In 2011, the South London neighborhood of Peckham saw young men clash with police guarded by thick, plastic riot shields. In the heat of the England riots, locals watching shops get smashed in called the area a “war zone.” But three years later, Peckham now looks calm and ordinary, if not for one strange, new addition: A black surveillance balloon floating above a formerly neglected car park.
The balloon, or helikite, has almost nothing to do with police. Instead, it’s an art project pioneered by artist-engineer James Bridle, meant to reclaim surveillance technology for public use. While the “Right to Flight” balloon may film the London skyline and Peckham below, Bridle says that the footage will be uploaded to the project’s website, where anyone can view the imagery. Bridle will also host events throughout the summer, encouraging people to interact with the balloon and interpret its output in creative ways.
As more details about drone warfare overseas have come to light, and the technology itself becomes more accessible to the public, several artists–Bridle among them–have started examining and reinterpreting aerial imagery.
Trevor Paglen photographed dazzling night-time views of the NSA headquarters; Mishka Henner used satellite imagery to capture America’s agricultural waste lagoons. In addition to creating mesmerizing, kaleidoscopic views of satellite imagery, Bridle also took to remixing instruments of surveillance in cities. For one project, he rearranged live footage from New York City CCTV cameras to create similar patterns.
“My work’s very much about trying to understand how technology shapes the world in ways we’re not always conscious of,” Bridle says. “The thing that I’m always running up against is this idea that technology is neutral. It’s the product of some form of intent.”
Instead of exploring balloon footage on his own, Bridle’s hope is to bring a creative experience with the technology to people in the neighborhood. He’s already working with grade-school students to interpret camera and weather data from the balloon, in addition to hoisting up private Wi-Fi router payload developed by New York City occupiers in the fall of 2011. Similar to Google’s Project Loon, Bridle’s balloon carries a network that can be accessed by anyone within a certain radius of the car park.
Still, the fact that the balloon does keep watch over the city, in a sense, is an ongoing tension. Bridle isn’t giving people the option to opt out as much as he’s inviting them to engage.
“A lot of art about surveillance just does more surveillance,” Bridle says. “This project is about saying these infrastructures exist, and they’re not going away. If that’s the case, how do we engage with it critically and beautifully?”