George Barber, the pioneering British video artist influential in defining the Scratch Video movement, launched his first solo show at Waterside Contemporary with “The Freestone Drone”—an installation that resembled a domestic yard-cum-war zone. As one entered, strung up across the gallery walls were numerous washing lines, covered with sheaths of clothing, creating a soft and comforting architecture, which was quickly punctured by the piercing noise of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in the periphery. UAVs, more commonly known as drones, have become synonymous with modern warfare, replacing human air fighters in small-scale or covert combat situations.

The current U.S. administration has reportedly been responsible for increasing deployments of drones to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen to the tune of tens of thousands of aircraft, a six-fold increase to what it was under Bush. Accordingly, the drone has also become a phenomenon that occupies a number of contemporary artists. James Bridle’s Drone Shadow 002 (2012) 11
See http://www.flickr.com/photos/stml/sets/72157631741955211.
and Dronestagram 22
See http://dronestagram.tumblr.com.
are two projects that consider the cultural impact of drones across different media. The former seeks to make visible the shadows of drones by publically marking out physical representations of these UAVs on public floors and spaces, while the latter uses social media to highlight drone strikes as they occur. Similarly, Trevor Paglen’s Drone Vision (2010) and Omer Fast’s Five Thousand Feet is the Best (2011) both eerily capture the different visual manifestations that drone-induced surveillance culture produces. Even more potent is Basma Al-Sharif’s Home Movie Gaza (2013), a film that captures the impossibly politicized domestic sphere of the Gaza Strip, under the constant hum and buzz of overhead drones.

George Barber’s installation, The Freestone Drone (2013), seeks to inject parody into this anxious scenario. A generic voiceover can be heard echoing throughout the four corners of the large central room, as one makes their way to the center point of the installation, where a single-channel video (pieced together from found and original footage in true Barber fashion) gives voice to the largely inhuman and un-humanned war-machine that is the drone. But inhuman this drone is not, unmanned as it may be, in the air at least. As the film begins, our narrator informs us how “he flew reflecting on the world” only to ask his controller, “What will happen if I die?” “Will I fly close to the sun?” Recited in a delicate voice and infused with infantile intonation, Barber personifies the drone as a young child, perhaps alluding to the naivety associated with the mediated act of pressing a war-machine button from a distance.

The installation comprises three video projections, ensconced in-between the aforementioned clothing lines with two additional projections beaming images of clothing lines against diagonal walls, opposing the installation’s center. The significance of the clothing is associated with the belief that drone operators routinely study the washing of their targets; Barber’s drone, however, or so it is presaged in the film, will die entangled in just such a clothing line.

Despite its jovial moments, the exhibition often brimmed with a fretful nod to the dystopian culture propagated by the rise of technological warfare. The Very Very End (2013), a video about nuclear war, references Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach (1957), which describes what it would be like to wait for a radiation cloud to arrive from a remote detonation. The video follows a group trapped in a holiday resort, awaiting radiation, as they pass their time obsessing over a new video craze. The Very Very End consists of cut-and-paste images from the internet and elsewhere, juxtaposed with a thumping hip-hop soundtrack. Uncomfortably, this work feels like an unsophisticated pastiche of contemporary web culture, boasting an overly self-referential obsession with the ethos of online image-making.

Also on view is The Rhinestone Drone (2013), a studded toy drone with customized eyes elevated on a plinth that bears the seal of the U.S. army. This returns to Barber’s interests in personifying weapons of warfare—or at least giving them a (certainly shiny) human touch. But it is in Barber’s act of vocalizing the machine that one finds an ironic poignancy and gripping potential, humanizing the un-human.