11 September 2014 • by Beckie Darlington
'Under the shadow of the drone'Last week we kicked off the Grounded UK tour in Birmingham, and it was a brilliant start to this latest adventure. Nearly 400 people made it along to see the show at The REP over the three nights we were there, and I was overwhelmed by their enthusiastic response.
I've been thinking and talking about this tour since December last year, and after so many hours of planning it was genuinely thrilling to pack my bag last Friday morning and to get the early train to Birmingham. I had the standard items packed for a short trip away from home, plus a few more unusual extras - chalk, string, methylated spirits, stacks of super strong tape and a small book called the Drone Shadow Handbook, created by artist James Bridle.
James is a brilliant artist, whose work I’ve admired for some time, ever since I had the opportunity to work with him on Caper’s Happenstance project at Lighthouse in Brighton. The Drone Shadow project is one of my favourite of his works, an idea so simple and aesthetically elegant, and yet so powerful and politically challenging. James began the Drone Shadow project in January 2012 - it involves the drawing of a life-size outline of a drone in a public space, with the aim of provoking debate about these rarely seen weapons of war. For James the Drone Shadow is not just a picture of a drone, it is ‘a diagram of a political system’ – a model of the secretive, bureaucratic methods used to govern us.
James has created Drone Shadows around the world, and more recently opened up the project encouraging others to contribute to it, offering us the opportunity to engage with the ideas behind it and to continue to bring the reality of this contentious military technology into our daily lives. From the moment we started planning the Grounded tour, we knew we wanted to involve James’ work in what we were doing.
On Saturday morning Lucy Ellinson and I met on Birmingham's Centenary Square and spent several hours using the handbook to measure out a detailed grid, occasionally testing both our maths skills and our ability with string and chalk! The grid, when it was finally finished, would allow us to create the outline of an accurate and life-size ‘Reaper’ drone – a particular kind of military drone used by the US government. We decided on the Reaper because it is the exact model because by the Pilot in George Brant's play.
When we’d finally finished marking our grid we were able to measure the drone’s 20.1m wing span, and the first thing that struck me was the size of it. Despite having talked about the dimensions before it’s not until you see it that you appreciate the size of the plane. It feels suddenly real, and big, and threatening.
After hours of marking out with string and wool and chalk we were finally ready to draw the outline in tape, carefully measuring every angle and slowly pressing the tape on to the red bricks of Centenary Square. Once we were done I climbed up to the library's third floor terrace to get some aerial pictures. Seeing the drone marked out in this way, I felt suddenly confronted by it – it demanded I think about it, not as an idea, but as a real physical object. We spent the rest of the day watching people of all ages walk across and around it, stopping to talk to Lucy to find out what we were doing, commenting again and again that they didn’t realise how large they were, learning what they are used for, and having the opportunity to consider this new weapon of war for themselves.
If Grounded gives its audience an incredible insight into the disintegrating mind of a pilot, the Drone Shadow gave a very different perspective on these machines – an equally important one, and one we were really pleased we were able to offer as part of our visit to Birmingham.
Huge thanks from Lucy and me to the British Science Festival, the REP, and Birmingham Council for giving us the context to do this, and to James for allowing us the chance. We hope to create more Drone Shadows in other cities later on during the tour.