Why a Simulation of a Frog Floating in Outer Space Points to a New Future for Contemporary Art

The digital artwork responds to two scientific experiments using real-time data. Just don't call it a video.

Visitors to “X. Laevis (Spacelab),” John Gerrard’s recent exhibition at New York’s Simon Preston Gallery, were confronted with one of the more surreal sights at any New York gallery this summer: a hypnotizing vision of a glistening frog floating in zero gravity in front of a pair of gloved hands. Presented on a large, backlit screen, the frog hung inert in the center of the space for long, silent stretches. Periodically, its legs spasmed, causing it to spin gently. The gloved hands made inscrutable movements in an entrancing, slow-motion pas de deux.

But this was no video, as it may have appeared at first. Entirely digitally simulated, the work was built using a video-game engine, requiring a team of producers, programmers, and modelers over the course of months. The piece has no duration and no script; the movements of frog and hands are not recorded, but rather generated within the computer simulation itself.

X.laevis frog photographed by Max Loegler and Werner Poetzelberger Courtesy of the artist.

X. Laevis frog photographed by Max Loegler and Werner Poetzelberger
Courtesy of the artist.

Created on a commission by the Wellcome Trust, a London institution devoted to exploring the nexus of medicine and art, the simulation ties together a pair of scientific experiments that were separated by 200 years.

The Wellcome’s collection holds a 1791 etching depicting experiments by Luigi Galvani. The scientist found that sending an electrical current through the legs of dead frogs caused them to spasm, demonstrating that electricity generated muscle movement. Two centuries later, scientists brought African Clawed Frogs (X. Laevis frogs) on a 1992 mission of the Space Shuttle Endeavour in an experiment that sought to determine whether the frogs could reproduce in zero gravity. A NASA video shows a hapless frog kicking its legs and spinning wildly through the air. Gerrard’s work merges the two experiments into a haunting hybrid. The digitally rendered frog periodically kicks its legs as though administered a shock by Galvani, while floating in a chamber that replicates the one aboard the Endeavour.

Luigi Galvani, <i>De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari commentarius</i> in original edition. Courtesy of Wellcome Trust Library, London.

Luigi Galvani, De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari commentarius in original edition. Courtesy of Wellcome Trust Library, London.

Gerrard, who divides his time between Dublin and Vienna, has racked up participation in group shows at venues including Beijing’s Long March Space, the Shanghai Biennial, Witte de With (Rotterdam), the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Edinburgh), and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC. For this edition of “Origin Story,” which explores the backstories of individual works of art, he spoke by phone with artnet News from Kassel, Germany, where he was visiting documenta, about the aesthetic decisions that formed the work, the nature of simulation, and how his medium speaks to the future of contemporary art.

I find the nature of the piece hard to wrap my mind around. The computer generates the movements spontaneously? In layman’s language, how is this achieved?

When the public sees a work like X. Laevis, they presume it’s a film. The most difficult thing to explain is that this work is not in the cinematic tradition, and in fact has little to do with it. A game engine gives rise to what you see. It emerges more from flight simulation and battlefield simulation that emerged from military research and are driven by the modeling of reality, not the recording of reality. But people’s brains just reject that because it looks realistic.

You’re witnessing data in transit. When the frog is shocked and kicks, that emerges from fifty or sixty processes unfolding in the background that govern the power of the shock and whether the frog goes up and down or at an angle.

Astronaut Jan Davis working inside Spacelab J module in Space Shuttle <i>Endeavour</i> during STS47 in 1992. Courtesy of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Astronaut Jan Davis working inside Spacelab J module in Space Shuttle Endeavour during STS47 in 1992. Courtesy of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Would it have been possible to create the piece with another technique?

In the virtual world, you have extraordinary control over the camera. You cannot design a camera that has such ceaseless, effortless movement. This work’s format speaks to the relentlessness of data. Data is tireless and frictionless, so this medium can talk to the complexity of contemporary conditions as no other medium can.

Were any of the originally planned aspects of the piece pared away to get the very minimal work you ended up with?

Commissions can bring you to a strange place. I’m not typically dealing with science, but the Wellcome Trust asked me to respond to its collection, and specifically to the topic of electricity. It started from the etching, but when I found the NASA video it was clear that I wanted to respond to that. Then I had to convince the Wellcome Trust that this was a good idea because the video wasn’t in their collection.

I’m very struck by the silence. Did you consider any soundtrack?

No, because I’m very interested in the power and influence of black-box computing, which is a modeling of the real, which has no audience but has a vast influence on the world. And the black box has no soundtrack.

In contrast to the frantic, somewhat comical motion of the frog in the Endeavour video, you’ve set a dreamlike pace. Why the drastic slowing?

In the process of making this work, we make a digital mockup of the zero-gravity environment. In the dummy, when the frog kicks, it bounces wildly. It carried a level of meaning that didn’t fit the piece. So we pegged her to the center of the scene because Galvani’s frog was pinned to a board. Suddenly, it worked artistically. It’s inaccurate, but it feels correct.

This goes back to the nature of the medium, doesn’t it, that you’re generating your own “reality,” rather than mimicking an actual one?

It’s important to be clear about this medium. It’s very poorly understood by the art public, never mind the general public, but it’s overdue that the subject of simulation should be addressed. I’m sure its day will come.

See a making-of video here:

“Origin Story” is a column in which we examine the backstory of an individual work of art.

John Gerrard is featured in the exhibition “Alles Elektrisch” at the Teylers Museum, Spaarne 16, 2011 CH Haarlem, Netherlands, July 25–January 7, 2018.

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