In this visual essay I ‘exhibit’ paintings that depict weaponised airborne drones or indications of their presence, capabilities and effects. I place these elements in cosmic landscapes to take the viewer around and beyond contemporary task-oriented scopic technology, thus turning human vision back upon the surveillance. Human vision, from seeing with an eye, to also ‘seeing’ with a mind’s eye or imagination, is positioned as a resistance to the scopic forces that propel increasingly pervasive surveillance, data-collecting, monitoring and targeting activities. The analogue medium of painting, manifested via human gesture in human domains of space and time, is also positioned as an integral part of the resistance. My quest is to expose, using the medium of paint, the invisible infiltration of contemporary militarised technology into landscape and environment, from land into space.
By taking roaming and cosmic perspectives, I attempt to demonstrate how movement and distance can help expose the invisible signals, and their networks, that enable contemporary surveillance and targeting capabilities. The figure of the airborne drone as a node-in-the-sky – rather than an eye-in-the-sky – is emblematic of this phenomenon. By exposing signals, in my paintings, it becomes apparent that new discrete layers of landscape are imposed by the infiltration of surveillance, monitoring, and targeting technologies. Signals crisscross the globe from node to node, and colonise the landscape and airspace. They also extend their reach into space, where they connect with assets such as communication and GPS satellites. My painting Remote Control (2016) (Fig.1) depicts the interconnectedness between a ground control station, an airborne drone, and communication and GPS satellites. The radiating lines emitted from the drone target the tree-of-life, an age-old transcultural/religious symbol of life.
My interest in contemporary militarised technology, particularly airborne drones, was inspired by research for my recently completed Master of Philosophy at the University of Queensland. Part of my research involved examination of the legal, ethical, cultural, political and technical issues surrounding unmanned weaponisable airborne drones, their persistent surveillance capabilities, and increasingly autonomous systems. I kept my painting practice alive during my M.Phil studies by using academic research as stimulation and inspiration. However, my interest in the influences of technology on human beings and society had existed well before my M.Phil studies. This interest stems from my childhood.
I grew up on a grain farm in the middle of a flat black soil, naturally treeless plain on the fertile Darling Downs, Queensland, Australia. Although my father was a farmer, from the age of twelve he was also a keen HAM amateur radio enthusiast, call sign VK4ZWB. We had aerials, antennae, transmitters, receivers, and gadgets galore dotted around the farm and in our house (Fig.2). Long before mobile phones, we had communication devices in our cars, even in tractors and the harvester. In 1957, when Russia sent Sputnik One into space, my father then 20 years old, was one of a worldwide network of HAM radio enthusiasts who tracked the spacecraft, and sent co-ordinates back to the precursor of NASA. Long before the internet, there are many instances of our family hearing world or national news before it hit mainstream outlets. With the arrival of computers, my father dove into digital and cyber technology. He was fascinated by my university research and would often send me technical information about drones, surveillance, and data collecting. He died in his sleep in March 2016, with a dismantled computer, ready for his attention the next day, on his HAM shack bench.
My childhood experiences influenced a general interest in technology. It also sparked a curiosity about the people who are involved in the development of digital and cyber technologies. In more recent years I have become interested in the burgeoning research area of existential risk posed by emerging technologies. This interest is reflected in paintings where I depict the age-old transcultural/religious tree-of-life symbol, colourfully painted binary code, and cosmic landscapes. My aim in these paintings is to draw attention to the vulnerability of the planet and the human species in an age of accelerating developments in areas such as bio-technology, artificial intelligence, militarised technology, as well as technological contributions to extreme climate change.
I was encouraged to take my interest in existential risk posed by emerging technologies into further academic research. After pondering a few research tangents, my M Phil topic was narrowed to risks associated with accelerating developments in contemporary militarised technology, especially airborne drones and night vision technology. In an unusual mix of cultural studies, technical research, and art history, I examined how two Australian artists, George Gittoes and Jon Cattapan, represent contemporary militarised technology in their paintings. My academic journey is an example of oscillating influences, from how art practice can inform an academic research output, to how academic research can feed into art practice, and back again.
COSMIC PERSPECTIVES AND DRONESCAPES
My recent paintings, which I call dronescapes, are visual responses to various issues associated with airborne drones, persistent surveillance, and increasingly autonomous weapon systems. Additionally, I respond to the blurring of military, civilian, and security activities where technological infrastructure and systems are dual-use: collect data and kill. My use of cosmic perspectives aims at drawing attention, through a paradoxical comparison, on how the human everyday line-of-sight has been reduced to the distance between our eyes and a computer screen, mobile phone, or other device. I suggest that reduced line-of-sight is a conditioning that impedes perspective, and thus the ability to see the big picture, to see how landscape and environment are colonised by surveillance and targeting signals.
In my paintings I portray cosmic vastness as a way to propel the viewer, in imagination, to places where different literal and metaphoric perspectives may provoke new ways of looking at life and Earth in the age of the Anthropocene and perpetual war. For example, in Ubiquitous Surveillance: An Invisible Landscape (Fig.3.) the viewer may be above the clouds looking down upon them and the landscape below, or the viewer could be below the clouds, looking up to the sky. Whether it is a landscape or a skyscape, signals insidiously impose a gridded additional layer. In my mind the night vision green lines are surveillance signals and the red lines are targeting signals.
As Ubiquitous Surveillance: An Invisible Landscape demonstrates, I am interested in how the insidious mediation of Earth, sky, and space by invisible surveillance, monitoring and targeting signals, may affect human mobility and relationship with landscape and environment. Extreme life or death experiences with persistent surveillance and potential rapid response attack occur in various places. These include, but are not limited to, Yemen, Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. In these places loitering drones present a constant vertical threat. That people in these regions are afraid of the sky, in an age where the spacecraft Voyager 1 travels in interstellar space, is an oxymoronic indictment on all of humanity. In a global sense, the seepage of scopic surveillance from military activities into civilian activities, such as policing and security, is a sign of a creeping ubiquity that may see us all ultimately afraid to venture outside, literally and metaphorically.
The recently released seven-minute film Slaughterbots speaks to this mediation of the outside – in physical movement, thought, speech and communication. That this film was produced by AI researchers and the Future of Life Institute makes its message a serious concern. The film portrays a future where lethal autonomous weapons, in the form of drone swarms, are deployed to control a society that has collapsed into binaries of good and bad. Legal processes and decisions about guilt and execution are the domain of the slaughterbot. At the end of the film, thirty-five year veteran of AI and robotics research, Prof Stuart Russell from Berkeley University, warns that even though the film is fictional, we have the technology to quite quickly turn it into a dystopian reality.
A SELECTION OF PAINTINGS
In this next section I write about specific paintings and their inspirations. In most of the paintings, the cosmic perspective prevails, thus propelling the viewer to fly. This does two important things. One is that it turns the human gaze back towards the drone. The other is that it affords an opportunity to ‘see’ the creeping colonisation of signals across landscape, sky, and space. That some of these signals are used with the intention to benefit humanity is not questioned. However, interconnected networks and the appropriative capabilities of digital and cyber systems, whether operated by legitimate forces, aberrant groups, or clandestine entities, potentially expose all signals to monitoring, hacking, manipulation, and surveillance.
Anomaly Detection (No. 2) 2017
A drone’s wide area surveillance system can detect anomalies, such as three vehicles, kilometres apart, travelling at speed seemingly toward one destination. This may indicate a possible attack, a meeting with a high value target, or simply family members rushing to the aid of someone in need. In Anomaly Detection (No 2) (Fig.4) I have three weaponised drones loitering around Earth, the pale blue dot. The drones are painted blue to indicate a subterfuge, an attempt to appear sky-like. However, they are also painted with small squares of colour, mimicking pixels, to indicate their reliance on digital and cyber technology. In this cosmic landscape, the viewer could be below or above the drones, or even beside them. There is power in this ability to shift perspective. It prompts questions about whether we have noticed anomalies in the way drone technology is leading us towards a future that may already be militarised. This possibility is evidenced, for example, in ‘future of war’ rhetoric emanating from military forces and defence departments around the world.
Launching the New Horizon 2017
Persistent Surveillance and Strike 2016
Launching the New Horizon (2017) (Fig.5) and Persistent Surveillance and Strike (2016) (Fig. 6) are landscapes that foreshadow droned horizons. The Reaper drones’ long wings create flat horizons that form ‘ceilings’ in the sky. They seem designed to obscure perspective of all kinds. The drones’ wings carry ballistic payloads, two guided missiles, and four Hellfire missiles. A threatening underbelly directed down towards Earth is revealed. This threat is augmented by the scoping rays emanating from the drones’ wide area surveillance systems. However, are these rays illuminating a cosmic landing strip, perhaps indicating a meta-landing on human consciousness? Once landed, what next?
Droned Landscape 2016
Cloud Eyes 2017
Droned Landscape (2016) (Fig. 7) and Cloud Eyes (2017) (Fig. 8) are informed by research that examines not only developments in militarised technology, but also the fast paced nature of this development. These two paintings look into the future for possible ramifications. Both paintings demonstrate drone swarming technology with multiples of drones or scopes almost carpeting the landscape. However, in each case, the viewer could be below these swarms or above them. Here, the ability to move/fly, even in imagination, is revelatory and empowering.
Droned Landscape is a brutish painting, uncompromising in its visual proposition that the landscape and environment are changed – droned. It presents a possible new topographical layer imposed on the terrain and/or the sky. Alternatively, the viewer may be seeing a cross-section of a droned landscape, of land, horizon, and sky. If it is a cross-section, then the droning of landscape has infiltrated subterranean layers, as well as atmospheric layers.
Cloud Eyes plays with ideas of ‘cloud’ storage, cyber security, and ubiquitous surveillance and monitoring. The unreal and unblinking eyes scoping out from fluffy night-vision green clouds expose the sightless scoping of contemporary surveillance and targeting. It cripples ideas of ‘drone vision’ by making it clear that drones do not see – they scope with real and metaphoric cross-hairs seeking targets.
New Sky? 2016
Combat Proven Long Range, Long Dwell 2016
New Sky (2016) (Fig. 9) and Combat Proven, Long Range, Long Dwell (2016) (Fig. 10) are further examples of my quest to expose the invisible infiltration of contemporary militarised technology into the environment. However, in these two paintings trees are portrayed. They are my visual re-interpretations of the age-old transcultural/religious tree-of-life. Their branching appearance contrasts with surveillance signals that mimic the rays of the sun, perhaps as some kind of camouflage. False suns, false stars, virtual skies, algorithmic horizons mediate perception. Again, the viewer could be above or below the drones. The trees’ branches, however, act as beacons to remind us of natural systems, such as vascular and river systems.
The drones in New Sky are painted with small blue blocks that give the impression of a pixelated false virtual sky. In Combat Proven, Long Range, Long Dwell I have painted binary code, instructing the word DRONE on the drone. Binary code instructing the word LIFE is targeted by the drone’s scoping signals. LIFE in binary code indicates that ‘life’ in the 21st century, is data. However, the tree-of-life standing as a beacon at the end of the arc of binary code offers hope, and a half tree with half roots hovering in the sky mirrors this hope.
Follow Me, Says the Tree 2017
Follow Me, Says the Tree (2017) (Fig.11) continues the theme of hope. I have painted a signal grid that forms a topographical layer in an ambiguous cosmic landscape. It casts a surveillance-net. The night vision green pupil in the node-in-the-sky, disguised as an eye-in-the-sky, signals its pervasive long range and enduring targeting task. Its radiating signals, in fact, pinpoint a target. Night vision green clouds act as an anchor for the grid, and a blanket that obscures perspective. However, the tree-of-life has found a way to erupt through the grid. It also sends its roots underground. It presents more hopeful possibilities.
The ‘dronescape’ paintings I have chosen for this visual essay are only a few of the over 100 paintings I have created since I started my M. Phil in 2015. While I was studying I focused on works on paper, as they are easier to leave and return to. Since the end of my the degree I have returned to oil paints. I was conferred the degree in August 2017. I continue to be inspired by my research, which is ongoing.
My quest to expose the insidious infiltration of signals into landscape and environment relates to long-term interests in attempting to untether ideas of landscape from Earth-bound horizons. Here, my aim to represent cosmic perspectives provides a way to not only think about landscape and environment in a general sense, but also how they are mediated by contemporary and emerging technologies. By placing representations of the militarised airborne drones in cosmic landscapes with other elements, such as the tree-of-life and binary code, I hope to engender a marvelling of our human and planetary existence. In doing so, I also hope to engender a realisation that existential risk posed by emerging technologies, whilst possibly small, is worth paying attention to.
As Carl Sagan said “In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves”.
 Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of Human Future in Space (A Ballantine Book: Random House Publishing Group, New York, 1994), 7.