This drone footage will blow your mind, but not for the reasons you think

On February 17, Canada's first exhibition dedicated to drones opens at Toronto's InterAccess gallery, but this show is about more than crazy aerial views. A variety of international artists, including three Canadians, are exploring the rise of the drone, both as an artistic video-capture tool, and as a subject, one that raises questions about borders, surveillance, identity and place. Preview some of the artwork through a series of videos and still images.

Preview Canada's first art exhibition dedicated to drones

Lawrence Bird. Still from parallel 3, 2015. The Winnipeg artist's video appears in the group show Once Is Nothing: A Drone Art Exhibition at Toronto's InterAccess. (Lawrence Bird)

This drone footage will blow your mind, but not just because it features stunning, never-before-seen views of beluga whales frolicking in the Arctic Ocean or majestic ice floes collapsing off the Labrador coast.

Today, Toronto's InterAccess launches Once Is Nothing: A Drone Art Exhibition — and it's the first of its kind in Canada, an art show completely dedicated to the rise of these suddenly ubiquitous machines, one that raises questions about borders, surveillance, identity and place.

Yes, some of the art was made with little flying robots, but not in the way we've become familiar. Instead of soaring high over forests, for example, artist Laura Millard lets her quadcopter hover no higher than your ankles, flying with the blowing leaves in Scarborough's Rouge Park for the mournful and meditative video, Passing. Like her, the other drone operators involved in Once Is Nothing pull a loop-de-loop on expectations.

"I think this has sort of been the decade of the drones," says Marissa Neave, Programming Coordinator at InterAccess, a gallery, studio and educational facility with a focus on technology in the arts. "It's quite easy now for people to get their hands on their own drone." So easy, in fact, that one of the works featured in Once is Nothing — Drone It Yourself by Jasper van Loenen — quite literally incorporates a DIY drone kit. So long as you have access to a 3-D printer (a service available to members of the gallery, BTW) you can make his aerial robot out of anything.

"A lot of artists are using drones to make work in really interesting ways that also convey really strong commentary about remote-control aerial vehicles," says Neave.

Last fall, InterAccess held a special workshop series called The Drone Project where artists discussed the technology from a theoretical perspective. Like what they mean "in a military context, but also recreationally, and the gap between regulation and enforcement," Neave explained.

Morgan Skinner. Still from Gorgon Stare, 2016. (Morgan Skinner)

The workshop spawned this winter's exhibition, and one of the participants, Toronto's Morgan Skinner, is also featured in Once Is Nothing. His piece, Gorgon Stare, focuses on the implications of drone use in warfare, specifically in the Middle East. Skinner gathered real drone footage from strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. He also pulled a bunch of video captures from the game Battlefield 4. And on nine simultaneous feeds, he mixes and matches scenes from both. "It really exposes the troubling visual parallels between the physical and virtual realms where these kind of technologies are deployed, and are either used for great destruction or used for recreation — in a very violent way," says Neave.

Winnipeg artist Lawrence Bird contributes parallel 3, a durational video which uses Google Earth to simulate drone surveillance. A seven-hour long journey over the Canada/US border, the beautiful aerial view is occasionally interrupted by glitches — gaps in the satellite images available online. "You can see how the information is patchy at times. Even though there's a political border, there's other sorts of data borders that exist through surveillance capturing that information," says Neave.

IOCOSE. #lounge #droneselfie #intimesofpeace, 2014. (www.iocose.org)

On the flip side, In Times of Peace, from European collective IOCOSE, imagines an alternative reality where drones aren't used for any military purpose. "So they sort of ask, 'What would drones do?'" The answer isn't much different from anyone with too much time on their hands and a smartphone: they'd take selfies.

The collective also contributes Drone+, wherein a drone gets the Nike+ running app and tries jogging. Its level of success is comparable to that of this particular CBC Arts writer in that it shows no visible signs of improvement.

"We picked works that really spoke to this moment in our culture where drones are curious recreational objects," Neave tells CBC Arts. (Eight international artists were selected, including three Canadians.) "As a collection, they really show how expanded this field is, and its potential," she says. "I think it's just beginning."

Once is Nothing: A Drone Art Exhibition. Featuring Lawrence Bird, David Bowen, IOCOSE, Joe Ford, Mona Kamal, Morgan Skinner, Jasper Van Loenen. Feb 17 - April 2 at InterAccess Gallery. 9 Ossington Avenue, Toronto. www.interaccess.org

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