Webchat: John Gerrard discusses working with computer simulation and challenging cinematic convention with independent curator Alex Ross
For our fig-2 exhibition at ICA Studio, John Gerrard presents Working Drawing for Infinite Freedom Exercise (near Abadan, Iran), a computer-generated version of a landscape found in southern Iran. A virtual camera circles a simulated figure standing in the road, dressed in non-nationalised army fatigues. The man performs a routine of gestures derived from contemporary military exercise, day and night – without ever leaving his post – for a full calendar year, during which the simulated sun, moon and stars traverse their actual paths in real-time. Created using 3D motion scanning, and in collaboration with choreographer Wayne McGregor, the performance is both repetitive and consistently developing.
Activating the digital side of the exhibition, he participated in an online conversation with Alex Ross, independent curator and owner of Hester Gallery, New York. Streamed live at the ICA Studio on 22nd July at 5pm GMT, we now present it online and unedited.
Alex Ross: hi!
John Gerrard: Hi Alex
AR: I wanted to start a line of enquiry originating from Un Jardin d’Hiver II and fig2’s reflections on environment. Could you tell me a little bit about how you see your work substantiating and extending this logic?
JG: lets lay out the Fig2 take on the environment
JG: and I can respond
AR: ok! no worries, atmospheric research sounds apposite here!
AR: am I right to understand that your work here isolates a moment from Infinite Freedom Exercise (Near Abadan, Iran)?
JG: You mean the print in Fig2 now?
JG: more specifically that is what I call a ‘working drawing’
JG: in that I mean
AR: I guess I should ask: how does it ‘work’? is it algorithmically defined too?
AR: I mean the moment to cut
JG: that I originally found a press image
JG: from 1980 - of a soldier looking at a refinery burning
JG: near Abadan in Iran
JG: the photograph was taken by Henri Bureau
JG: I then tracked the photo back to where it was taken
JG: and that ‘drawing’ drops a sort of standing for the missing soldier into the landscape
JG: that foreshortening itself feels so dioramic
JG: so - I tracked that picture to Iran and travelled there to photograph the landscape
JG: so the picture in Fig 2 - is the landscape now
JG: and I used a run away soldier I met in Cuba as a stand in for the missing soldier …
JG: so it is a collage which functions as the concept drawing for the work that is Infinite Freedom Exercise
JG: which was made in the virtual
AR: is there a distinct political analogy being drawn on account of the ‘collaging’ or displacement of the cuban soldier?
JG: I was interested in the ‘everyman’ soldier
JG: or everywoman soldier as such
JG: standing on the roadside all over the world
JG: guarding, waiting, etc
JG: a sort of endless stand off in a sense
AR: am I right to understand that you worked with Wayne McGregor Random Dance on this? how were they involved, and would you consider your relation to the stance choreographic?
AR: in terms of a relationship to dance?
JG: on the virtual piece that resulted - yes
JG: let me explain how that worked
AR: I’d love to read this!
JG: I need to type it all - so it takes a moment
AR: happy to be guarding, waiting
JG: so - Wayne had approached me to work on a commission for the Royal Ballet
JG: called Live Fire Exercise, which was based on one image from the US army ...
JG: and as part of the ‘deal’ to do that commission, Wayne agreed to provide a sort of choreographic insight for the other piece I wanted to make as part of the Exercise wider series, which is the Infinite Freedom Exercise piece
JG: so - after I came back from Iran, I worked with Davide de Pretore, a member of his dance crew Random Dance
JG: and he performed for the piece
JG: using hundreds of pictures of US soldiers releasing mortars as a sort of guide
JG: Davide learned these ‘shapes’, and we then brought him to a motion capture studio, where he ‘performed’ them
JG: in the end we had probably around 150 actions
AR: in this image, the US flag is evident
AR: and I’m wondering about how that relates to themes of de-nationalisation in the dislocation of the Cuban solider, and then the extension of the exercises to Dijbouti
JG: present as pure data
JG: it is certainly a hybrid
JG: this sort of collapsing of the various national players into one highly ‘technologised’ space
JG: a sort of ‘overlay’ ...
it is certainly a hybrid, this sort of collapsing of the various national players into one highly ‘technologised’ space, a sort of ‘overlay’ ...
AR: granted that that space is still inflected by national concerns
AR: and differentials in firewalls and surveillance protocols
JG: but let me finish re the collab. with Wayne …
AR: and relative privatization
JG: and we get back to that in 1 min
JG: so - we have 150 actions
JG: and Wayne came in and sort of graded them into categories - around 10 in all
JG: and we worked out a basic ‘rule’, which allowed the virtual character in the piece to perform in a unique way across time
JG: a set of repetitions and actions from different parts of the body
JG: so thats it ... that is what Wayne did
JG: back to you
JG: the eventual piece was shown for the first time in Manchester International Festival in 2011 ..
AR: in a public square, right?
JG: on a ‘frameless’ LED wall that I designed
AR: in which case it went from the singular actor in a virtual space to a public in a common space
JG: a technique I used for the first time there
AR: the effect is really striking
JG: let me direct you to a video
AR: somehow the actual border feels more virtual than the ultra-realism of the screen
AR: at least as archived
somehow the actual border feels more virtual than the ultra-realism of the screen
JG: it felt really like an overlay
JG: in particular as the light dropped away on a cloudy day or in the evening
JG: and the public had the strangest responses
JG: this is the strangest ...
AR: how did you come specifically to postures of mortar warfare? like networks, it collapses proximities, but it feels distinctly retardataire. is that part of the intent?
JG: I was interested in the postures
AR: as formal terms?
JG: as they are very particular, only used in ‘live fire’ situations, where the mortars are not blanked
JG: so the soldiers are trained in this very particular way to pull back from the force
JG: and they do so in this - I guess - theatrical way
AR: so, by nature, there’s an emphatic actuality to it, in contrast with the virtual space, and the effects of real world physics
JG: sort of inflected with a kind of theatre
JG: a word I kind of hate to use in the context, but it is true
JG: I would agree
AR: yeah, of course.. aestheticizing warfare is a peculiar function
AR: but I feel as though the work obviously does so much more than that
JG: re emphatic actuality, it is both very definite and very abstract in reference
JG: unexpected I would say - at least to me
JG: overall, I think my big interest was that the performance, the virtual one would have no duration
JG: it would run all day - all night, and unfold in a unique manner
JG: hence the infinite reference
AR: is it ‘running’ some place now?
JG: good question
JG: it is installed in Munich at the Pinakothek, where I got some interesting responses
AR: yeah… ‘creating realities’ feels like a really apposite structure for this
JG: they own the work - the museum
AR: its interrogation of the imbricated space between the actual and virtual, and the logic of hyperstition, feels really spot on
its interrogation of the imbricated space between the actual and virtual, and the logic of hyperstition, feels really spot on
AR: would love to see that show
AR: I like the framework of narrative cinema there, when this is so oblique
JG: the work is positioned amid much cinema there, which is curious in a way
JG: as they are not so closely related i.e. in my work there has been no lens based record
AR: right, it’s very curious to think of what that brings to bear on the work and its relationship to cinematic conventions
JG: it is entirely built on the fly as a model
JG: I think that - its relationship to cinematic conventions - is a VERY interesting question right now
JG: I suspect it has really not much of a relation, believe it or not
JG: post durational works in simulation / the model I mean
AR: right, I mean the original locus is making ‘live’ a photographic archive… but yeah, the narrativity here being non-inherent to the form really displaces it from the cinematic conversation
AR: so, yeah, feel like the exhibition can reinforce that differential.. kinda cool.
JG: I suspect so.
JG: things are moving fast right now
AR: what are you working on for the future?
JG: I am thinking of someone like Hito Steyerl re future
JG: there are two distinct projects right now
JG: one is a new Farm, a portrait of a google data server in the US which pairs with one from earlier this year
JG: the other piece is a commission for the Wellcome Trust, which involves - well a frog ...
JG: : )
AR: very curious to think of how your work can cut across species and inflect on questions of biomedical science. excited to anticipate this
JG: thank you - so am I
JG: I will keep the actual piece under wraps BUT
AR: go on
JG: I am very very interested to speak to our close relations … who we stamp on with such abandon these days
JG: and this frog piece deals with that in a really layered way, as it relates to fertility, both on and OFF earth
I am very very interested to speak to our close relations … who we stamp on with such abandon these days and this frog piece deals with that in a really layered way, as it relates to fertility, both on and OFF earth
JG: kind of wild
JG: watch that space - it is my next 12 months of work
JG: we are in preproduction now, and it will be done for early 2017
AR: and screen in london?
JG: did I mention how long it takes to make these works : )
JG: in the Wellcome Gallery - travelling on to Holland, and back to the UK
JG: so three venues / three artists -
JG: I think the Wellcome needs to announce all that though - good commission I have to say though
JG: to work in simulation you need time and $$
JG: lots of both …
AR: I’m very happy to hear that the prompt has proved generative, achievable, and inspiring
JG: the prompt - as in the commission ?
JG: good word for it
AR: that’s what I meant
JG: imperative is another one … ?!
JG: one has to be careful of commissions on that basis, so that they expand and do not compress the ideas …
JG: but I think / hope this is not the case here
AR: oh definitely, particularly when you’re working across projects on a scale that mirrors cinema more than the discrete life of an object
JG: it is major commitment for sure to agree to work on something, as it involves a year at least, if not more
JG: it takes me a long time to develop an idea, so normally I will work on the thoughts for a year or so. and then another year to make
JG: so difficult enough - and valuable for that
AR: I’m of a different disposition, and my practice is, I guess it’s fair to say, not quite as research-driven. aggregating and agitating content and sites as a curator can – no, does – happen very quickly.
JG: getting back to the very start of the conversation
JG: can we dive into fig2’s reflections on environment
AR: yeah.. very curious about its score
JG: what is that involving
JG: I know the subject is the digital and landscape, but I wanted to find out more as to the frame
AR: I don’t think I’m well-placed to reflect on it, certainly not as adequately as its organizers, and I have a feeling it structures itself adaptively (much like an ecology)
AR: so, this conversation likely inflects on its form, subject and frame, but we’ll see
AR: for now, I like that it archives some of your thoughts on your work, which is really important
JG: also - some of the steps taken toward a work
JG: from the ‘drawing’, as seen in the show with Fig2, to the final work
AR: definitely! also, I think we just validated some of its language around digital immersion.
AR: or, well, exhibited them
AR: thanks for walking me through these movements in your work!
JG: I like exhibited
JG: it is a pleasure
JG: so - shall we wrap up
JG: so good to meet you Alex, and good to be part of this
AR: likewise, john. looking forward to tracing and engaging with your future projects.
JG: and you are in NYC - right?
JG: I will keep you posted on them. in particular the Frog …
AR: right. I own a gallery in NYC called Hester as an extension of my curatorial practice
JG: Great, I will come visit
JG: Good bye all - and thanks
JG: John G
AR: please do. it would be great to meet in person.
JG: I will
AR: for now, good bye and I wish everyone a lovely afternoon.
Alex Ross is Director of Hester Gallery, New York.