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Geoffrey Drake-Brockman

Geoffrey Drake-Brockman is a Perth, Western Australia-based cybernetics artist specialising in large-scale public installations. He has exhibited in New York, London, Singapore (The Singapore Art Museum), Aarhus, Perth (Perth Institute of Contemporary Art), Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Canberra (National Gallery of Australia). His public commissions include the eleven metre-tall robotic sculpture Totem, at the Perth Arena, the cosmic ray-activated automaton Readwrite, at NEXTDC Data Centre, and the interactive light sculpture Surface, at Perth Children's Hospital.

It was fascinating to go behind the scenes to see Geoffrey’s studio, which not only served as his workspace but also as a repository for his impressive collection of vintage electronics. His knowledge and passion for automata, science fiction, and computer science makes both his work and his studio completely unique. 

What is something that I would be surprised to find in your space?
Because I work with robotics, electronics, lasers, and software, people are sometimes surprised to see my stacks of old-school notebooks. They expect me to do all my preliminary process digitally, perhaps on a tablet computer. But, for me, everything starts in a bound-paper notebook, with felt-tip pen sketches and dot-point lists. I keep all my notebooks after they're full, and I must have fifty of them stacked up around the studio by now.

Describe your ideal workspace.
Every time I move studios, I try to get a bigger space; but no matter how big my studio gets, it still seems to quickly fill up with projects. So. I suppose my ideal space would have walls that I can just keep pushing back, without limit, whenever I want more space.

Does the space you work in have an interesting story?
Not so much my studio building itself but its location, opposite a huge cemetery. It’s a place that's full of headstones, inscriptions, floral tributes, memorial lanterns,.. Many of the graves are old, and their headstones are cracked and weathered. Some masonry has collapsed, and You can even find trees growing up through graves. I feel that this place has ten thousand interesting stories: it holds the echo of so many lives, so many human potentials!

What are you most proud of in the space?
Apart from my work -- which I'm proud of to varying degrees depending on when I'm asked -- I have accumulated a collection of vintage electronics that I'm quite fond of. I have a number of Bell 500 rotary dial-telephones made between 1953 and 1983 (including a very nice lime-green example), I also have a few 1950s His Masters Voice valve radios in some cool colours and designs, and a magnificent swivel-mount 1957 Atlas Thorn cathode ray black-and-white television, with a timber and brass cabinet that I restored recently. That one is a real pleasure to behold.

What can you see outside your windows?
I have a wonderful view through my upstairs window: I look out through the trees to the expanse of Karakatta Cemetery. This is an enormous graveyard with manicured gardens, avenues of trees, and rows and rows of white marble headstones, with carved angels and Madonnas. As well as being my upstairs view, the cemetery is my wandering and contemplation space. Its like a huge garden, attached to the side of my studio.
Describe a real life mundane situation that inspires you!
Some time ago, I would regularly drive through an intersection next to a car dealership with one of those inflatable "bendy man" promotional attention-getters. While waiting at the traffic lights, right in front of me, this bendy man would wave back and forth in that particularly annoying but oddly mesmerising way. I pretended not to be interested in it for a long time, but ultimately I gave-in and started studying its movements closely. I got to the stage where I'd look forward to stopping at the red light at the intersection, so the bendy man could dance and flip back and forth for me. A while later, I got a call asking if I could create a big outdoor installation as the "main activation" for an arts festival. I knew instantly that I would integrate some of the bandy-man pneumatics I had been studying into an interactive artwork. I ended up making a pedestrian-responsive air-jet piece called "SKY," which is a matrix of 32 computer-controlled fabric plumes.

What themes do you pursue in your work?
I describe myself as a "cybernetics artist", which I mean in the original sense of the term. It's feedback mechanisms that fascinate me, feedback between systems, feedback that's open-ended, which can generate unexpected behaviour... The feedback opportunities I explore are mostly between software-controlled automata and a human audience. That setting is pretty-much both medium and theme for me.

Favourite song/band while working?
At the studio, I have the same 70's-era hi-fi system that I grew up listening to. It has a reasonably good turntable and speakers, and I have a collection of vintage vinyl records -- the core of which I inherited from my older brothers and sisters, mostly 1970s and 80s rock, ballads, and pop. I play a lot of this music, but I'm particularly fond of the album Soul Mining by The The.  To be honest, though, when I'm really working, I don't play music. When I work, its a combination of silence, any sounds made by the tools I'm working with, and the songs of the birds in the trees outside the big roller-door.

What's the best advice you've been given and from whom?
My supervisor at art school, Dr Benjamin Joel, once said to me: "you must have a clear reason for everything that you do". This statement has caused me to re-examine and test countless assumptions, defaults, and standard practices in my work, over and over, to see if they measure up. This piece of advice still resonates with me every day while I’m working in the studio.

What is your most important artist's tool?
I can think of three: snap-off blade knives (I keep losing these, so I have about ten), digital vernier callipers, and Solidworks 3D CAD software.

The one practice that has changed your life the most?

Text Queenie Chan

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