Creating Simulation Art With UNIGINE

UNIGINE team has conducted an interview with John Gerrard and learned how he and his squad use the real-time engine to create amazing art projects.

UNIGINE team has conducted an interview with John Gerrard and learned how he and his squad use the real-time engine to create amazing art projects. Check John Gerrard’s works here.



We’ve all heard here at about UNIGINE and their fantastic team. They previously shared some great technical insight, and we’ve also covered some of the amazing creations that a few independent artists were able to make with the engine. For those who don’t know about them, UNIGINE is an independent 3D engine developer offering a simple but powerful SDK for creating virtual environments. The engine is primarily targeted for enterprise use such as large-scale simulators, CAD visualization, digital twins, etc. However, it can just as easily be used for game development, especially for massive projects where extremely large worlds need to be incorporated.

This time though, we won’t be talking about video games. What would you think if we told you that UNIGINE is used by professional artists who regularly expose their creations in exhibitions around the world? As it turns out, modern art isn’t just about painting with questionable materials or shredding canvases for the “wow” factor.

We’re talking about John Gerrard, who specializes in Simulation Art. His installations usually consist of a massive screen that simulates some real environment, often with his own unique twist. Many were featured in famous locations such as Coachella Valley or Somerset House.

2017 · WESTERN FLAG / SOMERSET HOUSE, LONDON. © Will Pryce / John Gerrard

The UNIGINE team interviewed John and his squad to learn more about his work and shared their findings with us. So, without further ado, here is the interview.

Core Product

UNIGINE team: A real-time 3D digital simulation is an innovative type of art. Could you tell us why you decided to use real-time computer graphics for your works? 

My studio is formed around the idea of portraiture, with a team of producers I create portraits of places I find in the world – real places. Typically we will complete a comprehensive survey of the site across the day and night, first making many thousands of pictures of what we find there, supported by a drone survey to produce a high-resolution image of the ground cover. These resources are supplied to modelers who will spend up to six months remaking those documents into three-dimensional models. These are then placed within the UNIGINE game environment to make up the world of the work. Thus the realness of the scene is a product of how we approach what can be thought of as the virtual, and my rejection of a specific game style or aesthetic, and the usage of generic forms in 3D generally.

In terms of video and simulation – there is no strong relation. Video typically is a camera or lens-based record of the real – streams of images printed to a digital timeline of frames per second. Simulation is a piece of software in which there is no record whatsoever. The software encompasses a model, and that model is the space within which reality, time, action, instruction, etc. is manifested. This is what the public experiences when seeing the work. In terms of power structures, this ‘model’ type nature of the simulation is important. One models the real – as also happens in many industries, banking in particular, but also the military, who make decisions on the basis of those models. The idea that reality and simulation are distinct I think is getting out of date. Thus these are influential forms and connect quite directly with how power is deployed.

2018 · STREAM (SICHUAN) 2018 / LONG MARCH PROJECT: BUILDING CODE VIOLATIONS IIIPhotograph: Long March Space, Copyright: John Gerrard

Finding New Ideas

UNIGINE team: How did you find ideas for your works? What inspires you?

I typically find first ideas for the work from my reading and research – be it in the press or from related academic reading. Often journalism leads me to a strange issue and I will buy in as much reading I can find about that subject to expand that first collision with the subject. Most often I find that what one finds in the world – be it data centers, computer-controlled farms or even complicated military exercises – are stranger than fiction – in some cases, they are sort of unimaginable. In that light, I always end up on the landscape. I do not remotely produce the works but will travel to that place and in these strange non-tourist spots – be it in Texas or Djibouti, Africa, one finds other leads and can follow them. I am inspired by what I find in the world, by the strangeness of the world and how power manifests in this strange world.

Western Flag (Spindletop). Copyright: John Gerrard

Time & Efforts

UNIGINE team: How much time is usually required for a project? How many people are there in the team? What do they do? 

We typically work for a year or so on a new art piece. The team has a core of producer – Werner Pötzelberger, programmer Helmut Bressler and the modeler Max Loegler who collaborate on the studio’s projects for more than 12 years. Additional specialists will be added to the team temporarily as needed, and services from companies with a dedicated focus, like photography, motion capturing or drone piloting, would round up the ambitious productions.

I can, however, conceive of a project over decades. At present we produce a big piece for Galway2020 – the European Capital of Culture which began in 2003 – so over sixteen years ago – so gestation can be extended – but once it is in production around a year. The piece for Galway is, however, a three-year production at a minimum.

2015 · FARM / THOMAS DANE GALLERYPhotographer: Richard Ivey, Copyright: John Gerrard

Choosing UNIGINE

UNIGINE team: You already created more than a dozen artworks powered by UNIGINE. How did you choose the 3D engine? What features and tools are crucial for you? 

John’s art-works suppose to run ‘forever’ as simulations on specific hardware. So a stable, consistent and well-designed engine is key. Rather thinking in multiplatform and cutting edge features for a broad market, we love to work in a highly specialized and customizable environment. We always build the simulations for our needs, which can be very different from work to work. With Unigine, we found an Engine, which is flexible, light but sophisticated enough for these needs. Besides that, technical features for excellent visuals are our bread and butter for building exquisite experiences.

UNIGINE team: Could you share your feedback on your experience with UNIGINE (the technical features that you like, handling, quality, etc.) 

The constant development and implementation of features, as well as the up to date technical possibilities, are excellent. The response of the Unigine team in general and in support terms is outstanding.

Helmut: For us, the high visual quality for outdoor scenes is a big plus (I’m not mentioning the quality of indoor rendering here, simply because we have no experience with that – the Superposition demo looks great as well). We are making use of the low-level graphics API interfaces in order to integrate custom components (i.e. the smoke sim in Western Flags). Occasionally we are also modifying the content of the core/shaders, having the shader source code available (even without having a source code license) is useful for us. Older projects have been written mainly in the script, the newer ones are written in C++ and C#.

Some of the Projects

UNIGINE team: Would you describe to us your latest work?

A new pair of works for GIAF / G2020 centers on eight foundational actor dancers. Four female (identified) and four male (identified) dancers ranging in ages from 15 to 75. These entities perform in both a wind-powered pavilion, where the figures are covered in green leaves, including oak, ash, willow + hazel. The straw-covered figures, powered by wind, wear variations on oat, barley and wheat straws. Each covering is to be sourced in one of the four old provinces of Ireland: Ulster, Connaught, Munster, and Leinster, in sites of a particular association with that material.

The actor dancer appears as an accurately scaled virtual portrait of that individual within the world of the work, however, there are three additional instances of each portrait present at any one time to produce four actors in the scene. Through this usage of instances the work is populated with eight original actors but in total thirty-six perform in synchronized groups of four across the four seasons of the year. Thus the work can begin (notionally) on the first day of Spring: Wednesday, 20 March 2019 with the arrival into the (wind-powered) simulation of the youngest of the dancers – who we will call Straw Dancer One. This young dancer is accompanied by three additional instances of himself, to make up the four performers in the scene. On transition to Summer on Friday, 21 June one Straw Dancers Two arrives with three instances of himself to replace the spring performers and take over the dance.

2013 · PULP PRESS / KISTEFOS MUSEET, NORWAY© Jiri Havran, courtesy of John Gerrard and Kistefos Museet

The performance itself traces the shape of a solar wheel (see page two) upon the floor of the pavilion, through walking, repetitively but with turns, body movements and choreographic variations performed across a year. The actual choreography for the work is produced in realtime by an artificial intelligence system titled a neural network embedded in the pavilion. The original human actor/dancer trains this network over hundreds of hours through performance and motion capture. This training gives rise to a flow of movements generated and shared by the neural network to the four characters of the scene. Thus the dancers will move both separately but very much together with uncanny synchronicity over time within the form of the solar wheel and within the choreographic language established during the original captures. Further variations in the performances are provided by the differing ages of the dancers from the young to the older over the year.

Central to the concept of the new work for GIAF / G2020 is flow. The wind or river flows alongside the performances and gives rise to them by providing power harvested by the turbine. So long as the river or wind flows, this performance will continue with no break or stop. In this sense, the performance is effectively inhuman or perhaps non-human.

2018 · JOHN GERRARD: SOLAR RESERVE / LACMA – LOS ANGELES MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ARTInstallation view, John Gerrard, Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada) 2014, in John Gerrard: Solar Reserve, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, July 12–September 3, 2018, © John Gerrard, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

UNIGINE team: Are you working on some new projects now?

Next big project is Pierre Huyghe’s Okayama Art Summit opening September 27th, 2019.

Pierre curates ‘If the Snake’ at Okayama and installs my simulation X.Laevis (Spacelab) as a 10m x 10m LED wall affixed to a building in downtown Okayama. That handbuilt realtime simulation which relates to the first time a vertebrate (the frog) reproduced successfully in zero gravity.

John Gerrard & Team

Interview conducted by UNIGINE


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