Four years ago, 109 people had their mobile phones confiscated and were led into a darkened room in Melbourne, into cages for their own protection, beginning an experience the visual artist and filmmaker Matthew Sleeth calls a “choreography of anxiety.”
Amid lasers and opera performers singing, Sleeth let loose drones he had built and pre-programmed. Audience members were kept in darkness, so they heard and felt these “flying panopticons” before they could see them, feeling the air whooshing in their wake. “I wanted people to feel uncomfortable,” says Sleeth.
“Drones have become this metaphor for our fear of technology,” says the artist, who splits his time between his home city of Melbourne and his studio in Hell’s Kitchen, New York.
While Sleeth’s live work might have been read as a cathartic psychological exercise which allowed audience members to own, then release, their anxieties about drone surveillance, Sleeth’s new large three-channel video presentation highlights serious concerns about the military uses of the devices. (Both readers of this article and viewers of the video should be warned that Sleeth’s work includes genuine drone footage of a person being killed.)
In the same week that a US drone was shot down in Iran – inspiring president Donald Trump to threaten retaliation – Sleeth’s video work A Drone Opera premiered at Carriageworks in Sydney, showing the footage from his 2015 live show which was originally part of Experimenta.
The opera performers have been re-recorded for the installation, singing aria phrases which refer to Ovid’s The Fall of Icarus, the Greek mythological moral fable about hubristically flying too close to the sun.
Initially Sleeth had been responding to tabloid headlines capitalising on public primal fears of powerlessness; that drones would spy on us sunbaking in our backyards. Meanwhile most people have this past decade readily accepted intense forms of “surveillance porn” held in their pockets.
But now Sleeth gives us real cause for worry about surveillance from drones: he has incorporated into the video presentation genuine grainy FLIR (forward-looking infrared) United States Department of Defence drone footage of a man running across the desert in Afghanistan before being obliterated. “If that was high definition,” muses the artist, “it would be a snuff film.”
Including the footage presented an ethical conundrum for Sleeth and his collaborators. “It’s the thing we talked about the most, the thing I felt most strongly about was we had to see it,” he says. “The media are showing the titillation without the consequence. What it means to watch someone killed for cheap oil is a really different thing.”
Sleeth, who turns 47 this year, has written code since the age of 13, so building and programming his own drones was a relatively natural step.
Several years ago he got a pilot’s licence because it was then the only way to legally fly drones, completing about 500 pages of an application for a Civil Aviation Safety Authority certificate, turning his Melbourne studio into an aviation company to get the licence.
“In the early days of drone stuff you couldn’t buy them, other than the little dinky toy ones,” the artist explains. “For them to work in the way I wanted them to work, each of the drones is built specifically for a scene, with a movement language programmed into it.”
The video installation also adds snippets of armed forces drone pilots who sound like they’re calling a sports match as they search remotely for targets, abstracted like opera’s often grandiose distance from reality. Yet the presence in the video of the bodies of singers, including a counter-tenor and a soprano, helps to ground the work, giving the audience a human emotional touchstone.