John Gerrard, World Flag (Venezuela) © John Gerrard / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Adam Kleinman on John Gerrard’s Prescient World Flag Artworks

Published Friday, Jun 23, 2023

From the torch to the forge to the natural gas power plant, fire is always with us; it makes our cars, ships, and airplanes hum through the process of internal combustion. It heats steam-spun turbines that provide electricity for everything from your house lights to your computer and the Internet. It could be said that even the screens in our pockets are tethered to a vast umbilical cord that begins with our chargers and stretches back, through the grid, to some initial source of fire predominantly sustained by burning oil or natural gas. According to Greek mythology, the Titan god Prometheus created civilization by stealing fire from the Olympian gods and handing it over to humanity. As a form of everlasting punishment, the Olympian Zeus later chained Prometheus to a rock so that an eagle would devour his liver—the organ magically regenerated so that the feeding would endure, eternally. If the warm glow of our phones—and, by extension, the electrified "fire-based" images that we see on them—is part of such a vast energy network, then perhaps we all carry the theft of fire with us.

The Prometheus myth is a warning, and as such, we must ask ourselves: what future punishment awaits us as we continue to fan the poisoned gift of the flame? Through ephemeral digital representations of smoke and vapor, which can be considered not only the byproducts of industrialized fire but also reminders of the fragility and impermanence of the environment, artist John Gerrard provokes audiences to ponder the fate of our fossil fuel reliance and its guaranteed result—total habitat collapse.

One of Gerrard's most renowned works is Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas) 2017, a computer simulation of the Spindletop oil gusher in Texas, which was one of the first significant oil discoveries in the United States—it can be said that Spindletop birthed our modern petrochemical age. The artwork, continuously rendered through a video game engine, presents a digital reimagining of the oil derrick as a single exhaust pipe resembling a flagpole that endlessly spews thick plumes of black smoke in the shape of a banner. Set against an arid landscape over which a digital sun rises and sets daily in accordance with the Spindletop oil field’s true solar calendar, this mast has become a signature on which Gerrard continues to hang meaning.

Five years after he produced Western Flag, Gerrard created Flare (Oceania) (2022) as a pendant to that earlier work. In Flare (Oceania), a similar stem extends from an empty expanse of the Indian Ocean, while gusts of flame, lit by natural gas, unfurl from its side. Flare (Oceania) plants another standard—this time emblematic of offshore oil and gas exploitation—to map the extractive toll of the energy sector.

John Gerrard, World Flag (United States) © John Gerrard / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Gerrard has also recently premiered Surrender (Flag), 2023, to further trace the reach and environmental cost of the fossil fuel industry. Here, a familiar rod rises within a simulation of the Mojave Desert, spraying the dry air with a water vapor mist that implies the steam that makes turbines spin. This moving image echoes the “white flag” a military general may hoist to signal a cessation of conflict and a desire to begin peace negotiations.

These three works, which form a triptych, can be considered as chapters. Western Flag represents the legacy of the 20th century, during which carbon power provided untold growth at the cost of the planet’s health. Moving from the past to the present, Flare (Oceania) can be seen as a mayday signal shot in the air to raise the alarm about the distress that these chemicals have caused. Surrender (Flag), 2023 is a call to curtail emissions as well as a plea for an international coming together about what comes next in combatting the climate crisis.

Teasing the multiple meanings of the word "standard," which can signify a flag or a moral code of ethics, Gerrard hints at the fact that a "double standard" may be guiding our current political will vis-à-vis climate change. In the context of Surrender (Flag), 2023, the artist presents not only a white flag of peace, but also a colorless flag from which every nation's symbology is stripped—this flag can be understood as a universal banner around which a new congress can commence its work in service of the environment.

Offering a fresh new series of works deeply related to these ideas, Gerrard is now releasing World Flag (2023), an edition of 195 + 1 Artist's Proof (AP) generative digital artworks, on the Ethereum blockchain. This project examines the full range of our current energy use and a dauntingly inevitable future.

Unlike his previous digital flag artworks, which exist in physical spaces as museum displays or public installations on large LED Walls, World Flag is intended to be viewed more intimately on a smartphone, laptop, or mobile device. As such, the project delivers the artist's "fire-based-images" directly to your hands.

John Gerrard, World Flag (Gambia) © John Gerrard / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Through this new series, Gerrard has developed what he calls a "smoke printer," which generates unique, one-of-one renditions of the national flags of every country recognized by the United Nations. All flags are depicted as undulating clouds of colored smoke in one of four imagined desert wastelands. Each World Flag artwork is aligned to the actual solar calendar of its respective location, so that a simulated sun rises and sets in real-time and in accordance with the year’s changing seasons. Set in the distant future, these scenes can be read as totemic ruins left over from the now-extinct human race, which, in its blind devotion to fossil fuels, has exhausted all life on the planet. While each flag is an enduring national referent of an individual country, these symbols jointly embody a reason for the dystopia in which they are—a lack of international cooperation in the face of a global crisis. This sovereign dissensus is, in turn, the subject of the single AP work, a composite of all the "ghost" flags that represents a congress of failed states presiding over a desiccated Earth.

An important reference point for World Flag is the ClimateWatch 2019 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions index, which measured each country’s GHG footprint that year. All World Flag artworks will be released in a predetermined order based on this ClimateWatch list—the first flag to be released will be China, the world's heaviest emitter, followed by the United States, and so on down the line. Given this format, the numbering of each edition in the project crystalizes and captures another artifact: a record of the state of global affairs around the time of its delivery.

Climate change, like other global crises, disproportionately affects marginalized communities. Consequently, climate justice is intertwined with the advancement of human rights and democracy. When traveling through World Flag's numerical rubric, a trend emerges— approximately 60 percent of the greenhouse gases responsible for global climate warming in 2019 originated from the ultra-high emissions of just ten countries. Conversely, the 100 countries emitting the least greenhouse gases accounted for only three percent of warming. This significant contrast highlights a clear division between nations and demonstrates an uneven and unequal geographical development that predictably mirrors decreasing wealth in accordance with GDP. Though the per capita consumption and emissions of the latter countries are relatively low, these nations are the most vulnerable to severe impacts of climate change—accelerated desertification, flooding, and other extreme weather events—as they lack the over-developed world's financial resources to engage in extensive land management and other emergency infrastructure services.

John Gerrard, World Flag (United Kingdom) © John Gerrard / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In addition to mapping this disparity, Gerrard has taken the project's own resources into account to make it as digitally and energetically efficient as possible. All 195 flags in the series are generated from a single 112 kilobyte computer code stored on the Ethereum blockchain, which roughly equates to the energy used in sending one low resolution image by email. As in all the artist's works, there is no permanent movie file or other recording in World Flag—rather, the imagery in each artwork is rendered with every frame. Each frame replaces the next in the same fashion that a video game draws its landscape as it is played. This code employs WebGL, a cutting-edge technology that allows for real-time rendering directly in a web browser, and thus ensures compatibility with mobile devices. In this way, both the artwork and its medium offer a global public art encounter that transcends the limitations of physical space.

Furthering his commitment to environmental causes, Gerrard will allocate ten percent of artist’s proceeds from World Flag sales on Art Blocks, the leading platform for generative art, to Hometree, a nonprofit organization addressing Ireland's declining biodiversity and the global climate crisis. Through its Wild Atlantic Rainforest Project, Hometree is restoring a temperate rainforest in Gerrard’s home country.

Let's return to the fire in the dark and what has happened since it was placed in the palms of our hands.

A flag, just like smoke, can be a military device used as a signal or rallying point, and while Gerrard may blend fictive elements into an otherwise perfect imitation of reality, the simulated "when" and "where" of his images call attention to something else entirely: that within our planetary struggle for energy, there is no "here" or "there." Everything is interconnected and yet inherently unstable. This interplay between geopolitical power and cheap energy, which many in the over-developed world of ultra-high emitters take for granted, has historically been made invisible. Far-flung wars, extreme weather events, and our daily engagement with online media are all deeply interconnected.

Suppose Western Flag can be viewed as a monument to the dawning age of hydrocarbon dependence. In this scenario, World Flag bookends the anthropogenic era by giving us a flickering shadow of the probable endgame of incessant oil and gas energy dependence: totalizing desertification on an international scale. As Gerrard’s World Flag AP suggests, national boundaries cannot defend against the global size of the problem, which requires far greater collaboration than we are mustering today. Between the constellations of real and imagined landscapes in his flag-dependent digital works, Gerrard gathers a third supranational space that both implicates and urges all people to act on a planetary scale ... or else, become ashes and dust.

  • Essays — Adam Kleinman on John Gerrard’s Prescient World Flag Artworks, Jun 23, 2023