In Development Interview: Brad Darkson and ‘Smart Object’ — Experimenta

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Conceptually, South Australian artist Brad Darkson’s work is informed by strong ties to both his Narungga First Nations and Anglo Australian heritage. In this interview Brad shares his concerns about the desire for sentience in Artificial Intelligence, his conversations with Uncle Moogy and Allan Sumner, and working with Flinders University to realise the technical aspects of his work for Experimenta Life Forms. He also discusses the ‘spirit in things’ and embracing slowness in the artmaking process.

Experimenta: What concerns inform the work you’re currently developing for Experimenta Life Forms?

Brad: When I first read the exhibition brief I was struck by the notion of ‘discovery’, through scientific methods and ever-advancing technology, that biological life forms other than humans could have some form of sentience – plants and animals, and soon maybe machines. A robot that has feelings is a pretty incredible hypothesis, and artificial intelligence is advancing, but I’ve always had a bit of an aversion to giving machine intelligence too much thought. If artificial intelligence were to become sentient then we (the humans that produced the sentient machine) would be obliged to cease control over this new life form, otherwise we’d be enforcing yet another form of slavery. Should we not be turning our attention instead to the vast world of sentience that is our home, our Earth?

My work is focused around the spirit (or inherent knowledge) within things, but more specifically the juxtaposition of real and virtual things, and experiences. I sit and listen to Uncle Moogy, and he points out to me that we came from the Earth just like all the other ‘things’ that exist in our shared reality, no matter how seemingly benign. A pen, a coffee mug, a piece of paper. Everything was once a part of the Earth until it was removed and combined to produce other things. He reminds me that over deep time everything will return back to the Earth, including us.

Experimenta: Tell us about the conversations you are having with Uncle Moogy and Allan Sumner, and how this process has guided your work thus far?

Brad: When talking to elders in my community about practicing culture there is often mention of the time spent sitting around a fire – talking, thinking, listening. In comparison to the pace of late capitalism it’s a slow process, and it needs to be slow. There needs to be room for thoughts to breathe in real-time, and there needs to be the opportunity to listen not only to those present around the fire, but to the fire, and to the land

I first approached Ngarrindjeri elder Uncle Moogy Sumner in the hopes that he would teach me traditional methods of carving, and how to reconnect with culture and with the spirit of objects. We initially spoke on the phone, then we met in person to discuss carving and cultural practice. Covid-19 struck so we decided to trial virtual carving over the Internet using video conferencing calls, with each of us having a camera positioned in front of our carving blocks. At first, I was excited by the prospect of virtual carving, recording the process and giving Uncle the chance to use the footage later as an educational resource. Endless technical issues with internet providers and attempts to confine learning culture to a specified time-slot resulted in a strange sense of feeling untethered. I cherished the small amounts of time we spent together in person before social restrictions were applied, remembering how important those moments are when you sit with a person, each allowing for moments of silence to guide the conversation. None of that exists in the same way when you no longer share the same physical space. Finally, social restrictions have eased and I’m able to sit with Uncle to carve outside. As we carve he pauses and tells me how much he likes doing this sort of thing.Allan Sumner is another senior community member with great cultural knowledge who has also welcomed me into his carving practice and, like Uncle, is keen to pass down this knowledge to younger people in community. Allan sits with me around the fire and talks about the importance of sitting with a piece of wood for a long time, studying its contours and unique markings, waiting for that moment when you notice something you hadn’t previously; physically holding the carving, feeling the weight and making alterations based on how it feels. It becomes apparent to me that it’s essential to allow the object to guide your carving practice.

The virtual relies on speed – a constant battle for bandwidth to maintain its existence. Faster and more powerful equates to becoming closer to reality. The opposite could be said of reality. The slower you experience something in the real world, the more you learn from the experience. The longer you sit with an object, the more that object reveals itself to you.

Experimenta: As your process moves to the virtual, what is your collaborative process in developing the artwork and what technology are you using?

Brad: Flinders University was excited to assist with the technical side of this project by providing access to a motion capture facility – a chamber that records a person’s actions and transcribes the movement data to an animated figure. In this facility, my physical movements were recorded, and I then sent the motion capture data to an animator. Brett Walter is the lead animator I’ve been working with on this project, and he’s rigged the data from my real life movements to an avatar of me. The animation process has been a long period of collaboration with Brett making adjustments based on my creative direction. Arthur Ah Chee is a First Nations 3D animation student at Flinders University who has been assisting with the animation also.

Experimenta Life Forms International Triennial of Media Art

Exploring how biological and artificial life are challenging human-centric thinking, Experimenta Life Forms will be Experimenta’s 8th national touring exhibition. It premieres in 2021 and will tour nationally until 2023. 

‘Smart Object’ by Brad Darkson is an Experimenta and ANAT commission.