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Geoffrey Drake-Brockman

Geoffrey Drake-Brockman is a cybernetics artist specialising in large-scale public installations based in Perth, Western Australia. It was fascinating to go behind the scenes to see Geoffrey’s studio that not only served as a workspace but also as a repository for his impressive collection of vintage electronics. His knowledge and passion for automata/science fiction/computer science makes his approach to his work unique and makes for a different studio space to those that I usually see. 

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 public commissions include the eleven-metre-tall robotic sculpture Totem at the Perth Arena, the cosmic ray-activated automaton Readwrite at the NEXTDC Data Centre, and the interactive light sculpture Surface at the Perth Children's Hospital.

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 in three words…
Every time I move studio 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. Its 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 and which is a particular 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 - heavy with human significance - 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 would 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 - so 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 1970's and 80's 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 however, 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 am 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?

Photographed by Paul Barbera Text Queenie Chan

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