game project called Drone Strike.

I see these armed drones like a perfect confluence of our boundless love, or even our veneration for hi-tech, and our uncontrollable fascination for video games,’ explains Jospeh Delappe. ‘These instruments are also the ideal weapon system for a country like the United States. Here, we have been at war for 13 years. But the vast majority of the public only view the "war on terror" that we are conducting through a long-distance perceptual field. There is a form of disconnection from the remotely viewed ground. For this drones are the most realistic relay.’

The drones survival guide is available in 27 different languages and lists the most common drones and some crucial information to avoid them.

To facilitate this all forms of drones need to be identified. Ruben Pater is working towards this in his Drone Survival Guide, listing all types of drones like someone would list different species of predators encountered on a hike in the wilderness. This census work is also the basis of artist James Bridle’s work including Drone Shadows. These full-size chalk reproductions of drone silhouettes in the middle of the street illustrate the threatening dimension within a public space.

Drone Shadows, James Bridles

James Bridle also draws on data provided by the BIJ (Bureau of Investigative Journalism), identifying all drone attacks in the Middle East, for his project Dronestagram  that uses the photo sharing site Instagram as a sounding board to share the exact places where drone strikes have taken place via Google Earth images.

dronestagram allows  to share Google Earth views of the places where the drones strike, James Bridle

A stark contrast between the generally convivial social network and a concealed warmonger rationale, that also acknowledges this media detachment from the violent nature of the drones whose destructive power is ultimately not fully visualised. As James Bridle said, quoted by the journalist Marie Lechner in the article in the article on 28th February 2013, ‘Drones are invisible as are their actions. While the web provides an incredible viewing infrastructure– with Google Earth satellite images and all these photos released daily on the network enabling us to scan any corner of the earth’s surface - the reality is that there are enormous blind spots.’

KEYHOLE IMPROVED CRYSTAL from Glacier Point (Optical Reconnaissance Satellite; USA 224)
from the serie The Other Night Sky

The American artist Trevor Paglen has produced photographic work denouncing this culture of blind spots, of secrets, but also of these new landscapes for monitoring facilitated by drones. Following his series The Other Night Sky, tracking the trajectories of American spy satellites, or Limit Telephotography, where he was already using astrophotography techniques, combining cameras and powerful telescopes, to spy and capture in elusive shots, blurry vestiges of abstract shapes, the traces of stealth aircraft and other drones from secret American army bases in the Nevada desert, drones are Trevor Paglen’s prize kill in Untitled (Drones), again only revealing them there in the shape of blurred, almost imperceptible shadows with the atmospheric vastness as backdrop.

The performative denunciation of the drone

For other artists, this denunciation of the drone is not just conceptual but is based on an actual physical performance.

BDDWS, Bringing Down Drones With Stones, by the Columbian artist Alejo Duque and the French Cyrille Henry and Lisa Cocrelle, proved to be a veritable anti-drone actionist performance presented at the 2013 Désert Numérique festival, a key event for the most imaginative hackers and digital fanatics in France. Indeed – in a premonitory context virtually evoking the battles pitched between the CRS (state security police force) and illegal occupants of the ZADs (future development zone) over the following months – it called upon the audience, comprising mainly festival goers and villagers, to physically stone a small remote-controlled plane intended to represent the flight of a drone above their heads. A minimalist, radical, but also symbolic action, carried out with anything to hand (stones, but also water bottles, clothes, etc.), viewed remotely by means of a surveillance camera situated in the nose of the plane to highlight the cold distance of this intrusive arsenal, and that Alejo Duque incidentally relayed like an ‘attempt to recuperate social control over this technology that since 2004, has killed between 2,000 and 3,000 people in Pakistan alone.’

BDDWS, Bringing Down Drones With Stones

In addition to this social recuperation, other artists also aim to physically recover the drone itself with a sort of momentum to liberate awareness–that of the public and of observers obviously - but also of the machine itself, the performance somehow making its freedom of action complete, and therefore also its full potential hazard. This was the principle of the first public presentation of the work in progress project Drone 2000 conducted by the French artist Nicolas Maigret during the 2014 Gamerz festival at the École Supérieure d’Art in Aix-en-Provence.

Drone 2000, Residence of Nicolas Maigret at the Gamerz Festival. photo : Luce Moreau, Gamerz 2014

 As stated by the artist, whose radical performance actions were already well-known particularly within the Art of Failure duo, ‘all the effects of trends and commercial advantage currently driven by drones today, in the domain of cinema, marketing and entertainment, tend to make us forget the proven dangerousness, in terms of control and monitoring, in terms of the questionable military and strategic origin of these objects, currently amongst the most impressive in terms of artificial intelligence.’

The performance clearly highlighted the dangerousness. The two selected drones– two Parrot AR Drone 2.0 of which Nicolas Maigret emphasised ‘the advantage of being widely used models and therefore easily hackable,’ which has no problem in forming a community of hackers –indeed parked in a hesitant and confused manner (numerous falls and accidents against the walls of the performance hall) above the heads of an audience that tried in return to challenge them with a sort of half-festive, half-provocative dialogue. 

Drone 2000, Residence of Nicolas Maigret at the Gamerz Festival. photo : Luce Moreau, Gamerz 2014

The way had been paved for a threatening behavioural experience, clearly contradicting rules regarding the use of drones in public places that are always very strict from a legal point of view. ‘For the performance, two UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – another name for drones) were guided by a simple algorithm for Roomba robots –vacuum cleaner robots!’ explains Nicolas Maigret.

Clearly the intelligence was insufficient for them and, as a result, they kept crashing into the walls and coming too close to the audience. The flashing lights that they frequently aimed at the audience in a very military fashion and the audio signals that they produced increased the sense of threat and discomfort. It certainly could have ended badly, but this was not the case. The danger was clearly apparent to the audience observing the clumsy movements of the drones, sheltering by the walls that were paradoxically the most dangerous points as if they hit the walls they had more chance of falling. Then the fear gradually led to more playful interaction. The focus of the project lies moreover at the intersection of these different feelings. Its title, Drone 2000, seeks to forecast this future that is already there, that combines our fascination for technology, for its science-fictional and innovative slant, but also our fears concerning the ideology that it can herald. The tension is tangible between the fun and attractive object, and the new paradigm assumed relating to the notions of clean and clinical war, and in the likely future that it heralds, one of surveillance and more control.

Drones let loose?

Worrying, but nothing to panic about all the same. The use and misappropriation of drones by artists questioning the object’s naturally warring and repressive principles loom not only as a warning to dystopian society. These practices also uncover multiple, more poetic approaches, as witnessed by the ever-prolific works of Adelin Schweitzer (who, for the record, helped Nicolas Maigret during his first Drone 2000 in Aix). ‘To date, I have been working on four different projects in connection with drones,’ explains the artist from Marseille.

 ‘With the collective Les Drônards (where Adelin joined forces with Aurélien Durant and Laurent Petit), we are working on a "local contextual cinematic performance" according to a protocol of residency in a given territory. For this we use two types of drones: one ground drone, the Jules 1.3, and the other an air drone, the Willi 1.6, alias Mothership01.

Filmic results of the first collective research Les Drônards' residence in the festival Le Pli in Pont-de-Barret ( France)  in July 2014.

In this context, we develop games of chance encounters in public between Jules 1.3 and the local population. This enables us to give an impromptu film narration generally leading to a screening at the end of the residency. We are preparing our next intervention for Les Orléanoïdes festival, in Orléans, between 1st and 15th February, and we are also committed to a more ambitious project in Vitrolles with the shooting of a science fiction film at Printemps, with a larger budget.

Les Dronards - teaser 

With Adelin Schweitzer, the drones appear to act like an inventive stimulant. ‘I am also working on a performance project called Le Lâcher De Drones (The Release of Drones), which involves increasing the number of Jules 1.3 devices and offering viral interventions in public,’ he continues. ‘The idea would be that the "pilots," actors trained in improvisation, wander around the town with their drones to converse with the population about subjects as varied as human sexuality, robotics and the philosophy of Spinoza! In March I will begin a creative residency with the Tony Lifton Circus for a performance combining an aerial drone and a clown show. The idea here is to use the theatre stage like a voluminous space where the drone, in addition to its character role, becomes part of the spectator’s viewpoint, allowing it to pick up vertically - via its integrated camera–elements that would otherwise remain invisible to them. Otherwise, I am continuing my Holy VJ  skateboard work building on my latest questions around drones. It involves the multimedia performance project HolyVj #Disgression n°1, co-produced by the Deletere, Zinc and AADN laboratories, where a skateboard abandoned by its owner becomes intelligent and autonomous recalling its past, in a world without humans.’

Chez Adelin Schweitzer, les drones semblent agir comme un stimulant imaginatif. « Je travaille également sur un projet de performance dénommé Le Lâcher De Drones, où il s'agit de multiplier les dispositifs Jules 1.3 et de proposer des interventions virales dans l'espace public », continue-t-il ainsi. « L’idée serait que les "pilotes", des acteurs formés à l'improvisation, déambulent  dans la ville avec leur drones pour converser avec la population sur des sujets aussi variés que la sexualité humaine, la robotique ou la philosophie spinoziste !  Sinon, je poursuis mon travail Holy VJ sur le skate-board dans le prolongement de mes questionnements plus récents autour du drone. Il s’agit du  projet de performance multimédia HolyVj #Disgression n°1, coproduit par les laboratoires Deletere, le Zinc et l'AADN, et où un skateboard abandonné par son propriétaire devient intelligent et autonome en se souvenant de son passé, dans un monde sans humain ».

In other words, the homing drone has not finished looking, and digital players, artists and designers of all kinds, with it.

Laurent Catala



Grégoire Chamayou / Théorie du drone / Editions La Fabrique

Conférence spécial Drones à LeWeb'14 Paris

Trevor Paglen: Limit Telephotography 

DRONE.2000 [prototype] from N1C0L45 M41GR3T 

Intervention#2 Jules from deletere