Thousand Year Dawn (Marcel) by John Gerrard


This is a single frame from a digital art piece called Thousand Year Dawn (Marcel), by digital artist John Gerrard. The video I took this image from is a short retrospective on Gerrard’s work by the Tate Modern. (Hence the watermark in the corner) I first found out about John Gerrard when I saw another piece that he ad made, Sow Farm (near Libbey, Oaklahoma, on display (also at The Tate Modern.) I’ve never actually seen Thousand Year Dawn in person and haven’t been able to find much information on it outside of the above video and a very small Wikipedia section. But despite this, Thousand Year Dawn is one of my favourite pieces of artwork, and a piece which I think about constantly in my own writing.

The concept of Thousand Year Dawn is a deseptively simple one. A digital person standing on a beach, watches the sun rise over the horizon. The piece is programed so that the sun rises, in real time, over the course of 1000 years. It’s an extremely ethemeral piece, even if it seems like the sun is completely stationary; it’s always moving. And like the character in the foreground, all you can do is stare into the distance, and watch time go by. But no matter how much you watch, you can never see the full art piece. Even if you were to stare at it your entire life, you would only be able to see about 10% of its lifecycle, assuming someone was grecious enough to keep the electricity running for that long, the world created in the art piece will outlive us.

Above you can see a piece of “digital art” that I made last year while I’ve been learning Blender. You can tell that I still had a lot to learn. After learning a bit more, I made another video that was at least a lot more visible.

Both of them are extremely rudimentary, but they were still worlds. And more importantly, they were worlds that I had created, with just my computer, a free program and a few stressful hours pouring through documentation. I also started to learn how to use Unity, another free program for making videogames. A program which lets you place a first person player into a world simply by dragging and dropping a pre-made script.

One thing that has been on my mind a lot recently, is how easy it is becoming to create digital worlds on our computers. If someone is willing to put in a decent amount of hours into Unity or Blender or the Source Hammer Editor, (Which was my favourite to use when I was younger) and create worlds which players can occupy and interact with. You can create cities, rivers, alien planets, large scale battles, fully-furnished and fleshed out domestic scenes, and the thing that I find most fascinating: Large Open Spaces.

It’s no coincidence that one of the big selling points in a lot of games is how big the developers can make the world. Red Dead Redemption 2, which came out late last year, offers a populated world over 130km² in size (I haven’t been able to find the actual size online but Rockstar has said the map is larger than their biggest map in Grand Theft Auto 5, so this is just a minimum size.) and before that, Minecraft offered players an infinate amount of land and tunnels to explore, with each world being procedually generated when you start a new game. A player could walk in one direction for hours or days on end and never reach the end of the world. A world which can fit on a harddrive no larger than someone’s hand or even, in the case of Minecraft, on a thumbsize USB stick.

That is what really fasinates me. As we become a more and more technological world, the physical space is no longer the only world we have to occupy. Entire countries can exist folded into a computer on a desk. 100 different procedually generated worlds can be brought into existance just by pressing a button. And anyone can create a wide open space, with just a few keystrokes, that can explore, play, or hide away in.

A forest I made with default Unity assets in 15 minutes.

And even if the world you create is just a coastline with a sun rising over 1000 years; it’s still a world, and someone created it.