The Barbican’s Digital Revolution has become one of London’s must-see exhibitions of the summer; with queues up to 100-long waiting to get in at pre-alloted times, its popularity is the kind generally experienced by the blockbuster art retrospectives put on by the larger London galleries. But in every way this is a very different show: Digital Revolution is about the impact made on creative practice generally – and the arts specifically – by the rise of the PC, the internet and, in its wake, the world wide web.
Now just to be clear from the outset, I’m not an art critic, nor any other kind of critic for that matter, so the handful of observations here are those of someone who’s simply lived through this particular “revolution” as a consumer, as a citizen and as a professional participant. (Google “digital revolution reviews” to get a sense of what the professional critical establishment made of it. Actually the spread of opinion – summarised neatly by The Week – is almost comically predictable, with WiReD calling the show “spectacular” and the Telegraph dismissing it as “gimmicky”!)
The first thing to say is this is not the Barbican’s first foray into this arena. Two previous exhibitions in the Centre’s main gallery, Serious Games (1997) and Game On (2002) looked in curatorial depth at games technology and its place in the wider culture (and Culture). But more than this, of all the main London arts centres, a pretty strong case could be made for the Barbican being the most technologically adventurous across its three principal areas of output: theatre, music and the visual arts. And as I write, only last weekend the centre was effectively taken over by the Wikimania conference. As a stolidly modernist institution, the Barbican feels as though it gets digital.
To get down to specifics then… The heart of the show takes place in the Curve gallery and begins with “Digital Archeology”, a look at the early days of digital technology in areas such as music, video games and film making. Later it looks at, among other things, how collaborative practice has been enhanced by digital, at how musicians and film makers have worked with digital technology to go way beyond the expected pop promo, at the pivotal role digital post production plays in contemporary film making, and at how developers are using code to create art (more of this in a moment).
The curatorial approach in the Curve has been to combine, essentially, a museum-style history lesson with an art show. Forty year-old pieces of electronic kit, classics from the world of video games and snippets of technologically groundbreaking film making vie for place with art work using or else inspired by digital tech. For some this might seem an odd fit, but for me it really worked, setting the work of important (although very different) artists such as Chris Milk, Björk and James Bridle in a context of a revolution that very largely played out in the entertainment arena.
The exhibition continues throughout the centre, with an area dedicated to “lo-fi” or “indie” video games (no coincidence that these terms mirror those used in music), and finishing with the installation that graces most of the show’s advertising, Umbrellium‘s playful Assemblance, a darkened space in which laser light appears to respond “personally” to the movements of the audience and which somehow encourages collaboration and non-verbal communication between strangers.
So the themes that emerged for me, then?
Well the most immediately obvious one – in the Curve at any rate – is that the curators have gone maximal. Put simply, the minute you enter the show you’re overwhelmed, with countless visual exhibits glowing or else lit up in the dark to a soundtrack of Peter Gabriel and Afrika Bambaataa. And so it continues, with the sound and light bleeding from one exhibit to the next.
Now “Immersive” or “interactive” might be more polite terms to use than “overwhelming”, and Digital Revolution is both of those things of course; but “overwhelming” feels to me more accurate, and certainly less modish. And to be clear, I mean this as a positive; I think it’s a commonplace that the life we all now lead in the developed world (and, increasingly, in the developing world, too) is defined by technological overwhelm. In the Curve, this feeling is captured brilliantly, and in this sense the show itself is a meta-exhibit.
Then there’s the flow between entertainment and the arts to which I alluded earlier. It’s often asserted that high art is decades ahead of entertainment in terms of technical practice, and there’s some truth in this. But it’s a more complex picture than that. Digital Revolution makes it clear that there’s been a constant two-way traffic between the two arenas. Indeed, one of digital technology’s chief impacts has perhaps been to blur the boundaries between the two.
And yes, it’s a cliché, but I was struck too by the sheer speed with which this has all happened – in less time than I’ve been alive – and its sheer magnitude. If you want a graphic illustration of Moore’s Law, look no further than a couple of early exhibits in the show, a sampling synthesizer – the Fairlight – and Linn drumm machine. Now both have their retro charm – not least to a music geek like me – but my God, the Fairlight in particular is huge. Moreover, it’s a dedicated piece of kit, that largely did one thing (albeit to great effect); its functionality might be no more than a plugin in a contemporary Digital Audio Workstation.
Or look at the FX-driven classic films, extracts from which run throughout the “digital archeology” part of the show. Terminator 2, The Abyss and Jurassic Park are all arguably fine bits of storytelling, but alongside the two films highlated later – Inception and Gravity – they don’t look any less hoaky than Ray Harryhausen or Gerry Anderson’s work, and certainly less charming. (Interestingly, by comparison, Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey” sounded, to these ears, easily as contemporary as the Will.i.am piece that takes centre stage later on. Simon Reynolds might have something to say about that.)
As it happens, both Jurassic Park and T2 both tackle themes that I personally felt could have been explored a little more in the show: the downsides of technology. In this regard, James Bridle‘s piece Dronestagram is a standout. Bridle’s work in general is intriguing; on one hand he’s an advocate of “The New Aesthetic” on the other hand his work frequently forces the audience to consider the political implications of technology, from Wikipedia revisions about the Iraq War to the role of drones in modern warfare (and beyond). But the curators seem to have steered clear, largely, of the negative aspects of this particular revolution. Even the overwhelm that I talked about earlier comes at a price – often a very significant one – but that’s not tackled here.
But this caveat seems churlish, especially when considering what for me was the most inspiring exhibit in the show, albeit one outside the main exhibition spaces. Not Impossible Labs have developed BrainWriter, which uses a combination of brainwave recognition and eye-tracking to enable the paralysed graffiti artist TemptOne to communicate and perhaps even make art once again. It’s a moving story in itself, but beyond that points to one of the next frontiers in digital technology: the direct control of objects in physical space by mind alone.
But my single favourite piece was part of the DevArt space, which brings together pieces commissioned jointly by Google and the Barbican from developers creating art from code. Zach Lieberman‘s Play the World feels somewhat overlooked in the coverage I’ve read, yet for me it’s the best – and most evocative – piece in the show. It consists of a single piano keyboard surrounded by a circle of speakers; a note played on the keyboard triggers software that finds that very note being played that moment on a radio station somehwere in the world (the station and country are displayed on LED screens below the speaker from which the sound emerges).
Now of course the results aren’t as musically perfect as those created, ironically, on the Fairlight, sitting in a vitrine near the exhibition’s entrance. Indeed, from a certain perspective what comes out is cacophonous. But the way that Lieberman has used code to summon up a sense of our place in a world that is at once culturally heterogenous and yet irreversibly connected represents, for me, the very best kind of digital art: interactive and immersive, yes, but more than that, profoundly thought-provoking and, well, human.
[Disclaimer: the Barbican is a long-standing client of Turner Hopkins.]