Interview: Heather Layton and Brian Bailey

Heather Layton and Brian Bailey are activists, artists, and social interventionists based in Rochester, New York. Their exhibition Home Drone, at the Hampden Gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, was a critically acclaimed exploration of what they considered the depravity—and inherent unfairness—of the U.S government’s targeted killing program. The show asked viewers to consider a difficult question: What would you feel if there was a drone strike in America? In all their, work, but especially in Home Drone, Layton and Bailey do away with the line between art and activism; that being said, they manage to always maintain aesthetic integrity in the final product. As the art world becomes one of the major arenas for the debate about targeted killing, Layton and Bailey’s work with Home Drone will come to be considered a pioneering intervention.

Heather Layton teaches painting, mixed media, and performance art in the Department of Art & Art History at the University of Rochester. Her work, which spans a veriety of mediums, from sculpture to video art, has been shown in a long list of solo and group shows throughout the United States, including The Inevitable Defeat of the Tree-Huggers, Living Room Churches and Outspoken Saints, and What they Probably Looked Like. She has developed a number of social intervention and cultural exchange projects, including the National Apology Project . You can follow her at www.heatherlayton.com.

Brian Bailey is an Assistant Professor of Education at Nazareth College in Rochester. He is the co-founder of the Rochester Teen Film Festival, the Rochester Participatory Educational Research Collaborative (RPERC). In addition to producing an extensive body of original research, he has collaborated on several projects with Heather, including the Nagaland/U.S Cultural Exchange.

A piece from Home Drone

A piece from Home Drone In Home Drone, Layton and Bailey chose sites for hypothetical drones strikes on U.S soil. One site happened to have a wedding passing through.

Interview by Arthur Holland Michel

Center for the Study of the Drone What is the origin story of Home Drone? How did the idea come to you, and how did it become a reality?

Brian Bailey We were reading about the U.S. predator drone strike program in different media outlets before we went to Pakistan. We had questions about whether or not the drone attacks were legal, ethical, and/or successful in fighting terrorism. When we went to Karachi, we heard from Pakistani people that they were strongly opposed to U.S predator drone strikes— we could empathize. Then, when we read the report Living Under Drones we realized that we needed to use art to express our dissent to this form of violence and build more awareness about drones among our fellow American citizens.

The idea for Home Drone came when we started thinking about how we would feel if we lived in Pakistan and we were the target for drones. It’s kind of like the saying about trying to walk in someone else’s shoes. We wondered how we could use art to ask Americans to feel what it would be like to be droned. How it could impact your family, friends, and neighbors. Our feeling was that fear of terrorism and lack of empathy are preventing many Americans from seeing how drones impact Pakistani people.

That’s when we designed the fictional scenario for Home Drone and literally started mapping out where our imaginary drone strikes would take place if drones hit the United States instead of Pakistan. It became a reality when we started driving around the state of Massachusetts to document who and what would have been destroyed if another country used drones on us that day.

One of the installations at the Home Drone exhibition, a 1:1 scale, rhinestone-encrusted Predator drone.

One of the installations at the Home Drone exhibition—a 1:1 scale, rhinestone-encrusted Predator drone. (Photo Credit: Heather Layton)

Drone Heather, the exhibition was shown at UMass. What was the response from the students? Do you ever touch on the issue of drones with your students at Rochester?

Heather Layton The students at UMass asked great questions about our aesthetic decisions, the dynamics of our collaboration, whether or not we encountered resistance due to the controversial subject matter, how artists fund non-commercial installations, and the topic of U.S. drone strikes itself. Most of the students, as well as many of the general audience members, had never heard of drones, let alone how our country was using them.

My students at the University of Rochester witnessed and participated in the project from start to finish. The rhinestone-clad drone and the wall map were too big to fit into my studio, so we had to construct them in a highly public space in the art building over the course of a month. Some students worked as studio assistants, and others volunteered to help. We spent many late nights eating take-out Indian food while gluing thousands of rhinestones to the drone’s surface. Brian and I rehearsed our artist talk with my “Performance Art and Social Intervention” class. They had invaluable suggestions that ultimately led to a much stronger presentation. Many students still send links to articles of interest based on the exhibition.

Drone What do you see as the value of art as a means of protesting the use of military drones, as opposed to, say, a report like Living Under Drones, which you have cited as an inspiration for your work? What does the art convey that a written report or even multi-media journalism does not? Likewise, what are some of the limits of art-as-activism, as you see it?

Layton Artists have the license to use metaphor, which can be an extremely powerful tool in engaging people with difficult subject matter at an emotional and intellectual level. We can create an experience which is related to, but different than a report. The Living Under Drones publication does an exceptional job at describing what is happening through statistics and first hand reports. Our purpose was to create an opportunity for people to care about that report. We hoped that the fictional scenario would prompt people to empathize with the victims and, in doing so, ultimately question their own relationship with the perpetrators.

I don’t believe that there are limits to art-as-activism, but there are certainly challenges. Artists, for one, are often many steps removed from the legislators, politicians, and lawyers who have the ultimate power in changing policies. Artists are often working with non-existent budgets and a gallery audience is relatively small. We are constantly finding ways to overcome and/or bypass these obstacles. I believe that art-as-activism is most productive when it is interwoven into public spaces, both physical and virtual, and when it is done in collaboration with other sectors of the community. Perhaps one artist cannot reach a million people, but one artist and a journalist can.

In Home Drone, Layton and Bailey chose sites for hypothetical drones strikes on U.S soil. One site happened to have a wedding passing through.

In Home Drone, Layton and Bailey chose sites for hypothetical drones strikes on U.S soil. One site happened to have a wedding passing through. (Photo Credit: Heather Layton)

Drone Part of the irony of Home Drone is that the drones are coming home. We are on the cusp of a new reality, in which drones populate domestic airspace in great numbers. What do you feel about the prospect of domestic drone use? Specifically, do you think that the experience of living under drones will make the U.S. public more sympathetic to those living under drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan?

Bailey We read an article in Time Magazine about the domestic use of drones and yes, the thought of having drones used in the U.S. seemed to wake people up a bit— I think many people read that article and said “I don’t want drones watching me.” But we have dehumanized entire countries in the “war on terror” and we have justified civilian deaths as acceptable casualties in making Americans safe. So, I’m not sure if people are willing to see the connection and take the next step to see that our country is doing exactly what you don’t want done to you.

The “Golden Rule” was something that we thought about when we were designing Home Drone—the idea that we should treat others as we would like to be treated.

The U.S. Predator drone strike program seems to say, “because we are Americans, because we have power, and because we have the technology, we can use drones in Pakistan and, if innocent people get killed, then it is better than American soldiers and citizens being killed by terrorists.” We oppose this ideology and believe that it leads to more violence.

Drone You have responded to accusations of anti-Americanism by claiming that you are in fact being patriotic. Could you explain that?

Layton In 10 years, I don’t want to live in the empire that fell because it created so many enemies. Instead, I want to live in a place where “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these rights are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” I believe that we are being patriotic when we are loyal to that vision. The abolitionists and the suffragists are perfect examples. There would be no such thing as democracy in a culture that endorses slavery or denies women the right to vote. The drone strikes in northern Pakistan are crimes against humanity. This thing about “fighting for Freedom” is a self-sabotaging to this nation. It is anti-Patriotic to take pride in this country’s “innocent until proven guilty” philosophy and then kill thousands of people without trial in an effort to defend it. I see our voices of dissent as being our patriotic duty.

Drone Heather, though there has been a decidedly political thread running through all your work, the Home Drone exhibition was, in a way, your most targeted piece of political art in that you are really focusing on a single piece of technology, a single feature of the political landscape. Advocates of military drone use often say that the discussion should focus on the policy of targeted killing, and not just the tool. How do you respond to this?

Layton The drone is not just a new tool. It is a piece of technology that changes the dynamics of warfare and redefines the way in which we invade and occupy civilian spaces. We based the exhibition specifically around the drone for these reasons and many more. On the most fundamental level, the United States is not sending troops or tanks into northern Pakistan and there is a reason for that. There is a chilling degree of secrecy regarding the drone program. The image of the drone has become an international symbol for targeted killing; when protesters in FATA march the streets with banners showing its silhouette, they are specifically talking about the devastation that drones have caused. As we learned more about the technology, we asked more questions about privacy, power, and what happens if a country can go to war without being at personal risk? We also couldn’t imagine how horrific it must be to walk your kids to school and back for years with drones hovering in the sky above—the sight, the sound, and the possibility that they could strike at any time. What are the psychological effects of this looming threat? Is this a humane way to treat hundreds of thousands of people who have not committed a crime? While I certainly do not support the use of other forms of warfare and I’m not willing to suggest that any are better weapons than others, the drone seems to place people in an entirely new state of perpetual vulnerability.

Drone Brian, your formal background is in education. Ostensibly, there isn’t much of a formal connection between drones and education, and yet at the Center we have a certain faith in the ability of practitioners from all different fields to contribute something meaningful to the discussion.  What has been your experience considering the drone from this angle, and what is your take on the issue?

Bailey As a faculty member at Nazareth College, I strive to place my students in situations where they can think critically, ask essential questions, and transform our local and global communities in positive ways. My primary goal is to prepare educators who will use their knowledge and skills to work for a more just and equitable society within and beyond their classrooms. To that end, I make a conscious effort to encourage my students to consider how power is used to unfairly privilege some and marginalize others through race, class, gender, disability, sexuality, and religion. That power is exercised in education every day—segregated schools, institutionalized racism, inequitable funding, etc.—in many of the same ways that our foreign policies use military power to privilege America’s interests while marginalizing others.

I also want my students to see that I use art, education, sports, technology, and any means that are available to me to fight for a more just and equitable society.

Drone What is next for the Layton-Bailey team? Are you moving on from drones, or do you have new drone projects in store for us? Do you have any interest in moving into the traditional stream of activism, or will you continue to pursue the art-as activism format?

Layton Given the urgency of the situation and the need for increased education and public awareness, we are currently focused on finding new venues to exhibit and speak about Home Drone, both within and outside of the art world. We are not ruling out the possibility of new projects on drones, but we do not have immediate plans for starting new work on this topic.

I will continue to use art as a vehicle for social awareness, but I hope to do so in collaboration with organizations such as the Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars.I spoke on a panel at one of their recent conferences with Tighue Barry, an activist from CODEPINK who went to northern Pakistan to march in anti-drone protests, and Nick Mottern, who builds and distributes educational drone replicas across the country through KNOWDRONES. We are discussing possible collaborations for future activist and educational events.

Drone Despite the valiant efforts artists of like yourselves, as well as activists, and public intellectuals, the government shows no sign of slowing down its drone program. What remains to be done? Should there be more art in the same vein, or should we explore new kinds of intervention into the public discussion?

Bailey We have to force our political leaders to be accountable to the global interests and peace of all people—including Pakistani people. I think President Obama is hearing some of the growing opposition and questions about the legal, ethical, and practical aspects of drones. Just a couple weeks ago, he was forced to answer questions in a press conference about drones that he had not addressed in the past. I like to think that artists, activists, and citizens were part of the pressure that he feels to answer questions. Now, the next step is to show President Obama that he is wrong. Part of living in a democracy is questioning our leaders and there is a lot of work to do in terms of how we demand better answers on things like foreign policy, education, environmental issues, and a range of social justice.

Heather Layton and Brian Bailey

Heather Layton and Brian Bailey (Photo Credit: Heather Layton)

 

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