Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Dublin by drone, and Google Earthed to death

Sometimes height is everything. Everything in terms of perspective, status, aerial superiority, power.

In Ireland, where tall skyscrapers are still a relatively rare thing, most of us only see our cities at street level, five or six feet up or so.

Some people have a panoramic view from much higher up - such as at boardroom level: the board room of the old Bank of Ireland HQ in Baggot Street, or the 16th storey of Liberty Hall; the old staff canteen at the top of Busáras; the Guinness Hop Store's Gravity Bar; or the observation tower (now closed for safety reasons) at the top of the chimney in Smithfield Square.

Or maybe they have access to security CCTV, police choppers, traffic cameras. Eyes in the sky, all controlled by the State and usually not accessible to or controllable by individual ordinary citizens.

Or sometimes some of us see the city from the air, on a commercial flight. It can be mesmerising.

At the start of this century all changed, when two new things came along:

  • The big guns: large corporations with huge resources - now many more of us can zoom over Dublin using Google Earth and Streetview, which capture previously inaccessible and unseen views of the city.
  • The little guns: the drones. I don't mean the military drones that is used by superpowers to bomb peasants back to the stone age, but the flying kits you can buy online for a few hundred dollars - little quadcopters that can carry a camera as their payload.

Drone footage can be quite mesmerising. Like this one which seems to be shot off the west coast (sorry about the music).

They've even started to use drones for the Tour de France - to film pre-recorded inserts alongside the live helicopter shots (they don't allow drones to fly during the race itself, though I saw an unofficial one the other day during one of the English stages).

Sometimes there is an unreal, hyperreal quality about it all - as if the footage has been generated by CGI, for a video game or special effects in a film.

Or the sequences are a little more mundane, more down-to-earth (sorry), such as the little drone flight in the Phoenix Park near the Wellington Monument in the video at the top of this page. Oh sorry, forgot to warn you to turn down the "Fields of Athenry" audio (it's terrible).

Or take the following brilliant art project with a hard political edge (you may have to click on the image to watch it over at Vimeo)...

Do check it out though, because this short film is different. It's deliberately noisy, with flickering footage and droning soundtrack, and look at where it's flying over:
  • The drone starts by flying over the old abandoned Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park where we used to play as kids.
  • Then over Google's European HQ in Barrow Street. The staff pull down their blinds. The words "taste of their own medicine" come to mind.
  • Back to the Phoenix Park again, and Áras an Uachtaráin, the former Viceregal Lodge.
  • Then O'Connell Street. A bird's eye view. Hovering above the Daniel O'Connell statue.
  • St Pat's. The prison on the North Circular for 17-year-old male offenders
  • More offices. Facebook's HQ. The Central Bank in Dame Street.
  • And behind hoardings - near the skeletons of unfinished skyscrapers of Namaland - is an old lady's house, a little island of resistance to the property developers.
The film was part of the Science Gallery's 2012 exhibition "Hack the City", which "aims to tweak and mash up Dublin's existing urban systems".

It's a project called Loitering Theatre by visual artist Nina McGowan and filmmaker, trained lawyer and digital rights expert Caroline Campbell. They used customised AR.Drone 2.0 quadcopters from French company Parrot.

The little flying machines are controlled from the ground by an iPad or iPhone, with a camera that streams your footage straight down to your smartphone.

Cue artists' manifesto...
"Loitering Theatre focuses on the democratisation of surveillance that drone flight affords. It instigates a simple but radical change of the view that arises from the detachment of the vantage point from the physical apparatus of the body. Loitering Theatre tries to imagine a more playful and poetic form of urban surveillance that might instead serve to critique the city’s structures and established systems from on high."

And if drones still make you think of drone warfare, that's probably no accident either...

"The work is named after a ‘next generation’ drone which has the wherewithal to ‘loiter’ in ‘theatre’ carrying out missions for five years without needing to take on fuel. And we’re not talking about The Abbey here."

In June 2012 year the duo's efforts even made Wired magazine: "Filmmakers Use Drones to Spy on Facebook, Google HQs". The cops and the Irish Aviation Authority didn't like what the artists were doing. Nor did the security guards at Facebook.

Seems it's OK for a big fat transglobal corporation to fly over our prisons and the Áras with a satellite to shoot images and make them freely available online and do all kinds of other stuff with them, but when ordinary citizens do it it becomes an issue, a possible threat.

Our public space can have Google satellites and Google planes overhead and Google cars on our streets, but we've come to expect that. We are becoming Google Earthed to death. And told that they are allowed to do this and that our privacy doesn't matter.

Yet these other kind of drones are becoming more and more commonplace. Getting into the hands of both both activists and hobbyists. You can even go to Amazon order these particular quadcopters used in the Loitering Theatre video.

Expect to see a lot more of them soon - before the authorities clamp down and start shooting them from the skies with their Google Spitfires...