A chat in the back shed with futurist and artist Daniel Crooks. By Kate Holden.

Futurist Daniel Crooks

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 pate. 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 February 27, 2016 as "Moving stories".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award and the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.

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