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ISSN: 1754-0763 (Print) 1754-0771 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rpho20

DRONE VISION AND PROTEST

Sarah Tuck

To cite this article: Sarah Tuck (2018) DRONE VISION AND PROTEST, photographies, 11:2-3,
169-175, DOI: 10.1080/17540763.2018.1445020

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/17540763.2018.1445020

Published online: 19 Jul 2018.

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Sarah Tuck

DRONE VISION AND PROTEST

The paper considers how the motility and vertical spatiality of drone technologies offer an
alternative infrastructure for protest providing distributed modes of seeing in real time
across devices and platforms. In considering how the use of social media platforms can
effectively repurpose drone technology away from militarised use, the paper explores the
potential of drone vision to produce new forms of relational experience as part of a
networked citizen activism that challenges the militarisation of civil society. Drawing on
examples from the NoDAPL protest in North Dakota led by the Native American Sioux
tribe, the paper argues that drone technologies, in braiding the politics of verticality with
the politics of visibility, initiates a radical rethinking of the spatial politics of protest and
counter-protest and seeing in real time.

This paper considers and frames drone vision in terms of the asymmetry of seeing and
not being seen, whereby the politics of visibility is interconnected to the politics of
verticality, disrupting conceptualisations of proximity and distance and of seeing in real
time. This paper is therefore an attempt to look down from above and approach the
drone from below, to think across the vertical and horizontal axes in order to consider
how the drone institutes a new mode of seeing and being seen. On a technical level, it
is also important to establish that throughout this paper I am referring to small
unarmed rotary aircraft.
While there is extensive literature on the adoption of drones by the state for
surveillance and its implications for civil liberties, the reversal of this, the use of
drones by civilians as part of protest, remains relatively unaddressed and in conse-
quence there is a tendency to disaggregate the space of politics as separate terrestrial
and aerial plains rather than approach the conjuncture of above and below as a public
space. As such, the proposal of the conjuncture of above and below as a “public space”
does not suppose an uncritically liberatory rhetoric of publicness, which leaves
untroubled the binary logics and differential visibilities of public and private. Rather,
this paper is an effort to consider how the uses of the view from above as part of
protest prompts a revision of ideas of political assembly as that which takes place in the
street to the new assemblages of action and perception that drone imaging technology
has brought into play.
What follows is an attempt to attend to this analytic absence in order to consider
how community use of unarmed drones as a technology of visual communication and
media production influences the dynamics of protest on the ground and unsettles the
criteria that delimit the public from the private. This is not to deliberately overlook

photographies, 2018
Vol. 11, Nos. 2–3, 169–175, https://doi.org/10.1080/17540763.2018.1445020
© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
170 PHOTOGRAPHIES

the ways in which a view from above is used as a practice of warfare and state
surveillance but is instead to consider how drone technology as a “new camera
consciousness”1 influences protest on the ground and in the process destabilises
public/private distinctions.
As optical control over the event of protest is increasingly secured by ruling
regimes as part of the tactics, strategies and logistics of policing, the specific measure of
the No Fly Zone identifies drone imaging technology as an infrastructure that extends
the space and time of protest. In this regard, the No Fly Zone has a double function,
representative and substantive: representative in as much as it stands cross-sectionally
for a whole ensemble of network relations and substantive in as much as it makes a
proprietorial claim to vertical space.
Of course, it is necessary to distinguish between the different uses of No Fly
Zones, between their use as part of policing protest and their use to minimise risk, for
example with regard to restrictions at civil airports. Moreover, to insist on this
distinction rather than suppose the purpose and function of restriction is stable and
unequivocal is to critically draw attention to how the meaning of a No Fly Zone is
articulated without its purpose having necessarily been explicitly signalled. As such,
this paper takes up this task in order to bring into focus the view from above, to
consider its use as a visual method of coordinating and influencing what takes place on
the ground and to comprehend how in the political context of protest and mass
assembly, restrictions on drone vision minimises visibility and communication.
In recent civil and political protests activists have had to negotiate attempts to
censor the view from above. Following the Grand Jury decision to not indict Officer
Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Mike Brown in 2014, the police
introduced a No Fly Zone over Ferguson, Missouri of 37 square miles that was kept in
place for 12 days,2 which restricted media reporting; in London, civilian drone flights
are permanently prohibited in London’s financial district, the Square Mile and in all
eight royal parks as “measures of security”;3 in Istanbul, in Taksim Gezi Park during
the protests against Erdogan in 2013 the police shot down unarmed civilian drones, an
action which was live streamed via the social media platform Twitter4 and a No Fly
Zone was introduced in Standing Rock, North Dakota, in response to the Native
American-led protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016.5
The Native American Sioux tribe utilised drones to report on the scale of
devastation under the planned construction of a 1172-mile oil pipeline. It also provided
a method for reporting on the militarised police presence on the ground and the use of
water cannon, tear gas, concussion grenades and rubber bullets against the protestors.
For the Native American drone pilots the motility of an aerial view enabled them to
see and share the extent of the construction of the pipeline on their lands and for the
protestors the drones provided a sense of assurance that the actions of the police were
under surveillance. Used as a form of aerial mapping of the pipeline construction,
environmental damage, the desecration of sites and as a counter-surveillance tool, the
Native American drone pilots at Standing Rock incorporated the principles of the
struggle on the ground in their refusal to legitimise the state’s exclusive claim to the
view from above. By repurposing drone technology as an infrastructure of protest, the
drone pilots not only challenged the scopic regime of the state’s direct and delegated
control on the ground, but did so by claiming a networked view from above as a form
DRONE VISION AND PROTEST 171

of relational connection. In this recombination of the biological and algorithmic, the


private and the public, and the vertical and the horizontal, the networked view from
above Standing Rock was enfolded within the dynamics of protest, whereby the land
and sky were conjoined, signifying resistance from above and below.
The No DAPL (No Dakota Access Pipe Line) protest demonstrated how com-
munity drone use can amplify awareness through the distributive networks of live
transmission feeds via social media platforms, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter and can
in consequence exert a level of control and access over what is seen. At Standing Rock,
the use of drones is described in the indicative name of drone pilot Myron Dewey’s
company, Digital Smoke Signals.6 Just as smoke signals are sent upwards to commu-
nicate across distances, the drones sent upward at Standing Rock communicated across
networks, mobilising international condemnation of the assault against the land and
lives of Native Americans and mobilising support for the protestors on the ground.
Shared across social media platforms, the footage provided a critical and interrogative
injunction to see across time and place, from the present threat to indigenous life to
the histories of settler colonialism, “to show them the power and strength of
indigenous international unity.”7
The No Fly Zone at Standing Rock implemented by the Federal Aviation
Authority in response to the Emergency Services division of Homeland Security8
attempted to mandate not only what could be seen but also to exert control over
perspective, in order to minimise from view the scale of the assault on land and
people, and to restrict a networked communication of this scale. In this regard, the
drone pilots’ refusal to accept the No Fly Zone at Standing Rock was a part of the
political action, and the view from above was also a part of what was being fought
over, as a sightline and as a public space of demonstration and communication. The
footage of the police shooting down the drones above Standing Rock, a pre-eminently
political act, makes visually intelligible the state’s exclusive claim to the vertical as a
domain from which to police the ground below. Premised in part on denying from
view the scale of protest at Standing Rock,9 the police also sought to prevent
recognition of Native American rights to the land. As such it represented a profound
epistemic and cosmological violence on indigenous life, in which land divided into the
components of water, sky and earth is made property and claimed by the state.
By making apparent the forcible dramaturgy of the state in collaboration with
corporate interests, the drone pilots’ challenge to the No Fly Zone revealed how the
vertical is linked to understandings of scale in social, ecological and economic terms.
Through activating the view from above as a counter-colonial strategy and networked
perspective to support progressive resistance on the ground, the drone footage
revealed the geopolitics of what lies above. It points to a way of radically rethinking
both community drone use and restrictions on the use of drones, to understand the
ways in which a networked aerial view enables a situational representation and can
function as a means of social organisation on the ground, which produces in its stead
other forms of connectivity and political imaginaries.
In consequence, it is important to question the function of restrictions on com-
munity drone use, to firstly distinguish between state surveillance and the community
use of drones as part of a political imaginary of resistance, and secondly to ask what
might be at stake in the denial of a networked view from above. As the aerial images of
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the Women’s March on 21 January 201710 in opposition to Trump’s inauguration


attest, the view from above can be employed as a critical perspective that intimately
links city to city as embodied and lived places. The civilian and media drone footage
from each of the cities of the Women’s March was central to a politics of visibility that
countered Trump-oriented media and expressed linkages of (political) affinity as
relational experience.
Attention to these distinctions, the differential ways in which the drone view can be
deployed, might not only improve analytical clarity but also provide a way of thinking of
“privacy” as a formulation dependent on the delimiting of public and private rather than a
categorical imperative; since community drone use disrupts the logics of public/private
and its attendant juridical and ideological effects, not least the assumption of differential
visibility. In this realignment of the customary boundaries of private and public as a
changed basis for making political connection, the peremptory “privacy” arguments to
restrict community drone use, while permitting the state’s continued use of drone
technology for surveillance, in effect mask from view the interrelationship of environ-
mental degradation and economic dispossession. It is therefore important to register the
profound implication of the antinomy of public and private in contemporary struggles
over land use and vertical geographies of space, insofar as restrictions on drone use
constitute an extension of control on the ground, while it aims at the vertical — the
view from above — its effects are to be understood and felt on the horizontal.
When understood as a “new camera consciousness”,11 the view from above
connotes various ways of thinking beyond borders that has as yet no viable political,
social and economic framework, even as it glances at the world as other to the
prerequisites of the nation state. The rub, of course, is how a view from above as a
political imaginary that extends beyond the borders of sovereign space can become a
progressive resource that facilitates such a framework. Thinking through the affective
meanings of community drone use is therefore, on the one hand, to attend to the
radical potential of a networked view from above and, on the other, to register how
community defiance of No Fly Zones challenges regulatory “state of exception”
discourses and an understanding of drone technology as a manifestation of this
discourse.
As such, this paper is offered as an interrogative pause in how the drone is theorised —
in order to think through how and if community use of unarmed drones presages a world
according to a different sense of participation, contingency and connection — one that
complicates Hito Steyerl’s description of the view from above as a “proxy perspective that
projects delusions of stability, safety, and extreme mastery”12 and one that disrupts Stephen
Graham’s account of an “insidious militarisation of everyday life”13 in which cities’
communal and private spaces are rendered into targets and threats.
While there are reasons to be cautious in positioning community drone use as an
idealised moment of Hannah Arendt’s “space of appearance”14 — not least because
arguably its emphasis on an analogue reading of the social runs the risk of masking how
algorithmic governmentality makes censorship digitally obtuse — there are equally
reasons to be wary of any analysis that is fully guarded against incorporating the drone
view into the very social form of resistance on the street.
To stay with the provocation of civilian drone use in zones of protest is therefore
to ask how the drone view as a form of spatial imaging registers in the broader sphere
DRONE VISION AND PROTEST 173

of networked visibility and visuality, that marks a shift from the asymmetry of seeing
without being seen, to seeing and being a part of what is seen across differentiated time
and space. A provocation which casts community drone use as a form of political action
that challenges the state’s control over which images travel, and which do not, and
comprehends the drone in its double as viewing machine and mediation, and as a
composite of two geometries of territory: the horizontal and the vertical, the sovereign
and the stack.
In summary, it is to ask if community unarmed drone use can produce a futurity of
affective politics that is open to emergent forms of belonging and connection that
challenges the territorialising geography and corresponding subjectivities produced by
the state’s drone surveillance and policing of borders.
To circulate this question is, in part, an endeavour to overcome the inhibiting
effect of understanding drone vision as an all-pervasive system of state surveillance and
warfare. An understanding that reproduces the state’s securitisation of urban and
mediational space, even as a key effect of drone technology distorts geographies of
sovereign space through the logics of seeing at a distance in real time without being
seen.
In the repurposing of the drone as a technology of counter-politics and counter-
geographies that I have sought to outline, the view from above is mobilised to build a
collective horizon rather than homogenised horizontality. At Standing Rock the drone view
is both witness to and the materiality of the protest, a performative claim to political and
symbolic representation and recognition of indigenous rights.
This resignification of the aerial view as a counter-colonial perspective is therefore
reason to be mindful that active criticism of drone warfare and state surveillance is not
remade into a pre-emptive closure on the potential of a networked view from above, which
by default insists on the drone view, informational and perceptual, as an effective support in
the emergent pattern of pervasive state violence and control. Instead if the co-option of
drone technology as part of protest is understood as an unanticipated opening, following
Paul Virilio’s proposition that any invention of new technology is simultaneously the
invention of a new kind of accident,15 it is necessary to think drone technology across its
varied uses in order to comprehend the drone as a site of real inscription of new relations:
biological and algorithmic; vertical and horizontal; photographic and political encoded in
the effects of seeing without being seen in real time.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Notes
1 McCosker, “Drone Media,” 9.
2 See Timm, “The Truth Behind Ferguson’s.”
3 For a full account of regulations and restrictions on drone flights see UK Civil
Aviation Authority, “Unmanned Aircraft and Drones.”
4 Jenk, “Turkish Police Shooting.”
174 PHOTOGRAPHIES

5 For documentation on Federal Aviation Authority No Fly Zone at Standing Rock,


see: https://theintercept.com/document/2017/09/29/faa-standing-rock-no-fly-
zone-foia-documents (accessed November 10, 2017).
6 See Digital Smoke Signals, “Indigenous Networking.”
7 See Wanshel, “New Zealand’s Native People.”
8 For FOIA details of the No Fly Zone see “FAA Standing Rock No-Fly Zone.”
9 Ibid. For footage of shooting down the drone see 'Police Shoot Drone at Standing
Rock' Drone Gear, Youtube, 2016.
10 Reilly and TIME 'Women's March Crowd Fills Six Cities in These Aerial Photos.
See: http://fortune.com/2017/01/21/womens-march-aerial-photos/ (accessed
November 10, 2017).
11 McCosker, “Drone Media,” 2.
12 Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, 26.
13 Graham, Cities Under Seige, xiv.
14 Arendt, The Human Condition, 1998.
15 Virilio and Lotringer, The Accident of Art.

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DRONE VISION AND PROTEST 175

Sarah Tuck, PhD is a curator and researcher based at Valand Academy, Gothenburg
University where she is the Research Director of Drone Vision: Warfare, Surveillance and
Protest. A collaborative initiative with the Hasselblad Foundation and a partnership with the
cities Nicosia and Lahore the research explores the affective meanings and impacts of drone
technologies on understandings and practices of war, surveillance and protest.