Commemorative stamp

Joseph DeLappe's In Drones We Trust

Images of drones can be subtle or obvious, but they’re provocative when they’re on money.

Images of drones can be subtle or obvious, but they’re provocative when they’re on money.

America’s ability to ignore the log in its left eye for the mote in its right is never more apparent than at Christmas. Just go to Google News and search for Black Friday: 202 million results. Then try drone strikes: 1.4 million results.

Many people will buy art for their family and friends at Christmas, but it will rarely be art that makes a statement. It will mostly be art that makes a grapeskin-thin declaration about personal aesthetics. In fact, provocative statements about almost anything important seem taboo in the season of love and consumption and joy. And that willful ignorance is part of what fuels Joseph DeLappe’s latest participatory art project In Drones We Trust, which asks the question, Instead of buying art that makes a statement, why not spend some money?

Drones, the unmanned flying machines the U.S. government uses to murder people in foreign lands, have been inspiration for DeLappe’s work in recent years. He’s created several pieces that have garnered national attention, including the mobile exhibit 1,000 Drones—A Participatory Memorial and the Drone Project 2014 at Fresno State University (a full-scale sculptural reproduction of an MQ1 Predator drone).

As the on-sabbatical art professor from the University of Nevada, Reno winds down his artist-in-residency at in San Francisco, his latest project is not so monumental, but intends to make an outsized impact on the American consciousness (or maybe conscience).

In Drones We Trust is a pretty simple idea. First, DeLappe designed and laser-cut rubber stamps featuring an MQ1 Predator Drone. He has sent out around 450 of the stamps to friends, artists and supporters. The idea is to place the drone in green ink in the sky over the buildings on the back of paper money, like the Lincoln Memorial on the back of the $5 bill. At three-quarters of an inch across, the image looks like it belongs there. After the money is stamped, it’s photographed and placed on a Tumblr site, By stamping money, it highlights the connections among our government, our currency, and our taxation—which funds the “defense” establishment. It’s also open-ended, allowing people to attach their own feelings to the sight of a killing machine attached to a symbol of government.

The hope is to get people thinking and talking about drones. The superficial symbolism is easily interpreted: Americans are rubber-stamping murder by not speaking up.

U.S. apathy with regard to drones “is extraordinary to me,” DeLappe said. “I think it’s partially because we’ve reached this ultimate place in this relationship with high technology. We worship it so much, and it’s so active in our everyday lives and so benign mostly. I think we just think it’s this clean, surgical killing, and it’s preventing terrorist attacks at home, and all the things we’ve been told all the time. In fact, it’s extremely dirty and very destructive, and I think most people just don’t care. … And that’s part of the impetus to this project. A study came out last week kind of questioning the surgical nature of these strikes. It said basically there were 41 targeted men, and it took 1,147 people to be killed to actually get those men. … And along the way, they’re killing women, children, civilians. I think political apathy is a kind of disease Americans suffer from, and unfortunately it allows for these very questionable and illegal activities to go on.”

Ultimately, DeLappe’s intention is to bring drones home, to make Americans aware of the problematic nature of our relationship with technology, government policies and other countries.

“If it’s just me stamping my money, that’s kind of nothing,” he said. “But I’ve got probably 350 people around the country and around the world doing it, so potentially, we’ve got thousands of dollars in circulation that will have this very subtle image of the drone. Most people won’t even see it, but those that do see it, I hope it’s an interruption. … It’s a way to get someone to think.”