By Brady Ng /
More than a decade ago, futurists and techno-hobbyists started to pronounce with unalloyed confidence that drones would upend the way we live. Aside from widely publicised use cases for the military, law enforcement and surveillance, the proposition was that they could also provide entertainment through photography or as general playthings, while others could automate tasks for us, like robotic cleaners or all-seeing autonomous security guards that watch over homes from above.
As social and cultural developments iterate and unfold, technological advancements that ostensibly make our lives easier come with strings attached. Yet the overarching concern is velocity – prosperity and power await the first to switch zero to one. The cultural theorist and philosopher Paul Virilio described this condition as “dromology”, likening the evolution of society and culture to a race.
Hong Kong-based artists Andrew Luk and Samuel Swope have teamed up for a project that unpacks Virillo’s observation. To make their point, the duo built a racetrack for drones in de Sarthe’s gallery space.
Luk and Swope sound like architects when they describe what this entailed. Two transparent panels filled with smoke form a “cloud gate”, giving body and frame to ethereal fumes. Whenever a drone flies through the cutouts, it pulls smoke with it and provides a visible marker of how turbulence changes the air in the gallery and the installation along with it.
Nearby, water channels sunk into the gallery’s floor are meant to resemble infinity pools, reflecting spotlights to cast rippled shadows onto nearby surfaces when racing drones reach this architectural installation element.
A hexagonal tunnel suspended from the ceiling is lined with two-way glass and LED strips, forming a kaleidoscopic, momentarily dizzying path that evokes pathways in an apiary or beehive. It alludes to the inspiration that hives in nature have provided to architectural thought through different eras, as well as what Luk describes as an “attempt to make people that exist in such architecture more bee-like or ant-like—drone-like.”
Whenever drones are piloted through the racecourse, observers watch light, smoke and architectural elements interact with their wake. The presence of two or more racers brings about a familiar feeling, triggering the urge to root for a team, or even place a bet on one, which in this case was a combination of human pilot and mechanical flying object. But the artists offered an alternate view, one that was charged with adrenaline.
Flight paths are recorded by cameras attached to the drones, allowing viewers to see with machine eyes. We see what the drone sees, which is also what its pilot sees through goggles, and fly though the air along with the drone—more accurately, as the drone. Swope calls this an “unveiling” of how the art installations of Ready\Set\Fulfill could be experienced if we functioned at a different scale, with a different scope of physical movement, propellers literally cutting through air.
In 2021, this alt-vision hardly feels alien. Websites that host user-generated videos are packed with walkalongs shot on selfie sticks and clips shot in the wild using action cameras mounted on helmets or chest harnesses. This wealth of unchoreographed footage gives us access to imagery from nearly any corner of the world, offering full views of scenes and situations that might demand skills we do not have.
For Ready\Set\Fulfill, the drone’s gaze was presented on loop on six screens in a viewing pit, the hexagonal arrangement again pointing to the hive fetish in architectural movements. The human-machine fusion that makes drone racing possible is a 21st-century analogue of our natural tendency to use external vessels—whether live ones like horses and camels, or fabricated vehicles like cars, boats and planes—to one-up each other in a simple way: barrel full speed ahead and be the first to cross the finish line.
The aerial sprint organised by Luk and Swope was meant to involve hobbyist drone racers who could pilot their machines as costumed performers for the exhibition. These remote aviators are a medium in themselves, says Swope. Their performative participation is a necessary component of the exhibition, not only as the thought processors behind the drones that flit through the many stations designed by the artists, but also to induce meaningful interactions with the architectural elements built into the sculptural installations. More than that, races are exciting, even if we never participate ourselves: we are wired to want to pick winners.
The foundations of Ready\Set\Fulfill were planted on Google Drive in early 2020. The two artists dumped materials into a shared folder and riffed on new ideas as they popped up in the ensuing months. As the project’s details took shape, the art practices of Luk and Swope coalesced, and the two spent nearly every day together in the studio.
Luk’s investigations of materials as well as the links between history, entropy and preservation lend a framework to the physicality of the obstacles that formed the racetrack, gelling with Swope’s research into air as an aesthetic medium, particularly at the intersection of technology and art. Both dive into notable figures who influenced more than just architecture, including the polymath Robert Hooke, Catalan modernist Antoni Gaudí, Bauhaus’s last director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and globetrotting modern architectural pioneer Le Corbusier.
They also drew inspiration from postwar Japan’s metabolism movement; the neofuturistic, avant-garde Archigram group; and the mega-warehouses and sorting facilities built by Amazon, where humans and robots work side by side in dystopian harmony and efficiency, each a node in supply chains that we as consumers initiate by clicking “add to cart” and then confirming the order.
That’s all to say that the two artists cover a wide swath of architectural thought and theory stretching from the 17th century to the near future. They scrutinise the “art movements that have been co-opted into the design of Big Tech and industrial design of recent times”, Luk says. Much like popular platforms developed by tech companies, Ready\Set\Fulfilllends a cheerful veneer to how humans navigate our continual conversion into consumer data points. The difference is the artists actively point to this, whereas major tech enterprises and startups do all they can to draw our attention away from these tectonic shifts.
Drone racing shares a vocabulary with e-sports, which Luk tapped into for a previous project, Autosave: Redoubt (2018), executed alongside Peter Nelson and Alexis Mailles. It involved the digital twin of a World War II bunker that could be navigated as a map in the popular computer game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Much like Ready\Set\Fulfill, the full experience demanded the viewer’s participation and involved a perspective that was only accessible through the artwork.
Swope first used drones in his artistic practice more than a decade ago, in the video BANANA MISSION a monkey behavioral study (2010), which featured a remote-controlled “sculptural banana drone” that the artist calls the banana ’copter. Outfitted with the guts and hardware for flight, a banana lifts off from a shelf in a supermarket’s grocery aisle, then flits through a shopping mall, a coffee shop and the streets of Hong Kong to reach the macaques of Kam Shan Country Park, more commonly known as Monkey Hill. The banana ’copter spooks the creatures; after all, its propellers are loud and the ’copter moves unnaturally. But after the banana crashes and rests on the ground, one primate moves in to inspect it, only to lose interest in the novel object moments later.
The two artists figured out how to mesh their ideas and transform an exhibition space into something that reflected more than the sum of their individual practices. The ideas they plugged into pointed us into the future, constantly 15 minutes from now.
在2020年初，「Ready\Set\Fulfill」的基礎概念就已經存入了Google Drive。在之後的幾個月，兩位藝術家把相關資料保存在一個共享文件夾並伸延一些新想法。隨著項目慢慢成形，陸浩明和Samuel Swope的藝術風格漸漸融合。他們幾乎每天都一起待在工作室裡。
陸浩明主要負責搜集關於裝置的物料及歷史、熱力學和保存文物的關係，為裝置關卡的外觀奠定了基礎，與Swope以空氣為藝術媒介（尤其是關於科技和藝術的關聯）的研究相輔相成。他們二人深入研究各個大師，如博學家Robert Hooke、加泰羅尼亞現代主義者Antoni Gaudí、包浩斯建築學校最後一任校長Ludwig Mies van der Rohe和曾環遊各地的現代主義建築先驅Le Corbusier。這些大師帶來的影響遠多於僅僅是建築學。
無人機競賽與電子競技擁有共通的語言。陸浩明上一個與Peter Nelson和Alexis Mailles合作的藝術項目 《Autosave: Redoubt》（2018年）亦是與電子競技有關。那個項目裡有一個在二戰地堡中的數碼分身，原是電腦遊戲《絕對武力：全球攻勢》的一部份，能用作地圖般游走。該項目和「Ready\Set\Fulfill」一樣需要觀者的參與和只有透過該藝術裝置才能體驗得到。
Swope在十多年前就已經第一次運用無人機創作出影像作品《BANANA MISSION a monkey behavioral study》（2010年）。影片展示了一架遙距操控的「香蕉塑形無人機」，Swope稱之為香蕉直升機。這架香蕉直升機的外觀像是一根香蕉，內部卻裝有飛行用的機器。它從超級市場的貨架上起飛，然後穿過一個商場、一間咖啡店，再飛越香港的街道到金山郊野公園（亦被稱為馬騮山）裡的獼猴面前。這架香蕉直升機嚇到了周圍的獼猴，畢竟它的推動器很嘈吵，而且移動方式很奇怪。可是，當這根香蕉墜落在地上的時候，其中一隻獼猴靠近它查看，但很快就對這根奇怪的香蕉失去興趣。