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Episode 65
Artist John Gerrard

  • 32 min read

Episode Description

A conversation with artist John Gerrard. The Irish-born artist has spent more than twenty years using the latest in technology to create virtual worlds. Unlike video art, Gerrard’s work is generated from a custom computer program while viewing and no two viewing experiences are ever the same. The content of his work typically asks the viewer to deeply consider the attributes and consequences of the environment they are viewing.


Craig: [00:00:09] This is Art Sense, a podcast focused on educating and informing listeners about the past, present and future of art. I'm Craig Gould. On today's episode, I speak with artist John Gerrard. The Irish-born artist has spent more than 20 years using the latest in technology to create virtual worlds. Unlike video art, Gerrard's work is generated from a custom computer program while viewing and no two experiences are ever the same. The content of his work typically asks the viewer, to deeply consider the attributes and consequences of the environment they are viewing. And now a discussion about the generation of virtual worlds with John Gerrard.

Craig: [00:01:02] John Gerrard, thank you for joining me this week on the Art Sense podcast. John, I usually like to start conversations with artists with a hypothetical, which is if you were at a dinner party seated next to somebody who has no idea who you are or what you do, how do you describe that to them?

John: [00:01:20] That's a good place to start because that actually happens quite frequently. So I would typically say just to try and sort of couch it in something that people might understand, I typically say that as an artist I make virtual worlds. And then the inevitable next question is do I make games? Do I make sort of virtual games? And I say no. Like they're more kind of like, they're sort of more static, kind of, let's say, like they're specific scenes which I find interesting or sort of important. I typically build a portrait of that scene within the virtual and then presented in the world as an artwork. So but often I'll go through all of that and then people still have no idea what I'm talking about, to be frank. So one thing I try and really communicate to people is that I'm not making films, that these are not worlds that are tied to a timeline. There's no specific narrative. It's a kind of world making. In a sense it's a little bit sculptural on the one hand, and on the other hand, it's also kind of painterly because they're sort of scenes, you know. But nonetheless, it's a fairly difficult thing to communicate.

Craig: [00:02:46] We may spend have the program just kind of trying to define what your work is and isn't right. It's not static, it's not video, but there's a moving visual element to your work, but it isn't tied to the timeline that we typically think of in terms of film, correct?

John: [00:03:06] Yeah. I mean, really the kind of the platform that I'm jumping from is called the game engine, basically. And really the game engine is best understood or described as like a virtual world and the engine controls the camera in that world. So the camera is in the world recording what's happening within that virtual world. And by that I mean in real time it's calculating, lighting, shadowing dynamics like smoke or these kinds of things. And it's sending those...that stream of images out to a display device, be it a screen, be it an LED, be it a projector. And what's interesting for me is that that stream with a good graphics card and a good engine, you can get 60 to 80 or 100 frames per second coming out of the engine. And each of those frames are displayed for a fraction of a second to the public and then they're discarded, basically. So really the cultural artifact of what I'm producing is like a piece of software, like, like code on the one hand and on the other hand, potentially. It's just like people's memory of these moments in time. Those are...that's the kind of pivot of the presentation in a way, because at the end of the presentation, there is no real. There's no real thing. There's a set of instructions to produce an image which has the present that has a world like quality, I would say.

Craig: [00:04:47] That's really interesting because I mean, that creates a real ephemeral nature to your work in that as things are being created, things are being dumped. Can I assume that if I were to walk into one of your installations, say I were to take an image of a work, you know, at some point in time and in its generation. Can I assume that I will never exactly see that same moment again? Or like no two moments are the same over the course of the installation?

John: [00:05:19] Like in effect. A little bit depends on the piece, but these, I don't necessarily have to do this, but I place the worlds that I make into an annual, let's say, orbit of light. So sunrises on my world, you know, specific to where the piece is located, not not where it's been exhibited. But let's say it's a portrait of the ocean near Tonga. The sun will rise on that scene on Tongan time, you know, and it'll rise in a certain position in June, a different position in January, travel over the sky. So I mean it's quite minimal, but obviously the sun will be in a different position each day unless you're there at the same time next year. So that's like the first layer of kind of difference, you know. So these are annual solar things. In the case of, let's say, a flag work such as the piece called "Flare", which was just a pace over the summer, you know, that piece centers on like a burn simulation, like a fuel burn simulation, which know, which just unfolds. I mean, it's it there's parameters within which it unfolds. So it has a recognizable quality across its cycles. But it's not it's not a loop. It doesn't repeat itself like it's it's a sort of simulation of the burning of a kind of dirty gas, in a way. So each time you see it, the sun would probably be in a different position. That is slightly different burn. The waves are a slightly different condition. But that's not the point of the work. But what you've said is is true. It's unlikely, it's actually impossible. You'll see the same thing twice.

Craig: [00:07:16] That exhibit in lengths at pace over the summer. I was in New York, I was on a panel at in NYC and I made it down to Chelsea. When I got to got to Pace Gallery, it was actually closed and installing your work. And so through through the window I could see them installing "Flare" and it was so kind of taken aback by the scale of it that I was taking video through the window. Can you tell us a little bit more about "Endlings"? And that was a that's an exhibit that was at pace over the summer that that was comprised by three works, right?

John: [00:07:54] Yeah. Yeah. So, so I suppose first of all, pace has has two spaces on West 25th. One is the new sort of tower, let's say of kind of multiple galleries and the Historic Pace Gallery, which is at 510 508 510 just just under the High Line, which is like a really very substantial lateral gallery stretching back stretching to the side. She goes under the high line with these amazing glass doors which open onto the street, you know, on cooler days you could open it onto the street. So enabling the work that the show that you're describing open there in June 2022, and I'm not exactly sure how big the space is, but it's about like 1000 square meters. Like it's a really.

Craig: [00:08:53] Big it's enormous. And they've they spent a huge sum of money to make that an open space with with no pillars. I mean, it's, it's massive.

John: [00:09:05] Yeah. So that would have happened a while ago. But it's also got these incredible histories. I mean, Robert Irwin did the most beautiful Perspex pillar show there. You know, Smithson did this amazing sort of sculptural, minimal sculptural shows there. So there's all these kind of histories there ...Terrell, all these incredible artists. So my show centered on three works as as you mentioned, the first when you came in was an 18 foot by 18 foot LED from this incredible company called ROE Visual that actually supported the installation. And so it's a big, big LED that's the size of like a two story building, basically. And on it is a work called "Flare". Which is a flag which is constructed out of let's say it's like a gas flare, sort of an alarm on the one hand, and a sort of a kind of a flag on the other. Located in the sea...a portion of the sea near near Tonga. Behind that, at the back of the gallery, behind the wall, the big LED wall, you have another smaller LED wall, which is about two meters by two meters mounted on the wall. And that was showing a piece of, that responds to the 405 in LA on Thanksgiving evening, where you've got these two streams of traffic headlights, making one stream, taillights making the other one red, one white replicated to become a kind of 30,000 car traffic simulation.

John: [00:10:44] And in that piece, there's a sort of performance of a flag, this kind of flag like performance, again, set on LA time with the camera orbiting around. So you kind of lose the flag qualities at a certain point. Then it comes back around and the whole show was titled by the last work, which was in the side gallery, which is a portrait of the very last of the American passenger pigeons. And it's funny, I was overhearing somebody in the gallery in July when I was there, somebody was doing a tour and they were talking about like carrier pigeons. Like carrier pigeons are different than passenger pigeon carrier pigeons, like bring carrier messengers around. Passenger pigeons were never really tamed as such, they were these extraordinary communities, like population of wild American pigeons, passenger pigeons, doing 8 to 10 billion of them lived, you know, traveling down the East Coast of America, mostly feeding from the woods like nuts from the woods. It's called massed. Round about, let's say, 1800, maybe between 8 to 10 billion of those birds.

John: [00:11:56] And in 1900, you had one. So it's this kind of absolutely incredible population collapse. One known example and that known example was a bird called Martha, who's christened Martha, who lived out her last days in Cincinnati Zoo. And so she died in 1914 as kind of a celebrity like the last of the passenger pigeons. Nobody could ever imagine that the passenger pigeons would become extinct because there are so many of them and there's lots of reasons why they became extinct, but mostly to do with excessive human consumption of them and also disruption of their nesting sites and bits of things. So the final piece is a kind of melancholy small simulation showed on an LCD, which was called Endling, which is a monochromatic black and white portrait of Martha in her cage. And we built that portrait around photographs from Cincinnati Zoo on the one hand, but also documentation of the taxidermied body of Martha, which is in the Smithsonian in Washington, basically. So and mostly what she does is she kind of keeps an eye on you as an endling if she keeps an eye on you, kind of the contemporary public.

Craig: [00:13:04] So I've heard you describe your work as being anxious objects that shift people. Can you maybe give a little bit more insight as to what's behind that description.

John: [00:13:16] That's probably feeling a little bit overconfident that day. They're anxious objects for sure, in a way are unfamiliar objects in a way. And they their ambition is to move kind of move the public in different sorts of ways. And I guess like within the specific language that's developed within the work, you know, the worlds are, they are very realistic but but they're also fundamentally virtual and that is often like a start point in a public relationship with the work, which is that it's, it's recognizably real, but there's something that's a little bit the matter, something slightly kind of wrong, and people don't entirely know exactly where so or what. So that's a sort of slightly uncomfortable, maybe anxious place to begin, which is like what is it that I'm addressing? And also like it doesn't have many of those game qualities of kind of like certain kinds of resolution, certain kinds of pace, certain types of that's even esthetics. It doesn't have that. It has another sort of esthetic. And then I suppose the subject of the work, as I described, endless flair, you know, they sort of respond to I would describe it as contemporary conditions, which are like increasingly anxious where, you know, flair is recontextualized by Russia switching off natural gas to flowing to Europe yesterday with no schedule around it starting again. So, you know, these are sort of anxious times and I think in a sense, like I've always been interested in these places where, you know, power intersects with energy and power means both like energy on the one hand, that it also has a connotation of of like force and politics and such things. So like that pivot of kind of simulation power, energy, I suppose politics, the work is, is relatively political. So yeah, those are sort of stock points. Sure. And then again, like the hope is that the public will come to them and know the greatest ambition of any artist is to move the public. Sure. As opposed to just being ignored, which is also possible.

Craig: [00:15:53] No. I find it really interesting that you're able to get to these places where just the words that we assign the work is able to exist at so many levels, right? So like the Endling piece, "Flare". There's a term in natural gas or in gas production where you're burning off excess and that's called flaring. But, you know, we think when we think of if you're out in the ocean like this flag in in the Tongan Ocean, as if you were to send up a distress signal, that would also be a flare, right?

John: [00:16:31] Yeah. That that that actually that that dual meaning to the word flare is absolutely center of that piece, you know. I mean, rewinding a tiny little bit, I have another work called Western Flag, which is a portrait of the site of the very big first big oil strike in world history, which happened in Spindletop in Texas in 1901, where it was like the first mega strike, let's say the birth of big oil, a place called Spindletop. And I showed the resulting work, which is a portrait of that site, augmented by kind of almost like a carbon flag, like a smoke flag. I showed it in Madrid late 2019, and I was approached by an artist and activist from Tonga, called Uili Lousi and he said to me, you know, he sort of acknowledged that it's interesting to speak about the histories of oil exploitation, which is what that piece addresses, and also what's called the carbon legacy, which is how CO2 from those early strikes are still in the atmosphere, which is sort of sort of fascinating and not very well known. But what he specifically said to me at that time was that, you know, as a Tongan, as an artist, as a swimmer, as a sort of activist, he said he just wanted to announce to the public in Madrid that the ocean is on fire. And he said that to me there in Madrid at the climate change conference in Madrid in late '19.

John: [00:18:01] And I was just really struck by this idea that the that the for him, what he means by that is that the ocean is getting hot, you know, and by being on fire, he means that, like, just it's, you know, you have these the equivalent to kind of wildfires, like, you know, passing across heat waves, passing through the ocean, let's say, in Tonga. And they leave behind kind of marine deserts. They kind of kill for the corals and such things. And so I went away and kind of thought about this idea, a piece of language, which is that the ocean is on fire and in time developed a response which was this idea of the flare, the alarm, the language of flames. And also, I mean, really, Uili's appeal was also for the viability of Tonga as a nation state. Is Tonga going to survive these disasters and catastrophes that keep kind of like assaulting it, particularly climate related? So, you know, the flare is both, as you as you said, like an alarm, but it is also a national flag which is kind of in a way self combusting or it's not on fire like it is fire. You know, that's the material. It's built. It's built from flames.

Craig: [00:19:23] So can you talk about the role of time in your work? You spoke about the orbits. You know, there are several things going on. A lot of times the virtual camera moves through your work at the pace that someone walks.

John: [00:19:37] Hmm.

Craig: [00:19:38] Light changes according to where the object is in the natural world. But then you have other works where, for example, the 3000 year sunrise, right? I mean, how do you deal with time in your work?

John: [00:19:53] It's funny. It's kind of mentioned. So actually that is it's a piece called "Thousand Year Dawn". So it's it's 1000 years is not 3000 years.

Craig: [00:20:01] I'm sorry.

John: [00:20:02] No problem. No problem. And that's really the one of the very, very first works. That's from '05, 2005. And when I moved out of, let's say like 3D scanning in like the mid to late '90s, I was, I was not moved out of but I was sort of, I was scanning things in the mid-'90s and I was kind of saying to myself, you know here is a kind of a photographic type record of the world. But it's a kind of three dimensional record. It's a photo type record. And at that time, I called the image objects, the kind of images and objects simultaneously, which is really what they are actually like. Like a digital 3-D scan is like an image object. It's a photographic type thing that you can turn. And as the nineties came to a close, people started talking about game engines. Why don't you bring these things into gaming? I was like, I came from an art school background and art schools were very disconnected from computing at that time. I mean, they still kind of are, but even more so then. So the moment I got into the engine with this scan, this head, actually, it just became very clear to me that like time, let's say the temporal aspect of this space was a sort of sculptural component of it.

John: [00:21:39] You could work with time in these absolutely new and there was no precedent to it. And so one of the very first pieces, which was not a scan, because the engines at that time, the graphics at that time, they just couldn't really deal with the sort of resolutions coming from scanning. There's a piece called "Thousand Year Dawn" where you have a beach, virtual beach, a virtual sea, a virtual sun. A young man is standing at a portrait of somebody I knew at that time called Marcel is standing on the beach and he's watching the sun rise in the piece, basically. So the sun is rising. Everything else is running at the normal tempo, like the waves are moving up the beach and he's breathing and shifting his position. But the sun is rising in that work very, very, very slowly. So it's rising so that it'll break free of the horizon in 3005. So it's like a 1000 year dawn. And we programed the work in the unlikely situation that it actually gets to that point, so that he would leave the scene in 3005 and you would end up just with the dawn, basically that that would be the work. And so we presented that actually in Miami at an art fair in 2005, and it was the first work I ever sold.

John: [00:23:01] People came in, collectors came in and bought it, and it just was this kind of radical shift in how I could work. And just to be clear, it was presented as a computer, as a piece of software on a computer, in an artist frame. But really, the collectors were were acquiring software, art software in addition of, I think, five. And then over time, a lot of those collectors have had to come back like 2005, what's that like 17 years ago? And they've had to upgrade elements of the installation. So but it's really the software that is the kind of core thing that they acquire. But just to get back to where we started. So that was an early work which really addressed this idea of time as a sculptural element of the virtual. And a little later I made a piece called "Oil Stick Work" where there's a kind of piece of work that's accumulating in the scene over 30 years. But I've really not really dealt with this idea of time so explicitly since that since then, since '05. But we're currently developing an NFT project like a spatial NFT, temporal NFT project, where we kind of get back to that idea of duration and accumulation. So that's what we're working on now.

Craig: [00:24:35] So is that a piece that would be more generative where things are manifested over time that they they evolve and change and.

John: [00:24:46] Yeah. Well, I mean, it's still in the development stage, but there's a character in the work that's arranging objects in these kind of unique ways over time, like three dimensional objects, like, let's say bones, kind of arranging bones in different sorts of ways. And it's a kind of like, like a, like a human like character in a way, like not quite, quite a human character. So each iteration of this piece, you have this kind of different sort of unfolding work within it over time. And I must say that category of like NFTs and world making is very, very underdeveloped right now. You know, it's it intersects with what's called WebGL, like web graphics language. And my piece, which I did for Art Blocks, which is called "Petro National", which opened around simultaneously to actually NFT art week in New York and my show in New York. It opens just a few days before. They're actually temporal nfts like their annual work. So the sun comes up and goes down and goes over a year, but that doesn't really register with people. I mean, they mostly registered as that. Like each work is a portrait of a country realized as a gasoline spill and some of the more basic aspects of those who are kind of registered. But, but that temporal aspect didn't so that there's more work to be done there, which is interesting.

Craig: [00:26:19] So the game engine versus WebGL, how much power is in the web? Like, can you do the things in WebGL that you're able to do? You know, 15 years ago. But kind of self contained in an NFT?

John: [00:26:34] Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I cannot do the kind of things I'm doing in contemporary engines hooked up to kind of super graphics cards now. I can't do some of those things, particularly, let's say the multi actor works where you've got like 10,000 elements within the world, that kind of stuff. And that's that's not going to happen. But what's interesting is that I didn't really have a mechanism...because like historically, if I was going to make a virtual board, like a simulation, like it's quite a big undertaking. And we have an amazing producer here, Bernard Pittsburgher (?) and incredible programmer who I worked with for many years, Hannah Pressler (?), but also typically you'd work with modelers, animators, etc., you know, so they become quite big productions, you know, and then they move into the world, let's say, by a geographic system, let's say gallery brings one to to show in their gallery or potentially to an art fair in Switzerland or something. But that's all kind of like quite a heavy structure in a way. And what's incredibly rich and sort of exciting about the NFT infrastructure is that it's not geographic. Your collectors are global. Your exhibition space is online. And so we're like lightning up, you know, like we're like making a couple of works right now within the NFT space, which are almost like drawings. I never really could do that because like, how would you bring like a drawing type sim into this very heavy geographic gallery world? Like, you can put a drawing on the wall, you know? But but I don't really do that.

John: [00:28:28] I've always been, like, very, very digitally, kind of native, like right back to when I kicked off in art school, as I said in the mid-nineties. So yeah, so just to try and answer your question a bit more clearly, I could make those in your dorm in WebGL now. No problem. Absolutely. Yeah. But we're going to try and push that a little bit, you know. I would say it'll probably be best viewed on a laptop, you know, like less so than on a handheld. Probably be seen on the handheld, but the frame rate might be a little bit under pressure. But yeah, I mean, we can from what we were doing in '05, we can do effortlessly. Well, we can not effortlessly, but we can absolutely deliver that into WebGL. And that's I mean, as far as I'm concerned, this is the most exciting part of NFTs right now. Post0-MP4 for Post-JPEG. To a degree, almost like radically cracking open that generative space as opposed to the generative, like on-chain script, delivering like a two-dimensional output, you know, generative unchained delivering like three-dimensional spatial temporal worlds.

Craig: [00:29:43] I have a question that applies to both, I guess the NFT space in, in the gallery site specific work and that is navigation. In this NFT work, are you allowing the viewer a sense of autonomy to navigate around this object? And I know that traditionally in your work there's sort of a set path, right? I mean, things will change, but that virtual camera is kind of...

John: [00:30:09] Of pretty fixed. Yeah, well, I mean, it's funny you say that because that was in your dawn when it was exhibited, was on a shelf with a laptop in the shelf, a little turn sensor on a pivot. And you could look around the world by turning the screen. That's how it was first presented. So the original works, you...the public could look around the world. And for those who are kind of raised on cinema, let's say, like that was like I remember people like totally shocked that there they could physically look around something and that's obviously changed over time. But, you know, pertinent to what you've just said, over time, we dropped that interactivity. They became virtual scenes with this very formal camera that walks around the work. He's got an orbit of a camera walking speed, as you've described, set in a light orbit of a year, and then often other kind of orbits, be it the burn cycle and these kinds of things which are embedded. And, you know, I suppose on a podcast like this it's worthwhile pointing out that like an orbit is a self-similar cycle but upon which different things can happen. And the loop is where the same thing happens over and over and over again.

John: [00:31:27] So the world of real time on the virtual is very orbital and it's very it's suited to orbital languages. The world of cinema and video is suited to kind of loop type languages and they're really different, you know. And I hit that absolutely head on with a piece, a very early NFT of mine called Western Flag NFT, which was...had to be a 30 second loop, which was like first time I had worked in any kind of video language in like 25 years. So it was a bit of a shock to the system. But in terms of interactivity, you know, if you look at petro national art blogs, which is a collaboration between Art Blocks and PACE Gallery, if you either with your finger or with your mouse, if you click on each of those 196 nfts, you can look around the world within a fairly set orbit and you can tip it a little bit to look around it in different sorts of ways. So interactivity has come right back in with the emergence of spatial temporal NFT, because I've always been interested that the public would understand that this is a kind of three dimensional world, but it's not like a two dimensional surface that you can pivot around it.

Craig: [00:32:43] What do you consider the finished work? I mean, is it the code or is it the installation of the work?

John: [00:32:51] Hmm

Craig: [00:32:51] Do the pieces that are more site specific change that answer? I've heard you speak about how some of the pieces it's very specific, how it's installed and how it's perceived because it's almost creating, I don't want to say a virtual experience, but it's you're creating like a synthetic live experience within a within a space. Right?

John: [00:33:16] Well, okay, so a couple of layers to that question. I mean, first of all, the work is the executed code, you know, like let's say the cultural artifact. Like if a museum was to acquire the work, they would acquire the software, which is a kind of like a packaged bundle of different types of different types of libraries and code and such things. But the work is, is the executed code. So it's sort of like if the machine is not in the mix, if the computer is not in the mix, you really don't have the work. So the piece is kind of in that like. Weirdly robust, but also quite sort of vulnerable in a weird way. So that said, the works are typically very site specific within the context of where and how they are executed. So and this makes my life kind of really pretty challenging, ongoing. For instance, like the show in PACE, each element was scaled to its site. So I come from a sculptural background. I also come from a background where I've paid very, very close attention to artists like Robert Irwin or James Turrell. As such, people are. Even Roni Horn would be another big influence for me. Even artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres was a very, very big influence on me when I was kind of coming up as an artist. So I would look at the negative space like around these proposed interventions, and that would be kind of very key, that sort of negative space right then, like how the installation is resolved, you know, like how the world sits in the world, what sits underneath it, how it's supported. They're always frameless. You have the real and the virtual up against each other. And, you know, the very earliest installations along these lines really kicked off, as I described, like, let's say, around oh five.

John: [00:35:26] So we're sort of like 17 or 18 years into this language of kind of very formal installations of simulations and physical space. And also now increasingly on the street, you know, with LEDs, but again, paying a lot of attention to the negative space around the works. But really, each installation is deeply site specific. And by that, I mean LEDs are incredibly luminous, you know, like the light emitting diodes. And, you know, it's almost as if like if you're if you're trying to set up like a sound installation, it has to be tuned to the setting, you know. Is that very similar that it is like it has to actually be dialed to the setting so that like the floors and the walls and all those things. Also like these are annual simulations. So the sun goes down, it gets dark, you know, what does that mean for the work? You know, like I part of me kind of wonder is like, how do you communicate all this stuff, you know, like, to to institutions and how do you kind of try and try and get the work kind of installed in an exemplary kind of fashion into the future. So it's pretty, pretty, pretty difficult, actually, you know, but, you know, again, my my undergraduate, I come from a really like a sculptural background, you know, and another artist who's been incredibly influential on me would be the artist French artist Pierre Huyghe. And his his version of sort of site specificity is even more expanded than mine because like it has all these layers, which he's paid a lot of attention to, to do it kind of like like what's growing there and know he's kind of cut off of working out in the landscape. I don't know. Yeah.So...

Craig: [00:37:24] I feel like as these LEDs know, this is a capability that wasn't there for you 15, 20 years ago. Right? And as the capability is now there to actually create and install basically a digital monolith in a landscape that an artist may want to capture just for the sense of sublime as a landscape photographer or a painter, putting this digital monolith there in conversation with its surroundings, it seems like it really creates a whole other world that that's also changing, which, you know, you mentioned James Turrell earlier. You know, like, you know, as as the light starts changing on some of these environments at the same time that your work is changing in its orbit, in its light, there's this serendipity that kind of occurs. Right? I mean, there's a little magic there. Right?

John: [00:38:22] Have you ever seen I was part of a beautiful project in California called Desert X.

Craig: [00:38:29] I saw images of that. That's...

John: [00:38:31] Which is out in the desert near Palm Springs. It's like it's like a biennale. And I'm just going to quickly share can I share my screen here? I know it's a podcast, but I can share my screen for one second. So basically that is an LED in the desert near Palm Springs. And you know, exactly as you have said, this is a world in a world, you know, let me just I'm just trying to find one other.

Craig: [00:39:02] That's really interesting about the image that you just showed is that it really feels like the sky in...and I know it's I know it's a photograph, but it really seems like the sky in your image, in your work is at a point where it's matching the sky above of that mountain line.

John: [00:39:21] And the funny thing is, they're not that far away from each other, you know.

Craig: [00:39:24] And it's almost like it's cut cut a hole in reality. Right?

John: [00:39:29] Well, that's what that's a word that I often use. I mean, that image that I'm now sharing, which is like a little bit later in the day. And, you know, like when I am trying to describe to institutions what I'm trying to do, I often use the word I'm trying to cut a hole in the real and to produce this sense of an overlay or underlay which is underneath. And, you know, and that's why that's why the works are frameless like the LEDs are frameless. And that's why, you know, in this setting in the desert X is like I had to like literally defend the bushes because, you know, the guys who are installing this, you know, they're like concert guys, you know, they're like the rock concert guys. So it's kind of in, out. Like there's a certain kind of sort of energy to them, a certain speed to them. And I'm sort of begging them not to step on these bushes because like, what you want is that like it feels like an undisturbed desert scene. And then there's this sort of uncanny virtual scene and really like this installation was quite amazing for me because we're outside we're outside Palm Springs, like we're off the highway to L.A., you know, and you have this audience, like driving between Palm Springs and L.A. and it's a very diverse audience. You've got, like, rich people, which are kind of expected. But you've also got like people who are working in restaurants, you know, people who are you know what I mean? People on the road, that kind of thing. And a lot of them would just pull off the highway and come out. And they were just like, What is this? You know? And on the one hand, you can just say, this is like you take a little section of Times Square and kind of pull it down, put it on the landscape, you know, which helps them understand what it is, because they didn't really understand, like in a sense, like it feels a bit like an apparition when you come across these things because it's kind of like an image with no context and no frame.

John: [00:41:35] And then I suppose the next layer and one of the things that made this installation very successful was the next layer is that like the flag is both familiar and also deeply unfamiliar because it's produced from this intangible thing like smoke, which normally doesn't really behave like that. You know, and one one beautiful aspect about working within simulation is that you can work with intangible things like flames and smoke again in a very sculptural way, you know, and that's the whole process of trial and error, you know, to make. For us to make like a flag, which is smoke like and flag like was, you know, it was about three or four months of experimentation, you know, and it we didn't get to that place very smoothly. You know, we had to do a lot of invention to make that piece work. So for the public, like on that basis, they haven't they don't really recognize this thing. So it's kind of a couple of layers of kind of discomfort and sort of fascination, which I would suppose is the aspect about working in the public domain that is the most motivating for me, that like you get diverse audiences and they come to the work from this place in a way kind of confusion. And it's interesting.

Craig: [00:42:54] I don't mean to shift gears too much here, but I want to be sensitive of your time there. And I did want to ask you about, you know, your work just continues to evolve, right. In terms of and that's just the nature of of working in a medium that's so closely tied to technology. And so can you tell me about I know that you have interest in AI and neural networks. And can you talk about the impact, the emergence of that technology is having on your work?

John: [00:43:26] Well, yeah, it's funny, actually, in a weird way, I almost disagree with you a little bit because.

Craig: [00:43:35] Okay

John: [00:43:36] We...when I say we, I mean myself as an artist in dialog with collaborators and producers over, over many years. We've kind of stuck to this very specific language of, let's say, world making. There's often like a subject the camera orbits set in a year. That's been kind of a consistent language for nearly 20 years, and that's in the face of kind of just incredible developments within the game technology, graphic card technology, computer powers. I'd say, if anything, the work has become more polished and realistic over time. That's one of the big, big shifts in the language. But there's been kind of opportunity to kind of, let's say, blast out in different directions, which we haven't taken.

Craig: [00:44:27] Right.

John: [00:44:28] That said. And funny enough, getting back to the kind of light and space and Californian thing. I was invited by Los Angeles County Museum of Art to take part in there like their Art and Tech program, which was revived by Michael Govan some years ago. And as part of that art and tech program, like as in the original architect program in the '60s, you're introduced to key tech players in California, one of whom, of course, is Google. And Google had been working on TensorFlow, which was their big kind of public facing neural network. And so we were given people kind of access to that. And I use that that that neural network within a kind of experimental work in which a leaf covered figure is trained, given a kind of training set and produces a kind of perpetually unfolding dance.

John: [00:45:26] But in a weird way, like if you're working at that time, if you're working like I was kind of like pushing against the core nature of, of AI where like the training set, the scale of the training set is key. So I was producing very small training sets using motion capture and dancers, and then I was expecting like the resulting work to have the kind of complexity that the rest of the work had. So, so I a little bit step back from working with A.I. at that time, but very, very interestingly, you know, Midjourney, DALL-E, you know, they've all emerged since then. I mean, that was probably four or five years ago. Right? And so A.I., in terms of its manifestation in the public consciousness, it's now being driven by this very specific kind of like text based AI output interfaces where you say like a clown eating a carrot in the style of Degas and you know, just the fusion becomes this thing and it's like, "wow, what is going on", you know? And I think illustrators and photographers and everybody's like, "Oh my Lord, you know, what are we going to do with this? How are we going to", you know. Very, very close, I think, to painters looking at the emergence of photography and sort of like, you know, like, let's say 19th century, you know, what are we going to do with this? Like this, this, free us up, this, this does this exclude us? You know, there's a lot of people kind of I applied to be an early user of DALL-E, and I'm sort of sitting there going, you know, it's interesting.

John: [00:47:15] And how is this going to move? How is this going to influence, let's say, 3-D? You know, because, again, when I was with art and tech, it lakmé, I was sitting with Nvidia and they were using AI to streamline real time production because like real time production is like, like it's so laborious. I mean, animation modeling, you know, like how long before we have a text prompt like, you know, and you get a 3D model, you know, or a text prompt and you get an animation, you know, like dancer in the style of a robot, you know, and then the integration of all that. So, yeah, so like my, my kind of collision with AI was couple of years ago through LACMA. It sort of...I've got places with it, but, like, I'm just. Tiny player in the in the kind of scale of those kind of I keep coming back to the idea of the training set, but that's a huge thing. And now like the whole space open AI and sort of it's just kind of shifting like quicksand, you know?

Craig: [00:48:26] Sure.

John: [00:48:27] So I think we will see next couple of years are going to be wild. I think in that space.

Craig: [00:48:35] On your horizon, what excites you? Where do you think your work is going? Are you excited more by the possibility of what NFTs are able to offer? Or is there something with technology that is emerging and evolving that is making you rethink the site specific work?

John: [00:48:55] So I would say that I'm most excited to bring like, let's say, 20 years of thinking about kind of 20 years of of esthetic development, 20 years of conceptual development, 20 years of kind of like, let's say, formal development into the space of what I would describe as NFTs and world making, simultaneously acknowledging that artists have been, let's say, been working within the contemporary art world digitally for decades. You know, we're here, we're speaking, we're kind of present, but weirdly. The contempt. I was getting more conservative. Not less conservative. It's becoming more analog, it's becoming more geographic. It's becoming less open to experimentation. And there's this kind of weird, sort of stultifying into kind of like at second late conceptualism meets art povera, let's just say.

Craig: [00:50:08] Mm hmm.

John: [00:50:09] And my role or my kind of presence in that world just kind of shrinking. I sort of go to different kind of settings, like, even be novice, frankly. And I was like, this could have happened, like, 50 years ago, this biennale. I mean, and there's some biennales running right now which could have happened 50 years ago, like they're running this summer, you know? It's kind of amazing how. I would say how kind of conservative in medium terms a lot of the contemporary opportunities are right now.

Craig: [00:50:43] Got it.

John: [00:50:43] So, you know, out of nowhere for me anyway, this nifty space like spun into view, which kind of delivers two things simultaneously, like it delivers a radical distribution model because it's not like geographic analog. Come here, buy this live again. Put it in a crate. It's kind of digital people collecting digital things and passionately connecting digital things. And it's early days of that. So it's a kind of distribution model. And it's also like an exhibition space where like who was really looking at web art like three years ago, you know, like it was very niche. You know, I certainly wasn't making work for the Web. I was making work for the world. But the world is now looking somehow that weird kind of triangular relationship between art, money and society, which is kind of like a whole thing in itself, which is kind of the eternal kind of like kind of conflict of like there's an internal conflict within that. And the painting's been in the midst of it forever. But suddenly within that nexus of art, money and society, people are paying attention to websites and digital art and it's just like night and day in terms of how digital artists can work and how they can survive and how they can thrive and how they can speak and etc..

John: [00:52:19] So I would say that there's a lot of problematics within the NFT space, there's a lot of opportunities. But for me, it is the absolute core focus for me right now. And again, to reiterate, to bring like just many, many years of thought and development within simulation on the one hand, but also within exhibition on the other. And to bring them and try and bring them into that space and to talk to the wider communities there. And even even like when I first looked into NFTs like a year and a half ago, you know, it was a very two dimensional space, very linear, two dimensional space. And people was in such things. The emergence of like Art Blocks kind of threw up this, this generative element, which is kind of code based and fundamentally artistic in a way that other parts of the NFT world kind of are less so. And I really feel that like there's just this incredibly exciting possibility to think about space and time in that space next. So that's what I'm going to do.

Craig: [00:53:25] Well, John, I really appreciate your time today. And really, it's really been a joy talking to you about about your work that's so thoughtful and and is I just feel, as, you know, taking advantage of the changing technological landscape, but also is just kind of challenging people to to think about the world around them and these structures of power. Right? And so I really appreciate your time today.

John: [00:53:53] Oh, it's a pleasure. And thanks for having me on.

Craig: [00:54:01] That's all the time we have for this week. You've been listening to Art Sense. You can find the show on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher Radio, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. If you've enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe. And while you're there, please rate the show and leave a quick review. Your feedback is the key to other folks finding us. And if you'd like to see images related to the conversation, read the transcript and find other bonus features. You can go to and click on the podcast tab. If you'd like to reach out to me, you can email me at Thanks for listening.

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