Drones are so common today that their potential seems limitless. They’re being tested to find lost kids, manage traffic, gather news, inspect aircraft, deliver mail, drugs and pizza.
But like much technological whiz-bang, drones are morally mutable. Often they’re used by the military to spy and to kill.
Which brings us to Leonardo da Vinci. What would the tech visionary of his era do with drones?
That’s the question Minneapolis artist Vesna Kittelson poses in “Da Vinci and the Drone,” an exhibition opening Thursday at Form + Content Gallery in Minneapolis. Featuring Kittelson’s drawings, a limited-edition handmade book and a sculpture built from a modified CIA Reaper spy drone, the show runs through June 25.
“Tech is not my field, but I think he would be on top of it. He would be a designer of drones,” Kittelson said recently in her sunny studio in Minneapolis’ North Loop. “He would no doubt work with the top agencies that pay very well,” like DARPA — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — that are sweeping up the latest tech developments.
“But he had a poetic side, too,” she added.
It’s the tension between the Renaissance engineer’s scientific observations and his imaginative dreams that inspired Kittelson’s two-year project. The show is already garnering international attention. After the Minneapolis exhibit ends, the prototype for her “Da Vinci and the Drone” book will go to the Tate Library and Archives, a London collection of artists’ books that also owns her four-volume “Mrs. Darwin’s Garden.”
Personal experience piqued Kittelson’s obsession with drones. She was born and grew up in what is now Croatia, a sprawling, island-rich country on the Adriatic Sea. The Croatia of her childhood was part of Yugoslavia, a Communist country that was shattered by ethnic wars in the 1990s.
Married for more than 45 years to David Kittelson, a University of Minnesota professor whom she met when they were graduate students in Cambridge, England, she remains highly attuned to the politics of personal liberty.
“I grew up thinking it was Russia that was spying on its people,” she said. “But one day about two years ago I came to realize that drones are here to stay and that our country is spying on its citizens. It is surveillance that we and our children and grandchildren have to live with. The question is, why?”
Bird myths and history
Like people since time immemorial, Da Vinci (1452-1519) was fascinated by the ability of birds to soar through the heavens.
He drew obsessively as he struggled to grasp the cause, effect and similarities in everything from wind currents and water waves to the twists and curls in human hair. He sketched the feathered wings of birds and the delicate membranes of bat wings. He doodled elaborate mechanical devices to loft humans into the skies — glider-like contraptions, wings rigged with pulleys and ropes, prototypes for helicopters.
“He was inventing war machines, tanks, catapults, dams, and he wanted to map Italy, so he had many reasons to investigate flight,” Kittelson said. “But to me, the most wonderful thing was that for 30 years he was always buying birds in the market and releasing them so he could study their flight.”
The centerpiece of her exhibit is her accordion-fold book, which juxtaposes an essay about Leonardo with Kittelson’s ruminative drawings. She begins with images of Icarus, the mythical Greek boy whose father, Daedalus, made wings of feathers and wax for him. Entranced by the joy of flight, Icarus flew so close to the sun that the wax melted, his wings collapsed and he drowned in the sea. His death echoes through the millennia as a metaphor for hubris and humanity’s reckless overconfidence in technology.
Images of angels and birds, details of feathers, a wing drawing and sketches of Da Vinci’s flying machines follow. Kittelson garnishes the pages with images of early balloons, the Wright brothers’ plane, Leonardo’s fan-like propeller blades, modern drones, Superman and a hummingbird.
The essay, by art historian Lois Eliason, outlines Da Vinci’s contributions to human flight and the technical limitations of his preindustrial era.
“All he had to work with was rope, cloth, wood and the loops and knots he made from them,” said Kittelson. “He was a man of details and his drawings are beautiful, but he needed the support of other minds and technologies not available then.”
So why include a hummingbird?
“Drones often fail because their fixed wings can’t adapt to turbulence or changes in wind speed or direction,” she said. “They just fall out of the sky and crash. So scientists are studying hummingbirds, this tiny creature that can hover. Unlike a drone, a hummingbird is totally stable in different climates and air conditions because it can move its wings asymmetrically. It knows how to stabilize itself to get that nectar.
“Like Da Vinci, even now scientists have to study nature,” Kittelson said. “The drone is supposed to be a perfect machine, except the hummingbird is more perfect. I love that.”