Why Is a Simulated Smoke Flag Flying Over Texas?

John Gerrard tips his hat to America's oil consumption.
Beeld: John Gerrard

For the last decade, artists have been a prevailing force in bringing climate change to the forefront of public conversation. In his latest project entitled Western Flag, Irish conceptual artist John Gerrard created a simulated flag of black smoke as a critical homage to the United States' oil dependency. Gerrard's new piece is a live simulation of the Spindletop salt dome oil field located in the southern portion of Beaumont, TX. The artist rebuilt the landscape of this historic oil field as a virtual world in which he placed a flagpole that spews pressurized black smoke in the shape of a flag.


Gerrard is known for creating sculptures and invented forms through digital simulation. In a video documenting the production of the piece, Gerrard says, "I think the flag that I've proposed is a sort of a mourning or grieving flag. A large proportion of carbon dioxide released in the 20th century is sitting there. You can think of it as an invisible sculpture. The flag which I've produced is a kind of revealing flag for that legacy of our comforts."

Gerrard's simulated flag marks the site of the "Lucas Gusher," a geyser well on the Spindletop field that first struck oil in January 1901. The "Lucas Gusher" is historically significant, because at the time, it expelled more oil than all the other oil pumps in America combined. In order to create this digital portrait of a real site, Gerrard and his team had to reconstruct everything in 3D. In preparation for the installation, they carried out an extensive, 10,000 square meter survey of the Spindletop site using a drone that took 10,000 to 15,000 photographs of the landscape.

The piece was first presented as a non-durational simulation that ran live on a giant LED screen wall in the courtyard of the Somerset House in London. The Western Flag installation is a live simulation in the sense that it reflects the time of day of the real site in Texas. The sun rises and falls at the appropriate times and the days get longer and shorter in accordance with the changing seasons. When it's dark the simulation will show a dark scene of the flag, and when it's light out and the sun is up the site is depicted in clear view.


The Western Flag piece was commissioned by Channel 4 as part of their Man-Made Planet season broadcast to mark this year's Earth Day. The work was broadcast as a television interruption, interrupting the Channel 4 schedule in short bursts over a period of 24 hours. Click here to watch a livestream of the flag on Channel 4's website.

Check out more works by John Gerrard on his website.


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