Surveillance for the People: James Bridle’s “The Right to Flight”

The Right to Flight,” the newest project from artist and writer James Bridle, involves flying a large, military-grade “helikite” balloon from the roof of Bold Tendencies, a multi-storey car park and art space in Peckham, South London. Bridle, known for his work touching on issues of technology, surveillance, and data, has equipped the balloon with a variety of payloads, from darknet routers to aerial cameras. However, instead of being sent to some secret NSA data center, the results are shared publicly and online. In this way, the project investigates how the power of surveillance and omniscience might be returned to the surveilled. Three silo-like aluminum rooftop structures, built especially for the project by architecture and design studio TDO, function respectively as a workshop, a hangar for the balloon, and an exhibition space. “The Right to Flight” takes its name from an 1866 treatise written by the Parisian photographer and balloonist Nadar, who proclaimed that mankind had a right to ascend to the heavens. Nadar was the first person to take aerial photographs, and he led the daring effort to break the Siege of Paris in 1870. But ballooning has also taken a darker turn: from the Zeppelin raids of the First World War to the use of surveillance balloons in Iraq and Afghanistan. With this project, Bridle attempts to rediscover Nadar’s utopias in the possibilities of contemporary technologies.

The coffee machine is easy. There’s no magic to it in the kitchen. No alchemy or conjuring. No A little of this and a little of that – just a tiny bit of this and a handful of that. It has three parts. It’s made of heavy steel and locks together the way a muffler does. It works like the valves of a carburetor or an engine block, with its pistons sliding in and out and up and down, making a seal. The machine is simple and easily understood. Twist hard enough. Use enough coffee – the right number of scoops and the right amount of water. It is immutable. You can’t go wrong. It is mathematics, not poetry. There’s none of the church’s incense here, or the magic of the flames and the aromas, the smoke, drifting up to heaven.

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There’s an undercurrent of paranoia at Def Con 22 where hackers and security experts gather for demos, contests and talks. Attendees use a variety of tactics to avoid getting their devices compromised while at the event.