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Robotic Flowers Bloom in Perth’s CBD

We’re right in the middle of spring and it’s the perfect time to admire all the plants that are flowering on our streets, in our backyards and in our parks. However, there’s a blooming garden of another kind to admire and it’s hidden within the unlikely location of Hay Street Mall.

Floribots is the world’s only interactive robotic flowerpot garden created by WA’s very own, award-winning cybernetics artist Geoffrey Drake-Brockman. Geoffrey’s garden consists of 128 robot flowerpots which bloom and wither in a choreographed fashion, influenced by the ‘mood’ of the hive mind and pattern of the audience viewing and interacting with the work. It detects this movement through eight infra-red sensors attached to each flower, which are also embedded with microcontrollers and telescopic stems. This means viewing the work is different every time. The garden presents as a social organism with behaviours that replicate those seen in individuals and colonies.

The work has received a number of awards since its debut in 2005, recently winning ‘People’s Choice’ and Jury’s ‘Best in Show’ at the Morris Museum in Metropolitan New York in 2018. Now for the first time since 2007, it’s back in Australia as part of the State Government’s CBD Revitalisation Program. Ahead of its launch at the historic Moana Chambers Building in Hay Street Mall on November 5, I spoke with Geoffrey to hear more about Floribots and what it means to be a cybernetics artist.

Holly: How does it feel to present Floribots in Australia for the first time since 2007?

Geoffrey: After I first exhibited Floribots in Canberra back in 2005 the work actually seemed like a bit of a liability to me. It was complex to maintain, expensive to transport, and bulky to store. I even tried to sell it off, one flowerpot at a time, but that didn’t work out. Eventually I just put it into storage and tried to forget about it. Each time it has come out of storage, and been exhibited again over the years I’ve felt glad that I kept it. It has travelled the world and delighted many people. It was last shown in Australia in 2007, fifteen years ago. I’m happy to show it again now, especially in my home-town of Perth. Although it’s “old work” for me, it still represents themes that interest me now and I’m happy to present it as part of my current practice.

Geoffrey Drake-Brockman pictured with his artwork Floribots.

Holly: Audience interaction is a pivotal element across your various artworks, why is this important to you?

Geoffrey: Interaction gives rise to unpredictability, to variation and surprise. I resist making kinetic artworks that just play a “loop” of behaviour because it’s so limiting experientially, and also in its conceptual ramifications. Because interaction is at the core of the control algorithms that I write for my work, the behaviour of the pieces become “open ended” – I regard them as being “free”. Free to explore their potential and free to form larger, more complex systems involving their audience. There is only so much complexity I can muster in making an artwork – folding origami, building robotics and writing software – but with the addition of interaction and the human element the bigger-system potential is increased exponentially.

Holly: People seem to be easily drawn to interact with your artworks, why do you think that is?

Geoffrey: I am pleased when people interact with, and form relationships with, my artworks. Some of them, such as ‘Floribots’, or the LED matrix ‘Surface’ at the Perth Children’s Hospital, or ‘Counter’ as most recently shown at Cathedral Square, seem particularly effective at attracting people to engage with them. I think the reasons are a little different for each piece. In the case of Floribots I modelled its behaviour on the behaviour of my sons, when they were at toddler age – so it has emotional states internally, in its software – it can be bored, excited, grumpy, sleepy, etcetera. I think people glimpse this underlying humanity in its actions, and this simultaneously attracts and repels them; given that it’s a garden of mechanical flowers, and not a human child.

Floribots created by Geoffrey Drake-Brockman

Holly: When you first made Floribots Artificial Intelligence was less ingrained in our lives, have you noticed any changes in people’s perception of the work, or your other works, as we become more familiar with AI?

Geoffrey: It’s certainly true that AI has become more prevalent in our daily lives since I first showed Floribots back in 2005. Nowadays, people expect to talk to their phones and even to their cars – and have these devices respond intelligently. However, people still don’t expect a plant, even a robotic one, to respond intelligently, let alone emotionally. Even more perturbing is that the AI characteristics that Floribots presents manifest collectively – it’s basically a swarm of 128 robot flowerpots. We understand collective organisms, ants and bees, but we don’t expect much from them conversationally. So, while I think today we are more accustomed to think of technological systems that are “smart”, Floribots still provokes some reactions that go beyond what we are used-to even today. I do however think we are only now seeing the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of the effect that AI will eventually have on our daily lives.

Holly: You studied computer science at The University of Western Australia before completing a master’s degree in visual arts at Curtin. What drew you to move into the visual arts space and combine it with your computer science background?

Geoffrey: I kind-of always knew that I wanted to be an artist, although I can see that studying Computer Science at university may seem like a funny way of going about it. I studied Art at high school to Year-12 level and I was pretty sure that I wanted to become an artist, but at that time I had a very romantic idea of what that meant. I thought that creativity just boiled up from inside and there was no point to going to art school where you’d just get indoctrinated with other people’s ideas and learn old-fashioned techniques. I did however see a continuity between art and science – somehow for me they were both part of the same thing. I was quite happy to study science at university and had no qualms about gaining more explicit knowledge in that area. Initially, I enrolled to study physics, chemistry, and philosophy – the Computer Science major came about partly by accident and partly because I liked the formal logic side of it – which was similar to what I studied in philosophy. After I graduated from university, I got a job as a computer programmer and soon afterwards had my first solo exhibition at Greenhill Galleries. Around that time I met a lot of other artists who had been to art school however, and it began to seem to me that maybe I had missed out on something important and there was a lot I could learn if I went too. So, a few years later I enrolled back at university did my MA in visual art. I studied under Ben Joel at Curtin University and he is a truly wonderful teacher, I owe a lot to him.

Floribots created by Geoffrey Drake-Brockman

Holly: How has studying and working in Western Australia shaped you and your journey as an artist?

Geoffrey: Western Australia has offered me many artistic opportunities over the years, as a place to exhibit my work, to develop my practice, and as a base to travel the world and show work that I have made here. I am particularly grateful for the State Government “Percent for Art” policy under which new artworks are commissioned locally when capital works are undertaken. I think this is a very enlightened policy that is not found in many places around Australia or the world. It ensures that so many public spaces are enriched with permanent artworks that simply make this state a better place to live. The program also offers many Western Australian artists, including me, opportunities to create major artworks working with capital budgets, making life as a full-time professional artist much more feasible. Over the years I have made many public artworks and most of them are in Western Australia, including “Totem” (everybody calls it the Pineapple) at the Perth Arena.

You can check out Floribots at Moana Hall Chambers in Hay Street Mall from November 5 to December 2.