John Gerrard, Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada) 2014; Simulation; Dimensions variable. Photo Credit: Courtesy the artist,
Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Simon Preston Gallery, New York.
Emergent Art in A Post-Digital Emergency
By Matthew Causey
N.B. The following essay is an excerpt of a larger work that examines the effects of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic on the growth of virtual communications and the ways in which Gerrard’s simulations inform that unprecedented development. See, ‘The Earth as Data Farm for the Virtual World: Art in the Post-pandemic, Postdigital Untergang (Downfall)’ in Life in the Posthuman Condition: Critical Responses to the Anthropocene. Eds. Steve Wilmer and Audronė Žukauskaitė. (Forthcoming).
Postdigital art practice, which is hardly a new phenomenon, includes strategies which engage digital and computational performativity that is immersive, hybrid, augmented, virtual, and simulated. Postdigital art operates within the logic of the internet, the language of the network, and the discourse of the virtual, as a creative resource and a process of thinking digitally. Postdigital art is, as is the case for any significant or responsive art, historically-informed, and, in some cases, history-making, being shaped by and shaping the most current technologies of representation. The tiring prefix of ‘post’ in postdigital does not refer to an end of the digital but rather an absorption of the digital into all manners of life. Similarly, a post-pandemic culture will need to acclimate to the demands of the recent pandemic.
John Gerrard, Grow Finish Unit (Eva, Oklahoma) 2008; Simulation; Dimensions variable; Photo Credit: Courtesy the artist,
Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Simon Preston Gallery, New York.
John Gerrard,GROW FINISH UNIT (EVA) installed at IVORYPRESS, MADRID, SPAIN 2011, Photo Credit: Courtesy the artist.
John Gerrard is an internationally recognized Irish artist working in Dublin and Vienna best known for his digital simulations using computer graphics and gaming technologies to recreate actual buildings and places. Gerrard’s simulations are screened or projected and played in a manner that often ‘reenacts’ the passage of time clocked to the specific locations from which the buildings or places are originally located. Each of Gerrard’s works articulates specific ethical and political challenges of postdigital culture exploring issues arising within the ecological crises of the Anthropocene including industrial farming, climate change, environmental catastrophes, and migration crises which are known to have exacerbated the current pandemic.
Three works of Gerrard significantly demonstrate these Anthropocentric issues. Grow Finish Unit (Eva, Oklahoma) 2008, simulates a factory farm, a grow-finish unit, designed for the growing and indeed, the finishing of a swine population from approximately 8-10 weeks for growing and 8-10 weeks for finishing, from 18 kilos to market weight. The simulation silently and dispassionately presents the place and time of the management and exploitation of animal life and death. It is a performance of the industrialization of the farm animal and its profit potential. Any value judgement driving the work is ambiguous. On display is the presence and the implied function of the facility and nothing more. Make sense who may.
Installation view, John Gerrard, Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada) 2014, in John Gerrard: Solar Reserve, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, July 12–September 3, 2018, © John Gerrard, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA
Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada), 2014 is described on Gerrard’s website as,
a computer simulation of an actual power plant known as a solar thermal power tower, surrounded by 10,000 mirrors that reflect sunlight upon it to heat molten salts, forming a thermal battery which is used to generate electricity. Over the course of a 365–day year, the work simulates the actual movements of the sun, moon, and stars across the sky, as they would appear at the Nevada site, with the thousands of mirrors adjusting their positions in real time according to the position of the sun. -
By 2019, the actual Solar Reserve, after US government-assisted investments of billions of dollars, was bankrupt and operations had ceased. A combination of rapid advances in solar energy technologies which left the new facility obsolete, mismanagement and concerns from conservationists and Native Americans who owned the land led to the demise of the solar park. Gerrard’s Solar Reserve presents a technological process of harvesting a natural resource. Martin Heidegger in his 1954 seminal work, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ (Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell, Tr. William Lovitt. Harper San Francisco, 1977) helps to disclose what is taking place in a facility like the Solar Reserve, wherein ‘the energy concealed in nature is unlocked, what is unlocked is transformed, what is transformed is stored up, what is stored up is, in turn, distributed, and what is distributed is switched about ever anew’ (322). The energy generated at Solar Reserve links the human end-user and the environmental objects resourced. Gerrard’s simulation meticulously and simply reenacts the technological action and the movements of the sun and earth. Again, any ideological critique lies in the viewer’s interpretation.
John Gerrard, Farm (Pryor Creek, Oklahoma) 2015; Simulation; Dimensions variable.
Photo Credit: Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Simon Preston Gallery, New York.
Gerrard’s The Farm (Pryor Creek, Oklahoma), 2015, is a recreation of a Google data server building known as a ‘data farm’. These data farms are located around the world and can process as many as 40 million internet searches per second. The data farms are Google’s storage sites, collection centres and archives of the world’s digital information flow. The virtual camera of Gerrard’s simulation relentlessly circles the building complex in which so much of the world’s information and real world transactions (financial, personal, political) are collected as data in order to direct, distribute, and monetize that material.
The Farm (Pryor Creek, Oklahoma) 2015 renders the gathering, virtualizing, and distribution of human knowledge as information and data. Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada) 2014 demonstrates the collection of the earth for redistribution, energy and profit. Grow Finish Unit (Eva, Oklahoma) 2008 reveals the same strategies of gathering and collecting, managing and directing but applied to animal life and death. The meaning of these works lie in the role of the human, who is significantly absent in all of these pieces, and their manipulations of life, be it their own, or that of the animal, mineral, vegetable or informational. The artworks project the world’s resources from the celestial to the vegetable as industrialized and marketable. Further, Gerrard’s simulations suggest that the human, now rightly referred to as a data-subject by EU law, is likewise both user and product whose identity is digitized and distributed ever anew in postdigital culture’s drift toward the virtual.
John Gerrard, Farm (Pryor Creek, Oklahoma) 2015; installed at Thomas Dane Gallery, London
Photo Credit: Richard Ivey
What is it we are looking at when we are looking at these simulations? As installed in galleries and museums spectators approach these real-time virtual worlds as material objects with screens, light, projections, and computer-graphics. They are also performances to be read as philosophy and social critique, organized as events of computational, algorithmic simulations. The viewer is participating in the performance of code, the actions and results (dramas?) of algorithms. Although the works contain the obvious phenomenological aspects of cinema, frame, composition, perspective, camera, projector and screen, they appear simultaneously as performances whose duration is indeterminate yet following (simulating) the clock. The works engage cinematic spectacle, but link the technical and the performative in a hybrid configuration.
The hard landscape and clear, cloudless, big skies of rural Oklahoma and Nevada are executed and programmed in Gerrard’s simulations like a color-field painting in an expanse of emptiness. The familiar landscape and the indispensable horizon are something like a Mark Rothko or Andrew Wyeth painting, or a photograph of Dorothea Lange or Arthur Rothstein. It is an unforgiving and ungiving dustbowl, a space whose history conjures many ghosts. The fields depicted appear once ripened with grain, once inhabited by Native American nations, and once abandoned by tenant farmers in the 1930s. Now, in the sheen of the computer generated simulation is a place that is pristine, perhaps desolate, certainly isolated, a depopulated terrain. There is little movement. Monotonous. Meticulous. The virtual camera of the simulation circles at eye level around the buildings as a witness of the stillness. Silence. It is an America that remains unseen in readiness. There is a palpable foreboding, yet the buildings and environments stand as non-events. Although we are present in a real time simulation nothing happens in or around the buildings. Nothing but nothing. There is no entrance or exit. There is no input or output save a gentle exhaust exhaled from the vents of the ‘Farm’. There is an incredible depth in the landscape, but a shallow flatness pervades. Time flows, but any historical circumstance is absent. There is no sign of life. The buildings’ silver surfaces shine in the sunlight but what is inside? Why are the actions concealed? What is happening? What banalities? What traumas? Outside the Farm are empty parking lots with vacant electric car recharging stations. In ancient Greece the theatres built into the landscape included a circular orchestra (like the circling virtual camera) in which the action of the tragedies took place. Behind the orchestra was the scene building which operated as a site for entrances and exits and it was there that the scenes of trauma, Clytemnestra’s murder, Oedipus’ enucleated eyes, Antigone’s suicide, were enacted, but unseen. However, the scenes, the non-scenes, the ob-scene tragedies taking place in these scene buildings and sites are unwitnessed. Unseen is the industrialisation of animal life, the fattening, the growing, the finishing of the animal for market. There is a silence. There are no animal grunts, no shuffling of caged hoofs, nor the waste products expelled and washed away. The energy of the sun is unlocked and transformed, stored up and distributed. On the farm there is the harvesting of big data, a digitising of the things of the earth, of the human, into the construction of the world as virtual. The circle of the implied viewer around the buildings outlines the perimeter of an orchestra in which the scene building is now centre-stage. Everything is hidden in a tragic site without event or catharsis or sacrifice. The circular site of the Solar Reserve appears as a sublimated ritual event. The mirrors following the path of the sun reflect to a source radiating in the centre. The ritual enacted is one not for sacrifice but for efficiency, productivity, and capital. In this very particular way, the industrialisation of information and data, agriculture and animal life, and the human and the environment presents the gathering and distribution of the earth’s resources as virtual.
John Gerrard, Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas) 2017 at Desert X at Coachella Valley, CA, USA,
Displayed on an artist–designed frameless LED wall. Photo Credit: Courtesy the artist
There is a critical in-distinction that resides at the core of Gerrard’s works which is a zone between the virtual (and its infinite potentiality) and appearance (or what we know of the material real). It is a commonplace assumption that within a postdigital culture the subject’s existence in the spaces of technology is one which crosses the borders of the virtual and the appearance of the real. But as Žižek has noted in ‘From Virtual Reality to the Virtualization of Reality’ (Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation. Ed. Tim Druckrey. New York: Aperture, 1996, 290-295) what is important today is not virtual reality, which is a rather banal phenomenon, but the reality of the virtual. It is at this juncture where we can see Gerrard’s works of art do their work, setting art to work, to manifest, articulate and bring into being, our current historical community’s sense of ‘what is’ and ‘what matters’.
The events of the earth and organic life subjected, on the one hand, to factory farming for maximum efficiency and profits, and on the other, digitized and virtualized for distribution and marketing, is uncannily simulated in the works of art of Gerrard. What is experienced in these simulations is both our contemporary moment of truth in the concealing of the earth as a virtual world and simultaneously the taking place of the work of art in postdigital culture. As data-subjects of the postdigital, post-pandemic economy we populate multiple virtual worlds in which the differences detected between the virtual and the appearance of the real appear as an aesthetic. Our subjectivity and identities are data-mined as resources and marketed back to ourselves in the economics of postdigital capital. What is revealed and presented before us in such virtual environments? It is the world’s translation as an element within the virtual. What matters within this historical moment? The re-established distinction of the virtual and appearance of the real through an artistic inception.
Dr. Matthew Causey is Fellow Emeritus at Trinity College Dublin where he served as Head of School of Creative Arts and Director of the Arts Technology Research Laboratory. He is author of Theatre and Performance in Digital Culture (Routledge, 2009), and co-editor of Performing Subject in the Space of Technology: through the virtual towards the real (Palgrave, 2015) and Performance, Identity and the Neo-political Subject (Routledge, 2015). His theoretical writings on digital culture and theory are published in many journals including his essay 'Postdigital Performance'
(Theatre Journal 68, 2016).