Age of Terror: Art since 9/11 comes to the Imperial War Museum

Ailis Brennan

It has been 16 years since the coordinated terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, the Pentagon in Virginia and the United 93 flight which crashed in Pennsylvania, and the political, social and cultural aftershocks continue to reverberate around the world.

At the Imperial War Museum London, a new exhibition is looking to gauge the global impact of the events of September 11th 2001 by analysing thematic consequences through the eyes of the contemporary artist.

An international roster featuring the likes of Ai Weiwei, Grayson Perry, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Gerhard Richter, Fiona Banner, Coco Fusco and Ivan Navarro will show works addressing ideas of conflict, war, terror as well as surveillance, paranoia and the role of the internet in the development of the social repercussions.

“Conflict as a subject matter has been more regularly covered in contemporary art exhibitions, art fairs and biennials internationally since 9/11,” explains curator Sanna Moore. “It is a consequence of the internet age that people are more quickly and comprehensively informed about world events, and this is reflected in how artists respond and the subjects they choose to cover.”

James Bridle is a British artist who is exhibiting in Age Of Terror: Art Since 9/11. His work Drone Shadow is installed in the Atrium of the Imperial War Museum London, mapping the outline of an absent military drone amid very physical and very real objects of war. The work has travelled the world and has been released by Bridle as a piece of open source material, meaning it can be replicated anywhere by anyone. Bridle spoke to us about war, surveillance, and making artwork after 9/11.

Could you talk us through how you think the post 9/11 climate (political, social and cultural) affected your development as an artist? What do you think artists need to think about now, that they didn’t prior to 2001?

In the decade or so I've been making work, the legacy of 9/11 and the global war on terror has infiltrated every area of life. As someone who often explores the ways in which technology shapes culture, I've seen particularly how the internet has turned from being an open community into a place of total surveillance and growing paranoia and division.

This is mirrored in the physical world - not least in London, which has become crowded with security cameras and other apparatuses just as the tone of our political discourse has become more fractured and divisive. I don't think it's possible to make work that's about the world today without addressing these subjects to some extent.

Could you talk us through both the physical nature and thought process behind the Drone Shadow?

I made the first Drone Shadow several years ago. I became fascinated with these objects when they were still being developed - there wasn't a lot of information about them in public, and they were only just being deployed to war zones, but they seemed extraordinary - and very poorly understood.

Flying military robots seemed like something worth talking about, but there was hardly any public discussion, and even fewer images of them. I wanted to get a better feeling for them, and so I got some plans, went into the car park of my studio, and sketched out the outline of a Predator with a piece of chalk.

Immediately, a number of things became clear. The drone is designed to be invisible. You don't need to see an actual one for this to be clear. It's designed to be physically invisible - flying at 50,000 feet, out of sight, impossible to see from the ground. But it's also designed to be politically and legally invisible. You can send it to places where you can't send soldiers, where that's militarily or politically or morally unacceptable. It can kill with impunity without endangering your own soldiers, who may be thousands of miles away.

The first thing people always say when they see one of the Drone Shadows is: "I didn't know they were so big". How can people not know, in this day and age, the simplest detail about such an emblematic object of our time?

A few years ago I "open sourced" the project, releasing the plans and instructions online, so anyone can create their own Drone Shadow. As a result, they've appeared all over the world, in many different contexts, as art works but also for protest and education.

Why have you chosen to display this piece in this exhibition?

I was asked by Imperial War Museums to be part of the exhibition, but as it's an open source work, they like anyone else are free to create it. I'm very interested to see how it looks as part of the exhibit - the contrast between IWM's tanks and rockets, and this emblematic absence of the drone, which has totally transformed contemporary warfare.

As a child, I visited IWM often, so the place has a very special meaning for me. It also embodies a very specific paradox: the fascination I feel towards these objects and histories, and the very violent ends to which they are put, which runs through much of my work. This paradox is mirrored directly in the drone, so I'm very honoured to be taking part.

Do you think the escalation in use of and research into surveillance technology is a direct result of 9/11, or was such a development inevitable?

It's utterly inevitable, unfortunately, although it’s obviously received a massive boost in both investment and justification as a result of 9/11. London has been one of the most surveilled cities in the world for a long time, stemming from the IRA bombing campaign, which long preceded 9/11.

At every stage, "national security" is used as a justification for technologies which are then applied to every other area of life, from burglaries to car tax.

In turn, the expansion of technological surveillance breeds distrust and division. What's not inevitable is how we feel about it, how we understand it, how we depict it, and what we can do to oppose this mindset. There is decades of evidence showing the ineffectiveness of surveillance, but if it's only understood as a technology, rather than a political position, even an aesthetic position, we're not going to be able to address it.

There is a lot of fear around automation, and its consequences both ethical and economical. Is this justified?

Absolutely. From Amazon warehouse floors to app-based cabs and couriers, automation is being deployed almost exclusively to atomise workers and consumers, deskill, lower wages, undercut employment rights and social support structures, and ultimately put people out of work, while concentrating more profit and power in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

This is what happens when advanced, complex technologies are let loose in already unequal work and social situations. But the argument is akin to the surveillance one: it's not technology at work here, but long-existing political structures. There's no reason apart from greed and selfishness that we can't put the robots to work for all of us, to make our lives easier and better off. But it doesn't seem to be going very well so far.

Age of Terror: Art Since 9/11 runs from 26th October - 28 May 2018 at the Imperial War Museum London,