Thursday, July 05, 2018


Drone Life: Shadow Play Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016

Regular readers will know of my interest in risk, particularly existential risk posed by emerging technologies. I attended the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, (CSER) University of Cambridge, annual conference in April this year and heard many interesting speakers. I've read numerous articles and books about the topic. This week, on Monday, I attended a AI and Security masterclass hosted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Canberra, Australia. Again an array of highly regarded, informed and interesting speakers. While they did not directly speak to ideas of existential risk, risk identification and mitigation were overriding themes.

Regular readers also know that I have a particular interest in airborne militarised drones, persistent surveillance, and debates around increasingly autonomous weapon systems. Risks are obvious, through mal-intent, mistake, unintended consequences and other misadventure. These risks can be driven by state and non state actors, groups and individuals.

But, apart from the obvious risks associated with the technology, are there other nuanced or silent contributors that might make risk more probable. Here, I am thinking of an approach Karin Kuhlemann (University College, London) talked about at the CSER conference at Cambridge. She spoke about "creeping normalcy" as well as complexity and conceit.

I propose that our human tendency to anthropomorphise technology, its capacities and/or materiality expose us to risk. Here, I focus on a tendency, a 'creeping normalcy', to anthropomorphise the airborne unmanned militarised/weaponisable drone, and it various capabilities. Gregoire Chamayou in Drone Theory wrote “Drones have not only eyes, but also ears and many other organs”. (1) A drone's imaging technology is often referred to as 'drone vision'. But, 'vision', as Lauren Wilcox reminds us is, "always embodied and tied to other ways of knowing and creating the world". (2) So does using the word 'vision' for a drone's imaging technology set us on a relational course with the drone that may be reductive, one sided, fake? If so, what kind of knowings and creations ensue? Is this where the risk that exposes us to threat lies? Chamayou also notes that the drone is an "unblinking eye", and here he observes a reductive, rather than augmentative, outcome. (3) For me it indicates a fake eye, and places a question mark over the veracity of a drone also having "ears", and "other organs".  

Cloud Eyes Oil on canvas 40 x 40 cm 2017

I have previously written about my issues with using the word 'vision' to describe a drone's imaging technology. 'Vision' is far more than just seeing with an eyeball and pupil, it also denotes our mind's eye, dreams, imagination and visionary thinking. A drone cannot dream or imagine. Before we relinquish 'vision', in its broadest sense, to the drone, let's think about alternative descriptions for a drone's imaging technology. By doing this, we may protect ourselves from reductive forces, as well as violent ones. I prefer 'scope' or 'scoping' to describe a drone's imaging technology. A camera has a scope, as does a gun. A drone is a sophisticated mix of camera and gun, aiming and 'shooting' to capture images - aiming and shooting to kill. It is not an 'eye-in-the-sky", but a 'scope-in-the-sky'. Suddenly, the latter nomenclature untethers any kind of embodiment. I could say it disembowels, but that would indicate that a body existed to be disemboweled - and a body does not exist!

While aware that human operators, situated in ground control stations, currently monitor a drone's mission, the unmanned nature of the aircraft and its remoteness from human operators, is not an embodying process. It is an indication of what I call 'unhumanning' processes, as well as dehumanising ones. Wilcox draws attention to a "voyeuristic violence" enabled by the drone. (4) Here, the remote operators and the human victims are drawn together. One is considered voyeuristic as he or she gazes at screens relaying the intimacies of life and death. The other is the victim of a violent mortal death at the end of a guided missile. I propose another term to describe the hunting operation of a drone - 'scopophilic necro-intimacy'. (5)  Violent voyeurism suddenly becomes more grotesquely violent because 'scopophilic' conveys a kind of deviant morbidity. The term 'necro', relating to a corpse or death, conveys ideas of mortal death and perhaps moral or psychic death. 

Remote Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016

Does a drone have a body? If its imaging technology is not really describable as having the full capacities of human vision, does a body exist? I'd prefer to think of the drone as an outer chassis, not a skin, that houses its non-embodying payload, not "organs". Payloads can include sensors, fuel, weapons, cameras, radar equipment and so on. Payloads can depend on mission requirements. Like a mix-master cooking equipment, the drone can be fitted with what is needed at a particular time, for a particular mission. Does that seem embodying?

In my paintings, I use the age-old transcultural/religious tree-of-life as a representation of life, all life, including human life. The tree symbolises life forces with its branching appearance echoing vascular systems, neural pathways, river systems and cosmic forces. The tree, in my paintings, is a body - all bodies. It stands in contrast with the figure of the drone, which I often paint with small 'pixelating' squares to indicate its connection to the cyber, digital, virtual world. As Federica Caso points out in her essay Visualising the "Drone: War Art as Embodied Resistance" about my work, I do not normally include people in my dronescapes. Rather than trying to represent particular violent events with their individual living, injured or dead players, I take a cosmic view, where the tree is body and blood, and cosmic skies sing with the star dust from which we have all come from.

My painting below Anomaly Detection takes a cosmic view of the tree-of-life, seemingly targeted by three drones. With a cosmic perspective maybe we can detect anomalies that are not noticeable in an environment where "creeping normalcy" blinds us to insidious and silent behavioural risks?

Cheers, Kathryn

                                 Anomaly Detection Gouache on paper 56 x 76 cm 2017

1.Gregoire Chamayou, Drone Theory, trans. Janet Lloyd (London: Penguin Books, 2015).41. 
2. Lauren Wilcox, "Drones" in Visual Global Politics, ed. Roland Bleiker (Abingdon and new York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2018), 111.
3. Chamayou, Drone Theory, 27, 32,
4. Wilcox, "Drones", ibid.

5. I used this term in my M. Phil [UQ] thesis.

New Shoots Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 216

 Drone Zones Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016

 Scoping New Skies Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016

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