Friday, April 10, 2020


Machine Unreadable Oil on linen 56 x 76 cm 2020

Machine Unreadable was started not long after I returned from the UK in mid February, and it is now finished. I had gone to the UK to attend and present at the Aesthetics of Drone Warfare conference, University of Sheffield. One of my fellow presenters Mark Reinhardt, Professor of American Civilization at Williams College, gave an interesting talk "Killing Aesthetics? Theora, Automated War, and the Paradox of Drone Visuality" that posed questions about machine to machine scrutiny of images, or rather, their constituent data.* Here, for the machine, the data does not necessarily need to manifest into an image for human eyes. 

Reinhardt's questions intersected with concerns I have expressed in talks, and here on this blog, about attributing the ability of 'vision' to a machine eg: machine vision, drone vision. Vision as a human capability is far more than seeing with eyeball and pupil. Human vision is also about imagination, daydreaming, dreaming, visionary thinking. A machine cannot see or imagine - a machine does, however, scope. Machines that examine image data represent a removal of the human being, and therefore, even the need for an image, or as Reinhardt notes a "killing of aesthetics as both human judgement and human perception."** 

During Prof Reinhardt's presentation he mentioned the term 'machine unreadable' and suddenly I had pictures bouncing around in my head - imagination! Although I had heard the term before, I think the contexts of the talk and the conference opened a different appreciation of the term's meaning. It was one of those moments, which I love, when inspiration is sparked. 


Machine Unreadable is the result.

In Machine Unreadable I have painted a 'corrupted', colourful and incomplete QR Code-like design  over a landscape. The QR Code almost becomes a landscape itself, its dispersed geometry acting like pixels that might, if completed, make up a digital image. The overlay of colourful squares and rectangles obscures the landscape behind. Is this an attempt to make the landscape unreadable? If so, who or what cannot read the landscape? Or, is the landscape the 'destination' image, if the QR Code could be scanned by a mobile phone or other digital devices? 

The 'corrupted' QR Code also acts as a camouflage, perhaps a bit like the dazzle camouflage used on British ships during World War I. Geometric patterns were painted on ships to confuse German submarine officers about the size and shape of ships, plus their speed and direction of travel. If the QR Code is a camouflage, what secrets does it hide? What might it be protecting? Is it confusing? The camouflage could be a metaphoric protection of event the idea of the image, a visual double-play where both the camouflage and the landscape are images that combine to create another image.

Machine Unreadable can be 'read' by a human being, drawing upon imagination, curiosity, experiences, knowledge, memories. This 'reading' can result in multiple interpretations that might be satisfying, enjoyable, or maybe even spark new ideas. A 'reading' could also result in disinterest! Some people might not recognise the geometric pattern as being like a QR Code, but that doesn't matter because the aesthetic response to a colourfully presented pattern incongruously laid over a landscape is likely to induce wonder. How does a machine's scoping capability compare with wonder, imagination, a sense of curiosity, and the ability to dream, daydream or even have nightmares. 

Maybe the machine is the nightmare? 

So much to think about.

* Check out the Aesthetics of Drone Warfare conference booklet  page 56-57 for details on Prof Reinhardt's presentation. And, then check out all the bios and abstracts!
** Ibid., P. 56. 

And, another recent post with imagination as a core topic Strange Times and Imagination

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