Wednesday, January 01, 2020


January 1, 2020, Are We Prepared? Oil on linen 31 x 36 cm

Fire and Smoke
Catastrophic fires continue to burn in Australia, around the continent.* Exhausted fire services and volunteer fire fighters have valiantly fought these ongoing fires, some fires morphing into fire storms that scorch the earth as they shoot flames upwards into trees where the canopy becomes an elevated fast moving fiery hell. Daylight turns to red and then black, smoke drifts across the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand, and Australia records some of the worst air quality in the world. 

Were we prepared for the cataclysmic nature of this Summer's fire season? When hundreds of homes are destroyed, lives are lost and emergency evacuations of whole townships happen, we have to address the changing nature of the climate, how the landscape is inhabited and current risk mitigation management systems. Clearly extreme fire risk mitigation management has been lacking or, worryingly, not supported. 

The ongoing dire situation with the fires has revealed a dangerous political disconnect between government and expectations from the population. This disconnect will, likely, continue long after the fires have subsided. Any ensuing political instability will add fuel to unrest, protest, disorder and disappointment. Are we prepared for home-grown extremes of potential political and civil turmoil? 

The extent and ferocity of the fires have been described as unprecedented. Risk management must include attention to potential worst case scenarios - the unprecedented. With this in mind, what does the current cataclysmic fire situation tell us about other potential cataclysmic or unprecedented risks? Clearly environmental risks such as fire, drought and flood should have taught Australians a lot about risk mitigation. Are there other risks that we remain oblivious to, ignore or find too hard to comprehend? I was thinking about this kind of question when I painted January 1, 2020, Are We Prepared?

January 1, 2020, Are We Prepared?
I finished January 1, 2020, Are We prepared? today - January 1, 2020. I have painted it over the last couple of weeks, as the fires burn around Australia. Most people in Australia will likely know someone directly affected by the fires - for example, as the majority of a family member's property burned, the house was saved by a fuel reduction burn [about 2 hectares of a 10 hectare property] undertaken and organised during the previous Winter. The family member commented on the difference between the surface fire conducted during the fuel reduction burn and the ferocity of the fire that swooped though the property a few weeks ago. The Winter burn did not scorch the soil, the Summer out-of-control burn did.

This morning I listened to a Future of Life Institute podcast conversation between Prof Max Tegmark and Prof Huval Noah Harari. I have followed both for quite some time, and read a reasonable amount of their work. The podcast is an hour long, and it was a great way to start the first day of the new decade. Tegmark and Harari discussed - grounding morality and issues of consciousness, global health, animal suffering, existential risks and the ethics of the long-term future, nuclear war as a neglected global risk, near term AI and artificial general intelligence, creating new stories for the 21st century, risks of big data and AI enabled human hacking, and what does it mean to be human and what should we want to want. Early on in the conversation Harari asked a question about whether we are prepared for the future. Ah ha, this consolidated my ideas into a title for my new painting!

In January 1, 2020, Are We prepared? a fiery background is a literal reference to the current  Australian fires, and a metaphorical reference to an urgency to think deeply about other potential future risks. Regular readers will know of my long-term interest in existential risk posed by emerging technologies, and my more focused interest in contemporary and emerging militarised and militarise-able technologies. 

January 1, 2020, Are We prepared?, like Australia: December 2019 [below] also refers to the RAAF's confirmation of an order for SkyGuardian weaponisable drones. As weaponisable drones are acquired or manufactured by an increasing number of countries, are we prepared for the kind of war the future 'promises'?

Pixels, Parody and Perspective
In January 1, 2020, Are We prepared? the airborne weaponised drone is painted in small colourful squares that mimic pixels. The colours of the pixels a lolly-like - unreal, but seductive. They contrast with the fiery colours in the background, demonstrating the drone's distance from reality. Is the figure of the drone idealised? If so, what are the risks of idealisation, digital idealisation? The painting also parodies a computer generated image of a drone on a screen, perhaps a remote pilot's screen. It also references the digital imaging technology embedded in a drone's surveillance and targeting systems. Perhaps the fiery background is a war zone, either real or simulated? 

In January 1, 2020, Are We prepared?, are you, the viewer, looking down upon the drone and a fiery landscape below, or are you below the drone looking up at a hellish sky? As you fly, in imagination, around, below and above the drone 'imaginational metaveillance' returns veillance, as a kind of play with perspective, to the human. What kinds of unprecedented risks are revealed when perspective and imagination mingle? Are we prepared to not only to address these risks, but also to look for them?

Australia: December 2019 Oil on linen 23 x 62 cm 2019

* I have not included any links to the fire situation. There are many, and easy to find if you Google.


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