Sunday, November 26, 2017


Cloud Eyes Oil on canvas 40 x 40 cm 2017

In Cloud Eyes I have painted the clouds in night vision green...surveillance green. I ask, how does persistent surveillance and monitoring change our relationship with landscape and environment? Are we even aware of changes? Is landscape altered by the invisible signals that connect, transmit and receive informational, image and behavoural data? I try to expose these invisible signals, layering them over ambiguous landscapes - landscapes that could be anywhere.  

I also try to play with the viewer's perspective - for example with Cloud Eyes, are you above looking down upon my cloud eyes, or are you below them? By playing with perspectives, enabling even simultaneous viewpoints, I attempt to release the grip of machine and cyber surveillance, allowing the human gaze to turn the surveillance back. This is augmented by the sense that the viewer can freely fly around in my paintings. My clouds are visual metaphors for surveillance drones - regular readers will have guessed that!

The red background in Cloud Eyes could be an earthly landscape - maybe a barren desert, a bloodied landscape, or perhaps one rich in minerals. Or, it could be a sky filled with noxious gasses, a close-up of a brilliant sunset, or even the sun itself? In the 21st century the sky and space become part of the 'colonisable' landscape!

Vision, Seeing - Scoping
The eyes in Cloud Eyes are unblinking - they are not human. Here, I challenge ascribing notions of vision or seeing to machine, digital and cyber technologies - drones. They do not see, they do not have vision [literal, imaginational] - instead - they SCOPE! And, when you think about it, 'scoping' befits the contingencies of surveillance ie: monitoring, targeting, manhunting and attack, much better than vision and seeing.... 

By ascribing human qualities of vision and seeing, do we anthropomorphise surveillance technologies in ways that ultimately blind us?

There is more to think about, but I will leave the painting for you to ponder.


Please take a look at my last post A Droned Future? An online Visual Essay where I respond to recent high level UN debates about lethal autonomous weapons. I also address the newly released 7 minute film "Slaughterbots". This film, produced by AI and robotics researchers, portrays a seemingly scifi future - but is it? There is a link to the film in my post. 


Saturday, November 18, 2017


Droned Landscape Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016

This post is a visual-essay response to discussions about lethal autonomous weapon systems at the UN, and the release of a short film called Slaughterbots

Regular readers will know why I am interested!

Related posts or articles:

Over the last week high level discussions about lethal autonomous weapon systems have occurred at the United Nations Convention on Conventional Weapons in Geneva. Various state representatives, individuals and organisations have participated in debates about how to define an autonomous weapon system, and the formulation of regulatory guidelines. There have been discussions about possible bans and moratoriums on research into artificial intelligence for use in lethal autonomous weapons systems. Additionally, debates about weapon operations "beyond meaningful human control" have continued. Significantly, AI and robotics researchers are involved, expressing concerns about accelerating developments in autonomous systems capable of being weaponised. These scientists have become an orchestra of concern, with open letters being sent to the Canadian and Australian Prime Ministers, open letters published on the Future of Life Institute  website and more. 

Swarm Clouds Brewing Oil on canvas 36 x 45 cm 2017

Of particular interest to me is a collaboration between scientists, including highly regarded AI and robotics researcher, Prof Stuart Russell [Berkeley University] and the Future of Life Institute. The collaboration is the production of a film portraying how a future with lethal autonomous weapons may look - particularly a future where swarms of autonomous micro-drones can be deployed by powerful entities, state, non-state or other. The film was released to coincide with the UN debates - it was also shown at the UN. 

The 7 minute film is called Slaughterbots. You can see it, and read more about its background HERE. At the end of the film Prof Russell, whilst not discounting the benefits of AI, warns that lethal autonomous weapons are a real threat. He notes that the technology exists now to take autonomy to the next level, and that action is needed to ensure risks are mitigated. The message is - we need to do something before it is too late to retreat, redeem, fix - before we cross the Rubicon. This type of concern drives research into existential risk posed by emerging technologies, where threats may cause irredeemable situations, such as human extinction, or as the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, University of Cambridge, puts it - "civilisation collapse". 

Crossing the Rubicon Gouache on paper 76 x 56 cm 2017

The Film 
Slaughterbots is about a fictitious company that produces small autonomous airborne drones that work in swarms. The drones are lethal weapons capable of making operative, targeting and attack decisions on their own. They use the same imaging, tracking etc technology that is increasingly incorporated into our mobile phones and other devices eg: facial recognition. Device inter-connectivity is presented as a vulnerability in this future. Here, I would argue that this is already the case!

The film demonstrates a future where nuance is lost. One could argue this is already occurring! Binaries such as good and bad, wrong and right, drive a megalomaniac style of power, where being labelled 'bad' can be a death warrant. Where this power resides is worrying - it is channeled by a spokesperson for the fictitious drone making company, a non-state, mega-corporate, hegemonic and essentially lawless entity. The sense of power is driven by the spokesperson's almost evangelical presentation, which mimics the high production promotions made by many 21st century corporations and organisations. The celebrity and high entertainment aesthetic of the corporate presentation is seductive...and dangerous. The political and corporate merge, as if collapsed into each other. The 'body politic', with its nuanced layers, seems to no longer exist. 

As the film progresses it becomes clear that ubiquitous surveillance, enabled through multiple devices, social media interaction, GPS tracking etc, is conscripted for targeting, and ultimately precision attack purposes. French philosopher and author of Drone Theory Gregoire Chamayou's notions of manhunting are abjectly expressed in Slaughterbots. There is no consideration for normal legal processes of prosecution, defense, trial, and judgement, because the autonomous systems of surveillance, targeting and attack/assassination collapse them. The 'bad' must die - whoever the 'bad' might be! In Slaughterbots the 'bad' guys are student activists. 

Manhunting Gouache on paper 56 x 76 cm 2017

Slaughterbots also demonstrates that lethal autonomous weapons may not be restricted to military use. This picks up on current developments in security and policing where drones are increasingly used for surveillance and monitoring purposes. The collapse of military, policing and security endeavours into each other is another hint that nuance is being consumed by conglomerates of power.

Additionally, the increasing dual-use military/civilian nature of contemporary technology is highly problematic. In an age where terms like perpetual war and the 'everywhere war' [Gregory] are used, a perpetual market for the peddlers of militarised technology is ensured. In Slaughterbots the sales-pitch style of presenting the swarming and deadly capabilities of autonomous micro drones demonstrates how hype can hijack imagination, to ensure a perpetual market.

Current 'Future of War' rhetoric, emanating form military personnel and defense departments around the world, indicates a kind of priming for the future presented in Slaughterbots.    

Sensored oil on linen 50 x 50 cm 2017 

Slaughterbots channels many of the concerns I have tried to express in my paintings over the last two or so years. As regular readers know, these concerns flow from earlier ones about existential risk posed by emerging technologies. However, as a result of research into airborne weaponisable drones, for my recently completed M. Phil [Uni of Queensland], my paintings currently focus on drones, persistent surveillance and increasingly autonomous weapon systems. 

I try not to be illustrative [this is perhaps a necessary trap Slaughterbots falls into], but rather, evocative and provocative - thus, enabling multiple possible 'readings'. Ultimately, I also try to inject some hope. I do this by creating paintings where the viewer is unsure whether they are above or below, beside or in front of the drones, or indications of their presence. By enabling a sense of 'flight' around the drones, even at cosmic distances, I attempt to turn the surveillance and the human gaze back onto technology generally, and weaponised technology, specifically. The cosmic view provides perspectives that may trigger new questions. And, these questions may prompt answers never dreamed of. In addition to the cosmic perspective, I often position drones or indications of their presence with my version of the tree-of-life. It acts as a reminder of both life and hope. 

Stirring the Dark Chasm Gouache and watercolour onf paper 56 x 76 cm 2017

The Tree-of-Life Sends its Energy Underground Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016
Please read an article I wrote about this painting for the Australian Women's Book Review

Landscape and Environment
I couch my concerns within questions about how new 21st century weapons and ubiquitous surveillance mediate and restrict our relationship with landscape and environment. That mediation and restriction of behaviour and movement are likely outcomes in a future with lethal autonomous weapon systems is clearly illustrated in Slaughterbots. For example, people are advised to stay inside, cover their windows etc. They are forced to alter their behaviour to comply with the prevailing binary of good and bad, where divergence, even seeming divergence, is dangerous - a possible death sentence. The film, however, demonstrates that hiding is not possible...
I argue that contemporary technology is already forcing us to renegotiate how we operate within our environments. This is exacerbated by insidious changes to these environments and landscapes. These changes are wrought by invisible signals ricocheting from node to node, crisscrossing land, sky and space. The sky is perhaps the 'landscape' where most change is occurring. The vertical threat from airborne drones changes the way the sky is viewed. It is, in a sense, colonised. This colonisation, however, goes beyond the materiality of deadly drones. It also includes the invisible signals emitted and received by drones, as well as their support infrastructure, eg: ground control stations, and communication and GPS satellites. That the sky is often viewed with fear in places such as Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and others, should not be ignored. Indeed, the mediation and restriction of behaviour and movement by people on planet Earth already occurs! It is an indictment on all of humanity that in an age where Voyager 1 travels in interstellar space, some people on Earth are afraid of the sky.

 Ubiquitous Surveillance: An Invisible Landscape Oil on linen 60 x 110 cm 2017

False Stars, False Clouds - New Landscape Topologies
In my paintings I try to expose the invisible signals emitted and received by technologies designed to surveil, monitor, and perhaps target and attack. I use radiating or criss-crossing lines to disclose new topologies that exist in our landscapes. These radiating lines can also mimic stars and the suns's rays. However, their subterfuge is revealed as a kind of virtual netting, attempting to foreclose perspective.  In a similar way, I suggest that drone swarms, for example, create new types of clouds, false ones. The swarming drones depicted in Slaughterbots occupied the sky, at one instance obscuring it, the next instance, looking like a plague, a cloud of threat, as they plunged with deadly intent into more intimate spaces.

False stars, false clouds - and - false eyes.

Drones do not see - they scope. Even the idea that they have vision is troublesome. Why? Because, vision, in its expanded sense, is not just about seeing with an eye of eyeball and pupil, but also a mind's eye - imagination. The swarming drones in Slaughterbots clearly scoped, using data and information. Their intent was not visionary - in all senses of the word.

I'll stop here, as I have written more than I planned. However, please continue down the page to view a few more of my paintings depicting swarming drones.


The New Clouds Gouache on paper 56 x 76 cm 2017

 Swarm Surveillance Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016

 The Sky is Falling Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016 

 Trees-of-Life Vs The Drones Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016

 Drone Clouds Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016

Saturday, November 11, 2017


Rose Tinted Landing oil on canvas 40 x 50 cm 2017

This small painting makes me smile. I think it 'speaks' volumes. 

Civilian/Military - Dual-Use
I've been researching airborne militarised drones for over two years now, and I detect an increasing dilemma between the enthusiasm for the civilian use of drone technology, and the use of drone technology by the military or other security or combatant forces. On the one hand research into drone technology to assist activities such as humanitarian efforts, agriculture, environmental issues, goods delivery, disaster relief and more, are greeted with positive, even exuberant responses. And, rightly so, because the positive outcomes include saving lives, improved time management, economic benefits, and more. On the other hand, weaponisable drone technology that can be used by military or security forces, and/or conscripted by insurgent or criminal entities, presents a future that seems generally less rosy. 

However, for some, developments in militarised drone technology paint a very rosy picture. This is due to outcomes such as increased tactical advantage, political points for not exposing home troops to their possible death in foreign wars, increased reach across land, air and sea domains [even space]. Additionally, proponents of airborne military drones argue that targeting is more precise, even surgical, and thus reduces the likelihood of civilian deaths. These arguments play out in debates around the increasingly autonomous nature of drone technology ie: the use of artificial intelligence in drone operative and decision making activities. Lethal autonomous weapon systems [LAWS], although debated for a few years, are currently gaining more critical attention against accelerating developments in artificial intelligence and drone technology - not just airborne, but also land-based, under sea and on the sea drone technology. 

Lethal Autonomous Weapons LAWS
The debates about LAWS are played out in a number of arenas - and - interestingly many of those who are cautious are scientists, including AI developers and roboticists. In 2015 the Future of Life Institute published Autonomous Weapons: An Open Letter from AI and Robotics Researchers and in 2017 An Open letter to the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. There are ongoing discussions at the UN about the definition of a lethal autonomous weapon system, and ensuing  policy responses. However, the accelerating nature of AI development places policy development and legal responses, in a race they cannot keep up with. And, a new arms race looms - if it is not already under way. Whilst some people call for a ban on LAWS development, others call for a moratorium, until definitions, protocols, guidelines etc are in place. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is one of the active and informed players in the debate about the development and use of LAWS. Another agitator in the debate is the International Committee for Robot Arms Control [ICRAC]. 

Interestingly, the recent UN Institute for Disarmament Research [UNIDIR] report, The Weaponisation of Increasingly Autonomous Technologies: Concerns, Characteristics and Definitional Approaches [download from UNIDIR Publications] points out that the dual-use nature of technology draws together research for civilian purposes, with research and outcomes of militarised technology. So, advances in drone technology and artificial intelligence for use in civilian situations, are likely to also impact on advances in militarised technologies. The lines between civilian/ military use are increasingly blurred, by corporate involvement in technological research - ie: companies developing, selling and servicing technologies that are utilised or utilisable by the military - or other kinds of security forces.   

Rose Tinted Landing
This painting 'speaks' to the complexity that surrounds dual-use military/civilian technology. On the one hand in civilian situations the positive outcomes of drone technology, coupled with autonomous systems such as identification, pattern recognition, anomaly detection and so on, is exciting. Yet, these same capabilities in a militarised or weaponised situation take on more dire possibilities. Conversely though, these capabilities are seen as highly desirable by those who seek tactical advantage and domain dominance. Additionally, the data gathered by civilian use drone technology ie: mapping, animal and human behaviour, etc, is potentially accessible by other entities - I'll let you think about what entities! 

Rose Tinted Landing questions how we human beings embrace technology - the pink drone, seemingly landing on a pink tarmac, demonstrates that technology, with its 21st century characteristics of accelerating complexity and fluidity, has landed on our collective consciousness. Are we metaphorically seeing contemporary technology through rose-tinted eyes/glasses - as the old saying goes? Or, is the painting pointing out that there is no such thing as a rose tinted future - it is all a ruse, a virtual reality, a subterfuge...?

Rose Tinted Landing is another dronescape, but it is also a cosmic landscape. It is part of an underlying quest of mine, to rethink notions of landscape in an era where technology's invisible signals mediate how we operate in our environments and respond to landscape. 

And, on that note, I will leave it to you to think more about - everything!

Other Drone Landing paintings are:


Saturday, November 04, 2017


21st Century Cloud Fantasy Oil on canvas 67 76 cm 2017

Regular readers will know that 21st Century Cloud Fantasy relates to contemporary surveillance in the broadest sense - visual surveillance, data collection and mining, online behaviour monitoring, physical tracking and so on. It also relates to the way I attempt to turn the surveillance back upon itself, by placing the viewer in multiple orientations, even simultaneously. Like with many of my paintings over the years, 21st Century Cloud Fantasy takes a cosmic perspective which has the ability to oscillate at multiple close and far distances. Cosmology, the scientific study of the universe across all spatial and temporal scales, informs my visual oscillation. 

For example, are you looking down, as if gazing at something microscopically, but enlarged by some kind of vision device. Or, are you looking up into an endless sky? Or, are you Voyager 1 with its camera turned back towards Earth - like it did in February 1990 as it left the solar system - one last photo Pale Blue Dot before its camera was turned off, and it embarked on its continuing interstellar journey. Are you being propelled away from the pale blue dot, or are you falling towards it?

But, I was thinking of more! 

Clouds have featured a fair bit in my recent paintings. But, whilst they look like atmospheric clouds, I am playing with the idea of The Cloud ie: multiple servers designed to store computer generated information and data in ways where it is retrievable by possibly an array of systems or people. Is anything secure? 

There were so many thoughts going through my head when I painted 21st Century Cloud Fantasy. The choice of colours is deliberate, the targeting appearance is also, as is the positioning of radiating lines with the fluffiness of the clouds. I'll let you think about the painting. However, you might like to read some of my previous posts, where I position militarised systems, like airborne drones - with clouds!

Oh - and - yes, this painting is also a continuation of my attempt to renegotiate what landscape means in the 21st century. A century where the real and the virtual collide - and - where at the same time as humanity has succeeded in sending human-made technology into interstellar space, we also have people in conflict zones who are afraid of the sky - a droned sky.