Wednesday, June 27, 2018


Occupied Landscape: Everywhere Oil on canvas 76 x 76 cm 2018

Occupied Landscape: Everywhere continues my interest in proposing that new topographies are being imposed upon our Earthly, biospheric and near-space landscape. These new topographies are not necessarily visible. Nodes, such as drones, mobile phones, ground control stations and satellites, may be visible, but the signals that connect them are not. With increasing dual-use capabilities of contemporary digital and cyber technologies, the prospect of an insidiously militarised landscape/environment cannot be ignored. This kind of occupation of landscape by signals could indicate a global ever-readiness for war, offensive and defensive, rather than just isolated cases of war and conflict.

In Occupied Landscape: Everywhere a weaponised drone loiters - hovers. Its pixelated appearance denotes its connection to digital technologies. The grids of red and white lines reveal a new netted layer over the landscape. In the title I use the word 'everywhere', drawing upon geographer Derek Gregory's ideas of the 'everywhere war'. This, of course, does not just mean everywhere geographically. It can also mean the everywhere of time, and cyberspace.

I have just returned from a stimulating two day workshop "Art + Conflict" hosted by the Institute of International Law and Humanities, Melbourne University Law School, and the Victorian College of the Arts, also at the University of Melbourne. It was a cross-disciplinary workshop, and a successful cross-disciplinary one! People from the Humanities, Law and Arts attended and spoke. Academics, curators and artists were also there, many wearing multiple hats. Four young academic scholars organised the workshop, Federica Caso [Uni of Queensland], Ms Shawna Lesseur [University of Connecticut], Stacey Vorster [Wits/UvA], Laura Petersen [University of Melbourne].

I was invited to be on the plenary panel [photo below], along with Prof Paul Gough, visual artist and Pro Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President in the school of Design and Social Context, RMIT, and Ryan Johnston who is the inaugural Director of Buxton Contemporary at the VCA, University of Melbourne. Ryan is also the immediate past Head of Art and the Australian War Memorial. 

L to R:
Prof Paul Gough, panel provocateur Fedrica Caso, Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox, Ryan Johnston.
Photo: Connor Foley [Institute of International Law and Humanities, University of Melbourne Law School]

A highlight was to hear Prof Desmond Manderson speak [photo below]. He is the Director, Centre for Law, Arts and Humanities, Australian National University College of Law. He spoke about Raphael Cauduro's murals in a stairwell in the Supreme Court of Justice building, Mexico city. The stairwell is used by judges to access their offices from the carport. It is also accessed by tour groups visiting the court building. Manderson's presentation brought to life the ghosts Cauduro had provocatively painted in replays of atrocious injustices. 

Prof Desmond Manderson. Image on screen section of stairwell where Raphael Cauduro's murals are painted, Supreme Court building, Mexico.Photo: Connor Foley [Institute of International Law and Humanities, University of Melbourne Law School]


Saturday, June 16, 2018


Outside Jesus College, Cambridge, April 2018

As regular readers of this blog know, I was invited to attend the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, (CSER) University of Cambridge, annual conference. The conference took place at Jesus College, 17 - 18 April, 2018. Around eighty people were invited to attend.

CSER is "dedicated to the study and mitigation of risks that could lead to human extinction or civilisation collapse." Even though a risk may have a low probability of occurring, if its outcome is cataclysmically irredeemable, then it is worth examining.

The conference, whilst focused on what some might call a morbid topic, was reassuring. Why? Because, the level of discussion, in presentations and workshops, about humanity's future was deep, analytical, open, inquisitive and creative. Importantly, CSER's aim to take an inter/multi-disciplinary approach to the "study and mitigation of risks that could lead to human extinction or civilisation collapse" was clearly evident. This approach demonstrates CSER's understanding that different disciplines can pose novel questions about issues relating to existential risks. This then assists identification of potential risks, plus possible ways to mitigate them. This is significant stuff!

Speakers included people involved in Mathematics, various kinds of Engineering, Artificial Intelligence, Geography, Public Policy, Disaster Studies, Philosophy, Communication, Law and International Law, Politics, Biology, Innovation Studies, International Relations, Economics and Demographics. Some examples of topics include Dr. Seth Baum's presentation based on a paper A Model for the Probability of Nuclear War co-authored by him, Dr. Tamsin Edwards presentation on Antarctic ice sheets, sea levels and climate change, Dr. Karin Kuhlemann's terrific presentation on sexy (eg: climate change) and non-sexy (egs: overpopulation, disappearance of insects) catastrophic risks, and Prof Andrew Maynard's talk focusing on creativity and imagination, the film Ex Machina and more. 

Those in attendance, including me, contributed another layer to the multi-disciplinary dynamic of the conference. We came from all over the world. Additionally, the researchers working in CSER were available for workshop facilitation, debate, conversation and feedback. Please check out the CSER TEAM. You will see that they also represent multiple disciplines. And, yes, the three Co-Founders of the Centre, Lord Martin Rees, Prof Huw Price and Yaan Tallinn attended the conference.

Delighted to say I briefly met Lord Martin Rees, whose book Our Final Century, which I read in 2010, launched my interest in existential risk posed by emerging technologies. He told me he has a new book coming out soon - something to look forward to! Also, delighted to say that I met Yaan Tallinn, who was a Co-Founder of Skype. He assists research into risks associated with emerging technologies; also into how research (eg: into safe artificial intelligence) can ensure beneficial outcomes for humanity. A very interesting man.

The conference theme was "Challenges of Existential Risk Research". This involved four sub-themes:
1. Challenges of Evaluation and Impact
2. Challenges of Evidence
3. Challenges of Scope and Focus
4. Challenges of Communication

Each afternoon, after a morning listening to invited speakers, conference attendees could choose one of two workshops. This allowed everyone to participate and have a say, contributing to the the four conference sub-themes. In the communication workshop I attended, I noted that although I am well informed about existential risk research, I am not an expert. But, I do know where to find experts! However, as a well informed visual artist who addresses ideas of existential risk in my work, I try to provoke questions that might make people more curious. Thus, my work is more catalytic than informational, hopefully triggering people to undertake their own research. I suggest that this is a valuable way to help communicate ideas relating to existential risk. While I did not say it at the conference, I have found that in the process of thinking about and creating a painting, new ideas about risk emerge. To be blunt, it offers another investigative methodology.

After the communication workshop I was approached by Prof Margaret Boden. She is one of CSER's scientific advisers, a highly regarded Professor of Cognitive Science from the University of Sussex. She has degrees in medical sciences, philosophy, and psychology, and integrates these disciplines with AI in her research. We had a great conversation that ranged across a variety of subjects. If you want to see her in action, she has just made the speech for the inaugural Margaret Boden lecture series, hosted by the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Human Intelligence, University of Cambridge. You can watch you  on this YouTube link - I recommend that you do!

As you can tell I thoroughly enjoyed the CSER conference. And, I am not resting! My aim is to get people talking about existential risks. 

*Videos of some of the conference presentation will be uploaded onto CSER's website soon.

Out a window at Jesus College, Cambridge.

I first wrote about my interest in existential risk posed by emerging technologies in 2010, when I was reading Lord Martin Rees's book Our Final CenturyI have often written about my interest since then.

In fact, ideas of existential risk posed by emerging technologies interested me so much that when I was offered an opportunity to undertake post-graduate research at the University of Queensland, these ideas informed how I positioned my research topic. I chose to undertake a Master of Philosophy, and ultimately narrowed my topic to how two Australian artists, George Gittoes and Jon Cattapan, represent contemporary militarised technology in their paintings. My research involved art historical examinations of the two artists' practices, as well as investigations into the historical, social, political and ethical issues surrounding the development and use of contemporary militarised technology, particularly airborne drones and night vision technology. This research was scaffolded by technical research into airborne drone capabilities, persistent surveillance technologies and increasingly autonomous systems.

Anomaly Detection (Number 2) oil on linen 120 a 180 cm 2017

I deliberately chose a topic that would afford me the opportunity to undertake research that would feed back into my painting practice. And, indeed the research into militarised technology has fed back into my longer term concerns about how to portray existential risk posed by emerging technologies. Prior to my academic research I had already included painted binary code, often juxtaposing it with the tree-of-life, to indicate potential threats to life from accelerating developments in technology. Since starting my research the tree-of-life, binary code and the figure of the airborne drone [or indications of its presence] are variously positioned together in cosmic landscapes where the viewer can 'fly'. I completed my M. Phil degree in July 2017, and I am now thinking about a PhD. Rest assured ideas of existential risk posed by emerging technologies will inform any research topic I pursue.

Follow Me, Says The Tree oil on canvas 60 x 76 2017

Sunday, June 10, 2018


 New Star - False Star \ Oil on linen 97 x 112 cm 2018

This online 'exhibition' gathers together paintings that evoke the image of the star, suggesting that contemporary surveillance technology and its invisible signals create false stars. Yes, we may not see them, but that makes their influence far more insidious. 

Many of the paintings situate a weaponised airborne drone at the centre of a 'star'. However, this is not the case in all of them, thus the paintings draw upon signals transmitted and received by other nodes, such as satellites - and even - mobile phones. 

* Please click on the paintings' titles to link to my previous posts about them.*

I have previously written about my interest in making visible the invisible networking of signals that operatively enable digital and cyber surveillance, targeting and attack. I suggest that these signals create new kinds of topographies that occupy landscape. As you will see from this 'exhibition' I interpret landscape as a domain that now extends from Earth into space, where space assets such as communication and GPS satellites, are positioned. That many of these assets are dual-use complicates the role played by contemporary technology in the potential militarisation or 'militarisability' of everyday life. 

When landscape is extended into space the figure of the star becomes a landscape element. Traditionally stars in night skies a brought into a relationship with earthly landscapes. A point of departure here is astronomical art, perhaps paving a way for more open ended notions of landscape. 

I am also interested in how new stars/false stars impact on our relationship with stars as celestial guides, real and symbolic. For example: guiding stars in biblical stories, reference points for early seafearing navigators, and journeying points for souls of the deceased. Do new stars/false stars hijack the role of guidance, navigation, and soul life in ways that steer us towards a militarised future? Do they erode symbolic meaning? There are a plethora of other possible questions here...

New Star - False Star [above] is a new painting. A weaponised drone is situated at the centre of a landscape. But, are you looking down upon the drone and an earthly landscape beneath it, or are looking up into a netted skyscape? This play with perspective is a deliberate tactic on my part. I invite you to fly around the drone, turning human surveillance back upon it. This is demonstrated in all the paintings in this 'exhibition'.

             New Star - False Star  Oil on linen 97 x 112 cm 2018 DETAIL

In New Star - False Star  the drone is painted with small squares [detail shot above], mimicking pixels, to indicate its link to digital and cyber technology and virtual representation. One could describe the painting as beautiful and this is important. Why? Because by creating an aesthetic appeal I try to draw attention to the stealthy and covert aspects of  contemporary militarised technology. I ask, have we noticed? I ask, what kind of subterfuge are we missing? I ask, what do we lose if invisible networks allow an ever-readiness for war? What kind of reality do we desire?

 Sensored Oil on linen 50 x 50 cm 2017

The 'stars' in this exhibition [except in False Stars] seem to extend their rays/signals beyond the edges of the paintings. This is again a deliberate ploy on my part. I try to indicate that the netting of landscape, and therefore, experience, by signals continues beyond the borders of the image. Once this is imagined, do you become more alert?  

The paintings in this 'exhibition' can be called cosmic landscapes, dronescapes, starscapes, signalscape....

 Drone Star Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016

                                        Sky - Drone - Net Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016

 False Stars Gouache on paper 56 x 76 cm 2017

Swarm Surveillance Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2017 

The possibility of a swarm of drones presenting a kind of false galaxy or universe of stars is troubling!

 DATA DATA gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016

 Strategic Landscape Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016

 Code Empire Gouache on paper 56 x 76 cm 2017

 Space Net Gouache on paper 56 x 76 cm 2017

Sunday, June 03, 2018


New Horizons Oil on linen 97 x 112 cm 2018

New Horizons continues my proposal that militarised and militarisable contemporary technologies, and their signaling systems and infrastructure, create new invisible topographies that crisscross and penetrate landscape. This landscape incorporates land, sky and space. The latter, in hosting various kinds of satellites used to transmit and receive communications, imaging and global positioning capabilities, is drawn into this extended landscape of signals. 

In New Horizons the weaponised drone, with its long expansive wings, creates a kind of horizon line. This line can be taken as a literal delineation. It can also be taken metaphorically. For example, with the development and use of weaponised drones, what kind of 'line' is crossed? Like any horizon, there is always something beyond it. What if this metaphoric horizon is time, the future? This poses further questions - Have we already militarised this future? Is there anything beyond the metaphoric horizon - is there a future?

In New Horizons I have also painted lines that seem to hover over the landscape, dissecting it into zones and co-ordinates. These lines mimic computer generated graphics, perhaps like those a remote drone pilot might see on their computer screens, to help surveillance and targeting operations. Is the ubiquitous computer screen, mobile phone and tablet screen, a new kind of horizon? 

In my painting the lines painted over the landscape offer a perspectival entrance into a netted topography that imposes itself upon the landscape. The layering and netting of land-based and atmospheric landscape with signals and nodes, such as drones, satellites, relay stations, mobile phones, suggests a kind of hostage situation. But, are we aware of this? In some parts of the world it is clearly apparent; in places like Yemen, Northern Pakistan, Syria, Afghanistan and Gaza, where persistent surveillance and the potential for airborne rapid response attack are constant.  

The underlying landscape in New Horizons is colourful and vibrant. Its liveliness contrasts with the spare linearity of the signals and the drone. Looking closely at the colourful landscape, multiple possible horizons exist. 

The interconnected nature of signals, ricocheting from node to node, could be read as some kind of constant readiness for war. Or, perhaps that we are already and persistently in a state of war. Here the ideas of perpetual war, and the 'everywhere war' [Derek Gregory] help us understand the stealthy role played by interconnected digital and cyber systems,and their appropriation for multiple-use civilian/military/security/policing activities. 

As an artist, I am interested in how landscape can be mediated and changed by invisible signals. Even considering landscape as an environment the extends from land, to sky and into space disrupts traditional notions of landscape. The idea that signals pose new topographies adds to this disruption. By viewing landscape as an extended environment, I see opportunities for new approaches to examining ideas of colonisation and occupation. Additionally, these intersect with neo-capitalist imperatives to economically quantify spaces and places in terms of ownership and value. The appropriation of signals by militarising forces poses interesting and alarming questions in a potential era of neo-colonisation. The unseen nature of buried and undersea cabling also intersects with this stealthy appropriation.

General unawareness of invisible and unseen enabling systems, particularly for those of us who live outside active war and conflict zones, means we may not understand the potential for insidious manipulation of human behaviour? 

Maybe we have already crossed an horizon we did not know was there?


P.S. Have you read Federica Caso's article about my dronescape paintings Visualising the Drone: War Art as Embodied Resistance ? I responded to it in my last post Exposing the Invisible