Monday, December 2, 2013

Drones Cover the News

I had my first encounter with a drone at the end of this past October, when I was covering the first performance of Lisa Bielawa's "Crissy Broadcast" for I later found out that it was there to provide images for the San Francisco Chronicle, whose music critic, Joshua Kosman, was there out on Crissy Field with me. I only realized this when I saw the photograph accompanying Kosman's piece in the Chronicle.

I was not particularly impressed. Crissy Field is a very large space, and Bielawa was determined to use all of it. The result was a composition whose spatial features vastly outstripped the "auditory source material" provided to the performers on score pages. As Kosman observed, the composition had a much to do with the geometry of how individual performing groups dispersed themselves across the field as with the listening experience that emerged as a result of this dispersal. As far as the drone was concerned, it was flying too close to the ground to do justice the Bielawa's spatial conception. All I really got out of my "first contact" was an appreciation for comments I had heard and read about the sounds that drones make and their psychological impact on those who do not expect them. Lacking any such advanced technology for my own work, I was content to use a photograph of one specific group "on the move" that my wife took on her iPhone.

This morning, however, Tim Hornyak used his post to the Crave blog on CNET to write about a similar drone application being used to cover the riots in Bangkok. The article includes two video clips and one photograph. In many respects the photograph says as much as the video. In that single image one can see both clouds from the tear gas canisters and the streams from the water cannon. One can also see the physical positioning of both the demonstrators and the riot police.

My high school history teacher used to say that the corrupting influence of Boss Tweed's Tammany Hall was finally undone not by any legal processes but by the impact on public opinion of a serious of editorial cartoons drawn by Thomas Nast. (It seems appropriate to write about Nast at this time, since he was also responsible for the still popular public image of Santa Claus.) Tweed would later say after he had been arrested and convicted that his downfall was "them damned pictures."

The images in Hornyak's article are no less damning. There is, of course, an impressive archive of photographic and video journalism coming from on-the-spot capture of images. These aerial views, however, allow us to appreciate that there is more to the story than can be seen on the ground. The obvious question then arises as to when the first of these drones will be shot down by someone who wants to make sure that those images never get seen.

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