Monday, December 26, 2016


The Australian War Memorial December 21, 2016. The Last Post ceremony is performed each afternoon. I was there for the commemoration for Norman Leslie Oliver, who died from wounds sustained during World War 1.

I've been to Canberra, Australia's capitol city, to visit the Australian War Memorial. I was there to do some research for my M. Phil studies at the University of Queensland. After meeting curatorial staff to see some of the paintings, currently held in storage, by the artists I am researching ie: George Gittoes and Jon Cattapan, I spent time in the Commemorative Courtyard/Roll of Honour and a long time looking at the Memorial's extensive collections. These collections encompass an array of material from various wars and conflicts Australia has been involved with. This includes Australia's most recent involvement in the Middle East. It also includes special mention of peacekeeping activities in various places over decades. Display items include newspaper clippings, old film footage, photographs, items collected by soldiers, actual weapons, actual aircraft, maps, simulations of battles, recordings, paintings, sculptures, medals, dioramas, and so much more - including a surveillance drone!

I spent all day on the 21st  December at the War Memorial - I  had to be asked to leave at 5 pm - I had lost track of time. I was inside a simulation at the time. It was a World War 2 bomber and the floor of the 'aircraft' was actually vibrating. The all-round sound was so effective it took the woman, asking me to leave, some time to get my attention!

Given my M. Phil research approach I was particularly interested in exhibits and commentary on militarised technology, both pre and post digital/cyber.

German Enigma - Code Machine - Spook hardware.

This exhibition is a MUST SEE

"For Country, for Nation is thematic in structure. Within each theme are stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experience during wartime and peace." 

I hope  For Country, For Nation  gets to tour around Australia. This exhibition is meaningful in many ways. It includes old photographs, memorabilia, commentary from current Indigenous service men and women, Elder commentary and artistic reflections by contemporary Indigenous artists. It is not a permanent show, but I was told it will be up well into 2017. 

Please visit the War Memorial's webpage for For Country, For Nation . Also, the Memorial's page Indigenous Service i Australia's Armed Forces in Peace and War - Overview 

Of particular interest to me - regular readers will not be surprised - was the smallish surveillance ScanEagle drone suspended from the ceiling in the Middle East Display . This is a new display opened in October 2016.  There is also a photograph, attached to an nearby wall, of one of these drones being catapulted into the air by soldiers. The photograph is accompanied by didactic information which explains Australian use of airborne drone surveillance technology in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Exhibition Didactic Australian War Memorial 

The Heron drone mentioned in the War Memorial's didactic information [image above] is an Israeli made drone which has been used by Australian forces for surveillance purposes. You can read more about Australian drone operation at the Royal Australian Air Force "Technology" pages HERE .

Look up, there's a drone! The 'figure' in the glass cabinet 'wears' bomb proofing gear.

I think some people would miss seeing the drone as the exhibit is quite crowded, housed in a small space and the drone hangs quite close to the ceiling. However, if you do notice it... it does provide a good opportunity to view the underside of the drone [Photo Below]. I could not get the whole of the drone's underbelly in my photograph as I only had my iPad turned onto 'Selfie' mode.

Underbelly of a surveillance drone - Australian War Memorial

The Memorial's Anzac Hall extension houses an array of air and maritime exhibits, including actual aircraft, moving images, etc. The Aircraft Hall  exhibits planes, photographs and other memorabilia. 

I could not help wonder how the airborne drone will feature in the future, not only at the Australian War Memorial, but in other museums and memorials around the world. 

Will Reaper, Predator, Gray Eagle and other drones, with their array of surveillance and weapon's technology, be included in exhibits dedicated to the history of aircraft or will they be included in exhibits dedicated to surveillance, military technology, weapons or...? Or, will there be "Unmanned Systems" exhibitions? 

Given the debates about unmanned systems and increasingly autonomous systems*, questions will need to be asked about remote killing, increasing asymmetry in combatant capabilities, terrorist tactics, increasing dual-use nature of cyber connectivity, civilian deaths and more. These questions will influence the way 21st century militarised technology and its effects will be exhibited. 

*The UN has agreed to tackle the issue of autonomous weapons in 2017.

Military airborne photographic surveillance has a long history. The photo below describes early aerial photography during World War 1. This didactic information was included in an interactive large-scale map of Gallipoli [Turkey] and surrounds. The original photographs, taken during the war, have been montaged together to form a very large interactive topographical map. Visitors to the War Memorial can access information by touching points on the large screen. Of course these early airborne surveillance activities were manned - and - in open cockpits! Very different to contemporary remotely piloted long range, long dwell systems with wide area surveillance capabilities, that currently rely on GPS and communications satellites.  

The contrast between the World War 1 surveillance exhibit and the airborne surveillance ScanEagle drone got me thinking [again]...what will militarised technology bring in the next 100 years? Considering the accelerating pace of technological development I'm not sure we can even imagine what it will be like. And, then again, there's the question astronomer and cosmologist Martin Rees raises in his early 2003/4 book Our Final Century    - will humanity survive the 21st century? Indeed, will militarised technology, by mistake, accident or in the hands of aberrant groups, lead to humanity's demise?

World War 1 exhibit: Aerial photographs of Gallipoli and surrounds.

The Australian War Memorial achieves a balanced approach to how it memorialises war and conflict. The gravitas of war's companion - death - is pervasive. And, it's not just about Australian deaths, but also casualties, military and civilian, on all sides. It is very sad.

The gravitas of death - regarding Australian troops - is solemnly felt when walking along the Roll of Honour. This long list of the names of the fallen runs around the two sides of the Commemorative Courtyard. Name after name, after name, after name - of young men and women who have been killed in war and conflict situations.

My paternal grandfather's older brother Louis Hugh Brimblecombe died in France at age 22, from gunshot wounds to his back. He enlisted in July 1917 and died August 1918. It was strange, but as I walked along the Roll of Honour his name jumped out at me. He is buried at Crouy British Cemetery, Crouy-Sur-Somme, France. 

My grandfather Wilfred John Brimblecombe CBE [1898 - 1973] did survive the war. He enlisted as a private in 1915 [age 17] and returned home as a Sargent [age 21] in 1919. He was initially in the 6th Lighthorse, but was transferred to the 2nd Lighthorse Machine Gun Squadron. He spent the war in the Middle East. On returning to Australia he and another brother farmed a large block of rich black-soil on the Pirrinuan plain between Dalby and Jimbour, Queensland, Australia. My grandfather was politically active, particularly in agri-politics, and became the Federal member for Maranoa [nearly 732,000 sq kilometers] in the House of Representatives in 1951, during Sir Robert Menzies second stint as Prime Minister. He retired in 1966.   

Louis Hugh Brimblecombe and other young lives lost during World War 1. 

There is no way I could say a visit to the Australian War Memorial is enjoyable, in the sense of joy and laughter...thank goodness. Rather, it is a riveting, moving, sad, educational and thought provoking experience. 

Reading some of the didactic information about the fate of people in war and conflict situations is harrowing. Seeing re-enactments on film...I cannot watch them for very long. Old footage of Lighthorsemen atop their horses made me wonder if my grandfather was one of the soldiers. The Last Post, which is played each afternoon at the Last Post Ceremony  in the War Memorial's Commemorative Courtyard leaves you with a sense of sadness for all involved - for humanity.

My visit to the War Memorial has made me wonder even more about the future. Regular readers know that in many of my own paintings I have been juxtaposing the age-old transcultural/religious symbol of the tree-of-life with the military airborne drone to question humanity's fate in an era of accelerating technological development. Places like the Australian War Memorial attend to the past where humanity remains central - in loss, life and death, participation, invention, survival. What will the future bring? And, how can places like the War Memorial provoke questions that probe the future?

New Sky Gouache and watercolour on paper 56 x 75.6 cm 2016

Persistent Surveillance and Strike Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016

Combat Proven, Long-Range, Long-Dwell Gouache and watercolour on paper 56 x 75.6 cm 2016


Thursday, December 15, 2016


Not a Game Gouache and watercolour on paper 56 x 75.6 cm 2016

In Not a Game I have painted a colourful Reaper drone armed with four hellfire missiles and two guided missiles. Its wide area surveillance system is monitoring and recording the terrain. The footage it collects is relayed to other monitoring devices and sensors. A cityscape, a country homestead, and a drone's ground control station and satellite antenna are dotted along this terrain. The satellite antenna is connected to the communication satellite, a geostationary satellite parked at near 40,000 km above the Earth . The orbiting GPS satellite is connected to the drone, tracking it and enabling remote piloting. The need for connectivity to operate a drone is apparent. Connectivity, though, also enables the collection of data from our personal and public digital devices. These cyber pathways are invisible, pervasive and ubiquitous. It is not a game. 

A tree-of-life on the far right monitors the entire scenario. The cosmic landscape, in which the tree is situated, indicates a prevailing cosmological perspective - if attention is paid to it.


Remote Control (below) completed earlier this year, also depicts the connectivity currently needed to operate a drone and its various payloads.

Remote Control Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016 


Saturday, December 10, 2016


Combat Proven, Long-Range, Long-Dwell Gouache and watercolour on paper 56 x 76.5 cm 2016

The title and the painting, Combat Proven, Long-Range, Long-Dwell, were inspired by language used to describe military airborne drone technology and capabilities. This language is used by the military, drone manufacturers and associated commentators.* I have to admit that, whilst some words convey lethal capabilities, there is something strangely poetic - yes poetic! - in the way words are put together to describe a drone's characteristics. But, herein lies a danger. Words can be seductive and exciting, 'colouring' the way one might critically engage with discussions about drone use and continued developments.

'Combat proven' is self evidentiary.

'Long-range' and endurance mean the ability to fly long distances, and stay in the air for long periods of time. Here's a link listing the 10 longest range unmanned air vehicles [UAVs] [2013]

'Long-dwell' is also about endurance. Its the ability to hover or loiter over a sight of interest. A more 'poetic' description is "persistent dwell capability" . This ability enables persistent surveillance.

In my painting Combat Proven, Long-Range, Long-Dwell I play with the capabilities implied in the title. Yes, a drone might have them, but when you think about it - so might life, in its broadest cosmological sense!

In Combat Proven, Long-Range, Long-Dwell I have painted binary code for the word DRONE on the Gray Eagle drone. It acts as both an 'instruction' and a decoration. The drone's sensor signals are targeting LIFE - I have also painted - 'instructed - the word LIFE in binary code. Yet, at the end of the 'ribbon' of  LIFE-code there is a tree - a tree-of-life - perhaps indicating LIFE'S 'persistent dwell capability'? In the cosmic sky two strange half-trees hover inside an oval or egg shaped enclosure. Is it a planet, or a thought, a portal, another universe, maybe a mirror? Could it, in fact, indicate LIFE's sophisticated capabilities that bypass human-made technologies?

I ask, is LIFE - human life - being re-calibrated as coded instructions? If so, does this then make it easier for other coded processes to 'interact' with LIFE - surveil, target and attack? Is it a pragmatic intent to reduce everything to code and its contingent interactive capabilities?

Lots of questions? I hasten to add that I have no answers, but I do 'enjoy' thinking about the questions - and painting some of the images that pop up in my my mind, as I do.


* Christian Enemark in his fascinating book Armed Drones and the Ethics of War: Military Virtue in a Post-Heroic Age  discusses issues such as a drone's long-range and long-dwell capabilities. He thoroughly engages with concepts of 'just war' theory, proposing that contemporary times are a "post-heroic age".  Gregoire Chamayou in Theory of the Drone discusses similar issues extrapolating into propositions that drone technology has turned the world into a "[man] hunting ground". Enemark comes from an International Relations perspective and Chamayou from a philosophical one.

It's worthwhile to have a look at some of the drone manufacturing company websites - just Google - military drone manufacturers! You can also search government defence department websites too.

And, The Centre for The Study of the Drone  at Bard University, New York, is a good resource. 

Saturday, December 03, 2016


Life and the Drone Gouache and watercolour n paper 56 x 76.5 cm 2016

Have you noticed that the world seems to be on a precipice? Political instability, seemingly endless war and conflict in parts of the world, climate change [with the debates about whether it is real or not distracting from actual issues], financial and economic volatility, left and right divides becoming more extreme...and so on...all add up to a deep global anxiety. Advances in technology do not seem to help alleviate the anxiety! In fact, new anxieties about privacy and surveillance pervade as we increasingly use and rely on the internet, and other digital technologies, for a variety of daily and ongoing services and functions. 

As a result of my current research into militarised technology [as part of my M. Phil at the University of Queensland] I am concerned about research and development in weaponry, and military technology and systems infrastructure . These include advances in autonomy, where the human is minimally involved in the decision making loop or potentially completely out of the loop. The human would be replaced by advanced artificial intelligence with decision making and information gathering capabilities that could also include self-learning attributes. These kinds of weapons are called 'lethal autonomous weapons' [LAWs]. This problematic area is summed up in a recent article The Problem of Defining Autonomous Weapons by Ariel Conn on the Future of Life Institute website. You can find a lot of information on this site. 

The figure of the military drone is symbolic of  our current era's dilemma. Currently operated by remote pilots, drones are used by various governments including the USA and UK for surveillance, targeting and attack purposes, in declared battlefields and counter-insurgency situations, in various regions of the world, including Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  The The Bureau of Investigative Journalism  can provide you with a starting point for more research.  The Australian Air Force provided drone surveillance support in Afghanistan, withdrawing in 2014.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs], certainly have positive civilian uses such as surveillance and targeted assistance in disaster situations such as fire and flood etc. However, I propose, that the dual-use ie: civilian/military capabilities of drone technology [whether air, land or sea based] muddies the seriousness of projected developments in military use of drone technology that is combined with increasing levels of autonomy. Additionally, as Martin Reese speculated in his fantastic and provocative book Our Final Century [2004] how do we ensure that technologies such as these do not get into the hands of aberrant individuals or groups? The answer seems to stay one step ahead. Is that, in itself, a pathway to destruction? Or as Reese might postulate a pathway to human species extinction?

LIFE and the DRONE
In this painting I wanted to show/reveal two types of branching systems: that of the tree-of-life and that of a drone's scoping capabilities designed for surveillance, targeting and attack. The tree's branches represent life's systems - life supporting systems such as vascular ones, river systems and energy forces beyond Earth and perception. The drone's branching scoping signals represent technology. Are we replacing life with a simulation of life? If so, does the simulation make it deceptively 'easier' to develop weapons operated by artificial intelligence? 

There are a myriad of questions to be asked and I wonder how the arts can be involved in the questioning? I know I am trying....


I remind the reader that I am not a technophobe - I grew up in a house full of gadgets and gizmos - my father was a very serious HAM Radio enthusiast who, as a teenager, tracked Sputnik 1, made our first television in the early 60s on the dining room table and so on. You can read more about my childhood surrounded by technology HERE

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