n the road between Las Vegas and Tonopah at the 39-mile distance lies Creech Air Force Base. One may not notice it traveling at creosote-blurring speed up the interstate. It lasts maybe a minute in the traveler’s periphery, a forgettable landmark, beige air hangers and trailers behind a well built fence adjacent an airstrip across the street from a Terrible’s gas station/Denny’s—gone in a blink, an afterthought before it even was one.
Bear with me here, but I feel this is an important place to change subjects to the thrifting habits of artists (OK, this artist). The five primary objectives for thrifting include the acquisition of; cheap blazers, ill fitting jeans, gently used cowboy boots, antiquated electronics, and picture frames. Regarding the fifth objective, if you hang enough art shows with no or low budget, you will run out of ways to frame work that meet your price point, but with a shrewd eye a smidge of patience (and maybe some unscrupulous tag popping) one can source a mid-quality frame for their latest opus. Careening through thrift stores at fabric-blurring speeds hundreds of images surf at the eyeline—children’s drawings, some floral prints, textual images commanding that we “kiss the cook” and ad nauseam corollaries, a fungible mass of imagery that beg indifference.
A week ago, I found myself on one of those frame hunts at my local Savers, rifling through a mass of shabby pictures and slogans, live-laugh-loving my way to a more professional presentation, when something caught my eye. A rendering of a cottage produced in the loveless style of Thomas Kinkade, which tends to give my visual cortex an anemic response, were it not for the military drone soaring just above the chimney—inexplicable, ominous and hilarious.
Though unobtrusive at a glance, Creech Air Force base is one of the more important military installations on earth. It is at the heart of America’s drone offensives and contingencies. If a drone is flying the stars and stripes over one of the impossible number of conflicts our nation’s embroiled itself in, probability dictates it is piloted from Creech. Every reconnaissance mission, tactical engagement, and civilian death has some legacy just off the side of the road on U.S. 95, two exits from sovereign Paiute land, and one from the region’s largest prison.
It should come as no surprise, really. Another 30 miles up the road lies the testing ground for the United States pinnacle foray into militaristic atrocity, the Nevada Test Site. In fact, the collective amount of land actively in use by the United States military in Nevada is equivalent in size to the state of Rhode Island. This land is all but invisible, tucked into basins out of public sight, or in the case of Area 51, intentionally blocked, our tax dollars at work.
I hold the image, gawking at it, the premise all too clear. Amongst the collective frivolity of this thrift sore lies a powerfully nuanced statement. An image so conversant in the subtle horror of wars seen and invisible, proxy and forever blanketing our global consciousness, the individual’s small foray into consumerism, secreting the shadow of violence into its least observed aspects. My hands shake with the intensity of these cognitions. On the back of this otherwise paltry image is a QR code. This isn’t a singular incident. This is not some one-off gag or misplaced piece of agitprop. This is an exhibition.
Joseph DeLappe—former Director of the Digital Media in the Art Department at UNR, Guggenheim Fellow, and Professor at Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland—has a long history of creating politically insightful works that hold our cruelest reflections. He is committed to interventions and dialogues surrounding violence and its presence within the culture as a whole. His work straddles the divide between digital and physical worlds. He’s created a Grand Theft Auto mod that spanned a year between independence days reenacting the number of gun deaths in the United States (Elegy: GTA USA Gun Homicides 2018-2019); Manually typing the information of soldiers slain in the Iraq war into the chat of the US Army recruiting (dead-in-iraq 2004-2011); and physically stamped currency with an image of drones (In Drones we Trust!, 2014). DeLappe is strident in his commentary, dedicating himself to the admonishment of our collective folly.
His most recent stamping iteration is a series titled Thrift Drones, targeted to infiltrate communities that have relevant relationships to remote killing technologies. Thrift Drones is a seven-year project, incorporating 275 reclaimed works of art bought from thrift stores and altered to contain Predator and Reaper drones. On Nov. 10-12, with the assistance of Southern Utah Museum of Art director Jessica Kinsey, Delappe re-donated these once-discarded works of art into thrift stores throughout Las Vegas.
To “put your money where your mouth is” or “practice what you preach” by committing yourself to work and actions that embody an ideology is what scholars refer to as Praxis. Thrift Dones is one of the finest examples of Praxis I’ve experienced as an artist, work so succinct and compelling is hard won in contemporary art.
On my next expedition into upcycling my stroll past the art section will assuredly be slower. And my next drive up the 95 will contain greater weight. And maybe, just maybe one of these days we’ll all find an image that leads to an act against horrors committed in our names with our money.
Since 9/11, over 22,000 civilians have been killed by American drone strikes around the world, lives lost just out of the periphery of ever-expanding military actions. Thrift Drones brings this reality home, frames it however cheaply and gives us a striking reminder to a constant problem we can hang on our walls.
To stay up to date on Joseph DeLappe’s Thrift Drones project, follow @thriftdrones on Instagram.
Photos courtesy Joseph DeLappe