Artist Daniel Crooks discusses with Curator Elspeth Pitt his work commissioned to illuminate the National Gallery façade for the 2022 Enlighten Festival.
Held in the 40th anniversary year of the National Gallery, Crooks’ project celebrates the design of the original gallery building by architect, Col Madigan. Using the architect’s original geometric language as a point of departure, Crooks has created a suite of visual manipulations spanning geometry, architecture and perspective. The work culminates in a series of vignettes that visually manipulate the gallery façade through volume, colour, light and sound.
This event was first broadcast on 10 March 2022.
About the Commission
Daniel Crooks: Structured light
4–14 Mar 2022
Naarm/Melbourne based artist Daniel Crooks has been commissioned to illuminate the National Gallery’s façade for the 2022 Enlighten Festival. Held in the Gallery’s 40th anniversary year, Crooks’ project celebrates the design of the original National Gallery building by architect, Col Madigan.
ELSPETH PITT: I'd like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and the Ngambri peoples on whose land the National Gallery is built. And I'd like to pay my respect to their elders past, present, and emerging, and to acknowledge that this always has and always will be Aboriginal land. Hello, my name is Elspeth Pitt I'm curator of Australian art here at the National Gallery in Kamberri, also known as Canberra. And today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Daniel Crooks. Daniel is a really significant contemporary artist working predominantly in video, photography, and sculpture. He's widely known for works that capture and alter time, motion, and which manipulate digital imagery as though it were physical material. His work is held in numerous public and private collections. He's exhibited prolifically in Australia and abroad. Most recently, his work was included in the 2021 Tarrawarra Biennial, and in the 2021 Asia Society Triennial in New York.
ELSPETH PITT: This year with the support of the Balnaves Foundation, the National Gallery has commissioned a new work Structured Light, to be shown as part of the Enlighten Festival. It's a vast work projected onto the gallery's western facade. And it's one that also coincides with the 40th anniversary of the original National Gallery building designed by Colin Madigan. It ultimately celebrates challenges and extends Madigan's renowned brutalist building and the philosophies that underpin it. So Daniel, at this point, you're probably intimately familiar with the building. Can you step us through the origins of your work, and the things that's struck you on your first site visit to the gallery?
DANIEL CROOKS: Yeah, sure. Yeah, no, I am very... Well not the whole building just that Western facade.
ELSPETH PITT: Just that facade.
DANIEL CROOKS: I know it inside out now. I came up to Canberra for a site visit and really was just sort of wandering around I suppose, looking at the building, looking for different angles, trying to get a bit of a sense of it. I was actually wandering around under the pedestrian bridge and discovered a kind of... It felt quite sort of forgotten and a little bit neglected possibly. It was the commemorative plaque for the master site layout, site set out. I And it's an old brass plaque, like circular plaque and it's really beautiful. And it really kind of struck me. The first thing that actually struck me about it was, one, that it's sitting on this kind of beautiful polyhedra, an octahedron to be precise. And it's a circular plaque and it is very... My first thought was that it's the Pioneer plaque, or the Golden Record plaque or Golden Records. It just had that whole aesthetic going on. And of course then I'm looking at the date and it was opened by Gough Whitlam and it's '73. And of course the whole Pioneer plaques went into space, I think '72. Early and late '72 respectively.
DANIEL CROOKS: So it's totally of that era, and also has a bit of sort of, I don't know, Swiss design about it as well. And it had like a bird shit on it. I was like, "Wait a second, what is happening here?" Yeah. I was like, "Oh, this is gorgeous, this is beautiful." And it absolutely sets out pretty boldly at that point, Madigan's obsession with the equilateral triangle. It stated pretty clearly, the height to base ratio. And then everything is measured in this triangular grids coming out from that set out point. And that really just stuck with me, I suppose. And then coming back to the building, I was like, "Of course, yes, triangles, triangles, triangles." I was like, "Oh my God, the triangles there, the triangles everywhere." And that was the starting point, and went home, went back to Melbourne, back in the studio and then I did a little bit of research on Madigan and then I was sort of looking into the Pioneer. And there are some great rabbit holes.
ELSPETH PITT: And just for the younger members of our audience, can you just speak to those Pioneer plaques a little bit?
DANIEL CROOKS: Yes. Okay. So the Pioneer plaques were these... They're quite small actually. I always sort of thought of them as bigger, but they're about... I think they're sort of like 9" x 6" or something like that, because of course that's going to be the only way you read about them as an American. American/UK/why are they still hanging onto that? Anyway, I diverge. So the Pioneer program was set up by NASA and it was literally the first objects that were going to leave our solar system, they were designed to leave our solar system. So they thought maybe what they'd do is put a little business card on the outside of the spaceship for any aliens who would happen to come across the plaque. And so it's a kind of a crazy task, you're trying to make a business card for the whole of humanity to send into space and they tasked it to Carl Sagan and another astrophysicist whose name I can't now remember. And it was actually Carl Sagan's wife who did the illustration.
ELSPETH PITT: Oh really?
DANIEL CROOKS: Yeah. And it's kind of nuts. So they tried to make this universal language that would be able to talk to anyone and try and convey what earth was, who humans were, how culture worked, and trying to sum it up on this little tiny business card and a handful of illustrations. I challenge anyone who's not an astrophysicist to make kind of heads or tails of it. It's all about these sort of elemental, fundamental givens of the universe that theoretically everyone would understand. That helium is the smallest atom or the smallest element we have, and then the wavelengths of those and use that to measure things. And then the pulsars that then point to where earth is.
ELSPETH PITT: Okay. So maybe not so universal, really?
DANIEL CROOKS: Well, yeah. It's sort of a crazy thing it's like... But it's great. Because there are a few people who know... There's been quite a lot of actual discussion and interrogation of what it actually meant and how that sort of plays out now and how we look at it now. But there's a lot of stuff just even about the way that the humans are portrayed on it. The fact that, the guy has his arm sort of held up and the idea is that it's showing the opposed film and the opposed digits. But it's like, well, what? Would aliens just assume that people always had an arm sticking out like this? There's no reference to what way is up or down or even... This line drawing as a constructor, it's just kind of like well, there's a lot of basic stuff there, some pretty big assumptions.
ELSPETH PITT: Okay. So from that point and that kind of correlation, temporarily between the announcement of the construction of the National Gallery building. The kind of synchronicity between the line drawings that you saw on the plaque and the Pioneer plaques. The illusion to universal languages that was something also Madigan really believed in, in terms of architectural languages. Following all of this kind of stuff, all of this initial thinking, you subsequently spent quite a lot of time in the Madigan archive itself, part of which is held in the National Gallery research library. So following all of that, what did you discover in that archival context?
DANIEL CROOKS: Yeah. Wow. Well, it was an absolute treasure trove going through the archive. Some of Madigan's hand drawn plans and just some of... It was quite good actually seeing almost like the original artwork for some of the illustrations and diagrams that has then been used in publications and sort of being able to see the original with twink. I don't know, is twink even a word? You know what? It's a New Zealand term.
ELSPETH PITT: Oh, okay.
DANIEL CROOKS: Correction fluid.
ELSPETH PITT: Oh, like Liquid Paper?
DANIEL CROOKS: 1,1,1-trichloroethane.
ELSPETH PITT: Yeah. Right. Okay.
DANIEL CROOKS: Yeah. It was great. I was like, "Oh my God, this is so cool." And it really did. Yeah. It became pretty apparent that Madigan was quite the geometry nerd. And like you said, his belief in that kind of universal language of geometry and a harmony and almost like a sacred geometry, like he definitely referenced quite a lot of that sort of action. I took all that on board and I particularly took on board here the line drawing and I was also at the time working on a machine, like a drawing machine. And so that kind of played into it quite considerably as well. So I was looking a lot at line drawing and the mechanics of line drawing and the sort of underlying kind of code or maths of line drawing.
ELSPETH PITT: Actually, can I just ask a question there, because I've seen the work, well, a few times now with you. And some other people who are kind of around us now have also seen it, and everyone actually, when it gets to the sequence that includes the drawing machine, people always describe it as mesmerizing. It's a very kind of elegant thing. Actually, for someone who doesn't know very much about coding like myself, how do you actually code the machine to draw the drawings? Because in some cases you seem to have inputted Madigan's drawings into your own machine in the work proper.
DANIEL CROOKS: Part of my trying to understand Madigan's geometry was trying to reproduce it, and so I spent an inordinate amount of time. I can show you the spreadsheets. Yeah. I love a bit of trigonometry and any excuse to go there, but it was quite fascinating actually trying to unpack particularly the tria grid, which is his sort of... What is it? It's like a-
ELSPETH PITT: Calling card.
DANIEL CROOKS: It's like a space grid for the ceilings. And it's quite tricky. I was like, "Wait a second, that's not quite as intuitive as I thought it would be." And so I spend a lot of time drawing those and trying to get them correct. And so it sort of seemed only right to run those through the drawing machine. It's not really what I sort of built the machine to do, but it seemed like a good starting point. The trick though really, was the machine is based on a pretty much just CNC machining systems and they're very good, they're very accurate, they're very precise, but then they have no regard for time as such. And they certainly don't have any regard for choreography. And so when you're trying to make a movie, the choreography of the objects or the machines as it were, is very important, you want it to draw it in a particular way.
DANIEL CROOKS: And that was actually kind of hard. It wasn't like using editing software or post-production software, which I'm very used to using with timelines and layers and curves. It was just straight up ASCII code, which is just text files, long lists of numbers, and then trying to kind of copy and paste them into particular orders, so that it would draw it roughly in the time that you wanted. So it was actually kind of fun in that way. It was motion control with a sledge hammer.
ELSPETH PITT: Okay. Maybe that kind of links to something else I wanted to ask. Because I think... Well, I've kind of gathered that one of the things you were interested in or speculated on was Madigan as a person and as an artist and how he, who is kind of like you, someone who is very expansive in their thinking, how would he kind of respond and adapt to the digital technologies that are available to you today? Because as you said, when he was designing the building it was totally or principally analog. It was all sort of hand drawn designs, watercolors, correction fluid.
DANIEL CROOKS: In the archive, there were a couple of computer generated renderings that were super rudimentary, they're kind of exciting. And I did sort of play with some of that stuff for a little while, but it didn't make it into the work. It's hard to tell, I think it... It's hard not to imagine that he would've been a pretty early adopter of the generative parametric sort of action that's happening in architecture or has been for a few years now. And just using the computer to make those kind of offers. Plugging in simple rules and then letting it do its thing. I do that a lot, not architecturally obviously, but it's hard not to see him finding that pretty appealing.
ELSPETH PITT: Yeah. And I don't know, actually, I often wonder this because as a curator, often working on an artist or researching them, like historical figures, you kind of feel like you come to know them. Did you have a sense of...
DANIEL CROOKS: A little bit, not really. It was like speed dating really.
ELSPETH PITT: Okay.
DANIEL CROOKS: Charging through it with a pretty sort of visual eye. He definitely got a pretty strong sense of how upset he was at the end, and that was kind of heartbreaking. It's like, oh, that would be pretty hard to have something that you have poured your heart and soul into and then feel like your sort of shut out the process and you get quite a strong feeling of that.
ELSPETH PITT: Yeah. So to give some context to our audience, while Colin Madigan built the original National Gallery building, when the building was extended subsequently, he didn't receive that commission. And as you say, he was kind of really heartbroken. And I guess that also taps into this idea of the universal language, that he was kind of interested in, the importance of architecture. And in terms of the foundational form of the gallery, the equilateral triangle, how it could kind of repeat and extend endlessly, I guess that kind of came to a really abrupt conclusion.
DANIEL CROOKS: Well, maybe it came to a little bit of a middle right angle as it somewhere does in the building. And it's like, "It's a little bit awkward".
ELSPETH PITT: It's a little bit off.
DANIEL CROOKS: It's a little like... I kind of get it, I'm all there for just like the really sort of geometric underpinning. But then sometimes you just can't be too dogmatic about that stuff. And it's like...
ELSPETH PITT: Yeah. Also, I guess like your work is, as we kind of mentioned in the intro, it is a work that really considers Madigan's practice, which kind of takes his drawings, but also turns them into other things. Well for me, one of the most compelling sequences in the work is sort of towards the end when you essentially kind of propose an alternate or sort of dynamic architecture, is that kind of something you want to speak to a little bit?
DANIEL CROOKS: Yeah, sure. Pretty early on in the process, it was something I knew I really wanted to do. Hacking back to the my sort of trigonometric, is that even a word? Bent. Looking at the building and the perspectival vantage points and just going, "Yes, it would be possible to try and overlay an anamorphically correct alternative onto the building." And whether that was going to be possible, I was like, "Well, of course it's possible, but is it actually doable by me with my limited skillset?" And so I sort of set out to try and do it and it was kind of excruciating to do. I had to basically build a model of the building and then situate.... So there are three vantage points. So those are the points, like the actual kind of nodal points from which the perspective makes sense. And it was quite funny because a few people had sort of said, "Oh yeah, but if you do that and you're not sitting right on that exact point, it doesn't work and it looks wrong."
DANIEL CROOKS: I actually love the wrong. I really love it. It's like the [inaudible 00:19:18] ambassadors, when you see the anamorphic skull, and you first kind of realize it's like what the... Okay, I get it. It's a little bit like that. But actually, I quite like the wrong as well. It's a real payoff when it snaps into perfect perspective, but the actual process of doing it, as always, these things... I have quite a history of this, of something... It's just a few notes in your sketchbook, a few lines, but actually sort of pulling it off in the real world is remarkably difficult. Oh God, it was so hard. We are talking about the 14 year olds in their bedrooms and they'd be like, "It's easy. No worries." But for me it was quite a challenge. It was a very exciting moment to see that happen and to work and... Yeah, I think it's good. Really, I think one of the things I did coming into this project, having a little bit of experience with outdoor projection and it generally being a pretty uphill battle.
DANIEL CROOKS: Most of the time you're really just trying to fight to even get something close to what is on your screen, on the wall. Walls generally are great projection surfaces its ambient light. And so I came into this one really going, "Okay, I'm going to play to the strengths of outdoor projection." And I think also all my kind of brutalist research really helped with that as well. It's like, "No, just go hard, be honest to the materials, and subtlety is not rewarded." I think was part of my mantra. And that kind of carried over into the editing as well. I was very keen to... There are no fades in the entire work. It's just hard cuts. Everything's hard, hard, hard. Everything slams into itself. I think it's actually been... I was pleasantly... Well, not surprised. What's the opposite of surprised? I was very happy to see that most of my guesses proved to be right. I was like, "Yes. That does work better. That does work well." Yeah, it was a good thing.
ELSPETH PITT: Okay, cool. Yeah, I guess like one of the reasons I really admire this work is because it's as you were saying, it's as tough as it is really beautiful. And like for me, it kind of operates between these twin interests of Madigan's that are perhaps also interests of yours. Brutalist architecture, which is so emphatic. And then these sort of more theorial ideas about sacred geometry. And I think the sound which is composed by Byron Scullin, one of your long term collaborators, really kind of feeds into that and enhances that. So did you kind of also want to speak to that?
DANIEL CROOKS: Yeah, absolutely. The sound is so important, it's 50% of... I always talk about sound being the emotional dictator. That's what makes you sort of feel about what you're looking at. And I was really clear on how I wanted it to be, I really wanted it to be brutal. I definitely want... The moments when you have those real kind of structured light patterns are incredibly abrasive, but they're also so good. And then you want to contrast that and have some moments of beauty, so the sublime. Yeah. So Byron and I have been working together for years, we have a great dialogue, it can all get a little bit last minute, but we do have a really good dialogue and I think it's great. Its awesome.
ELSPETH PITT: It shows. And no disrespect to your work, it's like quite the opposite but the sound, I think just like totally brings it together and enhances all of the thinking and the way it plays out. And maybe just finally, and I'm not sure what you think about this, but as we said in the intro, so much of your work is about time or relates to time, is that focus kind of present in this work? Which in many ways feels really different and distinct from your past practice?
DANIEL CROOKS: No, absolutely. I think I did take that on a little bit as a... I guess, coming back to Madigan's sort of experimental approach, I did approach this commission as kind of an experiment. And it really was sort of to answer some of the questions I had about large scale outdoor projection and projection mapping and whether I had some answers for those. Temporally there were a few elements that I was particularly interested in early on that didn't quite make it into the final cut, but coming back to the beginning, really with Pioneer, that little spaceship or both of them are on, literally multi-billion year journeys-
ELSPETH PITT: Yeah. Amazing.
DANIEL CROOKS: ... into space I think. I think the first one reaches the nearest star in something like three and a half billion years. So the chances of that plaque being delivered to its first reading could be three and a half billion years away. But I do really love the idea of whoever does encounter it, looking back at us and... Like on the plaque, it's all about these... There are these sort of radiating lines, but they're not actually radiating, they're pointing back towards that single point. And I've sort of used that a little bit in the work to point to where you need to stand to get that correct perspective moment. But I also like there's almost like a little Easter egg at the end where you see Pioneer heading off into space and the telemetry coming back.
DANIEL CROOKS: There was a great moment when we got the last signal, that's it. It's like no more. You don't hear from them again. And I do kind of love the idea of that cosmological time, that super, super deep time. When will that little Pioneer ship have its first encounter? Will they come looking for us? Will the National Gallery still be here?
ELSPETH PITT: Who knows?
DANIEL CROOKS: Yeah.
ELSPETH PITT: Well, thank you, Daniel. I think that's like a lot. There's a lot, it's such a complex, loaded, beautiful, tough work. And it's been such a privilege to see it develop. So thank you. And I hope everyone watching can come and see the work which will be presented at the National Gallery between the fourth and the 14th of March. Thank you.
DANIEL CROOKS: Thank you, Elspeth, for all your help and incredible support as well.