“Avian Prophecies and the Techno-Aesthetics of Drone Warfare: Heba Y. Amin and Anthony Downey”

Anthony Downey, Heba Y. Amin*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


    I first became aware of Heba Y Amin’s project The General’s Stork in 2016 when, upon meeting her in Berlin, she outlined the research that she had been undertaking as part of the project. The facts were simple enough but the implications, as we will see below, were far from straightforward. In 2013, Egyptian authorities detained a migratory stork that was accused of espionage. Reportedly captured by a fisherman, who viewed the bird with suspicion after noticing an electronic device attached to it, the unfortunate stork was handed over to the local police station in Qena (a city situated on the east bank of the Nile in Upper Egypt). Upon further investigation, it transpired that the “camera device” was in fact a functioning tracking instrument attached by Hungarian scientists who were researching avian migratory habits. While the entire incident may at first appear risible, the event pointed to a nation-wide level of mistrust in Egypt of both the skies and what they hold. In broader, geopolitical and regional context, as The General’s Stork amply demonstrates, the episode also indexes the politics of aerial surveillance from both a bird’s eye view and, in an age of digitally-defined warfare, remoted controlled drones. Against the backdrop of biblical prophecies, un-crewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), and colonial narratives, The General’s Stork speculatively investigates how conquest from the sky—through land surveying, mapping, bombing and advanced drone technologies—has transformed western power into the spectacle of high-tech weaponry.

    Focusing on how military techniques were developed in the specific context of Middle Eastern geographies, the project, as Amin observes throughout the following conversation, decisively delineates the contemporary condition of paranoia that led to a migrating bird being accused of spying. Drone surveillance, in these contexts, not only produces a psychopathological relationship to airspace based on anxiety, fear, and trepidation, but also consigns and delivers the Middle East to new forms of visibility and visualization to combat such fears. Conflict, in this reciprocal logic, is viewed as a region-wide phenomenon capable of emerging from anywhere and everywhere at once, while territorial control is contingent on the technological means of visualization rather than occupation. The apparent ubiquity of hostility was a mainstay of colonial discourse, of course, but its technological manifestation through the means of a digital eye exposes a set of circumstances whereby the techno-aesthetics of visualization—the (operational) means of envisioning and the synchronized manifestation (appearance) of the image as a targeted object—is irredeemably imbricated within a seemingly reciprocal and yet unending replay of future conflict and threat. To this end, and while this project takes the region as a starting point for its development, these are emphatically global concerns that encompass not just the future of surveillance, but the compartmentalisation of life (and, indeed, death) under the conditions of algorithmically-defined systems of control and the technological quartering of time and space for the purpose of total surveillance. (AD)
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publication(W)archives
    Subtitle of host publicationArchival Imaginaries, War and Contemporary Art
    EditorsDaniela Agostinho, Nanna Bonde Thylstrup, Solveig Gade, Kristin Veel
    Place of PublicationGermany
    PublisherSternberg Press and MIT Press
    Number of pages19
    ISBN (Print) 978-3-95679-456-8
    Publication statusPublished (VoR) - 9 Jun 2020


    • practice-based research
    • Decolonizing Practices
    • surveillance system
    • lethal autonomous weapons
    • Unmanned aerial vehicle


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