Interview - Coffee Break with Geoffrey Drake-Brockman

6th Jan 2020 • Enrichment

“I am interested in the social impact of technology, a theme which I approach formally with geometric and colour based composition, as well as implementing electronic, interactive systems in my work. I seek to create autonomous works that are able to support unique, emergent, ongoing dialogues between viewer and art object...” - Geoffrey Drake-Brockman is a local artist specialising in large-scale installations.

(Above: Coppelia One, 2018 - Interactive Humanoid Robot)

Geoffrey has exhibited in New York, London, Singapore, Aarhus, Perth, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Canberra. He has shown work at The National Gallery of Australia, The Morris Museum, The Singapore Art Museum, and The Perth Institute of Contemporary Art. His noteworthy public commissions include the eleven-metre-tall robotic sculpture Totem (2012) at the Perth Arena and the interactive light sculpture Surface at the Perth Children's Hospital (2016). You may have also come across his work at the annual Sculpture by the Sea.

Where do your ideas come from? Take us in to the creative mind of Geoffrey Drake-Brockman…

As an artist I'm pretty much concept-driven. Once I've determined that something "just has to be made", I will work on the technicalities of its realisation. I'm not wedded to any particular material or process, they just have jobs to do. I'm generally happy to learn how to manipulate a new material or integrate a novel technology if it allows a necessary idea to be expressed. I have a few abiding themes that have stuck with me for a while - like the notion of feedback, which is the active ingredient of Cybernetics. and is closely related to the ideas of interaction and complicity. Focussing on feedback places the arena of interest outside the work itself, into the space between the object and viewer. There is also the concept of "robot mythologies" or psychic origin stories - drawing on a collective pool of narratives that can set enduring cultural frames around new ideas in elucidating ways. There are a bunch of compositional devices that I often return to as well, such as the incorporation of a familiar motif, something that's well-understood and familiar to all, to act as the welcome-mat for something else that's a perhaps a bit slipperier, more multivalent and less predictable. In terms of how I actually go about filling in blanks when it comes to ideas for new work, my practical approach is to allocate time to the task. Real thinking for me is computer-switched-off time. Half a day spent walking around outdoors, trying to keep my thinking on-topic as much as I can, and making occasional notes and sketches in my notebook is pretty much my process. All that said, I usually have a pretty big ideas backlog anyway. The major bottleneck is realisation rather than conceptualisation. By the time I've spent a year working on one project I've usually thought of a dozen others that would be cool to do as well, resources permitting

When creating large sculptures, what kind of challenges do you face during creation and installation?

Cumulative error is a big problem when fabricating large complex assemblies, particularly monocoques. Going half a millimetre oversize may be acceptable accuracy when fitting a single part, but with twenty parts joined together you've gone a centimetre oversize and

(Above: Geoffrey with Totem, before it was installed at Perth Arena)

nothing fits together as its supposed to. To fight cumulative error you have to continually reference back to datum when fabricating. Other challenges with physically large work include its transport and handing for installation - using hiabs, cranes and sometimes low-loaders with special road permits for oversize items. This is the part of the project when I get most nervous. I try to control all the risks but its the time when its easiest for the work to get damaged. Sometimes for large work its necessary to deliver in several parts, with final assembly on-site. Here I'll be aiming for hairline joints on large assemblies many metres in size, and it can be tough to achieve this under on-site conditions. All of those challenges however relate to pretty-much any large fabrication job, but a lot of my works incorporate additional complexity in terms of moving parts and active technologies - which call for additional stages of systems integration and testing. Usually in my work I'm dealing with a "first of type" so there are no set templates for this. In particular, I find that my control software - which actually powers the interaction of the piece - can only be written on-site, in front of the physically complete work. This means I'll be sitting at a construction site, wearing a hard hat, hi-vis, and boots, tapping away at my laptop computer writing software on-they-fly and testing it live. It can be tricky to concentrate on writing code for things like 3D trigonometric transformations under such conditions.

A lot of your work includes a reflective element, is there a story behind this?

I'm glad you asked! Yes, mirrors are important to me and their inclusion in so many of my compositions is deliberate. What you see when you look at a mirrored surface one of my

(Above: Passage Through a Portal, 2019)

(Left: Counter at Bondi Beach for Sculpture by the Sea)

pieces, is of course not the mirror itself but rather a refection from the environment outside the artwork. I use individual mirrors and clusters of mirror-facets to achieve two specific things... Firstly, they facilitate a relatively low-tech but surprisingly high-bandwidth form of feedback-based interaction. They accept incoming optical signals from the environment and send back processed, altered, information. All without a single line of computer code! Secondly, they function specifically to quote the viewer back to themselves. Literally, you can see yourself reflected back in these mirrors, so your visage becomes part of the composition - the suggestion being that the viewer is complicit in the scope of the themes underlying the work. I don't believe we can separate ourselves from cybernetics and the technologies that define our transactions with each other and the environment. The deals rests on us.

As a young student did you always know you wanted to be an artist or did your career path deviate over time?

I took fine art through to year-12 level at school, as well as physics, chemistry, and mathematics. As a young man I always thought I would be an artist, but I didn't contemplate studying art at university because I had the romantic notion that "art cannot be taught" Art was, I thought, a kind of emergent human energy - something that just poured forth from one's inner being. Instead, I studied physics, philosophy and computer science at UWA. I graduated and got a job as a computer programmer - but within a year I had my first solo exhibition at Greenhill Galleries. Back in those days I made colourful figurative paintings with abstract geometric painted frames. A while afterwards I changed my mind about art school - I realised that I had much to learn from study after all, so I did an MA in Visual Art at Curtin University. I had great teachers there - Ben Joel and Julian Goddard in particular. The experience rocked me to the core and for a while I was artistically paralysed - it seemed that everything had so many implications that it was impossible to make any valid manoeuvrers at all. The solution for me was let down the barrier that I had always maintained between science and art - to allow the rigour of science to contaminate the passion of art, and the other way around too. For the next few years I kept my day job it the IT industry, even as I held more exhibitions and started doing public art commissions. I actually think that my IT career was a big help with the public art commissions, as by that stage I was an experienced project manager. Luckily, it turns out that resource allocation, critical-path scheduling, and checking-up on suppliers works pretty much the same for art projects as it does in software development.

Can you tell us something most people wouldn’t know about you?

In 1981, after dropping out of physics at ANU, I decided to join the circus. The next day I signed up as a tent-rigger with Ashton's circus and worked on raising the big top in Canberra. Soon afterwards, I dropped out of the circus too, and became a hitch-hiker. For the next nine months I hitch-hiked around Australia - up and down the NSW coast and interior, right up to Cape Tribulation in far North Queensland and all the way around to Broome. I lived in a tent that I'd pitch pretty much anywhere each night and occasionally I did itinerant farm work - but mainly I just kept moving on from place to place.

See more of Geoffrey's work here.