Friday, July 31, 2020


Top: Drones Swarming - Seeking Alignment Watercolour on paper 30 x 42 cm 2020
Middle: Misaligned? Watercolour on paper 30 x 42 cm 2020
Bottom: Aligned? Watercolour on paper 30 x 42 cm 2020

Aligned or misaligned? 
I have placed these three paintings close together. While they can be viewed separately, I also see them as a triptych, each one visually playing off the other. 

I was thinking of what it means to be aligned or misaligned. With advances in AI, there are discussions and debates about how to align AI with human morals and ethics.* In terms of technology and signal transmission and reception, alignments between nodes are pivotal eg: with swarming technology, wifi connectivity enables formation alignment and mission capabilities. There are many ways to think about alignment and misalignment, for example from literal placements, for example, fences, building and public artwork, in an environment, to philosophical questions about relationships between between means and ends. Alignments of many kinds have impacts on survivability! Then there are old sayings based on superstitions, such as - because the stars are aligned in certain ways, good or bad things might happen.

Each of the three paintings above reflect some of my thoughts about alignment and misalignment in the age of the drone. Needless to say, they also reflect upon other issues, but alignment is the theme that is common to all three paintings. 

Drones Swarming - Seeking Alignment 
In this painting, binary code 'instructing' the word DRONE is repeatedly painted across the paper. Rather than painting actual drones, I decided to represent each drone as an algorithm. This strips away the physicality of the drone, exposing it as an advanced node in a networked and interconnected militarised system. Swarms of drones can act as their own system, creating flying meshes of networked nodes. As the technology advances, if one drone is 'taken out', a swarm will be able to re-calibrate - realign - to continue on a mission. Here, alignment could ensure lethality.

This painting plays with the superstition that when stars are aligned in certain ways, good or bad things can happen. I have placed stars with nodes that are normally in a drone's operational network. The lines connecting these nodes represent signals. However, these signals are disrupted by the stars, potentially forcing misalignment in the drone's network. Whether this is a good or bad outcome, depends on your point of view. The lone tree. my interpretation of the tree-of-life, stands as a witness.

This painting visually parodies computer graphics that might be seen, for example, on a remote drone pilot's screen. The landscape beyond the graphic-like markings is ambiguous. Is it a sky, is it land-based. Maybe it is a landscape seen through clouds? Is something targeted? Maybe the blue box with a red cross sectioning it, is a kill box? If so, has the target been located, and have friendly forces and civilians been evacuated from the kill zone? Is everything aligned for a surgical strike? What kinds of ethical questions arise? The computer graphic is not neutral.

* Prof Toby Walsh is one of the world's leaders in AI and robotics. He, like others, often speaks about the alignment issue. For example a talk recorded for the Future of Life Institute  


was recently published in Brisbane, by And Also Books. Featuring fifty authors, it is an assemblage of reflections about COVID-19. Happy to say I am one of the authors, as is my mother, Elsie Brimblecombe.


Friday, July 24, 2020


 Crossing the Border watercolour on paper 24 x 32 cm 2020 

More watercolour paintings! 
Following on from my last post Watercolours For Our Strange Times: Online Exhibition

As Australia confronts a renewed wave of COVID-19 infections, particularly in the state of Victoria, borders between states have closed again, or not re-opened. For Queenslanders, the recently re-opened border is now closed to visiting Victorians or people from accelerating hotspots in New South Wales. Many Queenslanders want the state's Premier to shut the borders again, completely.

Issues associated with borders and border controls are global and historical - colonial annexations,  migration control, refugee movement, trade, security and pandemic mitigation. Closing or monitoring borders for pandemic and disease control - for example: state, village, home, urban borders/boundaries - are not new strategies. Across history and the globe, from plague to cholera outbreaks, Spanish Flu to Ebola outbreaks, quarantining by border/boundary control has occurred. It is clearly a sensible method of disease transmission mitigation, especially when there is no known cure.

Drones - COVID-19
I am interested in the increased use of surveillance technology during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of particular interest is the use of airborne drones for monitoring, crowd control, spraying disinfectant, attempts to gauge temperatures etc. While perhaps laudable in intent, what happens if the use of drones for surveillance and monitoring purposes becomes normalised, and therefore enduring?

Drones Monitoring NSW - Victorian Border
The three watercolour paintings in this post are responses to recent news that police will use airborne drones to monitor the border between Victoria and NSW. This strategy has arisen particularly since the renewed outbreak of COVID-19 in Victoria in July 2020. The drones will monitor parts of the border where people could cross undetected, for instance, by swimming across the Murray River. The river forms the majority of the border and presents ample opportunity to cross if someone was determined. You can read about the use of drones to monitor the NSW - Victorian border by police in articles such as these - one in The Australian  newspaper, another in the Sydney Morning Herald, and another in Australian Aviation.

I wonder if airborne drones are being used  by enforcement authorities to monitor other borders in Australia? I assume they are, or at least, being considered. Australia is a vast country with long, often remote, borders between states and territories.

Border as Metaphor
And, of course, the idea of the border as a metaphor is tantalising, particularly so when rivers are borders. Here, I think about the River Styx, in Greek mythology the border between the underworld and the world of the living. I also think about the Rubicon*. The term 'crossing the Rubicon' relates to Julius Caesar's army crossing the Rubicon River in north east Italy in 49BC. This was considered an act of insurrection and treason, and a declaration of war against the Roman Senate. Metaphorically 'crossing the Rubicon', means there is no return. I ask, what kinds of 'no return' metaphoric borders have we crossed in terms of increasing normalisation of drone use for surveillance and targeting purposes? 

Crossing the Border [above] depicts three figures in an ambiguous, but watery, landscape. Are the figures swimming or running? They are clearly in a non-urban environment, and they express a sense of urgency or agitation. Yet, they appear to have not reached their destination. It is as if their bodies link each side of the border - can they return? Here, I am not thinking of a literal return!

 Border Crossing watercolour on paper 24 x 32 cm 2020 

In Border Crossing [above] a human figure and the figure of a dog seem ready to cross a border, a watery border. But, maybe they are already half way across a river, the lines extending downwards from their bodies acting as signs of a watery wake. Or are these elongated limbs or shadows tethering them to a shore, keeping them from reaching the other side?

Monitoring the Murray watercolour on paper 32 x 40cm 2020 

In Monitoring the Murray [above] a human figure has merged with the landscape. The figure's outstretched arm, in freestyle movement, indicates it is swimming. However, the figure has become part of the river, a clever camouflage. As the figure reaches the other side of the river, three drones are surveilling. Are the drones from the underworld? 

Previous painting and post Crossing the Rubicon


Sunday, July 12, 2020


[Fig.1] Sentinel Watercolour on paper 30 x 42 cm 2020

This post 'exhibits' some of my recent watercolur paintings. These watercolours are a departure from my normal oil paintings. I like having departures because experimenting with different paint mediums creates a space for thought and innovation.

The paintings in this small online exhibition all respond, in one way or another, to living through the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Watercolour Medium
The medium of watercolour provides a softness that is important at a time when people are anxious, in mourning, or even angry and frustrated. I use copious amounts of water, and I cannot help but think that there is something soothing about paintings created with water. Although I obviously also use paint and a brush, the water is essentially the creator - I am the vehicle.

Sentinel [Fig.1] is a landscape where a tree - a tree-of-life - stands like a sentinel on a distant horizon. I was thinking about how life copes with threats and risks. Here, the horizon is both literal and metaphoric - what horizons do we cross when catastrophe knocks at our front doors? 

Maybe one horizon is the increasing use of surveillance and monitoring technology. What limits are crossed when, for example, the pandemic gives rise to an accelerating use of airborne drones? What kinds of creeping normalisation pave way for future impediments to privacy and freedom? 

In Content Tagging: A Spoof  [Fig.2], human [Fig.3] and Shadows [Fig.4] I visually spoof the way machine learning and AI need to be repeatedly exposed to images of objects, expressions and activities, in order to learn to identify them. Words are used to tag. But, I wonder, for an AI, does the tag become the object too? In Content Tagging: A Spoof I have also referenced the story of a person, in lockdown in Malta, who used a drone to walk their dog. My earlier painting Walking the Dog, In the Drone Age was also inspired by Malta story, a story that speaks to how strangeness can morph into normalcy.

[Fig.2] Content Tagging: A Spoof Watercolur on paper 30 x 42 cm 2020

[Fig.3] human watercolour on paper 24 x 32 cm 2020

[Fig.4] Shadows Watercolour on paper 30 x 42 cm 2020

The three paintings below speak to the effects of isolation during COVID-19. In Watching [Fig.5] two figures are separated by distance, but also by what looks like bars on a window. Lockdown, quarantine and social distancing are mechanisms of isolation, that are monitored in various ways, including the use of drones. That lockdown, quarantine and social distancing are necessary during a pandemic is not disputed. What I query is the way new modes of surveillance, used by security and police forces, collide with those also employed by military forces. In Watching, the drone monitors the figures, as the figures watch each other. Do the figures notice the drone though?

Watching [Fig.5] on paper 30 x 42 cm 2020

In People [Fig.6] a line of figures, are socially distanced, except for two figures on the far left. They maybe a couple? The ambiguous atmosphere of the painting reflects the sense of limbo and uncertainty that permeate societies as they grapple with COVID-19. The sense of limbo and uncertainty also permeates Apart and Together [Fig.7]. I was thinking about how all of us are experiencing the pandemic - that all of us are in this thing together. That our individual behaviour and how we adhere to safeguards, can affect other people, is of paramount importance. Staying apart actually helps to keep us together - alive. 

Do stay safe!

 People [Fig.6] on paper 24 x 32 cm 2020

Apart and Together [Fig.7] on paper 30 x 42 cm 2020