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Drones exhibit at Ann Arbor Art Center explores quintessential object of the 21st century

John Carlos Cantu | Ann Arbor News, 1-9-2014


Surveillance or security: If you aren’t intrigued about drones when you visit the Ann Arbor Art Center — you likely will be by the time you leave the exhibit.


The second of two back-to-back partnerships between Ann Arbor's venerable Center for the visual arts and the most accomplished art provocateurs in our vicinity, Ann Arbor's recently shuttered Gallery Project, "Drones" (like the recently concluded Art Center 91st "All-Media Annual") marks a significant transition in the philosophy of that institution's exhibition calendar.


Like the recent Gallery Project-curated "All-Media Annual", this exhibit finds Rocco DePietro and Gloria Pritschet (founders and directors of the Gallery Project) pulling together a coterie of artists from around the world whose social and political consciences are as pertinent as their artistic preoccupation.


And this is especially true of this topic given relatively recent developments in military application and security surveillance. For As I've made note on a number of instances since the Gallery Project's 2005 inception, DePietro and Pritschet's penchant has been to pose a nettlesome issue whose meaning is then interpreted by the artists they pull together as a response.


The result of this indefatigable duo's effort is easily the most penetrating (and certainly longest sustained) series of provocative visual art exhibits Ann Arbor's seen in the last three decades.


Yet if there is a difference between "Drones" and earlier DePietro and Pritschet efforts, it's that much of the Gallery Project's signature post-modern humor (admittedly, often the blackest of black humor) is somewhat lacking in this show.


Instead, this exhibit being a second installation; the first collaborative Gallery Project "Drones" exhibit was held at Detroit's Eastern Market Cornerstone Pointe last autumn is as much a cautionary tale as it is a display of passionate art.


"Drones are the quintessential object of the 21st century", says DePietro and Pritschet's gallery statement. "They are revolutionizing global warfare and domestic and foreign surveillance, galvanizing the creative impulse, challenging democratic principles, and personal values around the globe. They are changing the way we work, play, battle, and live in the 21st century".


By definition, a drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Its flight is controlled either by autonomous on-board computers or by remote control. The burgeoning variety of drone shapes, sizes, configurations and capabilities expresses the limitless imagination and advancing skills of designers and users.


Historically, UAV's were simple remotely piloted aircraft. Autonomous control was developed, redesigned, and enhanced with many more uses and ever-increasing sophistication. Currently, Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs), including insect and bird-size drones, can fly, perch, hover, and crawl as part of their surveillance capabilities.


Sizes range from quarter-sized hummingbird surveillance drones to 68 feet predator drones. Drone swarms and armies, which might seem straight out of the "Terminator" movies, are being designed and developed.


As would be in keeping with such a statement, each of the artworks in the Art Center Gallery touches on this theme. And what's most remarkable, if not also on occasionally downright chilling, is the way these artists illustrate as well as illuminate the burgeoning multiple possibilities of these UAV applications.


Local artists among the 41 international talents corralled for the exhibition are Ann Arbor's Heather Accurso, Carolyn Reed Barritt, Lea Bult, curator DePietro, and Nathan Rice. It's also worth noting that mainstays among Gallery Project stalwarts on display in the Detroit "Drones" were Ann Arbor's Atilla Huth and curator Pritschet, Wyandotte's Frank Pahl, and Ypsilanti's Alex Mandrilla.


What these artists share in common is an abiding concern with drone technology. Some contributions are old school works of art. Yet other contributions are intent on sharing televised commentary or extracts of news events that are incorporated in multi-media artworks. As such, and at the least, the now traditional Gallery Project approach of thoroughly investigating the concept at play has now been successfully carried over to the Ann Arbor Art Center.


"In this exhibit," say DePietro and Pritschet, "artists explore drones from various perspectives, both real and imagined, including their current and future designs, capabilities, applications, and possible societal impacts and consequences. They also examine the context and environment of drone development including the developers, users and in some cases, victims of these technologies."


It's this multifaceted approach that gives the exhibit its significant impact. For example, Maumee, OH painter Dan Hernandez's mixed-media "untitled (Retablo)" mingles a flank formation drawn from 20th century video games and places it in the context of traditional Latin American devotional painting. This is effectively a case of thoroughly mixed imagery as Hernandez's painting could be a case of faux religious iconography being transgressed through the use of contemporary video figures or it might be a playfully, pointed post-modern irony.


Among the photographic "Drones", London, UK-based photographer James Bridle's "Light of God II" is a haunting mixed-media artwork that reflects the imagery to be found classical 18th century travel-oriented twilight landscape painting (replete with fallen architectural ruins and rider on horseback) bisected with a single shaft of pure light. The photo's green palette is particularly intriguing as the single shaft of light is also reminiscent of the sort of hard-edge dividing line found in modernist Barnett Newman's abstract expressionist painting. Bridle therefore ties together three distinct periods of art history with a single incongruous composition that is simultaneously disruptive, yet commonplace.


On the other hand, Muskegon sculptor Toper Crowder crafts a paradoxical cautionary tale with his "Drone 1", "Drone 2", "Drone 3" sculptures hanging off the Art Center Gallery walls. These oversized works look like three airliner tailfins sticking out of the gallery wall. And recent historic events are simply still too fresh in our mind not to make a neutral association; so it may well be Crowder's intent to not so subtly remind us that there may be instances when security surveillance is not only reasonable, but also practical.


Los Angeles multi-media artist James Knight is clearly of a specific persuasion on the topic. His interactive "Dronocles" installation and 2013 half-hour "Walk the Walk" documentary of protesters marching against a proposed predator drone command center in Des Moines is meant to mobilize public opinion. The two-video unit "Dronocles" is in particularly effective in that the left monitor captures gallery browsers from behind in real time as they look at the installation while the right unit features what appears to be footage of surgical military strikes.


But leave it DePietro and Pritschet to also find art that's as confounding in its beauty as it is confounding in its appearance. Detroit-based Kevin Serota and Kyle Kramer's "Helicopter Duet" featuring Octo-Drone video footage of wintry Ann Arbor accompanied by a didgeridoo is as hypnotic as it is effective.


The premise of "Helicopter Duet" is fairly obvious: We could be under MAV surveillance at any place, from any height, at any time. Yet the sweeping panoramas of snowy Huron Valley shot through the Octo-Drone's GPS-guided camera gimbal catches Tree Town with an airborne majesty that makes this video a remarkably handsome, if not also seemingly harrowing, work of art.