This March, the California-based socially engaged art collective Finishing School, along with the artists Matt Fisher and Nadia Afghani, installed We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust on the campus of Occidental College. The project centered on the fabrication of a full-scale foam and steel model of an MQ-1B Predator drone, an aircraft used chiefly for offensive operations by the CIA and U.S. Air Force in the Waziristan tribal areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and countless other locations that have yet to be publicly identified. The chalk-white sculpture was positioned in a courtyard at Occidental, underscoring the connection of the school’s most famous former student, President Barack Obama, with the drone warfare program. Having launched 332 strikes on Pakistan alone since taking office in 2009 (George W. Bush authorized only 51 in the previous four years), Obama has become known as “the drone master.”
Instead of plopping a finished sculpture on the campus, the artists called on a community of students and volunteers (of all ages) to participate in its creation by affixing a thick layer of architectural-grade mud over the entire drone. The act, as the group explains in this interview, forced a nebulous concept—read about but rarely seen—to become tangible. This is, after all, what artists are distinctly poised to do. We can read newspaper article after newspaper article about the destruction and death that a drone strike leaves in its wake, but artists like Finishing School, Trevor Paglen and James Bridle, to name just a few, make such far-off concepts palpable through their photographs and installations. For this month’s editor’s letter, we ask members of Finishing School why they made We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust and what, as artists, they hoped could be achieved.
Marisa Mazria Katz: By bringing a model drone to the courtyard of Occidental College, you have made the invisible visible. Why do you think it is important for people to have a sense of what a drone looks like?
Finishing School: Domestically the distance we have from the effects of U.S. foreign policy tends to enable a lack of empathy for the real-world impact our government’s actions have around the globe. In many ways the drone is a symbol of the killing that occurs in the so-called war on terror and of the abstract and dehumanized machinery that easily facilitates such policies. The use of palpable, heavy materials to construct the drone conveys a multilayered statement that is both incontrovertible and unavoidable. A fairly common reaction to this sculpture is astonishment at how big the drone is. Part of standing next to and touching the drone is about confronting the illusory “out of sight, out of mind” attitude that many of us have about American activities in foreign countries.
MMK: What is the significance of bringing the drone to Occidental? How has the audience responded to the significant relationship between the university and its most famous alumnus, Barack Obama?
FS: Barack Obama will be known as the drone president. Installing this project at his alma mater is intended to reflect directly on his expansion of the U.S. drone warfare program. This direct connection to the president has been readily apparent to the Occidental community and beyond, and from what we’ve seen, students and faculty have been very receptive to the critique.
MMK: How did smothering the drone in mud transform the object? Did it feel more tangible and real to people who had no sense of its dimensions previously? And what kind of conversations did you have with the people who took part in the action, many of whom were children?
FS: At the heart of this piece is getting our audience involved in the creation and fabrication of the sculpture. We could have delivered and installed a completely finished sculpture, but that would have effectively widened the divide between the sculpture and the public. Instead, we chose to enlist a crowd of strangers to help us mix and apply the final coating of mud to our drone. As a material, mud connotes myriad associations and interpretations.
One other significant aspect for choosing mud is that many of the drone targets in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Waziristan region are homes made from mud. The process we’re using to mix and apply mud to our drone form is age-old, dating back to the Neolithic period, and is still used today in rural areas around the world. It is human-centered, employing community-based labor and handcraft. The participants gained an understanding of the drone as a real object with actual dimensions through the act of touching it.
In both the planning stage and during the action, we talked extensively among ourselves and with participants about the concept of barn raising and the parallels between gathering friends and neighbors to create homes—something that still happens in the villages that U.S. drones are bombing—and the kinds of participatory, socially engaged art practices that we have been exploring for some time.
MMK: What can art—whether your sculpture or the #NotABugSplat project, which recently placed a poster in a field in Pakistan where strikes often occur, or the “Drone Shadows” that artist James Bridle has outlined on the streets of London and Washington—do to shape awareness about drone warfare, in a way that journalism and raw data cannot?
FS: When it comes down to it, We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust is not primarily about a drone as an aesthetic object; it is an experience, an event initiated by making an object collaboratively with strangers.
Art allows for the creation of social scenarios or activities that engage audiences in a way news articles cannot. Where data and journalism work in facts and narratives, as artists we work in signifiers and associations. This difference leads to another powerful distinction. Awareness isn’t enough. When a viewer becomes a participant, she is forced to take ownership in the conversation. For us, it is important to make work that enlists and engages the public and then actively turns over the discussion to it.