James Bridle, Hidden in Plane Sight
James Bridle is a writer, artist and technologist from London currently living in Athens. Planes appear many times in James's work, either as the artistic objects that carry particular stories, around satellite imagery or drone warfare, or as a transportation system to track for his investigations. In this interview James discusses the various ways planes are used in and for his investigations and artwork.
Could you talk about the ways that planes appear in your work?
Planes seemed to have featured in various ways in a number of my works because they're one of these interesting infrastructures that increasingly we can see and track in various ways. The ‘Rainbow Plane’ project, which is another ongoing investigation, started with simply spending a lot of time on Google Maps and noticing these strange apparitions which appear to be planes kind of cut up into rainbows, in various colours. I was collecting them for a while as an example of where technology had unintentionally produced something that was beautiful to the human eye. No one went out and said, ‘Make me beautiful rainbow planes’. Somehow in the way that we constructed technology, these images were produced that were to me incredibly beautiful.
Satellite imagery of a 'Rainbow Plane'. See more about the project here.
But after a while, I realised that actually through some of my other work and working directly with satellite imagery, I suddenly realised I understood how these images were produced, and I understood that it was done through the architecture of the sensors on satellites. And what I was looking at was this kind of very specific artefact of the technology, and it was an example of one of these - an example of a glitch, right? But it's not a mistake, really. A mistake is the wrong way to characterise it. It's the result of a moment in which you see through into the underlying framework of the way things work. And you can take examples of that in all kinds of networks. It's the same with the plane-spotting, with the Seamless Transitions project.
If you spend long enough kind of looking at these networks, you can understand something about how other things work as well, right? They don't merely refer to themselves. They refer to other power networks or relationships between countries or companies as well, all these kind of things. That's just the thing for me about looking at networks and relationships. It's a sensibility that's produced by spending time on the internet. It's a sensibility that's being produced by trying to understand complex systems. But it's also an incredibly transferable literacy, because everything is complex systems now. Again, everything has always been complex systems, but those complex systems are more visible to us now. So you can take almost any of them and you can take the lessons from it and start to use it as a model for other things as well.
Can you introduce the installation you made of the 'Rainbow Plane' in Kiev?
This is the installation of the ‘Rainbow Plane’ in Kiev. We drew a full-sized private jet. It's a Gulf Stream Five, which is one of the most popular flights, both for the kind of oligarch class locally and business people worldwide, and also of the CIA for their rendition torture flights. So, there are these vast networks of power that converge on this particular air frame.
The new version of the Rainbow Plane, that James installed in Kiev, Ukraine. This is a 1:1 outline of an aircraft, as seen by a satellite.
And it is planes like this that I often track with tools like Flightradar24, which allows you to see all of the planes in flight, and to some extent look back at the history or to track them in various ways. It is a fascinating way of learning who has the power to fly around these places. It was these tools I used to track the deportation flights from that particular project, because you can kind of learn a huge amount by digging into this kind of stuff. You can find particular private planes. You can see one here that's just coming from Zürich into Farnborough. You can quickly have a look at the registration on that plane, discover all kinds of information about it, discover the fact that it's a private airline based out of Saudi Arabia, so if that was the thing that you were interested in, then it's the kind of starting point to huge amounts of further investigation.
Can you explain your ‘Right to Flight’ project?
The ‘Right to Flight’ was a four-month long installation in London last summer, at the top of a multi-storey car park. It's an amazing commanding space in South London. I did a few things around it. The title, ‘The Right to Flight’, comes from Nadar, the Parisian photographer and balloonist from the 19th century. He's a figure I've been fascinated with for some time. He wrote this book, The Right to Flight, which connects the dawn of the age of flight of balloons, and then of planes, to human emancipation. He said that, "We will also take to the skies and this will be the end to nation states and to armies," and all of those kind of things -I've always really loved that notion.
But it's also a difficult one, because of course the first thing we do when we get up into the skies is place guns, and then bombs and then cameras on planes, and it becomes another player in this spatial power relationship. It almost instantly becomes militarised, as in fact Nadar did when he formed the first French balloon corps in the siege of Paris, five years after saying how flight would emancipate us and make us all free.
For this installation, I got myself a very large balloon, around 10 feet across. It's actually a balloon that is used in a variety of different interesting places. It's used in disaster relief, for using radio signals. It's used in scientific surveying. It's also the same make and model as those sold to the British army and to the US army for deployment in war zones. These same balloons are flown loaded with cameras over valleys in Afghanistan. So it self-embodied a bunch of these different kind of possibilities for this aerial position. I wanted to use it in part to explore that aerial position. I wanted to know what's possible in terms of who's allowed to put this ‘eye in the sky’ essentially. So I did all the paperwork and talked to the aviation authority about how high you're allowed to fly balloons, and that kind of stuff. I got it up to, not quite as high as I wanted to, but to a certain height. And that, in part, was about the local situation. Who is allowed to build skyscrapers in London, for example?
But when I had the balloon up there, the first thing I did was to put a camera on it. I wanted to make my own aerial footage, because I think it's kind of beautiful. But I also wanted to understand what it felt like to look from that position, and also whether it's possible to neutralise it, or make it acceptable. Because by default, it is kind of a position of surveillance, so how do you come to that? This came out of conversations around the proliferation of CCTV in London, for example. There's so much of it, is there any way to make it acceptable? Because it's not going away any time soon. Does opening it up, for example, make it better? So imagine if we could all look through all the cameras, would that somehow make it a more acceptable system in some way, or a fairer system? So with the footage that I was making, I was streaming it all and releasing it all and making it available for free.
And you know what, it didn't. It didn't make it better in any way. There was nothing I could do, because ultimately you were always going to be surveilling someone without their explicit consent and all this kind of stuff. And I just became deeply, deeply uncomfortable and I took the camera off of the balloon very quickly, because it felt to me completely unacceptable to keep filming from that position, even though I'd gone through all the steps and I had taken all of the precautions.
Ultimately, that ‘eye in the sky’ thing felt to me like such an unequal relationship, and unequal relationships always end in some kind of form of violence or violation of some kind. So I took the camera off and I explored other ways that it could be used. In particular, I put a shared WiFi network on it to a Cloud service, so that anyone could connect to the balloon, place files, and use it as a file sharing system. So it became a thing instead of looking down on people. It became a point through which they could share, which felt a lot more helpful and useful to me. But also, as an artist and just as someone who's interested, it feels necessary to go through those various steps, to try it out, to place a thing there and explore it, in order to know what that feels like, and genuinely understand the empirical process, what are the various steps you go through to get to that position and then how you kind of get yourself out of it as well.
I was making these abstract videos as well, which took the surveillance imagery and turned them into this kind of kaleidoscopic thing, which was kind of beautiful and interesting but lacked any kind of usability as surveillance data. One of my personal fascinations is the mascot for the London Olympic Games, this weird one-eyed Cyclopic creature and I put him up on the balloon as well and sent him soaring up above South London on one of the last flights of the balloon. I did film him, I tried not to film so much on the ground. It's this piss-take on this powerful position to put this weird icon of London and of surveillance up on the balloon.
For a period after that I just stopped making images entirely. And I've subsequently become very, very careful about the images that I make and the sources that I use. It's interesting because surveillance in its various forms is an incredibly vital subject today because of the amount it's being done. Its total pervasiveness and political implications means it's necessary that we talk about it. It's very hard to make representations about it without essentially doing more surveillance, which is a really interesting binary, particularly within art-making. I've tried to be incredibly careful to avoid that as much as possible, so with the V&A project, it became about using this object data rather than individual data to talk about it. With the ‘Citizen Ex’ project, which is a project entirely about personal data, the form that it took was also entirely contingent upon not violating anyone's privacy in any way. So, instead of making a website or something that people subscribe to in some way, it's a downloadable piece of software that they run themselves. It's increasingly necessary to put these very specific concerns into the project.
And that starts to spread out in interesting ways as well. That becomes a project in itself. That becomes a project of education as well, both to the users by telling them, ‘I've made these decisions in the project that I've made, based on how I feel about these things’, and that becomes a way of explaining as well. It’s also a way of explaining to the organisations that you work with. ‘I can't give you the data you might expect from a digital project, on this project because I'm not gathering it. Because I have an ethical opposition to tracking every visit to my website and doing those kind of things’, and those conversations become part of the work as well.