It's nighttime in the Yemeni desert. Against the darkness is the silhouette of a village; nothing is moving save a few wisps of chimney smoke. With a mechanical whirr, an eye scans the scene from a distance. The village is reduced to grainy gray-scale by its optical sensors. After comparing the landscape to a satellite image stored in its memory, the Predator drone locks in on a low, unassuming structure. It fires a Hellfire missile, which is itself tipped with a roving robotic eye. The drone records the explosion as a muted puff of dust and turns home.
Scenes like this are fodder for Harun Faroki and Trevor Paglen, the two artists whose work is featured in Visibility Machines, an exhibition at UMBC's Center for Art Design and Visual Culture. Photographer Paglen draws his images from military visuals most civilians will never see. In these photos, weapons technology contrasts with the natural splendor that surrounds it-glowing missile silos set against blank horizons, dead satellites orbiting the moon. Filmmaker Faroki is known for his experimental documentaries. The three films featured here conjoin arresting images with just the right amount of explication, lending context to the whole exhibit. Faroki and Paglen's pieces work together to criticize the merger of technology, warfare, and capitalism.
Both artists ask what happens when technology sets its sights on mimicking human perception. Many of the images in Visibility Machines were captured by automated systems, never truly intended for human eyes. Rather, the robots themselves are programmed to utilize the visual input to make decisions and adjustments on their own. This increasingly allows for the robots to operate independently, with only the occasional checkup by human technicians. This type of automation will ostensibly make for a more efficient world, relegating difficult tasks to robots instead of people. But what happens when you apply this cognitive faculty to weaponized machines? The technology is still not perfect, and when a mistake can cost innocent lives, perfection is paramount.
But it is not as simple as that: We must also question what happens to those who operate and condone such technology. By alienating ourselves from the carnage our weapons create, are we creating a world where atrocities can be committed at the push of a button, and then immediately forgotten? It's as simple as switching off the screen.
This dehumanization of military targets is already in effect. The grainy landscapes that make up Visibility Machines are viewed from extreme distance, where they appear desolate, distant, and utterly devoid of people. The military claims that automated weaponry will help keep American soldiers safer. Paglen and Faroki argue that it actually creates malignant barriers between us and war.
It's tempting to see this as a problem within military culture. But the lack of culpability is passed onto the public as well. During the first Iraq War, footage released from missiles' on-board cameras were conspicuously unpopulated. The clips were quick and neat, depicting the rapid approach of a barely recognizable bridge or roadway, culminating in a burst of static. We could fool ourselves into thinking that the bombing was only done on lifeless structures of little-to-no importance, free of collateral damage-or at least that is the narrative intentionally propagated to the media. Allegedly, on-board missile footage showing people does exist but has never been released.
War at a Distance, Faroki's 58-minute documentary, looped for the duration of the exhibition, is the centerpiece of Visibility Machines. It operates as a sort of explanatory lens through which to the view the other pieces. The film makes the connection between the increased automation of society in general and that of warfare, utilizing historical as well as contemporary footage to explore the history and current state of the technological pursuit of free robotic perception.
The beginning of Faroki's doc shows video from World War II of the first camera-guided missile tests. A separate camera had to be set up to film the transmission screen, as digital recording technology did not yet exist. Despite the rudimentary technique, the missile soars gracefully over a battleship, guided remotely. This scene serves as a microcosm of one of Visibility Machines' main points: that our military technology is more advanced than we imagine.
"War at a Distance" moves on to images of civilian automobile factories, where similar technology is at work. Here, robots manipulate tools, move cars along the assembly line, and use their camera "eyes" to perform quality tests. A couple of guys in jumpsuits periodically intervene in the production. The narrator points out that the humans are here only because there is not room for another robot. Watching the robots work with furious efficiency, it is easy to imagine a time when human beings will no longer be even minimally involved in the manufacturing process. After all, machines never need breaks, ask for raises, or go on strike.
Do yourself a favor and set aside the time to watch the film in its entirety; it's the best way to understand what the artists are getting at. It is also a pleasure to watch in the CADVC's black-box theater. The theater's killer sound system makes you feel as if you are in the same room as all these whirring machines, and the narrator's voice envelops you like something out of the radical collective subconscious, mesmerizing the viewer.
It's an old cliche that it is dangerous to mix politics and art, but Visibility Machines does not feel overtly political. Rather, it seems that the artists are trying to inform us about the images which come back to us across deserts and oceans where we fight our wars. It's an invigorating experience, and one whose only flaw is that it is too much for the small gallery-we wanted to see more.
Visibility Machines is on view at UMBC's Center for Art Design and Visual Culture through Feb. 22, 2014.