Futur­ist Daniel Crooks

Kate Holden
The Saturday Paper, 2/2/2016
In a sub­ur­ban back gar­den burst­ing with nas­tur­tiums, kale, toma­toes and sweet herbs there is a shed. And in that shed there is an artist’s stu­dio. And in that stu­dio there are two desks, two fad­ed red kil­ims, a tin­nie sus­pend­ed from the ceil­ing, a cou­ple of bikes, shelves of hard­ware, four com­put­er mon­i­tors propped up on Ency­lopae­dia Bri­tan­ni­ca vol­umes, and a very tired beard­ed man in his 40s wear­ing a flat cap and a red flan­nel shirt, peer­ing into his screens. And on those screens is emerg­ing a work of art, Phan­tom Ride. The man is dement­ed­ly stitch­ing togeth­er footage of myr­i­ad sec­tions of dis­used rail­way across east­ern Aus­tralia into a sin­gle mes­meris­ing jour­ney. The track always advances, the sur­round­ings change: euca­lypt bush, blue­stone tun­nel, parched pad­docks, jun­gled cut­tings, grey sky above. There is no train. Only the serene point of view. In his mind’s eye he moves on, for­ward, ahead. The oth­er screen simul­ta­ne­ous­ly shows the reced­ing view. But the man isn’t going any­where. It’s safe to say that at this point he’d love to extend space-time. It’s less than a week until the show opens and for a month he hasn’t been get­ting to bed before 3am. Daniel Crooks, orig­i­nal­ly from New Zealand and now res­i­dent in north­ern Mel­bourne (“North of Bell Street!” he admits brave­ly) with his part­ner, Mary, and three kids, makes cof­fee in the kitchen on a Tues­day morn­ing and rubs his face. It’s like I’m the test pilot of a plane, but I’m build­ing the plane at the same time. I’m so fried, I can’t even remem­ber what day of the week it is.” His works are rid­dles about space and time: a Chi­nese man bal­let­i­cal­ly doing tai chi in front of a build­ing, his clothes and pre­oc­cu­pied face smear­ing and slid­ing liq­uid­ly across the screen in after­glow per­sis­tence; Sta­t­ic No. 17 (algo­rithm P), 2011, of the same series, with alter­nat­ing strips of footage embed­ded in an Asian city street-scene, show­ing pre­vi­ous pedes­tri­ans braid­ed among the sub­se­quent; a sequence of video works, An Embroi­dery of Voids, in which a sin­gle track­ing shot glides almost silent­ly through an evolv­ing stitch of Mel­bourne sub­ur­ban laneways. His canon, an ongo­ing project called Time Slice, is pre­oc­cu­pied with embody­ing time in phys­i­cal form, through video, stills and even sculp­ture. He elon­gates, extends, skews and com­pels his fig­ures to leave their traces after they’ve passed. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, there’s no extend­ing the dead­line for the Ian Pot­ter Mov­ing Image Com­mis­sion the fol­low­ing Mon­day. But he can’t help loi­ter­ing in the kitchen, geek-rav­ing through an expla­na­tion of the announce­ment of grav­i­ta­tion­al waves and his admi­ra­tion of old astro­nom­i­cal obser­va­tions writ­ten by hand. Oh,” he exclaims, clasp­ing his cheeks in hor­ror at his partner’s hand­writ­ten lists. At least put it in the com­put­er. Cap­ture it dig­i­tal­ly. I’m not,” he con­cedes, a pho­to deleter. I don’t know if I’m a hoard­er, but I’m not a deleter.” Con­ser­v­a­tive? Hmm. I wouldn’t say that. I’m more of a futur­ist.” He looks like the mod­el of a midlife north­ern-Mel­bourne urban hip­ster art-mak­er: grey­ing stub­ble, hairy chest, wed­ding ring, skin­ny jeans and thongs. On the desk a Mole­sk­ine note­book full of tiny metic­u­lous geo­met­ri­cal dia­grams, and his iPhone. Out­side his shed, cock­a­toos and tawny frog­mouths vis­it. He scours sec­ond-hand book­shops for old How and Why Won­der Books (“ Mag­net­ism can­not be detect­ed by any of our sens­es; we can only know it by what it does.’ Oh my god. So good.”) and relates proud­ly how won­der­ful­ly his old­est son was pro­duc­tion assis­tant on the lat­est shoot. He greets every­thing with coos of enthu­si­asm and, Oh, wow; yeah, right.” He explains the new project, Phan­tom Ride, which fol­lows on from the laneways sequence. The train tracks are like a thread lead­ing through these mul­ti­ple worlds… On one side you have the future, what’s com­ing towards you, and on the oth­er side you have the past, and the screen in between is this menis­cus of now­ness’.” Each side of the screen, he goes on, shows a con­ver­gence – the van­ish­ing point of the tracks – but the two sides of the screen them­selves become a con­ver­gence of past and future. He speaks of rays of light expand­ing; hour­glass­es; light-cone causal­i­ty mod­els in space-time the­o­ry. Crooks is a mas­sive self-con­fessed geom­e­try nerd”. He builds lit­tle robots. He shows the thou­sands of lines of code he’s writ­ten, riffs about Greg Egan’s spec­u­la­tive fic­tion and Daniel Dennett’s cog­ni­tive sci­ence and Dou­glas Hofstadter’s 1979 inscrutable clas­sic Gödel, Esch­er, Bach, about Arthur C. Clarke nov­els, and time trav­el cin­e­ma such as Shane Carruth’s Primer. Sure­ly there’s too much mat­ter in the world,” he says with delight. Ener­gy. But can it dou­ble? If it – if it’s in two places, sure­ly some­thing else has to – I mean, is the uni­verse a zero-sum enti­ty?” The house­hold cats are named Isaac New­ton and Got­tfried Leib­niz. Mon­day night arrives inex­orably, and the gallery open­ing par­ty, fra­grant with espres­so mar­ti­nis and arti­choke canapés. The flat-cap chap­pie is replaced by a tall, bald­ing genial aca­d­e­m­ic in blue shirt but­toned to the neck and a blaz­er. He is man­darin, in spec­ta­cles and shiny pâté. Says, Props to Lady Pot­ter” with two cheer­ful thumbs up for the patron, and kiss­es his shy small daugh­ter qui­et­ly when he gets off the stage. Col­lec­tors have assem­bled to mur­mur over the piece. Crooks con­vers­es, sud­den­ly lofty, his geek­i­ness become august. As a child he loved Arthur C. Clarke’s 1956 nov­el The City and the Stars, in which humans are pro­duced by machines, their mem­o­ries stored after death in a data­base. The pro­tag­o­nist, Alvin, yearns to escape; Crooks’s invis­i­ble train, in the hushed, dark­ened room off the ACMI foy­er, glides onwards through world after world, out from the past and into the future, fric­tion­less and steady, on and on. This arti­cle was first pub­lished in the print edi­tion of The Sat­ur­day Paper on Feb 27, 2016 as Mov­ing stories”.
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