New technologies, ancient myths – AND festival’s Project Daedalus embodies both. Named after the Greek master craftsman, inventor and father of Icarus – that feisty youth who ignored his dad’s wise words and flew too close to the sun, with tragic consequences – this Digital R&D Fund for the Arts project is exploring the creative potential of drones, also known as quadrotors.
These unmanned flying machines are, of course, largely associated with morally questionable military operations. So, as research and development ideas go, it is not without its challenges.
“There are so many issues with flying these objects,” says Gabrielle Jenks, director of AND (Abandon Normal Devices), the Manchester-based biennial festival of new cinema, digital culture and art. “The amazing thing about the quadrotor though is that it creates a viewpoint that is like the third eye in a sense; it doesn’t matter where you are or your ability, you could probably find a way of flying it.”
It is, of course, the very adaptability of this agile and responsive technology, its ability to be a fast-moving, prying eye in the sky, that makes drones so attractive to the US military and other powers. And with its connotations of spying and high-tech warfare, Jenks and the partners on the project – Professor Andy Miah from Salford University and immersive experience studio Marshmallow Laser Feast – are well aware of the contentious nature of the technology.
The major challenge for the year-long project, then, is how a technology bogged down by military connotations – but now available to buy on the high street – can be reinvented by the arts and artists. For Jenks, a key reason for embarking on this research journey is her own experience at Abandon Normal Devices.
“We hosted a new cinema lab with Marshmallow Laser Feast during the festival in 2011,” she explains. “We’d been thinking about changes in cinematography and touched on quadrotors and how this technology was able to cross boundaries and offer different viewpoints, giving audiences access to spaces that they couldn’t have before. When we then started looking at the R&D Fund we thought that actually it was an opportunity to really explore this technology.”
One source of inspiration for this interest was the 2011 documentary movie Leviathan, a brutally graphic expose of the fishing industry filmed from a variety of staggering viewpoints. “There’s this idea of getting inside an environment and creating an immersive viewing experience,” says Jenks about the aesthetic potential of quadrotors.
“It’s a bit like the early new wave cinema, of shooting from the hip, etc. So to some extent the research is just about how quadrotors might be used to create a new kind of filmmaking, and understanding how cinematography is changing through their use.”
There is, though, another aspect to the research that could potentially impact more directly on arts organisations. Through a series of showcases and labs – which will include working with disabled-led organisation Full Circle Arts – Jenks and the team will be investigating the possibilities of quadrotors for documenting and complementing live art events. They’ll also be looking at whether, by adding an online element, they can be used as a way to broaden audiences and increase accessibility.
“The quadrotor can really be used just like a camera,” says Jenks. “So even those organisations that are a little bit sceptical about new technologies could utilise them if they want to get some aerial perspectives, whether it’s outdoor theatre or similar; we’re interested the idea of fresh perspectives for live events.
“But also, for those who want that bit more and are more willing to test it, it’s about using the online space and online environment, and finding ways that we can create an interface with remote audiences.”
For Robin McNicholas at Marshmallow Laser Feast, it’s very much the creative potential of the technology that is of most interest, and the studio has already used quadrotors in a performative way.
“After designing and choreographing our dancing troupe of 16 quadrotors with sound and light for the Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors’ Showcase, we know first-hand that drones have immense creative potential and understand just how visceral that experience can be,” he says. “Drones are already being used by cameramen and photographers to capture dramatic aerial footage, and increasingly they can be used as comparatively inexpensive live feeds.”
For Project Daedalus, MLF will be further exploring creative uses for quadrotors, and will be looking at the different outputs – lights, cameras, etc – that can be used with them. “As drones become more affordable and democratised their potential as a creative tool will become more thoroughly interrogated,” believes McNicholas.
He is, though, alert to the dangers of using this new ‘toy’ just for the sake of it. “To maintain a modicum of integrity, as with any artistic medium, drones should only become part of the palette if they offer fresh and purposeful opportunities that can’t be found elsewhere.”
With the project only a couple of months in, any outcomes are – perhaps appropriately – still very much up in the air. What Jenks is sure of though is that by September 2015 there will be a body of research that will culminate in an open source digital toolkit offering information, advice and software to better enable the use of quadrotors in the arts.
“We really do want there to be something that people can take away so if they do want to use this technology they have some kind of guidance,” says Jenks. “We want to create a toolkit that is actually useful for people.”
More information about Project Daedalus at
The Digital R&D Fund for the Arts is a £7 million fund available for projects over the period 2012-2015. Up to a value of £125,000, it supports ideas that use digital technology to build new business models and enhance audience reach for arts organisations. It is a partnership between Arts Council England, Arts and Humanities Research Council and Nesta.
This article was co-commissioned by a-n and Native, the journal of the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts
Also in the Digital R&D series:
#1: Apps, archives and Eduardo Paolozzi – We talk to Hijack about a new app based around the objects in the Scottish sculptor’s preserved studio in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
#2: Screens, footprints and buildings with soul – Alastair Eilbeck of MeYouAndUs explains the thinking behind TILO, a display system for arts venues that aims to reflect a building’s digital ‘soul’