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Cyber peace and artivism, with Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox

    Theatre of War: Techno-Colonised Planet Gouache on paper, 2022

    In ‘Theatre of War: Techno-Colonised Planet’ you are invited to fly, in your imagination, away from Earth. When you are ready, you peer back at the planet from a distance. And, from this distance what patterns become apparent?

    Kathryn Brimblecome-Fox,

    Delving into how peace is visualised in cyberspace has helped me realise what a complex phenomenon peace is.[i] The possibilities for using cyber(space) for either peaceful or harmful purposes seem endless. But I find it inherently difficult to visualise ‘peace’ in cyberspace and, surely, I am not the only one. What does ‘cyber peace’ look like or consist of? What kinds of peaceful practices can we find there, and what might make it a more ‘peaceful’ place? 

    Through conversations with peers, friends, and family members – and through observations on social media – it is evident that care, compassion and bridge-building in our physical world do not easily translate into our online world. Yet, the cyber domain is now an integrated part of our everyday lives, shaping what we know, how we think and feel, the decisions we take and how we interact with each other. It has the potential to profoundly affect how ‘peaceful’ our own lives feel and to influence wider conflicts and their resolution and aftermath. Meanwhile, for most of us, our individual agency in the cyber realm seems to extend to and stop at the acceptance of ‘cookies’. In the face of powerful social media corporations, bots and behaviour-changing technologies, it can feel like we have little power to shape our environment or determine our own future in the cyber age.  

    Interestingly, very old technologies like painting can play a valuable role in helping us better understand and think about our interactions with – and in – cyberspace. The artist Kathryn Brimblecome-Fox brilliantly explores the fluid boundaries between humanity and technology through her work. Brimblecome-Fox has generously shared some of her paintings with us, and the pieces here represent my understanding of what cyber peace might involve.

    How are we to BE human beings in a world dominated by accelerating developments in technology?

    Kathryn Brimblecome-Fox
    Interface: Being Gouache on paper, 2022

    Brimblecombe-Fox’s paintings illustrate many different aspects of how 21st-century technologies and human life intersect, and also how interconnected civilian and military spheres of war and peace can be. I find comfort in her work for many reasons, and I shall share two of them here. First, she pays attention to peace in a realistic manner. To establish peace online, we need to be able to imagine, feel, and talk about it – to visualise it in tangible ways. In the cyber realm, peace is often invisible, while threats from surveillance technologies and cyberwarfare are impressed on our minds. While the many harms inflicted online are real and important to address, Brimblecombe-Fox moves beyond this narrative and her paintings broaden our imaginations, feelings, and conversations about peace in cyberspace. For the painting below, she shares a conversation in one of her blogposts that resonated with me for thinking about cyber peace.  

    I had a conversation about Histories with an Arab woman. We started talking about the concentric circles being representative of time, as per the circles of a cut tree trunk which reveal the age of a tree. I discussed that the small trees in each semi circle were tree-of-life motifs and represented, to me, geneological history over time and that the subtle changes of colour linked each generation, but also ‘spoke’ of difference. The woman turned to me and said, ‘But, Kathryn, this is us, it is all people…we are all connected.’ I agreed and the conversation deepened into a discussion about how both of us wished for peace on earth ,and that if we are all connected, and share the planet, peace is not only imperative but surely possible. Neither of us saw peace as just an absence of war, or even some utopian state where disagreement did not exist. At the end of the conversation the woman turned to me and said very seriously, ‘If there were more people like you in the world there would be peace.’ I assured her that I was absolutely certain there were plenty of people like me!

    The average, everyday person, no matter where they come from, desires peace on Earth, yet the last comment from my visitor to my exhibition indicated to me that she felt there were not enough people in the world truly desiring peace or doing something about it. If this is a perception held by presumably many other people, how do we send the message in a way which come from our hearts as well as our minds?

    Histories Oil on linen, 2005

    This painting is not illustrating cyberspace per se; as Brimblecombe-Fox explains, it evokes humanity’s deep history across space and time, and above all it makes visible our intergenerational interconnectedness. To me, this is an important reality to be able to ‘see’ when we think about cyber peace. In her own analysis of the painting, Brimblecombe-Fox also addresses the challenge of imagining a better, more interconnected world without turning it into an unrealisable utopia. The aim of her art is not to paint ideals but to generate meaningful conversations about what we need to do to make the world(s) we live in better places. As she puts it ‘naivety is not part of my world picture…’.

    Other examples of Brimblecombe-Fox’s art invite us more specifically to think about what peace is and how technologies might either hinder or advance the unifying goal of peace on earth. The paintings that I have chosen might not mean peace to you, but, to me, they resemble some of the essential bricks for building peace. 

     Is it me? oil on linen, 2020

    Is it me? illustrates the ways that different kinds of surveillance (biometric scanning, gait monitoring, surveillance of online activity and physical movements detected through devices) can build up ‘portraits’ of us which potentially reduce or misunderstand our identity.[ii] The ‘ERROR’ message (followed by a question mark) underlines how imprecise cyber-surveillance can be – it can get things wrong without ‘realising’ it – and the painting as a whole stresses the need for us to be mindful of its pervasiveness and impacts. To me, this awareness of surveillance and the invasion of privacy, represented by the drone scanning the artist’s features from afar, is important in terms of building cyber peace. If we wish to assert our individual agency beyond just accepting or rejecting ‘cookies’we need to be resilient, mindful and aware. Brimblecombe-Fox sometimes talks about her painting as a form of ‘imaginational metaveillance’, meaning that through painting we can ‘fly in our imaginations’ and do our own mindful ‘surveillance’ of the often-invisible threats that the cyber sphere can pose. Arguably, visualising threats is an even more important part of visualising and working towards peace in cyber space than it is in the physical world.

    While Is it me? draws attention to threats, The Firmament offers a more positive visualisation of peace, harmony and interconnectedness. 

    Firmament Gouache on paper, 2011

    As Brimblecombe-Fox conceieved it, it is not explicitly to do with the cyber realm, but I think we can read important metaphors in it which help us think about cyber peace. I find it beautiful, soothing and inspiring, because it depicts the power that individuals have to spread love, life, and light on our paths – whether in the real world or online. In some of Brimblecombe-Fox’s other paintings, the tree of life intersects with digital networks and the ‘web’, so I think we can imagine the ripples in this picture being both cyber and real. It reminds us that the different paths in our life are all interconnected, and that many branches grow from them. Inevitably, we plant trees that take roots in the world – cyber and physical. We might not live long enough to see the trees blossom, but they have been planted. The painting thus invites us to be mindful of the seeds we sow and the ripples they create; and its aesthetic encourages us to generate gentle, calm, beautiful, light-filled ripples. This message is crucial in terms of believing in, hoping for and visualising future peace in the cyber realm.

    I invite you, the viewer, to interpret the next two paintings on your own and reflect upon the questions that follow.

    What do you think?

    • How do you visualise cyberspace? How do you visualise peace in cyberspace?
    • Do you think of cyberspace as more peaceful than our physical world?
    • How do you understand your own agency in cyberspace?
    • Do you find that these paintings resonate with your idea of peace in cyberspace?
    • How ‘peaceful’ do you find Brimblecombe-Fox’s cosmic and cyber perspectives? 
    • How do the ideas and images of peace that we can find in her work compare with ideas and images of peace that are promoted by, e.g., yoga and mediation practices, where introspection is encouraged more than outerspection?

    If you enjoyed this item in our museum…

    You might also enjoy ‘Is Hacktivism Peaceful?‘, ‘Journey: visualising peace through gaming‘, ‘Inner Peace‘ and items with the tag ‘Future Peace‘.

    Otilia Meden, May 2022

    [i] Ciglic, Kaja, and Hering, Jogn. 2022. “A multi-stakeholder foundation for peace in cyberspace.” In Journal of Cyber Policy 6 (3): 360-374; Determann, Lothar and Guttenberg, Karl T. 2014. “On War and Peace in Cyberspace – Security, Privacy, Jurisdiction.” In Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly 41 (4): 875-902.

    [ii] This painting is a self-portrait through which Brimblecomb-Fox questions the idea of who the self is in a highly digitialised society.

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