Last weekend, I found myself in a conversation with an Australian soldier. He was a tall boy in his late twenties with a cleanly shaved face and well groomed hair. He told me of all the benefits of working in the army, one being the high rate of pay if he were to be sent overseas.
When I asked him if that was likely to happen any time soon, he replied: “there are no real wars going on at the moment.”
To give this boy the benefit of the doubt; I took his statement as rather a comment on the changing nature of modern warfare. As the enemy and battlefield become harder to identify, gone are the days of “boots on the ground.” Today, it’s all about drone strikes.
Over the past six years, almost half a million Syrians have died as a result of the war. Last year, the UN released a report saying that more people are currently displaced throughout the world than during the WWII era.
But what’s Australia got to do with this?
In March, more civilians were killed by US Coalition air strikes than by ISIS or Russian-led forces, according to figures released by The Syrian Network for Human Rights (a UK-based NGO.)
What most people don’t know is that the intelligence used to instigate such attacks is believed to come from the centre of Australia.
Pine Gap is one of Australia’s best kept secrets. It’s a large spy base operating approximately 18 kilometres south west of Alice Springs, in Arrernte Country.
The facility is a joint US-Australian military intelligence facility constructed in 1967 to monitor compliance with Cold War non-proliferation treaties. Today, Pine Gap is believed to play a crucial role in the operation of America’s deadly drone warfare.
Kristian Laemmle-Ruff is a Melbourne-based artist who has published and exhibited a rare photograph of the site.
While little is known about the operations of Pine Gap, Laemmle-Ruff’s contemporary artwork raises questions about both the history and future of the site.
“Pine Gap is being sold to us on the grounds that it’s good for our national security. But at what cost?”
“Every technology has an angel use and a devil use. It’s not the technology that’s bad, it’s the people pushing the button and blowing up civilians around the world,” he said.
The artist hopes that by bringing Pine Gap into the contemporary art world, there can be greater awareness of Australia’s role in wars, like Syria, around the world.
“The image is an instant way to start that conversation.”
In 2014, Laemmle-Ruff embarked on a high-risk journey to photograph the site. Under the Defence Act of 1903, it is illegal to photograph any defence installation in Australia. Under this Act, all photographs and camera equipment can be confiscated and destroyed, and the photographer can face fines and/or imprisonment. It is legal to arrest someone in breach of this Act without a warrant.
It was a 40-degree day in Alice Springs when Laemmle-Ruff packed a bag with nothing but energy snacks, water and a camera.
Mounted on a bicycle, the artist cycled 18 kilometres to a nearby peak with a view of Pine Gap.
“There was a surveillance vehicle doing laps of the facility. It was pretty heavy duty with huge surveillance floodlights going out either side of the truck. It felt like an army truck, it was a very militarised zone. Huge lights that were sweeping the hillside constantly.”
He noted the surveillance vehicle circled the site once every ten minutes; giving him a narrow window in which to make his advance.
“I saw a way in, a pathway that I could follow through the landscape.”
As the sun began to set on the valley, the orange lights of Pine Gap filled the sky, causing the desert stars to disappear.
“I was extremely paranoid about federal police, motion censors and the CIA. As I moved closer I was suddenly engulfed by thundering noise and dust. In my mind, this was the end.”
After a momentary acceptance of defeat, Laemmle-Ruff realised that he had simply walked into a sleeping herd of cattle. He laughs about this moment in hindsight.
After crossing two dirt tracks on the outer perimeter of the site, he reached a point in which he could see Pine Gap in full view.
“And there it all was in front of me.”
He spent the next two to three hours capturing the site from as many angles as possible.
“It was still dawn and so I knew I wanted to get out of there before the sun got up. I basically just bolted and ran all the way back to my bike which was about 5 or 6km the other way … I just needed to move as quickly as possible. I just wanted to get out there.”
He reached his bicycle as the sun began to warm up the day.
“I thought to myself, I’m safe. I’ve made it.”
Over the course of the following year, Laemmle-Ruff met with lawyers and media experts about how best to publish his work. The photographs have since been used in Richard Tanter and Des Ball’s academic research through the Nautilus Institute and the artwork won second place at the inaugural 2016 Alice Art Prize.
The artwork can be seen as part of the Mind the Gap exhibition, currently in national circuit:
Yering Station Gallery: 10th August – 20th September
Northern Centre of Contemporary Art, Darwin: 3rd November – 1st December