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Machine visions: James Bridle on drones, bots and the New Aesthetic

Taina Bucher

Featured image: Drone Shadows by James Bridle

I met the London-based artist, publisher and programmer James Bridle in Oslo back in May 2013, as part of the conference The Digital City. Bridle was in Oslo to speak about drones, algorithmic images, and urban software. His most recent art projects, Dronestagram and Drone Shadows, have caught a great deal of interest by the popular press, with recent features published in the Wall Street Journal, Dazed & Confused and Vanity Fair. Bridle is no stranger to getting the timing right. Addressing issues of drone surveillance and invisible technologies in ‘leaky’ Snowden times, or manage to get a bunch of academics, writers and critics, to talk about the birth of a new movement – based entirely on a Tumblr-blog he called the New Aesthetic – surely qualifies as good timing. In our conversation, Bridle, or the New Aesthetic’s commander-in-chief as Vanity Fair calls him, reveals that he never really meant to talk about aesthetics. It is not the printed pixels on a pillow, so often taken to be emblematic of the New Aesthetics by its critics, that is of interest to Bridle. Rather, Bridle wants to encourage a conversation about the kinds of images and sensibilities that emerge from algorithmic and machinic processes, and the embedded politics of systems that make certain images appear (and disappear).

Dronestagram by James Bridle
Dronestagram by James Bridle

Taina Bucher: Hi James, would you care to tell us a little bit about your background?

James Bridle: I studied computer science and artificial intelligence at UCL, University of London. By the time I finished, I hated computers so much that I went on to work in traditional book publishing.

It quite quickly became clear through working as an editor and publisher that publishing was heading for crisis, because it is an industry that is full of people who are afraid of technology. So I went on to specialize in e-publishing, looking at what happens to books as they become digital, which gradually grew into an examination of other cultural objects, and what happens to them as they get digital and the nature of technology itself.

T: Do you think that your background in computer science influences the ways in which you think about art and artistic practices?

J: I consider myself as having a background in both, and I actually think that having the literacy in both is incredibly valuable.

T: Interesting, what does this literacy in art mean to you?

J: Being able to speak the language of it and to be able to communicate it. Not just having an understanding of it, but also to be able to talk to people in publishing and the arts about the Internet without scaring them, and also to be able to talk to people in technology. They are still two separate cultures but it is possible to translate between them.

T: Do you consider software or code to be the material of your artistic practices?

J: Sometimes. I do think though that this should be the last concern. There are different ways of describing the world; materials are just a way of expressing it.

T: How then does software influence the kinds of expressions that you create?

J: Not only the material, but also the ideas coming from software are important here. There are plenty of ideas coming from technology that become really valuable as they are applied in the arts, for instance from the tradition of systemic analysis. You know, breaking things down to basic principles, algorithmic type steps, is a really valuable tool of analysis. It is also a dangerous one, as it can give you a systemic engineering view on problems.

T: You’ve said that you’ve been accused of romanticising the robot, or rather, that the New Aesthetic has been accused of this. What do you think the critics mean by that?

J: Well I do understand it in a way, because one way of talking about these things is really to anthropomorphize automated systems. When you do that, you bring a whole bunch of other questions into it, like whether these systems have a separate agency or not, whether they truly see and understand the world in ways that we do not entirely understand, or whether they are purely tools of human imagination. In order to understand these things, I think sometimes it is necessary to take a position, you know, talk about it as if it is true, and then you learn more by finding out where that description breaks down and where it doesn’t apply.

T: What is the New Aesthetic anyways? An aesthetic of the digital, or a digital aesthetic?

J: I never really meant to talk about aesthetics. The New Aesthetic is not about aesthetics. One of the earliest keys to it was looking at some of these images that result from systems, looking at things like computer vision and how the world is seen through machines, but really this is a shorthand of how the world is mediated through technologies in all kinds of ways, not just aesthetically. The aesthetic is a starting point where you can visually notice these things, but I am really interested in what it reveals about underlying things. I am not interested in notions of beauty or the aesthetics of it.

T: We could also understand aesthetics in terms of ways in which something is made to appear in certain ways. To talk about software aesthetics in these terms, would imply the view from technology, as opposed to the view on technology.

J: Not only the ways in which these technologies influence the ways we see things though, but the ways in which we think about them and understand them is important. By using some technology you’re bound by some of its biases and if you don’t understand what some of these biases are, then you’re slightly fooled by them. There is always an underlying politics to these things, and if you’re not aware of it, then you’re a victim of it.

T: Is it the artists’ job to reveal these biases in a certain sense?

J: Don’t know about job, but yes, that’s why I am doing it. The interesting thing to me is to explore deeper levels of these things. Getting a bit closer to the meaning and the underlying biases.

T: How do you work with, or get at the biases of technology?

J: By exploring and getting a technical understanding of it, but also by looking at how technologies actually operate in the world.

T: Do you think that a certain sense of code literacy is needed then?

J: I struggle a bit with that. I think that I do, the way that I work. Having a technical understanding of how things work is really, really important. But I am always struggling to figure out if it’s possible to do that without having the possibility to read the code. It is hard to study a foreign culture without knowing its language. Put differently, great artists mix their own paint. They have a fundamental understanding of the material. I think that if you’re making work with and about technology, and if you don’t understand how that technology works, you’re going to miss out on a huge chunk of what the technology is capable of doing. There is a lot of digital art that is very, very basic, because the people who are making it don’t actually understand how it works.

T: Could we see your work as a kind of software studies?

J: Yes, probably could see it like that. Some parts of software studies definitely informs my work, concepts like code/spaces. My practice is situated between art and technology and the stuff that always interests me, is when domains like software studies meets other domains, for instance where software studies meets architecture. I’m really interested in architecture because it is such a situated practice. It is not like art or high-flown critical theory, which is kind of above the world; it really has to be rooted in the world. The crossovers are what are interesting. People like Eyal Weizman or Keller Easterling, who talk about how architecture shapes not just the physical domain, but also the legal and political spaces.

T: One of your projects that I really like is “A ship adrift”. Besides being a bot, how can we understand this “ship”? How does it work and which data sources does it use?

J: It is part of a larger art project in London called “A room for London”, which was a one-room hotel built on top of another building on the south bank of London in the shape of a ship. It was both a one-room hotel that you could book and stay for the night, and it was used for art things, music projects and other events. I was asked to do something that connected it to the Internet, to some kind of an online component. I didn’t want to do something that was totally separate, but something that was rooted in this idea of the ship, and its actual location. One of the major things is that it is a ship that doesn’t go anywhere. It fails at the first condition of being a ship.

A room for London
A Room for London by David Kohn Architects

I put a weather station up on the building to monitored wind speed, direction, and a bunch of other stuff, and took all the data from that, to drive an imaginary ship. For example, starting in January, and from the physical location of the ship: If the wind blows 5 miles an hour, my imaginary ship would move five miles east or wherever the wind was blowing. So this thing was driving friction-free. As it’s going, it knows its own location and searching the Internet for stuff nearby. It is looking for information on the web that also has a geographical tag to it. Good sources for that are Wikipedia as there are lots of articles that have a physical location tied to it, so you can look those up and read those in. My favourite source was Grindr, a sex network for Gay men that was geo-tagged. Unfortunately they did upgrade the security there three months into my project, so I no longer had access to that data. I was also feeding it other texts as well. There was for instance a sub-thread running through the whole project around Joseph Conrad who I’m a huge fan of. So I gathered all these texts and running really, really basic language generation text programs on it, the same kinds of programs that generate spam emails. So it is not intelligent in any meaningful way. It is really about how we read broken texts. I just quite love that, because it is really part of the vernacular of the web. It’s what language sounds like when it is broken through machines. It is also quite empathetic, and it makes us examine our own feelings towards technology.

A ship adrift, screenshot

A Ship Adrift by James Bridle

T: Let me just quote you: “Forget controlling the machine; impersonate it. Fake it till you make it, like horse_ebooks, like A Ship Adrift” (Impersonating the Machine). How far would you take your own aphorism? Did your bot actually make it?

J: You can pick your criteria of success. My criterion of success is to produce an emotional response in me and in other people as well. And in this case, other people were really following along, particularly on Twitter. It had it’s own voice, although it was still generated by a semi-autonomous software system. It is not a bot really, it is not intelligent, it does not have agency, but it is generating a feeling about machines, which I think is important.

T: How did people respond to the ship?

J: Someone called it a ‘Robot Polari’. Polari is a European argot, which is almost gone now. Polari was a secret language that originated in circuses, travellers and theatre companies in the 19th century and became the secret language of gay men. It was a kind of coded language they used to communicate. Argots like that served multiple purposes. On the one hand concealing communication from the outside world that may be hostile to it, but also within the group, in terms of creating a bond between its members. So for me, the ship adrift felt kind of like an argot to the machines; machines kind of identifying themselves to each other, semi-protecting themselves.

T: There is a tendency to treat bots as ‘fakes’, as somehow inauthentic beings, which is really being framed as an increasing problem online. Why are we so obsessed with this notion of the inauthentic of that which is not entirely human?

J: That is a really good question. This problem of authenticity and technology extends much further. The whole New Aesthetic project springs in some extent from trying to understand what people consider being authentic digital experiences. I think we have this quite big problem, which is that we are so unsure with how technology operates that we have a deep distrust of it.

I think Instagram is a really good example of that. The entire mechanism of Instagram is predicated on applying the filters of analogue cameras to digital photographs, which for me is a process of authenticating. We are aware on some level that these photos are apparently less stable and less persistent than the photographs you keep in a shoebox, some server going down could delete them any moment. There is a precarity to them. We’re all the time trying to authenticate stuff, and all of this is tied to our fear and confusion around digital things.

T: It seems that questions of the invisible, or making what is seemingly kept from view visible, is a core element of your artistic practice. What is it about the invisibly visible and visibly invisible that intrigues you so much?

J: Take the drone programme. It is a political programme. It’s a natural extension of our international relations and we’ve developed a set of technologies to address these relations. The drone is perhaps the most emblematic and also a largely invisible one. It’s really been going on for the past decade, but it has only very recently become a very political issue. This is due to the fact that drones are largely physically invisible. They are secret technologies that no one ever really sees. In all kinds of ways: You don’t see them in newspapers, until very recently, and you don’t see them in movies. The invisibility is conferred by them being seen as technological objects. Because they are technologies, they are not criticized in a way that a policy, or a person, or human actions can be. Even though they are all about policies and human politics. Because humans in general, are not technologically literate, they just back off from that. For most people, it is just the way it is.

Drone Shadows, image of a car park with the drawing of a drone on the ground
Drone Shadows by James Bridle

T: Would you say that it is the technology itself that is actually invisible, or the institutions and the kind of political work going on in the background of these drones?

J: Both of those things. This is where it gets interesting, because a lot of this technology materializes that political will. Stuff that would have been entirely secret previously, now exists as objects in the world. There is this incredible paradox, technologies both reify and materialize power and human desires, but are made invisible in a way that makes them beyond comprehension.

T: How have people reacted to your drone work?

J: Well, people have had discussions about drones they would not have had otherwise. But I hope that my work also raises questions about technology and the media on a deeper level, not just in terms of the drone programme.

T: Now that even our police forces are starting to talk about smart policing and using drones for surveillance purposes, what do you think would be an appropriate response?

J: I am not sure how the situation looks like in Norway. But London is the most heavily surveilled city on earth. Yet, we don’t talk about it much. For the most part everyone seems to be ok with that. It is a matter of technology, and thus easy for most people to ignore. If drones raise greater fears about surveillance, then maybe that will push back on all forms of surveillance. I’m not particularly more worried about drone surveillance than I am with cameras on a building. They are all functions of the same thing, but if it actually makes people think more about surveillance and control mechanisms then that is a fairly interesting way for it to go.

T: Maybe we’ll just end up in an overly visible state, where the amount of visibility goes counter to what it is supposed to do. If everyone is highly visible all the time, then the questions becomes one of analytics. How are we to make sense of this visibility?

J: The best I can hope for is a kind of democratization. We should all have access to them and be able to see through them as well.

T: What is up for you next?

J: I think I will have to take a lot of the momentum of this drones work and try and push it back up a layer to the political and legal space. I’ve never been interested in just the drones. I’ve always been interested in the wider implications of the technologies that they embody. So the drones are just the start, but there is a much larger conversation we should be having. So the question is how we can expand this conversation to those other areas and not just make it about weird sexy planes.

T: How does your work connect with social media? Do you use social media as a useful platform, or a point of critique itself? Does social media in any way change the possibilities of your artistic practice?

J: Yes, totally. I represent myself, and I have my own audience. It amplifies the things that I do, but I don’t theorize too much about it. That would be a whole rabbit hole to go down to. And I’m very well aware that I’m living inside, so it would be difficult to have such a critical eye on, because I’m so involved in it. I think that I will at some point though. One of the key tenets of my practice is not to perform manifestos, I don’t want to draw or come to any conclusions because I think we are at such an early stage with these social networks and social media, and the Internet in general that we don’t even have the critical frameworks to talk about it seriously, let alone come to any serious conclusions about it, yet.