The West

Totem tribute to robotics
Geoffrey Drake-Brockman with his artwork. Picture: Ben Crabtree/The West Australian

The Perth Pineapple, Corn Cob or Banksia Cone, call it what you like, Geoffrey Drake-Brockman’s Totem draws on sophisticated robotics and schoolyard origami to make a memorable piece of public art.

“I think that it is great that it has its own nickname,” Drake-Brockman says of his 10.5m installation outside the Perth Arena which is already engaged in a Twitter duel with the green James Angus sculpture in Forrest Place dubbed the Perth Cactus. “As an artist, you want your work to enter the public consciousness.”

Six years in the making, Totem is a dramatic monument of 108 yellow-and-purple aluminium triangles. A towering high-tech version of the playground paper-craft game chatterbox, its moving panels are programmed to open and close like flower petals in response to people walking past.

Operating to a complex computer program, Totem had a mind of its own and the “petals” could form hundreds of thousands of unpredictable configurations, Drake-Brockman said. “Once the algorithms have been written, it is set free and then it responds to its own environment,” he said. “It has its own sensors and is able to tell what is going on around it and then it does what it wants to do.”

To cap it off, Totem also shoots geometric laser projections onto the wall of the Arena at night.

The Dalkeith artist has used the chatterbox idea in a previous artwork called Floribots, a collection of 128 potted, robotic flowers equipped with motion sensors.

Born in the 1960s rocket research hub of Woomera, Drake-Brockman has fused the exploratory wonderment of science and art since abandoning a full-time career as an IT professional in the 1990s.

“I always thought science and art were endeavours which were self-justifying; they didn’t need to be justified in terms of anything else or any particular benefits they would bring. I thought they were sources of beauty and absolute knowledge, I guess.”

His artworks include several laser installations, the Coppelia Project series of robotic ballerinas modelled on WA Ballet star Jayne Smeulders, and a big yellow walk-through counting machine at Sculpture by the Sea in 2010.

Though high in technology (a bank of computers sit in its “head”), Totem required relatively low maintenance and ought to be resistant to “excessively vigorous interaction with the public”, Drake-Brockman said.

“The way it develops will be influenced by the people who engage with it if it is to act as a totem, as a marker of a spot, an attractor of people. If people say, ‘Let’s meet at the Totem or the Big Pineapple’, I don’t mind. “The idea of a totem is somehow to reflect to a society something of itself back.

“That is my ambition for it - we will see how it works out.”

The West Australian

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