He is equal parts mad scientist, nerd, artist, self-taught engineer, slacker-hacker and electronics wizard all stirred up, shaken and poured into the mold of a twenty-something, post-collegiate, smirking Tulsa man-boy. He is Geoffrey Hicks, a 29-year-old performance art and photography genius who has created a series of novel, intricately planned and executed installations over the past decade.
His latest creation, The Photographer, is an 800-pound reverse-engineered robotic arm that searches out and captures audience faces digitally, and then projects the photos onto screens. It's also been a years-long training exercise for Hicks, who nurtured his idea (which most likely occurred in the shower) from scouring eBay for a reasonably priced out-of-work robot arm to teaching himself how to engineer the arm to unveiling a fully functioning installation at Momentum 2011 in Oklahoma City.
The Photographer is seeking out faces for portraits in Tulsa for The Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition's Art 365, which opens Friday at Living Arts, 307 E. Brady St. In addition to Hicks, four other artists were also selected for the $12,000 annual grant from the coalition.
Even though Hicks' multimedia art installations have a complex technical aspect, "that's not really what it's about," Hicks said. "Super-nerds can enjoy it on that nerd level, but everyone to enjoy it on an everyday level."
Hicks engineered the arm to accomplish that most rudimentary and intimate of photographic arts -- the portrait -- to uncover our society's level of comfort with technology.
"We all have these fancy phones and Facebook, things that 10 years ago only nerds had," Hicks said. "There's this melding of technology and society, and I realized that these days, we've become so used to online personalization and everything that it's familiar and comforting to people."
Though he anticipated apprehension from his audience at the idea of being photographed by a robot, quite the opposite has occurred.
"(The Photographer) kind of plays into everybody's vanity. It takes their photographs and puts them on display. I wasn't trying to make a statement necessarily," Hicks said. "The point of the project is about how we are automating tasks, like automated check-outs and ATM machines. The robot was originally built to make cars and I trained it to become a photographer."
A graduate of Booker T. Washington High School, Hicks said he was a typical nerd in school.
"I'm still a nerd," he said with a laugh. He attended the University of Oklahoma and California Institute of the Arts, but never finished his degree. "I'm completely self-taught, and have no formal training in robotics or robots," he said.
As a little boy, Hicks played with erector sets but never made practical things like cars or cranes.
"I always liked to build things that looked cool, not things with a purpose ... I've always done fun technical art," Hicks said. "My art is not about being elitist and pretentious, I like to appeal to everybody. I don't have a desire to be controversial."
Hicks couldn't be less controversial in person, casual and lanky in jeans and a gray sweater at Coffee House on Cherry Street on a recent weekend. The artist-slash-Dr. Frankenstein-for-robots blends in like an average Midtown Tulsa guy, languorously stretched out with his feet on a coffee table. He works a day job at Video Revolution, 7030 S. Lewis Ave., where he shoots and produces local television shows and commercials.
Inside this relaxed exterior lies an idea factory fueled by curiosity and bravado.
"I have several new ideas every day," he said. "I weed them out based on funding and make a few a year. Given unlimited funding, I could probably come up with a new project every week that is as interesting as anything I've done."
His vision is a real feat, especially outside the heady towers of academia and the New York City art scene.
"I like to keep up with the art world while segregating myself so I'm free to make my own kind of art," Hicks said. Not many artists outside of academia build expensive, non-sellable, non-practical, technical performance art, but he's determined to do it despite the drawbacks.
Though he's a fan of contemporary American art and artists, Hicks tries to avoid being heavily influenced by trends that ripple through academic and art circles. Most artists "can't get far enough away from practicality, and my stuff is about whimsy and enjoyment and interaction," he said.
All this whimsy and enjoyment comes with a stiff price tag in materials, time and a mind-boggling amount of hard-earned technical knowledge. The robotic arm required five-figures' worth of cash to pull off, plus hours of preparation each day for months in advance. Hicks pours hundreds of hours into every project. Most days, he works his day job and then clocks in another two or three hours of work at home on his art projects.
The walls of his home are largely bare, but he likes it that way. He likes expanses of white wall though the bedrooms of his Midtown house are overflowing with more than 20 computers, a few dozen lighting fixtures, and piles of amassed materials for filming, photography and art-making. For years on end, the five-foot-tall robot arm sat in the middle of his living room, becoming a sort of long-term houseguest with an almost-discernable personality.
Now that The Photographer has moved out of his house, Hicks has his living room back and has shifted his focus to new projects. Slowly but surely, he has begun photographing a thousand people in his slick white cube for an expanded version of his popular Cubed Project, cubedproject.com. In 2005, he fashioned the cube himself, then photographed 100 people inside it for an art installation that showed in 2006. On a digital screen, the cube photos changed depending on how near or far the viewer was from the screen.
Hicks is about 150 portraits into this latest set of cubed portraits, and he imagines it'll take him another couple of years to round out the other 850.
So what will he do with a thousand pictures of people in a cube? Ultimately, it doesn't really matter. Hicks is an artist with a vision of freeing art from practicality and photography from the doldrums of glossy 5x7 prints. He is plunging headfirst and self-taught into the world of moving images, film, and multimedia robots. For the fun of it.
"Why would I want to make a building or design a product that was useful," he asked sardonically. "I've always just liked making art."
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