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Occupied Landscapes: Evidence of Drones
Exhibition essay by *Federica Caso 

 

Occupied Landscapes: Evidence of Drones

 

Essay by Federica Caso to accompany Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox's exhibition 
Occupied Landscapes: Evidence of Drones
27 August - 7 September 2019
POP Gallery, 381 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, Australia.

 

The serene deep blue of the Australian sky is comforting. But skies are busier than they look. The paintings by Brisbane artist Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox exhibited in Occupied Landscapes: Evidence of Drones call us to notice and take stock of the presence of drones, especially those sent to fly over distant peoples in faraway places. In the age of the drone, we are all connected.

We do not see drones often, and even more rarely we see them flying and in action. A drone is a flying robot that is remotely operated, although with increasingly autonomous systems such as sensors and GPS. Drones are a cutting-edge technology used by modern militaries for intelligence gathering and precision strikes. They are also used for civilian purposes ranging from surveillance, rescue missions, traffic and weather monitoring, and personal and professional photography and videography. The dual-use of the drone collapses the boundary between military and civilian, personal and public.

If you have never seen a drone, stand in front of Beware, Whispers the Wind or Persistent Surveillance and Strike to stare the drone in the eye. I say the drone’s eye, but Brimblecombe-Fox would reject this formulation, cautioning us about giving drones human qualities. “Drones scope, they do not see” she often says. For Brimblecombe-Fox it is important that we do not anthropomorphise the drone because, while these technologies are increasingly automated, their operation still relies on humans. We, humans, are accountable for what drones do, and we should never relinquish that responsibility for the sake of automation.  

Brimblecombe-Fox’s art bears witness to the fact that drones are changing the landscape. In Occupied Landscapes: Evidence of Drones, she invites us to think about three types of changes in the landscapes produced by the presence of drones.

Drones occupy the sky with their physical metal boxes. The painting The Edge shows drones loitering in the sky, semi-hidden by blue clouds. The red drones of The Edge have left behind red clouds which cannot be unseen. It is up to us to live with the discomfort of what the drones might have done, and of what the red cloud might stand for. Has the drone killed? Who has the drone killed? What kind of skies are drones producing?

Drones also occupy the landscape through the transmission and reception of signals. Brimblecombe-Fox refers to the landscape scratched by networks of signals as ‘the landscape of signal’ or ‘signalscape.’ Mission Capable Landscape, Lethal Landscape or Code Empire help us visualise the signalscape produced by drones. This type of occupation is silent and invisible, and produces, in Brimblecombe-Fox’s words, a “stealthy techno-colonisation of environment.” The signalscape is insidious because it transforms landscapes into persistently ready and operational theatres of war. A drone’s signals monitor and collect data used to generate algorithms that identify patterned behaviour. When a person’s activities present anomalies, they are exposed as potentially engaging in suspect behaviour. They become targets. By feeding signals and networked analysis, we are all involved in drone warfare, even when we are not aware of it.

The third type of landscape occupation performed by drones is symbolic: the sky bears the consequences of the operation of drones. Flying drones enable persistent surveillance as well as targeting and strikes. They do so by reducing LIFE to a code that can be read by machines. Brimblecombe-Fox conveys this in Combat Proven, Long-Range, Long-Dwell which depicts a drone radiating signals into binary code that translates the word LIFE. As Brimblecombe-Fox notes, binary codes are instructions. Therefore, through its operation, the drone instructs LIFE. There is a twisted irony in the fact that drone’s surveillance and killing are done for the purpose of fostering life. The question, however, is: whose life and what kind of life do drones instruct?

The symbolic landscape occupation of drones is also evident in Code Empire which presents us with a planet, Earth possibly, formed with strings of binary code that read/instruct EMPIRE. The repetition of the binary code enveloping Earth leaves us with a sense of unease about the present that we have created. The satellites around Earth stand like sentinels policing every corner of the planet. The occupation of landscape is clearly a volumetric occupation from land, to sky, and into space. Brimblecombe-Fox’s paintings herald new modes of Empire in the age of the drone.  

Occupied Landscapes speaks to themes like surveillance and the reduction of human life to algorithms and codes that make long distance strikes possible. But it also speaks of resistance.

Painting the drone is an act of resistance in itself. It makes the invisible signalscape and the hidden drone seen before an audience of citizens who, in democratic societies like Australia, can have a say against government use of drones. Painting drones is an act of sousveillance, of watching the watcher. Sousveillance keeps surveillance technologies accountable by recalibrating the power that has been given to these technologies.

With her cosmic paintings, Brimblecombe-Fox takes the concept of sousveillance into a new realm of resistance. She notes that the cosmic perspective of her paintings enact a ‘metaveillance’ of the drone. The prefix ‘sous’ of sousveillance means ‘below’ and refers to how humans can look back, from below, at technologies of surveillance operating from above our heads. The prefix ‘meta’ of metaveillance means ‘beyond,’ ‘after,’ and refers to the idea that a cosmic perspective on the drone helps us see beyond its immediate operation. For example, the cosmic perspectives of paintings like Anomaly Detection [no 2] and Drone Spiral [no 2] invite viewers to fly below, around, and above drones and their support infrastructure such as GPS satellites and communication satellites. In doing so, they expose drone technology to scrutiny, and as a potential threat to the Earth, represented in the paintings as the Pale Blue Dot in reference to Carl Sagan.

Brimblecombe-Fox also uses the tree-of-life as a symbol of resistance and hope in the age of drones. The tree-of-life is an age-old symbol of humanity shared by many cultures and religions, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. It signifies unity across diversity. Thus, when drones target the tree-of-life in paintings such as HumanMachineHuman, Brimblecombe-Fox invites us to consider that drones target humanity as a whole, not only peoples who are different and distant from us. As Brimblecombe-Fox remarks,

If people are fearful of the sky this represents a denial of individual and collective freedoms at many devastating levels. If the sky is diminished for some, then it is also diminished for humanity as whole.

The tree-of-life is represented not only as a target of drones, but also as that which strikes back against the drone. For example, in HumanMachineHuman, a large tree-of-life takes the shape of a flame that burns the tail of three drones which are targeting a smaller tree-of-life. Similarly, in Camouflage, Brimblecombe-Fox paints two trees-of-life surrounding a flying drone which has nowhere to escape. In both of these paintings, humanity saves humanity from the existential risk posed by the occupation of drones.

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* The author, Federica Caso, is a political analyst and writer. She has recently completed her PhD in International Politics at the University of Queensland. Her research focuses on the militarisation of liberal societies. She is interested in how art and culture are co-opted in systems of power and domination, and used as instruments of political resistance. She has written, hosted events, and facilitated discussions about the politics of aesthetics. She is a board member of House Conspiracy, an art centre located in West End, Brisbane.  

 

Occupied Landscapes: Evidence of Drones gallery on this website please click HERE
And, information on Kathryn's Blog HERE