A never-ending virtual performance

Infinite Freedom Exercise (near Abadan, Iran) 2011

Farm (Pryor Creek, Oklahoma) 2015 : afternoon

Burning Oil Fields (near Abadan, Iran) 2013

Live Fire Exercise (Djibouti) 2011

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?

AR: right

JG: ok

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

JG:  :)

AR: happy to be guarding, waiting

AR:  :)

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

AR: sure!

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: absolutely

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: absolutely

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: ambiguous

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: hmm

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: yup

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 … ?!

AR: invitation

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

AR: yes?

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

JG: ok

AR: for now, I like that it archives some of your thoughts on your work, which is really important

JG: absolutely

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.


‘‘Working Drawing for Infinite Freedom Exercise (near Abadan, Iran)’ by John Gerrard is presented as part of the POSTmatter x fig-2 exhibition, on display at ICA Studio, London, until 26th July 2015.

Alex Ross is Director of Hester Gallery, New York. 

The Digital Garden
In July 2015, POSTmatter presented an exhibition with fig-2 at the ICA, London. In it, we explored shifting relationships to the natural landscape in a digital age, bringing together photography, sound, computer simulation and video works by five artists. Taking place in the gallery and online, the digital component of the exhibition is archived in this special edition of POSTmatter.
POSTmatter x fig-2
Introducing our exhibition at fig-2, a programme of 50 exhibitions in 50 weeks, in which we explore the natural landscape in a postdigital age
A sentimental journey across Google Maps
Live Writing: Join Orit Gat on a virtual trip down memory lane as she reminisces on the familiar places from her past
Amie Siegel: Strata
In this spanning solo show American artist Amie Siegel explores the mechanisms through which objects become imbued with meaning. It features her acclaimed short film 'Quarry', which traces the excavation of marble from the depths of the earth, to the eerie interiors of high-rise luxury developments.
Shezad Dawood: Kalimpong
Continuing an interest in how we experience time, Dawood uses the site of Kalimpong – a small town in West Bengal – as a bridge between the past and the present. Presented at New York's Timothy Taylor gallery, Dawood layers narratives that link Buddhism, painting, textiles, animation, digital new media and historical and speculative narrative.
Robert Henke: Lumière III
Visual programming, laser control software, music, sound design and real time interaction by Robert Henke, a pioneer in computer-generated sound and images, in Arnolfini's auditorium as part of Room 237's 2017 calendar two days after the Barbican show.
Myths, miracles and the scent of outer-space: our highlights from Frieze London
Marguerite Humeau, Yuri Pattison, Philippe Parreno, Jon Rafman and more make our list of must-see booths this year, with a particularly strong showing from Frieze Projects
Chris Dorland's digital scans distort pop culture
The artist creates post-modern assemblages for the internet age, mapping the chaotic network of images that we have become accustomed to online
Burning Blue
An artist is caught between her sexual awakening and big break in the 6th edition to Badlands Unlimited's New Lovers series, a collection of short erotic fiction inspired by Maurice Girodias’ legendary Olympia Press.
Hayal Pozanti discusses her painted encryptions
The New York based artist draws on ancient alphabets to create her own painted language, telling a story of what it means to be human in a digital age