“I feel like my writing is always either at a micro-cellular level or a drone level. There’s this constant cycle between being way too close and things feeling surreal, or pulled way out and things also feeling a little surreal.”
September 15, 2021
I love to complain about how awful ~the internet~ is but am also known for having ~very online~ literacy. I mediate that apparent contradiction by bemoaning and mindlessly agreeing to surveillance cookies. I look at shiny things and talk to my friends and am somehow in many communities on the internet, where I’ve sometimes made new internet friends like Alex Quicho.
That I think about cybertech more often in these terms feels like a very 2018–present mindset, which has (d)evolved from an early 2010s discourse. The UK-based writer Alex Quicho describes this earlier era as primarily concerned with ethical warfare at that stage of U.S. imperialism, the growing power of Silicon Valley, and general anxieties around technology’s digital revolution.
Her book, Small Gods: Perspectives on the Drone (Zer0 Books, 2021), resists certain tropes of that drone analysis and, without romanticizing these floating robot monsters, wonders about more expansive possibilities for subjectivity. Across ten chapters, Alex’s ekphrastic rendering of thirteen artists’ multidisciplinary works gestures at some potential directions.
In a transcontinental Zoom call in May, Alex and I discussed how she crafted Small Gods within this discursive context and talked about some of the artists featured in this sensuous swirl of a text.
I was going to a lot of shows and seeing a lot of artwork by people who weren’t necessarily politically motivated about the drone in this Western sense, but the drone was appearing as a character or a spirit in some artwork […] in galleries. The big question for me was: What is the connection here? And what does that actually communicate about how we take for granted that the West has produced its own idea of the future? And how much [of] that [is] connected to technology and the war machine? There’s also this alternative future being produced so I wanted to see where they connected and where they were in conflict with each other without creating a binary.
The ways you write about the drone as Spirit or as character in the book made me think about disembodiment. Whether the artists are separating themselves from their personas or more literally in the sense of drones as this external entity floating in the ether, could you share more about this attention to the disembodied or the nonphysical?
I’m from the Philippines, where there’s a strong animistic culture. I was thinking about its relationship to technology, seeing parallels in how devices aren’t only designed for specific roles and uses, but become imbued with specific energy as they are integrated in people’s lives. You can also think of animism metaphorically where all of these small spirits are network devices—they haunt their own sort of spaces and they have their own worlds, but they’re connected to each other in their own very particular universe.
One of the artists I’ve been in a lot of conversation with is Korakrit Arunanondchai, and his works are really, really vast. They can take hours to describe in detail because, you know, they think about things like structures of governance, structures of spiritual beliefs. Korakrit’s from Thailand, so actually governance and spirituality are actually entwined on purpose as part of a system of modernity. So, how the state is structured around Buddhism, for example, is a big part of his work but, of course, it’s also about himself and his memories and his relationship to his grandparents.
He was one of the first people to get the consumer drone in 2015. People were having these very strong reactions to it anytime he brought it out to get an aerial shot, so he decided to make it a character. It became evident that it could embody this idea of a spirit—something that watches over you, something that accompanies you and documents your life or helps you reflect on your life, helps you pull out of reality and look down and get a new perspective.
I found that really fascinating in his work because it’s not commenting on industry at all, but it’s commenting on a more long-term and embedded desire. The drone almost becomes this character he writes letters to, in the way that you’d want to show your grandparents or your best friends or something. The way that you think of yourself is structured through how they see you. It’s this almost sci-fi way of extrapolating from that type of relationship. The way that I’m constructed also depends on a myriad of thinking creatures in the world around me.
I’m curious how that animistic ethos might have been part of your thinking in terms of art and world-building, which was a word that was pinging in my head. I was waiting for it to come up and sighed when you finally used it and talked about it. With artists like Korakrit, how do you think about this network of concepts?
With this book in particular, I really wanted her to be a slim, elegant machine. I also wanted it to have this feeling of porousness, of outgrowth of a fertile ground that at once brings the body and the spirit back into a mainstream discourse around technology that often bores me with its limitations. Often, either the ethics of technology needs to be very firmly in what I call “cables under the sea” materiality that demystifies this technology by putting the focus on these very specific extractive qualities. Or, on the other hand, it can end up in a very basic relationship to sci-fi. I wanted to reopen the mystery of this thing that is very much in its nascence with us, but is gonna shape civilization for decades, centuries to come.
And I knew that a lot of conversations that were happening felt very contemporary but knowing about things like precolonial societies—how many mirrors and echoes and chain links were resonating across multiple eras. I set out to evoke that feeling of expansiveness, as opposed to necessarily having a polemic or [even] a concisely and focused argument. I wanted something that opened up these keyholes into thinking about these things—instances of gruesome violence and how those terraform the earth, to use another buzzword alongside world-building.
I never want the feeling that we continue to be trapped by the history of colonialism and the legacy that is capitalism. We need to think about other ways outside of that. Those futures and those ways of thinking about the world already exist. Craft-wise, [I asked myself,] “How do you draw from unexpected places to have that sense of opening, and that sense of multiplication and reflection?” As opposed to feeling with every chapter that you’re coming closer to a narrower and narrower endpoint.
The structure of the book and the sequencing of artists you write about speaks to that opening. How were you thinking about writing that at the sentence level?
I’m a Libra and I get bored easily and I wanted to make sure my book was really beautiful. There needs to be sentences that do explanatory work, but I also wanted every single sentence to have a sort of potency. It’s useful to me to think about certain poetic rhythms or the ways that imagery appears in the text, the ways that images become metaphors or montage as you move through. Otherwise, I think a lot of conversations in the book can remain too abstracted, if you think about certain popular ways of talking about identity or migration or postcolonialism.
On the other hand, the stubborn fact of violence can sometimes almost close off ways of imagining what that actually means beyond trauma porn. So, I tried to insert unexpected images and references to defamiliarize the reader over and over again, in a way that helps them actually become more immersed in the work. It sounds cliché given the subject matter, but I feel like my writing is always either at a micro-cellular level or a drone level. There’s this constant cycle between being way too close and things feeling surreal, or pulled way out and things also feeling a little surreal.
I wanted the sense of embodiment to come through in the language itself. And I knew I didn’t want it to be a traditional nonfiction expression of this technology because that already exists in the world. I wanted it to be this strange refractive and poetic document of these phenomena.
Another artist and chapter that does this intense, cellular- to drone-level shift in scale was Stephanie Comilang’s work in “Chapter 7: Paradise,” which discusses migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong. Reading those scale shifts, I thought about how the workers themselves could almost be mapped as having drone capacities in terms of potentials to know, and of course, their agency is constrained by other factors, but—
In terms of defamiliarization and her approach of creating a sci-fi documentary, Stephanie Comilang speaks a lot about how, when we talk about issues of migration, especially with Filipino women, there’s a very particular kind of story that gets told. She’s said that the utility of that story sometimes falls off, because it becomes almost too familiar to people who are consuming it outside of these communities. So, she made the decision to make a sci-fi documentary, which has quite a simple conceit: the Philippines is a place of origin for the domestic workers, who then live in a present-day Hong Kong, but because Hong Kong is Hong Kong, it’s quite easy to transform it into a sci-fi setting. In the sci-fi conceit, Hong Kong’s internet communications are geo-fenced, so no communications can leave the region. And that’s why the drone character in Stephanie’s film becomes this incredible container for a variety of things that women will, in our world, invisibly send home and support—not just their families, but essentially the entire nation if you think about how much overseas Filipino workers financially support the entire political project of the Philippines.
Through this very conceptually simple thing, she’s incredibly eloquent about everyday tech infrastructures that we most take for granted. The drone takes the place of the cell phone and the remittance network, which is how so much of money earned abroad gets sent home to people’s families in the Philippines. It takes the place of a social network [and with it,] this digital idea of memory or the cloud—the ways that you experience the world and the mementos you take from it are augmented through photography, videos, and ways that you share with one another.
So the drone character collects all of that physically once a week and then flies that back home for the women so they can stay in touch with the people in the fictional homeland, aka the real Philippines. I thought Stephanie’s use of the drone was especially clever because of how the drone as an entity has its own connotations around borders and migration. If we think about not just the consumer drone but the military drone and how it seamlessly crosses borders, it’s like the anti-migrant essentially. It has its own legislation that protects it, so it’s able to act with impunity, regardless of the laws of the country that it is in—unlike human migrants, whose movements are tightly constrained and monitored by border systems. That’s how a lot of assassinations take place and fully legally, because the drone carries its own zone of autonomous killing.
So, in Stephanie’s work and the other artist who appears in that chapter with her, Alex Rivera, both of them use this drone as this really potent symbol of what migrant workers are deprived of specifically and why that is. While Stephanie’s work has not a wholly optimistic approach, it’s a kinder film, whereas Alex Rivera’s film Sleep Dealer leans very much into the gruesomeness of the U.S.–Mexico border. In his sci-fi, that border is entirely closed. He’s thinking about the drone as the thing that embodies the U.S.’s reliance on foreign labor, often illegal migration. In his film, all migrant laborers cannot physically cross the border, but they have these drone robotic selves that they patch into by wiring themselves into the network on the Mexico side. Then their disembodied selves go to work on the U.S. side.
It’s a really potent metaphor for these issues, because one of the boss characters in these silos talks to the main character and he’s like, “Oh, the U.S. has gotten what it’s always wanted: all of this migrant labor without the migrants, or our labor without our bodies.” Which is very much representative of the present-day American relationship to “foreign” labor. It’s no secret that the U.S. fears and devalues migrant work because it relies upon it.
There’s so much metaphorical potential of the drone in these works and how the very particular way that it exists in the world has become a creative prompt for the artists that bring it into their films about migration.
In the next chapter, “Oculus,” you talk about Lawrence Lek’s work, which gives a different entry point for exploring how people relate to social media and how postcolonial subjecthood and diaspora is explored in that artist’s work.
Now that we’re talking, I think I was making this connection while writing but I didn’t put it in the book explicitly. Lawrence’s work feels closely tied to sci-fi as a cultural phenomenon and futurism in general, whereas Stephanie’s and Alex’s mobilize the sci-fi genre for particular ends. I would say that Lawrence’s work is concerned with sci-fi as a cultural force itself. The way that it appears, it’s completely CGI. It has an aesthetic that’s closely linked to video games, this very traditional sense of world-building, aka a nerdier side. Maybe don’t put that in; Lawrence will be mad at me [laughs] but that then also becomes this incredible way to think about nation-building.
The works of Lawrence’s that I discuss—Sinofuturism, Geomancer, and AIDOL—think about Singapore and Hong Kong, where he grew up too, and how these postcolonial nations are relatively young, and what it means for a nation to evolve over a single person’s lifetime, essentially. In those intersections between personhood and nation-building, the question of agency for the postcolonial subject arises a lot because it’s all about agency, autonomy, independence, self-actualization. You could turn up in your therapist’s office like, “Oh, I’m a first-generation migrant and I don’t know what my identity is and I have to actualize throughout my life to think about how am I placed in the world between all these conflicting forces that are governing me?” You could extend that to the modern-day postcolonial nation which, of course, is still grappling with those questions and negotiating its place in the world.
Lawrence is not so naïve to just put this out there in that way. That is just one of many layers in his work. Because he also ties it to these wider ideas of personhood and artificial intelligence and what it means to be human and how we protect that, the tech side of things suddenly shifts that conversation into almost questioning this idea of techno Orientalism: the ways that we’re deprived of our individual agency, ways that we’re racialized—especially in Hollywood representations or in sci-fi itself or in video games—as having this very particular nonhuman quality.
In these works, it’s embraced in a way but also used as an engine of the narrative to ask, “What does it actually mean to be the Other and to tell the story from the side of the Other?” There, the drones are fused to this sentient AI housed in a satellite. It’s a little organism on its own that is negotiating its place in the world. As an AI, what it wants to be most is an artist—take from that what you will. It’s this embrace of what we as humans think AI can never have: this idea of spontaneity and creativity, this idea of wanting to lose control, to embrace a certain degree of chaos and unpredictability, whereas AI is a technology grounded in the sense of processing predictability, systems, and knowledge. It’s very much about that tension that very concisely wraps up all [the book’s] concerns in one bundle and allows this conversation to happen.
In an expansive, opening kind of way?
This interview has been edited and condensed.