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An Artist and a Helicopter Capture Google's Off-Limits Data Farm

In new solo exhibition 'John Gerrard: Farm' the Irish artist recreates incredibly detailed virtual versions of vast yet unseen industrial facilities.
'Farm (Pryor Creek, Oklahoma),' 2015. Images courtesy the artist

If Google won't let you document one of their data farms out in Oklahoma, what do you do? If you're Irish artist John Gerrard, you hire a helicopter to fly out there and photograph it from the air. This aerial defiance informed one of the works in John Gerrard: Farm, a new solo exhibition from the artist at the Thomas Dane Gallery in London, where Gerrard has recreated ultra-realistic virtual representations of huge tech-industrial infrastructures that service our needs.


The work that Gerrard used a helicopter for is called Farm (Pryor Creek, Oklahoma). Denied access to the data center by Google the artist hired the helicopter to undertake a photographic survery of the site. Max Loegler, a producer who worked on the project, took 2,500 photos taken on the survey and spent eight months replicating the center as a 3D doppelganger in Maya before it was rendered in game engine Unigine as a digital simulation. "I am interested in this 'slippery' space between the real and the representation of the real," Gerrard tells The Creators Project.

John Gerrard surveys Google Inc. Data Centre at Pryor Creek, Oklahoma from helicopter. Photographer: Blake Gowriluk

'Farm (Pryor Creek, Oklahoma),' 2015.

Google calls their data centers "Where the internet lives," and you've probably seen the photos of vast rooms housing brand-colored water pipes and cables, and rows of spaceship-like LED lit servers. For the center in Mayes County, Oklahoma—which Google sees as being an integral part of the community, providing jobs and investment—Gerrard produced a virtual replica of the one of buildings and the diesel generators and powerful cooling towers that sit on either side of it.

"What does the internet look like? What are the material qualities of the network? How is it powered? Do we consume this facility—or does it consume us?" are some of the questions Gerrard wanted to pose with his replication.

Artist documentation of Google Inc. Data Centre at Pryor Creek, Oklahoma from helicopter Photographer : Travis Hall


"It’s a continuation of a series of works I am making, Grow Finish Unit, about sites of production in rural America," the artist explains. "A previous work in this series is a pork production site—a pig farm run entirely by machines. Oddly it is visually similar in the architecture to the Google data farm. It is sort of like a postmodern pastoral."

Still from 'Sow Farm (near Libbey, Oklahoma),' 2009

Their other work in the exhibition is Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada) which was first shown in New York last year. Presented as a huge LED wall at Lincoln Centre Plaza it appears in the gallery as a projection and is a highly accurate digital replica of the 1,600 acre, 110 megawatt (MW) Crescent Dunes solar farm near Tonopah. The thermal power plant features tens of thousands of heliostat mirrors in spiralling, circular rows which rotate in accordance with the sun's position.

The mirrors harvest solar energy that heats molten salt in a neabry solar power tower, eventually producing steam and electricity which will go on to heat up to 75,000 homes.

Installation image from Solar Reserve at Lincon Centre, New York, presented in association with the Public Art Fund. Photo: James Ewing

For Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada) a team of programmers used a game engine to replicate the position of the sun, moon, and stars as they appear at the site over 365 days, so viewers get to witness the mirrors adjusting, along with the reflected light, in real-time to the sun's movement in this virtual twin. Also, over 24 hours the viewpoint switches between ground level and satellite every hour, giving a switch in perspective.


Giving these real-world sites a virtual double gives Gerrard a chance to "Transport sites of production to sites where consumption happens," and recreate them in an "atemporal, post lens, post cinematic" medium.

"These buildings are part of a vast network of invisible facilities that make the luxuries of contemporary life possible." notes Gerrard. "And yet, they are unfamiliar to us. The medium of simulation speaks to these scenes and buildings as they are in effect minimal, and have a curious synthetic quality. The medium talks to these conditions in a curiously precise manner."

Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada)

The exhibition runs now until March 21, 2015 at Thomas Dane Gallery, 3 and 11 Duke Street, St James’s, London SW1


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