John Gerrard, Petro National (India), 2022 © John Gerrard / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Pace Verso

John Gerrard’s Petro National NFT Series, Explained

Published Tuesday, Jun 21, 2022

Artist John Gerrard has dedicated his career to the development of technology that supports virtual, generative worlds. For 20 years, the artist has refined the game engines used in his custom-programmed simulations, which run on the local times of their respective subjects. One Thousand Year Dawn (2005) is an early example of Gerrard’s pioneering work in simulations—this portrait of a man looking out at the ocean features a rising sun that will complete its journey in the sky in the year 3005. In 2021, Gerrard became the first artist within Pace’s program to release an NFT with Western Flag (NFT), an artwork derived from his simulation Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas) 2017, which was commissioned for Earth Day 2017 by Channel 4 in the UK. These and many more works by Gerrard—who often examines issues related to energy production and consumption, food systems, and environmental exploitation—reflect his ability to create uncanny, digital universes. With Petro National, Gerrard’s new NFT series debuting on the generative art Platform Art Blocks on June 21, the artist continues his explorations of these timely subjects, with a particular focus on the global impact of burning 100 million barrels of oil per day.

Petro National Background

Petro National centers on the ways that energy consumption has become a signifier of political power, explicitly addressing the disparity in oil consumption between the global north and south. The project comprises 196 unique, generative works that each feature the outline of a different region. Every region is represented as a glistening patch of oil on the world ocean.

Oil has been an enduring focus of Gerrard’s practice. His Petro National NFTs and earlier simulated gasoline flags are based, in part, on a photograph of a small oil spill he captured some 20 years ago in Ireland, his home country. For Gerrard, images of this kind encapsulate the simultaneously alluring and toxic nature of modernity, serving as metaphors for contemporary environmental and geo-political conditions that make oil use synonymous with wealth and power.


John Gerrard, Petro National (China), 2022 © John Gerrard / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Petro National Technical Details

In this ground-breaking project, Gerrard combines blockchain technology with WebGL, a web graphics language that enables the game engine to reside in the browser, to create NFTs that marry temporal and spatial media. In this way, the artist unites video game technologies and generative art traditions. The resulting Petro National NFTs exist, like Gerrard’s simulations, as virtual worlds unto themselves.

In Petro National, Gerrard has created a custom thin-film refraction algorithm, which reproduces the phenomenon of iridescence through the simulation of millions of rays of light broken down into a novel conceptual prismatic language. This algorithm engages with a very specific palette of iridescent, metallic colors that represent gasoline’s interactions with water. By way of this algorithm, the artist has produced varied visual effects and resonances, including mutable hues and differing degrees of thickness or thinness in the simulated oil spills based on a given region's per capita annual petroleum use. Lower national consumption rates yield thinner, delicate, ghostly oil spills in the NFTs, while higher consumption rates produce more intensely lustrous, iridescent scenes that take on Pop qualities. For the artist, the thin film refraction algorithm, which might usually be associated with computer science, is the key ingredient and active agent of the artwork.

On a temporal level, the NFTs run on the local times of the respective capital cities of the depicted countries or regions. Light conditions in the NFTs change throughout the year in accordance with the seasons, and day and night are also experienced in the works.

On a spatial level, the NFTs can be viewed from various orientations on the screen by dragging on the scene. Viewers can press R on a keyboard to slowly rotate the camera and O / P to zoom. The G key can be used for full screen viewing in generator mode.


John Gerrard, Petro National (United States of America), 2022 © John Gerrard / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Generative Effects

A generative process applied to each of the 196 Petro National NFTs creates sets of unique environments in the artworks. Subtle variations in visual effects include:

  • Shapes of countries and regions, which are transformed into semi-amorphous films on the world ocean—the countries and regions remain recognizable while also adopting the properties of oil diffusing outward
  • Wind implied as wave turbulence, oscillating ripples, and varying degrees of frequencies, wavelengths, directions, and amplitudes
  • Sea colors on the expansive world ocean
  • Iridescent colors in the oil spills affected by the angle of reflection from the sunlight and the modulations introduced by the waves
  • The intensity of light reflections on the oil spills
  • The fixed starting position of each scene
Environmental Impact

Gerrard will dedicate 25 percent of artist’s proceeds to atmospheric CO2 removal. Remaining artist’s proceeds will be dedicated to regenerative farming organizations supporting farmers globally to move beyond petro agriculture and nitrogen fertilizer usage.

  • Pace Verso — John Gerrard’s Petro National NFT Series, Explained, Jun 21, 2022