The RCS Book Is Here!

Purchase a ClubNFT subscription and get the RCS book Free!

Get Your Copy
June 20, 2024

The Interview | john gerrard

Following the launch of crystalline work, the artist discusses how digital ecologies can regenerate reality with Whitney Hart
Credit: john gerrard, crystalline work (arctic) showing a snowflake archetype (detail), 2024. Courtesy of the artist and Feral File
Now Reading:  
The Interview | john gerrard

The performance of “crystalline work” commences today on Feral File. Works may be collected throughout the exhibition, which runs until June 21, 2025.

This week sees the launch of john gerrard’s new solo exhibition on Feral File, crystalline work. The project centers on a new software artwork, crystalline work (arctic), in which a virtual robot situated at the Arctic North Pole engages in a 365-day performance to create unique crystal “archetypes” via an ice generation algorithm. With the new work set to produce 24 unique shapes per day, 168 per week, and 8,760 over an entire solar year, the project represents an ongoing index of ephemeral experience, visualized in the form of masks, solar crosses, mandalas, stars, snowflakes, trees, and mycelium. 

By syncing the robot’s creative production to the passage of the solar year, the work continues gerrard’s practice of mapping digital ecologies according to (often toxic) phenomena. Here, he discusses how “prismatic time” reflects a newly networked consciousness with Whitney Hart.

john gerrard, artist statement for crystalline work

Whitney Hart: crystalline work is a global, 365-day data performance and generative art series that you’ve been working on for nearly five years. What was the root of the idea and how has it evolved since? 

john gerrard: The core ideas behind crystalline work originated in 2005 with a JavaScript online snowflake generator, which I was fascinated by but is now lost to time. I used to play with the parameters to make different snowflakes, pushing them until the snowflakes were so dense that they looked like lace suns with thousands of tiny, overlapping lines. The following year, a snowflake from this generator was cut into an oak floor and exhibited by Ernst Hilger Galerie at Artissima in Turin in a piece called Fractal Floor (2006) accompanied by a single Smoke Tree (2006) piece on the wall.

I kept thinking about the snowflake generator and the possibilities of simulation until 2018 when crystalline work emerged into what I call an “.exe.” At that time, we had an industrial robot arranging crystals in a game engine, which had the potential to be editioned and sold as a piece of software. [But] it was really only in early 2023 when the work moved to WebGL (Web Graphics Library) and integrated the blockchain that things got really interesting. That is the work we are presenting on Feral File, where I can bring in all of the libraries required for this simulation. Apart from the texture on which the robot sits, everything else is data and code. 

For me, the web browser is a key interface for public art. WebGL is a rich cultural vessel for communicating with the public, and the blockchain allows for the distribution of the work to a broad audience, spreading the core ideas, and enabling ownership in an entirely new way. 
john gerrard, crystalline work (arctic) showing a double tree archetype, 2024. Courtesy of the artist and Feral File

WH: You’ve worked with data as an artistic medium since the mid-1990s, long before it was accepted practice in the art world. What prompted your focus? 

jg: My fascination with data as a function of network computing goes back to 1994, when I turned up to Oxford University as a young, 20-year-old art student for my BFA. Oxford’s Ruskin School had no computers, but in my first week I blundered into a university computer science lab and got onto the web. That was also the year that Netscape Navigator launched as the first broadly available public interface to the internet. 

My brain has been networked to the internet — to data — since my formative years as an art student. 

Then, in 1995 I became fascinated by 3D scanning, writing to a company called Wicks and Wilson, which specialized in sizing surveys for big retail companies like Marks & Spencer to scan people’s bodies. I told them that I thought of 3D scans as sculptural photographs on the computer, terming them “image objects.” I asked if I could use their technology to scan my friend, and they were curious about the project so agreed. I wound up with this beautiful, dense mesh that was an unwieldy 3D scan. There wasn’t much I could do with it at the time, but I was fascinated by the evolution of 3D sculpture and how it changed the image. 

john gerrard, crystalline work (arctic) showing a snowflake archetype, 2024. Courtesy of the artist and Feral File

Back in Ireland in the early 1990s, I was a somewhat distant but smiling, dungaree-wearing acid house kid. When I arrived at Oxford, I would drive up to Manchester with friends to The Haçienda, where they played electronic and house music from Detroit and Chicago. 

I remember standing in the club asking myself: “if computing does this to music, what will it do to visual art?” At that moment, I made a commitment to computing as my primary art form.

I ended up doing an MFA in Art and Technology at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1998 followed by an MSc in New Media at Trinity College Dublin, which was pivotal for me because it was the first time I encountered programmers. I started talking about 3D scans and they started telling me about game engines. I wound up spending nearly four years at the Ars Electronica Futurelab where I met Feral File’s co-founder Casey Reas and other artists coming out of the MIT Media Lab, such as Zach Lieberman. In 2005, I sold six editions of my first mature game-engine artwork, One Thousand Year Dawn (2005), made with my now long-time producer and friend Werner Pötzelberger. After those sales, in a sense I was free. Two years later, my work Dust Storm (2007) was exhibited in a group show at Marian Goodman Gallery and then later in Venice with Jasper Sharp and RHA Projects. 

Exhibition walkthrough: crystalline work on Feral FIle

WH: crystalline work combines game-engine development with network computing and music, while your artist statement begins with “data as flow | data as light | data as prism.” Are you able to elaborate on that logic?

jg: Data is changing the world so hard and so fast, and yet if I walk into an art school, commercial gallery, or other cultural setting it’s basically missing. Pierre Huyghe is a very notable exception. I feel that his work, and specifically his current show at the Punta della Dogana in Venice, is important to the RCS community on many levels. The beginning of my artist statement is a reflection on how network data has moved into optical fibers, traveling around the world as light, normally in the ultraviolet and infrared spectrums. 

Data as light became an inspiration for the robot as a cosmic prismatic entity that is both a “light being” and a “data being” all in one. 

The robot is always in motion and its color shifts throughout the year. On the solstices, when it is light or dark for the full solar day at the Arctic North Pole, the robot’s color leaves the visible spectrum and becomes a mirrored chrome. In the time between, its color shifts from infrared to ultraviolet and back again. As it performs, a generative sound synthesis model replicates the creation of sound through vibration using physical modeling techniques. The outcome is a material choir that sings together in a unified voice, creating a harmonious, and at times inharmonious, canon.

john gerrard, crystalline work (arctic) showing an angel archetype, 2024. Courtesy of the artist and Feral File

On the day of the summer solstice, the sound transcends 20 kHz to a frequency beyond human hearing that is only perceptible to certain animals, including wolves. I regard these moments as “unhuman times,” important “other” times. Throughout the solar year, the sound evolves, slowing down as it approaches the energy-constrained winter and falling below 20 Hz by the next summer solstice, thereby becoming inaudible to humans once again. Each pattern, at its designated time of the year, forms a unique sound signature that reflects the energy and structural dynamics of its crystal pattern. This audio element is produced by Jonas Hammerer. 

The new “prismatic” generation is philosophically, cerebrally, and electronically networked, having grown up with fiber-optic cables as neural extensions. One of the impacts of this change has been a reduction in binary thinking and belief in hard borders between nation states. This generation exists as much in the virtual as it does in the physical. 

This generation also exists in “prismatic time” that transcends the Christian calendar. In the years since One Thousand Year Dawn (2005), I have situated my works in what could be described as “Christian,” even “patriarchal” time. In my own artistic cosmos, crystalline work begins with year 0. On the summer solstice, which is June 20, 2024 at 7pm UTC, the work moves into the first year of a new solar calendar. For me (and only me), crystalline work is a sort of symbolic clock or calendar for the new age we need that nevertheless remains a way off: an age beyond petroleum, beyond deeply toxic material cultures embedded in all things, and beyond the hard borders that serve to divide us globally. 

john gerrard, self portrait (1.6.0). Courtesy of the artist

WH: Can you explain “techne for a s’oiled earth”? 

jg: “Techne for a s’oiled earth” is the subtitle for the piece. “Techne” is derived from the Classical Greek for “art,” “skill,” or “craft.” But if you consider the meaning derived from Aristotle, it is “a state involving true reason concerned with production.” crystalline work could be described in exactly the same way. Of course, truth is a slippery subject and we live in a time of unreason. We’re creating a very hot Earth that is producing great ecological instability. Meanwhile, our simulated robot resides upon an ambiguous, iceless platform that looks more like a desert than the North Pole. 

“S’oiled” is comprised of three words: “soil” meaning “earth,” from which we grow food and derive life; “soiled,” which is to be dirty; and “oil,” which is of course the great driver of change and transformation in the 20th century. 

WH: And if you look closely, the pincer in the work is actually s’oiled. 

jg: Correct, the pincer’s color drifts across the prismatic spectrum, s’oiled throughout the solar year. We created globules of rich brown petroleum on its surface, shaped like the continents of the world and moving at some speed, like accelerated tectonic plates. The union between the cosmic, prismatic light-data robot and the virtual crystal bars is s’oiled by petroleum. On two days of the year — the winter and summer solstices — both the robot and pincers are mirrored. On those days it is my hope that we can gather and dance and eat together as a community. 

john gerrard, crystalline work (arctic) showing honeycomb archetype and prismatic robot working, 2024. Courtesy of the artist and Feral File.  

WH: How does data feed into the algorithm and fuel the creation of the final crystal structures, which you call “archetypes”? 

jg: The robot enacts an ice regeneration algorithm whose final designs are “archetypes” — algorithmically generated patterns that resemble familiar shapes: trees, fields, grids, snowflakes, and more. They create their own languages as well as systems of value. The programmer behind the work, Helmut Bressler, looked at how snowflakes are modeled algorithmically, going back to my JavaScript generator from 2005. As the robot worked and we pushed the spacing, angles, and numbers, a wide variety of forms emerged. It was only when the piece was tokenized that I started calling them “archetypes.” 

WH: When and how did the deleterious effects of oil extraction and refinement become so important to your practice? How does this project compare to works like Petro National (2022) or World Flag (2023)?

jg: My interest in ecology comes from my mother, Míde, and my father, Peter, growing up in Tipperary, Ireland as a little boy in the countryside, witnessing the effects of petro-agriculture on the farms surrounding our home. In the 1970s and ’80s, the scale of agriculture increased as did the prevalence of petrochemicals including fungicides, which kill molds, pesticides, which kill insects, and herbicides, which kill so-called “weeds.”

I have this vivid memory from when I was around six or seven of walking through the neighbor’s cornfield, holding my mothers hand, with all of the puddles full of dead, pale, and bloated earthworms after the farmer had sprayed his fields with chemicals. I had a front-row seat to the toxicity of petro-agriculture that has indelibly shaped my worldview and artistic career. 
Installation view of john gerrard, Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada) (2014) at Lincoln Center, New York. Photography by Iñaki Vinaixa. Courtesy of the artist

I believe that my work, Smoke Tree (2006), was the only computer-generated artwork at Art Basel in 2006, back when there was euphoria around technology and Facebook was still perceived as a force for good that would transform politics. I would go so far as to say that the art world was less conservative in 2006 than it is today, with greater curiosity about the potential of technology in art. The year after Smoke Tree, I turned my attention to the great American Dust Bowl of the 1930s (which was truly a petrol disaster, though most people don’t realize it) and created Dust Storm (2007).

A significant shift in my thinking and career occurred in 2014 with Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada), commissioned by Public Art Fund and displayed in the main plaza at Lincoln Center in New York. That was my first major LED simulation in the public domain and is now in MoMA’s permanent collection. My next major public artwork, Western Flag (2017), was commissioned as a television hack by Channel 4 in the UK, displayed as an LED work at Somerset House, and live streamed on YouTube for a month. It then became a global meme of protest when the former US President Donald Trump announced in 2017 that the US would pull out of the Paris climate agreement. 

john gerrard and Matt Smith, founder of Hometree, in Ennistymon, Co. Clare, Ireland holding oak saplings grown from acorns collected by Sean O’Gaothin in the ancient woodlands of Glenveagh in Donegal. Photography by john gerrard with assistance from Ruth Phillips.

WH: In the past, you’ve donated proceeds from the sale of works to the Irish charity Hometree. How did you first discover it and what makes it important to crystalline work?

jg: I first discovered Hometree online when I was looking for a really good partner to plant trees in Ireland. I wrote to them and proposed them as recipients of my artist grants and charitable components of Petro National and subsequently World Flag, and they agreed. Trees are powerful climate coolers, so while geoengineering technology has its role in cooling the planet, planting trees should not be overlooked. If people acquire crystalline work, trees will be planted and a lost temperate rainforest will be restored in Ireland. 

This project and the impact it will have on the environment is a dance between the virtual and the real, and where and how they meet. I believe that this is not a time of things, paintings, sculptures, or even protest. We are in a time that requires what I call “luminous actions” informed by beauty, love, and care. 

In these times, I believe we must guard against nostalgia, nationalism, and fetishistic capital accumulation. We must focus our global dance on the most pressing problem of our time: the climate crisis. The robot is a sign of peace and liberation, while the penultimate line of my artist statement is “prismatic,” which points to the potential of this new generation to cool the planet, regrow destroyed ecologies, and end the 20th-century arc of s’oiling the Earth. 

Protect your NFT collection and discover new artists with ClubNFT

john gerrard is a key figure in the development of simulation within contemporary art. Appearing deceptively like film or video, his works are virtual worlds made using real-time computer graphics, a technology developed by the military and now used extensively in the gaming industry. gerrard’s works are is in the collections of Tate, London; MoMA, New York; SFMOMA, San Francisco; LACMA, Los Angeles; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington; Kistefos Museum, Norway; IMMA, Dublin; Borusan Contemporary, Istanbul; M+, Hong Kong; and many private collections internationally. His work Western Flag (2017) was the first tokenized artwork (NFT) to enter LACMA’s permanent collection. gerrard received a BFA from Oxford University in 1997 and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2000. He is represented by Pace Gallery globally.

‍Whitney Hart is the Director of Exhibitions and Head of Growth at Feral File. She works with artists and curators on realizing their most ambitious blockchain-based creative visions, with cultural institutions on advancing their Web3 strategies, and with collectors and consumers on building the tools and technology needed to enjoy digital art in day-to-day life. Beyond her role at Feral File, Hart is a digital art collector and cultural advisor specializing in emerging technology. She sits on the Advisory Board of the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston, Texas. 

The performance of “crystalline work” commences today on Feral File. Works may be collected throughout the exhibition, which runs until June 21, 2025.