In Memoriam: Brendan Harkin (1958–2021)

By Ross Rudesch Harley

This memorial text was originally published at www.brendanharkinxml.com/obituary and is reposted with permission. 

Sydney
30 March 2021

Brendan Harkin passed away suddenly on Monday 15 March 2021 after living the largest of lives. He is survived by his wife Megan Elliott, his sister Colleen Harkin, and his daughter Astrid Harkin.

Born in Melbourne in 1958, Brendan grew from his working-class roots to become a global thought leader, provocateur and collaborator. For many people, it is his decades of work as Director of X Media Lab (which he co-founded with Megan) that he will be most remembered for.

Established in 2003, X Media Lab was the global platform that brought hundreds of outstanding international mentors to work with local creative project teams and start-ups on their digital media projects and ideas. These events were held in 14 countries and 21 cities all over the world, and led to many friendships and partnerships with creative media artists, scientists, educators and entrepreneurs.

One of those friends, Martyn Ware (founder of electronic music groups such as Human League and Heaven 17), captures Brendan’s personality brilliantly. His

“effervescent, humanitarian and proactive spirit always inspired me. In him, I could see the best the world could offer — an agile, inventive and positive soul, whose animus will continue to be recognised in the works he created and helped others to share. There are very, very few people who possess all these skills, and have the persistence to make them real.”

It was this effervescence that animated Brendan in all of his endeavours, both personal and professional. It propelled him as he set up the inaugural “Asia Pacific Multimedia Festival” in Melbourne, at a time when ideas about computing and digital platforms were still largely confined to corporate and government realms, and not especially thought of as having much to do with personal or creative pursuits, or the Asia Pacific.

Perhaps it was also what led him to become Australia’s first General Manager for Information Economy Public Awareness at the National Office for the Information Economy. I say perhaps, because Brendan was never a good fit for the group-think, conformity or diplomacy that is often required when working in government or politics. But whatever the case, Brendan achieved great things at the cusp of the millennium, leading the nation-wide “Online Australia” program in 1999, building seven major community portals (including Australia’s first multi-lingual, multi-cultural portal), and staging more than 140 events. The flagship website received over 10 million page impressions in its first 10 months of operation, no small thing at the time. The Australian government awarded him an Australia Day Gold Medal for his efforts.

Brendan rarely took a direct path anywhere, and his education and work trajectory illustrate this perfectly. Graham Shirley (who interviewed him as part of a series of biographical interviews with influential Australians for the National Film and Sound Archive) noted that it was Brendan’s high school education in classical civilisation and Greek philosophy that most changed his life. To discover in the Catholic school system that “there was reason and logic to the world, and you had to respond with logic and not with dogma” was an ethos that stayed with Brendan throughout his life. Philosophy taught him to question his assumptions and those of others, and that led him to challenge the status quo and received wisdom on any topic.

Always an early adopter (he had email long before most people), he also challenged the ways in which computers, networked technology and creativity might be thought about. As an advisor to the Jeff Kennett government in Victoria, he attempted to demonstrate the creative possibilities of what was then known as multimedia, aiming to educate the public as to its potential. As frustrating as it was invigorating, Brendan could see far more possibilities than could be seen by his friends in government. I suppose it was this frustration that ultimately led to the establishment of X Media Lab as an independent platform to explore and advance these ideas.

I remember once asking Brendan about the significance of the name and the significance of the “X”. For him it was simple: “X marks the spot” he replied. The cross, the crux, the intersection, the point of instability, a space of choice, and a possibility of multiple directions all pertained to the “X” in the name. And it was at this crossroads that he and Megan forged an incredible partnership that has had such a lasting impact on all those who came into contact with their networked world.

Joanna Brent who worked with Brendan in government, and whom he admired greatly, put it this way:

“What to say about Brendan? A brilliant thinker. A total misfit for government. An extreme, cut-through leader who took no prisoners and never apologised for anything ever, not once in his life. An amazing mentor, advocate and friend. Working with Brendan was a defining life experience that changed the way I — and all of us who worked for him — saw the world and ourselves. Brendan made us all believe we could achieve something exceptional; it was just a matter of deciding to. And *so* damn funny. We laughed more than any other workplace. Heidegger, Nietzsche, Brain Eno, escargot — things that I never encounter without thinking of Brendan.”

We can only imagine Brendan’s frustrations as a twenty-something working for the computer company Prime, installing what were basically mainframe computers into government departments at precisely the time that personal computing was about to explode into the mainstream. The absurdity of the situation drove Brendan nuts, as all he could see were hundreds of thousands of government dollars being spent on clunky computers that were shortly going to be replaced by smaller, faster and cheaper machines (that could by the way, be purchased by creative individuals to make new forms of art and entertainment).

X Media Lab had notable success in China between 2009 and 2014, a time when that country had an abiding interest in scientific animation. Brendan reckoned that living in China was an accident, but once he got there with Megan it all made sense. For Brendan, China was intoxicatingly complex, and a perfect fit for his curious disposition. Living and working in China kept him “questioning everything like, how popular is Beijing? How popular is China? People still don’t get it.”

While people may not have got it, his commitment was acknowledged in China at the Fifth China Creative Industry Awards, organized by the China Copyright Centre, the International Culture and Creative Industry Expo (ICCIE) and China Guanghua Foundation, where he received the prestigious International Contribution Award.

Brendan’s copious honours from this period of his life include: International Jury Member for the Interactive Emmy Awards held at MIPTV in Cannes; “Foreign Expert Advisor” to the Beijing municipal government on Digital Media industry development; Visiting Professor to Beijing Culture and Language University; and Consultant to the Suzhou Industrial Park on Animation industry development.

He was named as one of the “Top Ten Most Influential People” in the Australian Digital Media industries, and one of the “50 Most Influential Australians in Asia”. He also consulted to the United Nations Committee on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the European Union’s EUROPRIX initiative, and many of Australia’s leading creative industries and media agencies. Additionally, he served as an Advisory Board Member to a large number of digital media, cultural, and technology events throughout Asia and Australia.

In 2017, Brendan and Megan moved to America as Megan took up her post as the inaugural Director of the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Brendan continued to create and participate in networks for emerging digital media markets in Europe, China, India and the Middle East. His regular newsletter gave friends and colleagues “the latest dose of luxury reading for smart, data-driven, augmented, creative people.” At the end of each digest of Brendan’s latest discoveries and provocations, he would implore us in his inimitable style to “As Always, Change the World!”

His friend Alex McDowell (Art Director of Fight Club, Minority Report, Superman 3) speaks for us all:

“[Brendan] changed my life as he changed the lives of so many others in his generosity of spirit, never-ending curiosity, and the brilliant demands he made of the future.”

Brendan was always at home in the future, just as he was at home bringing people together to explore and to create it.

It is a future that he has exhorted us all to achieve— something generous, something demanding, and mostly, something fucking brilliant.