From Systems Aesthetics to Automated Drone Imagery in the Age of Machine Autonomy

Robert Spahr

Assistant Professor, Department of Cinema & Photography, Southern Illinois University

Robert Spahr presenting at NMC Lightning Talks, Bar Louie, 2014, ©Pat Badani. (Used with permission.)

Robert Spahr presenting at NMC Lightning Talks, Bar Louie, 2014, ©Pat Badani. (Used with permission.)

Original Copies

Today most of us carry a mobile device that connects us to the Internet, allowing us to express ourselves in real time by creating words and images as well as distributing them to a global audience. We share our personal information and we fetishize these devices and the technology that collapses space and time and makes possible this instant communication. To publish to the Internet is to make a copy and to view content on the Internet is to make a copy.

In Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay entitled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” he discusses a shift in perception and its effects after the advent of film and photography. He writes of the loss of aura through the mechanical reproduction of art. For Benjamin the aura represents originality and authenticity. A painting has an aura while a photograph does not. He states “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” [1] The destruction of the aura due to mechanical reproduction signals the transition from artwork as a ritual object, to artwork as exhibited in a museum. Benjamin then goes on to say:

“Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, is now one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic.” [2]

The attempt of fascism to render politics aesthetic can be seen in propaganda such as Hitler’s mass rallies and ultimately in war, as expressed by the Italian futurist F. T. Marinetti; most recently it is evidenced by the self-destructive aesthetic pleasure one feels watching reality television and 24-hour cable news.

Images as Weapons

I now would like to share a personal perspective on a moment in history that marks a real shift from the analog to the digital. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, technology, warfare, and the visual collided. I was in lower Manhattan, in a cab on my way uptown, when I saw people on the sidewalks pointing upward to the sky. As I looked over my shoulder and saw a small cloud of smoke rising above the towers I was oblivious that two passenger planes were being subverted into missiles. I was experiencing warfare and terrorism and nothing would ever be the same. At the time I simply wondered if I would be late for work. The media showed images of the plane’s impact and the building’s collapse in a repetitive loop. Our screens had become weapons of terror. The system of representation was hacked, much like the planes, and through this spectacle we were forced to relive the moment in a never-ending present.

We have transitioned from an image as a physical object made up of atoms, to one that is now only software made up of bits. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have us documenting our lives with photos, videos, time lines, and status updates. The time between living and documenting an event has collapsed. Sharing a photo on Instagram allows the present moment to be documented as an immediate past event. Adding an Instagram preset, such as a sepia filter, makes images look like they have a history and a physicality. This computationally created nostalgia simulates a one of a kind art object that helps us pretend it has been sitting in a shoe box for the past thirty years. Most photography today never enters the world of atoms, and is nothing more than computer data existing nowhere and everywhere, displayed upon screens and stored on hard drives separated by large geographic distances.

Systems Aesthetics

In Jack Burnham’s essay “System Esthetics,” written in 1968, he outlined our transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture. He described systems aesthetics and the changes taking place in the visual arts:

Through the early stages of industrialism it remained possible for decorative media, including painting and sculpture, to embody the esthetic impulse; but as technology progresses this impulse must identify itself with the means of research and production… The artist operates as a quasipolitical provocateur, though in no concrete sense is he an ideologist or a moralist. L’art pour l’art and a century’s resistance to the vulgarities of moral uplift have insured that.

The specific function of modern didactic art has been to show that art does not reside in material entities, but in relations between people and between people and the components of their environment. [5]

I want to discuss two artworks that demonstrate the ideas of Burnham’s notion of Systems Aesthetics. Consider the work Litanies by Robert Morris. The piece consists of lead wrapped over wood, a brass lock, a steel key ring, and twenty-seven keys. Each key is inscribed with a word taken from a translation of one of the notes that make up Marcel Duchamp’s Green Box. Philip Johnson purchased Litanies when it was exhibited in Morris’ solo exhibition. When Morris did not receive payment, he created the work Document, in which he responded with the following declaration, duly signed and notarized:

“The undersigned, ROBERT MORRIS, being the maker of the metal construction entitled LITANIES, described in the annexed Exhibit A, hereby withdraws from said construction all esthetic quality and content and declares that from the date hereof said construction has no such quality and content.”

The relief drawing etched in lead, presented as Exhibit A, portrays front and profile views of Litanies incised in lead.

The systems aesthetic of Jack Burnham, as demonstrated by the work of Robert Morris disconnects the physical object from the aesthetic value. In 1967, the artist Sol LeWitt stated, “In conceptual art the idea of concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” [6]

This statement of LeWitt describes a system of art-making no longer interested in the handmade craft of the artist but points towards a machine aesthetic manipulated and controlled by hidden algorithms.

Total Information Awareness and the Machine Aesthetic

Since the summer of 2013, the news has been filled with information leaked by Edward Snowdon regarding the complete surveillance system created by the National Security Agency with the infrastructure and cooperation of companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. [7] Together the government and corporations created an automated system of looking, sharing, and hiding. As more information becomes known it is clear that the government and corporations want to know everything about everyone’s personal lives, which is a goal of total information awareness.

Network technologies and algorithms that run the machines affect almost everyone. Business models such as the recording, publishing, and film industries are being disrupted; most recently this includes higher education. Hidden algorithms affect the stock market in ways that no one person can understand, as we witnessed in the 2008 financial crisis. These large systems have developed their own aesthetic values bringing us Wikipedia, weather, and stock information, news, government data, movies, music, images, all available online at practically no cost. Machines now watch us at border crossings, in front of our children’s schools, at our libraries, and in grocery stores. Every phone call, text message, and bank account transaction is watched, measured, and counted. Our metadata is telling a story based on a new machine aesthetic. The drone warfare that Obama is waging, and that is now arriving on our domestic doorsteps, is an extension and symbol of this new economy. By connecting all of these ideas outlined in this paper we can see that autonomous machines controlled by hidden algorithms control our world, and are structured in a way that reflects a new machine aesthetic.


1. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, ed. and tr. Hannah Arendt (Fontana, 1968), 216.
2. Ibid., 242
3. “Instagram Press Center,” Instagram, accessed January 8, 2014,
4. “YouTube Statistics,” YouTube, accessed 8 January 2014,
5. Jack Burnham, “Systems Esthetics,” ArtForum 7:1 (September, 1968): 30-35.
6. Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” ArtForum 5:10 (June 1967): 79.
7.”Interview with Whistleblower Edward Snowden on Global Spying,” Der Spiegel, July 8, 2013.


Robert Spahr is a visual artist, computer programmer, activist, and educator, who produces computational art using generative and procedural processes, digital and analog images, objects, live art, and time-based media. His works have been exhibited nationally and internationally: Generative Art International Conference, Italy; PRISM Breakup @ Eyebeam, NYC; ReFest / Art+Tech Festival, organized by CultureHub at La Mama, NYC; Neuromast: Certain Uncertainty and Contemporary Art, Franklin Street Works, Stamford, CT; Interrupt II Festival and Conference – Brown University, Providence RI; DRHA Digital Resources for the Humanities and Arts, London, England. Robert is an Assistant Professor of New Media at Southern Illinois University, in Carbondale, Illinois.