Drone project at Fresno State a call for 'contemplation' (video)

The Fresno BeeMarch 26, 2014 

A drone is being built at Fresno State.

This one can't shoot weapons. It doesn't even fly.

It's art: A life-size sculptural representation of an unmanned aerial vehicle that is remotely controlled and deployed by the U.S. military to destroy targets from the sky.

The 49-foot-by-27-foot sculpture, based on a General Atomics MQ-1 Predator aerial vehicle, is a memorial to civilians killed by unmanned U.S. drones overseas, said artist Joseph DeLappe.

He's been working on it for almost two weeks, cutting and gluing together pieces of corrugated plastic -- which looks like waterproof cardboard -- with the help of more than 100 volunteers.

A dedication for “The Drone Project — A Participatory Memorial” will include DeLappe giving an artist talk in Alice Peters Auditorium, with a reception to follow. The dedication was to have included audience participation in the writing of 356 names of people, many children or seniors who have been identified as victims of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, but a rainy forecast caused that portion to be canceled late Wednesday night.

The names, compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the United Kingdom, were pulled from the bureau's second public list of identified civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes, DeLappe said, and are just a fraction of total estimated civilian casualties.

"It's the gamifaction of warfare," DeLappe said of military drones. "It really fascinates and kind of horrifies me, how quickly we embrace what I see as sort of the worst fruits of our technologies. It makes it too easy to kill."

DeLappe is this year's artist-in-residence at the Center for Creativity and the Arts at Fresno State. He is a professor of art at the University of Nevada, Reno and directs its digital media program.

He is the center's third featured artist, funded by an endowment supported by an anonymous donation, said Adan Avalos, the center's artistic director. The center's 2013-2014 theme is "Data and Technology."

The center is not trying to tell people what to think about drones, Avalos said.

The goal of the artwork is "to create a healthy dialogue around the use of this technology ... wherever you are on the fence," Avalos said.

DeLappe hopes his bright yellow drone will draw in curious onlookers, and that seeing names of the dead will bring moments of contemplation and realization.

"Usually in terms of warfare, we memorialize our soldiers who have died fighting for the country, which is completely legitimate," DeLappe said. "But the fact is, in the United States we do very little to think about or memorialize or recognize the incredible cost of the wars we're involved in."

And, he added, there are few memorials for dark times in the country's history, like slavery or American Indians killed by early U.S. settlers.

"That tends to create a kind of one-sided history," DeLappe said. "I just want to be sure that this history that we are currently making is not so one-sided. There are opportunities and ways that citizens can draw attention to things that perhaps make us uncomfortable, but mostly they make us think and question."

There are 40 countries developing military drone technology, he said. It's only a matter of time before the drone technology comes back to haunt American citizens -- especially since the U.S. has set a bad precedent, breaking international law by waging drone strikes in places like Pakistan, where war has not been declared, he added.

DeLappe has led controversial art projects over the years, many of them military-themed, participatory and online. He founded the iraqimemorial.org project, an ongoing exhibition calling for memorials for thousands of civilian casualties from the war in Iraq.

Another project, "Dead-In-Iraq," was a kind of fleeting online memorial involving the video game "America's Army." DeLappe would log onto the game, let his character be killed, and then type in names of U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq. From 2006 to 2011, he typed in close to 4,500 names that were seen by players.

That project, he said, was his way of reaching out to young men the way an Army recruiter did when he was a high school student in San Francisco. At the time, DeLappe was thinking about joining the military, and the recruiter, also a Vietnam War veteran, told him it "isn't for everyone and it may not be all it's cracked up to be."

"I appreciated his honesty," DeLappe said. "It changed my life."

Instead, he went on to college to pursue his passion for art.

"Personally, I think art should make a difference in people's lives," DeLappe said. "Essentially, it's challenging perception, whether it's how you look at a flower or how you look at deaths in war. It's not that dissimilar."

His idea to create a life-size drone was exciting, he said, because it ties together many topics he's been exploring: computer gaming, technology, politics, and moral and ethical issues. The sculpture will remain in front of the university's Conley Art Building through May.

DeLappe's work, which has been shown internationally, is also on display at the Fresno Art Museum through the end of April.

"Dedicating oneself to a humane principle -- thinking about the deaths of others on the other side of the planet (who died) supposedly to preserve our freedoms, it's a small thing I can do," DeLappe said of the drone sculpture. "I'm very honored to have been invited to do this."

If you go

Drone sculpture dedication: Artist Joseph DeLappe will talk at 4 p.m. Friday Fresno State's Peters Business Building, Auditorium 191, followed by a 5 p.m. reception adjacent to the drone sculpture.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, cgeorge@fresnobee.com or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.

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