John Gerrard’s Virtual Dust Bowl

Stand in front of a photograph. Now imagine standing inside it and being able to float around the edge of the scene, viewing it from all sides in a slow, sweeping pan. Or even being able to turn and look out and see surroundings that weren’t even visible in the initial image. That’s what artist John Gerrard is doing with the landscape, utilizing a combination of 360-degree photography and 3-D gaming software, creating a virtual reality.

The clean, simple topography of the Dust Bowl region proved to be an ideal setting for Gerrard’s hyper-realistic virtual reality. Playing with time and technology, Gerrard’s works exhibit a stark beauty combined with the underlying menace of man’s consumption.

The exhibition, "Directions: John Gerrard” opened at the Hirshhorn last Thursday and will be on view through May 31, 2010.  I spoke to John Gerrard about his artistic process while he was fine tuning the exhibition on opening day.

With your works you can almost jump inside, it’s like a virtual reality…

It is a virtual reality.  What I’ve done is I’ve established a very formal space from which one can consider the work. It’s an orbit. I propose that the medium is profoundly orbital. It’s a type of world. It’s an unfolding scene.  It’s not a loop.  A loop is cinematic. Different activities can happen on orbit, but the orbit will remain the same. One could fly through my scenes like a wild fighter pilot, but I’ve established a very formal cinematic walking orbit.

So how much of the final artistic product is man, how much of it is machine?

That’s a funny one (smiling). In the end it’s all decisions. It’s completely made up. Everything you’ve all seen is a decision. But the scene unfolds. I don’t know what every moment’s going to look like. In a sense it’s a behavior. The light changes over time, the shadows fall. And in that sense, that’s sort of executed. The overall design is there, but it just runs. It’s a program that runs. In real terms, it’s all sorts of design really. It’s very designed.

Is this a very labor-intensive process?

It’s very labor-intensive. I come from an art school background, but I’ve developed a team of producers now who work with me: a modeler builds 3-D models; a programmer who creates solutions, such as reflection solutions or shadowing solutions; and a producer who then weaves it all together into a compelling whole. The works in this show here in the Hirshhorn have taken up to a year to make by three or four people.

What initially drew you to the scenes from the American Dust Bowl region?

Actually, it was one image I found online of a storm from Black Sunday, 1935. I traced it back to the University of Texas in Austin and found the original. I spent a lot of time in the Center of American History there, and I began to research very extensively the Dust Bowl as a historical moment in time in relationship to the surge of power that petroleum allotted upon the landscape. The Dust Bowl for me is less about the human outcomes, but more about how it bookends the 20th century. The 20th century kicks off with this incredible surge of power, which is sort of petroleum-based, which is used to plow the landscape with the catastrophic results. I just generally began to research the Dust Bowl, not in a national sense, not as an American story, but as a global narrative of relationship to power, and I thought it wasn’t interpreted in that way very widely.

This technique works well on the expansive swaths of land provided by the American West. Do you have plans to use this technique in different settings?

Absolutely. A new work is now based on a Cuban landscape, which is much less barren, but there is this curious school in the landscape which is very derelict. It’s like a functioning ruin in a way, which is interesting. The Cuban scene is post-oil realities. So the American landscape is interesting on lots of different levels. It’s very well-suited to be remade virtually because it’s largely featureless. It’s also very flat. It has a very, very formal minimalist quality in and of itself. It almost looks synthetic to begin with. You can kind of play with and amplify that feeling in the work. It’s much more challenging to remake a Cuban landscape, but we’re doing it at the moment.

Do you play a lot of video games?  How did you come across the software?

I play no video games, and in a funny way, I think that’s got something to do with my usage of the medium.  Which is not narrative-driven. It’s much more aligned with sculpture and photography than it is with gaming, which I suppose in a way has a foot in cinema. I’m definitely not a gamer. I came from an undergraduate in sculpture, MFA, and within the context of a master in science, I began to hear about this gaming engine. So I was like “What the hell is a gaming engine?” and someone sits down and explains that it’s a solution that allows virtual scenes to be rendered in real time . . . Very quickly emerging from that were all these new possibilities—particularly temporal possibilities.

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