Computer Art Image of the Month - March 2012

March 2012

In Pursuit of the Slow

Cuban School

Click the image to enlarge

John Gerrard, Cuban School (Community of 5th October), 2010

Realtime 3D software, custom made monitor (69x115x30cm) or projection, dimensions variable.

Copyright the artist. Courtesy Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Simon Preston Gallery, New York.

Reproduced with permission. Collection of mima, purchased with assistance of the Art Fund supported by the Sfumato Foundation.

In our world where the digital is almost by definition associated with high speed, quick manoeuvrability and near instantaneousness, it is an inspiration to be invited by John Gerrard to deliberately slow down.

Two recent significant pieces by this Irish artist will make their UK premier this month at AV Festival 12, the UK’s leading international festival of art, technology, music and film taking place in various venues across north-east England during March.

Further, Cuban School (Community 5th of October), from which our screen-grab image this month is taken, has recently been acquired by Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, where it will be on view until 1 July.

Both the practice and technique combine in this work to create something that is visually and intellectually stimulating with a strong aesthetic quality.

Cuban School (Community 5th of October), 2010 and the related Cuban School (Sancti Spiritu), 2011 are meticulous slow-moving virtual portraits of schools constructed in the 1960s in the Cuban countryside that are now decaying, yet still operational buildings.

Both of these art works are infinite in duration based on a continuous real-time 365-day solar cycle, and powerfully mark the melancholic demise of a political vision. Once revolutionary social experiments, they are now crumbling symbols of the failure and decay of the political vision and the technology from which they were built.

The schools are still used as such, but are portrayed by Gerrard as ‘functional ruins’. Thus these art works could be seen to be a comment on the collapse of communism; they also point to the once strong hegemony of modernism which has been questioned by artists since the 1960s.

The outside surfaces of the school building are recorded in painstaking detail through thousands of digital photographs taken on site by Gerrard and his team. This information, including satellite data, is then manipulated using customised game-design software to create a meticulous virtual reconstruction. The whole runs on what the artist calls his ‘artbox’ (customised computer).

However unlike other art works we have previously explored in this column (namely the work of Igloo) Gerrard’s art revokes the gamer’s freedom to explore the virtual world. The artist presents a slow 360-degree camera audit of the landscape, at approximately human walking pace. It is all according to the artist’s timescale; we the viewers are there as witnesses.

As Robin Mackay writes of Gerrard’s work in a recent catalogue, ‘Their immaculately rendered environments refuse to deliver the vertiginous flythrough descents and dizzying perspectives movies have taught us to associate with CGI, leading us instead on slow orbital paths around isolated structures which offer a minimum of “action”.’ Thus it is entirely fitting that Gerrard’s work be part of a festival whose theme is the antithesis of speed.

AV Festival 12: As Slow As Possible is titled after ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) a musical piece for the pipe organ composed by John Cage and one of the longest-lasting musical performances yet undertaken.

Rebecca Shatwell, Director of the Festival says, ‘The ambitious artistic programme for the festival expands the previous ten-day duration to a month long slow edition. The artists have responded to ideas of slowness, duration and acceleration to create work that will enable us to pause, reflect and think about the world in new ways.’

Cuban School is a hyper-real scene that eerily develops in real time. Although not ‘live’, it mimics time - during a cycle of 365 days and nights a circuit of the building is conducted (the interior remains hidden), we experience the real time of day in Cuba. There is no seasonal variation, changes to the weather or vegetation, but the light reflects the time of day and the time of year; stars appear and the sun rises.

There is a single human presence, a lone figure - Rosa, the fictional caretaker (played by an actor) switches the lights on at dusk and off again in the morning. Gerrard writes, ‘I function like a scanner, moving over the landscape, capturing the scene.’ He talks of a mesmeric quality in the work which has to do with the seamlessness of the orbital camera path.

The artist studied sculpture at The Ruskin School, Oxford and retains an interest in the sculpture of American Donald Judd. Judd is known for his modernist use of industrial materials in three dimensions, seen especially his monumental late work situated in the landscape around his home in Marfa, Texas.

As stated on the Tate’s website, ‘Judd’s work draws particular attention to the relationship between the object, the viewer, and its environment.’ Gerrard’s work has an affinity with this monumental land art. It uses volume, perspective, texture as well as movement to great effect.

A strong sense of place is created. This is partly due to the stunning visual accuracy and the automated, inexhaustible surveying of the site. The viewer develops an empathy with the place through the work’s meditative quality.

This acquisition of Gerrard’s work by a UK public museum for the first time demonstrates what is possible through the vision and combined efforts of a private patron and an institution, brokered by the Art Fund.

Let us hope that this example will serve as encouragement for institutions to engage more with digital art and inspire philanthropists, which surely has to be the way forward for the arts in these challenging economic times. Gerrard has recently been awarded the Legacy Fellowship, a collaboration between Modern Art Oxford, Oxford University Sport and the Ruskin School, which celebrates the London 2012 Games.

Catherine Mason is the author of A Computer in the Art Room: the origins of British computer arts 1950-80, published in 2008.

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