Drones at Knockdown Center (illustration by the author)

Drones at Knockdown Center (illustration by the author for Hyperallergic)

Is your drone all charged up with nowhere to fly? Impending Federal Aviation Administration regulations got you down? Fear not, because this summer the Knockdown Center, the sprawling arts space in Maspeth, Queens, will host a drone obstacle course consisting entirely of specially commissioned sculptures. The center recently launched an open call seeking proposals for the exhibition-cum-obstacle course, noting that “the most comprehensive viewer of the work will be the drones themselves” and encouraging artists to design their works with unmanned aircraft rather than gallery visitors in mind.

In the end, 11 artists will receive stipends to create new works for the obstacle course, which will either be installed inside, suspended from the old industrial building’s 20-foot-high trusses, or in its large courtyard. The obstacle course will be open to drone pilots of all sorts and skill levels so, as the open call notes, “submissions must thoroughly consider durability … collisions will occur.” Hyperallergic got in touch with Knockdown Center’s Michael Merck and Vanessa Thill to learn more about the project.

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Benjamin Sutton: Where did the idea for a drone obstacle course exhibition come from?

Michael Merck and Vanessa Thill: We recently purchased a Parrot Bebop Skycontroller to make a video tour of the space and one thing lead to another as we attempted to learn to fly it up into the rafters, through windows, and down stairs. We had also been discussing how we wanted our programming to develop and the types of exhibitions we could present that would not only work amidst all the different activities we are engaged with but also might not be otherwise possible at other spaces throughout the city … and voila!

BS: The open call announcement mentions the possibility of winning the “Eye-In-The-Sky prize”; what factors will be taken into consideration in giving out that award (piloting precision? speed? acrobatics?) and what form will it take — flight certificate, trophy, cash prize?

MM and VT: The primary idea is that the viewer of the show is the drone. As any viewer of art, an aesthetic judgment is weighed based upon a perspective and a thought process during and after the encounter with the work. To that end, the Eye-In-The-Sky prize (which will assume the form of a trophy) will be awarded to the pilot who submits the most interesting and succinct “reading” of the obstacles via video.

The space at the Knockdown Center in which the drone obstacle course will be installed. (photo courtesy Knockdown Center)

The space at the Knockdown Center in which the drone obstacle course will be installed (photo courtesy Knockdown Center)

BS: Is there a particular type or types of existing obstacle courses that are guiding the design and layout of the exhibition, like, say, mini-golf course, boot camp training obstacle course, or horse jumping shows?

MM and VT: We like all of these types of courses and expect our course to be a mix of them all — and more — as each artist will be interpreting the prompt differently. We have no idea what to expect but will ultimately assemble the series that tests the limits of our understanding of the capabilities of the drones.

This will maybe include but not be limited to: precision (i.e. threading the needle), split-second decision making (i.e. avoiding the unexpected), timing (i.e. classic Pitfall-style swinging rope above a pit of hungry alligators), expanding function (i.e. pivoting to use the fan propellers to open a door or using the camera to read a clue to another obstacle), completing a task (i.e. drones deliver shoes at the Crocs store).

BS: Are you open to proposals that incorporate damage and wear-and-tear, or should artists aim for maximum durability?

MM and VT: Probably somewhere in between … we want a working course at the end of the exhibition.

The drone obstacle course will be on view at the Knockdown Center (52–19 Flushing Avenue, Maspeth, Queens) from August 1–September 13, with active flying hours from 2–6pm on Saturdays and Sundays. The deadline to submit to the open call for obstacle course sculptures is June 1.

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...