Archives for posts with tag: barbican

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.

Digital Revolution Trailer from Barbican Centre on Vimeo.


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 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.]

Anti-Fragile crop

I’m currently reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s follow-up to Black SwanAnti-Fragile. Quite apart from being a brilliant, massively stimulating and (just occassionally) niggling read, it’s a book with real relevance to our practice here – one of the most obviously so since I read the William Gibson non-fiction collection Distrust That Particular Flavor and Lewis Hyde‘s Common as Air a year or so back . I suspect I’ll be reflecting on a few of my reactions here.

One of the most (I suspect) controversial observations Taleb makes is about the link between the spending a nation puts into higher education and that nation’s economic success. Most prosperous nations have a thriving university sector so there’s a direct causal relationship, right? Well, yes, but not necessarily in the way it’s generally read. Taleb claims that it’s the wealth that leads to better (or at any rate higher levels of) university education rather than the other way round. The usual narrative (education inevitably leads to wealth) is not only a logical fallacy – it’s a self-serving one spun out by a sector constantly looking to increase both state and private funding.

Now I can’t call this either way (although I have to say, Taleb makes a very strong case and I’m inclined to go with him). However, the observation has some resonance with what I’ve felt for a long time about arts funding. But first, a digression and a recollection.

I recall, some years ago, the then-Controller of the BBC Proms, Nicholas Kenyon (now the Director of London’s finest arts centre, The Barbican*) giving a speech (at the British Library, if memory serves) to launch that year’s Proms programme. He pointed out that different governments had, in recent years, very much rationalised arts funding as part of a wider politico-philosophical agenda. The Thatcher government saw the arts as a way to boost tourism and celebrate “heritage”; New Labour in turn had seen art as a way of fostering its own social engineering programme (my words, not his), that is, as a way of “driving diversity” and “regeneration”. Kenyon suggested that instead, perhaps governments (and for that matter philanthropists) might view the arts as worth funding in their own right. It’s simply something a decent, enlightened (lower case) society should do.

I completely agreed then and a decade on still do. What Taleb’s observations about education reminded me of is that not only is the argument for arts funding as a basis for economic regeneration unnecessary; it’s very probably wrong-headed too. Yes, economically thriving cities tend to have “thriving” arts scenes (and I put that in quotes because whether that art is any good is always a moot point), but again, don’t get what Taleb calls your “causal arrow” the wrong way round. Wealth attracts art, not necessarily the other way round.

But here’s a funny thing about investment… it comes in all shapes and sizes and can have benefits unforeseen (and of course the whole point about Taleb’s overarching thesis is that most things are). Last weekend, as I reported over on my blog, Sarah and I went to Cafe Oto in Dalston to see a the second night in a residency by the Japanese improvising guitarist Otomo Yoshihide.


The key word here is Dalston. For those of you unfamiliar with London geography, this is a North-Eastern inner suburb, and until recently was considered something of a schlepp to get to from pretty much anywhere else in the city. This was in fact untrue, as the ‘hood was well connected by buses, but most Londoners’ mental map of the city is based on the Tube, and that part of the city was well and truly off the Tube. This has all changed recently, of course, with the opening of the “Ginger Line” – actually the “Overground” – a network of lines around the entire city (some pre-existing, others entirely new) which are integrated with the Tube and, crucially – on the Tube map.

Dalton Junction is a spanking new station on a spanking new stretch of the network which runs from West Croydon in the deep south right up to Highbury. Cafe Oto is about, ooh, thirty seconds’ walk away. And certainly it was very busy on Saturday, (and it frequently sells out what are, after all, some pretty “fringe” musical events).

Now I am unable to prove beyond all doubt that the venue has benefitted enormously from the new line and station, but I do know that apparently poor Tube links were a problem for the now-defunct Ocean, just a mile or so away in Hackney. I’m not making any bold claims here, simply wondering: perhaps spending money on, say, transport infrastructure can have a more profound effect on the success of arts venues than direct investment in, well, art? One thing is for certain (and we’re back with Taleb here): the truth is almost certainly more complex than we think it is – and thoroughly unpredictable.

Oh, and we were home in West London in about 35 minutes. Ever so slightly deaf.


* And yes, a client, but I think our various blogs and tumblr make it clear that we really mean this, regardless; recent delights have include the blockbuster Duchamp show, Low, Geoffrey Farmer’s Surgeon and The Photographer installation and Strindberg’s Madame Julie.

Culturally speaking, one way and another it was a pretty packed year for Sarah and me last year, so as we embark on 2013 I thought it might be nice to get some of the highlights down here.

Our rather late-in-life conversion to Opera – yes the artform, not the browser – continued apace. We caught Jonathan Kent’s splendidly delirious production of Purcell’s “semi-opera” The Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne, Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann at the ENO (delirious in its own way) and two minimalist classics in revival: Glass’ Einstein on the Beach at the Barbican (which Sarah attended without me) and Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer, again at the ENO. It’s also worth mentioning a live relay from the Met of Glass’ much later piece, Satyagraha, which we saw in the cozy surroundings of our favourite cinema, The Duke of York’s here in Brighton.

The theatrical highlight of the year was undoubtedly Complicite’s adaptation of Bulgarkov’s magic realist classic Master and Margarita at the Barbican. It’s exhilarating stuff – if perhaps bewildering to those who haven’t read the book – and I highly recommend getting along to it as it returns this month. Runner up prize on the theatrical front would have to go to Punchdrunk’s immersive Macbeth-inspired Sleep No More, now into its second year in New York, where we were lucky enough to catch it.

Actually, the Barbican – which plainly had a stupendous year – deserves its own mention (full disclosure: the centre is one of our clients). As well as Einstein and Master, we saw: Água, the São Paulo piece in Pina Bausch’s World Cities season, revived by the Barbican and Sadlers Wells as part of the Cultural Olympiad; two truly remarkable blockbuster exhibitions, Everything Was Moving – Photography from the 60s and 70s and Bauhaus: Art as Life; and Song Dong‘s strangely moving installation Waste Not, which gathered into the Curve Gallery everything the artist’s mother had hoarded in her life. And of course we went along to the Barbican Weekender a couple of months back, which we reviewed here.

I’m getting together a review of my “year in gigs” over on my personal blog DGMFS, but of the gigs we went to together, several stand out: Susheela Raman at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (an absolutely intoxicating show), PiL at the Concorde 2 in Brighton, Bang on a Can Allstars at the Barbican and Faith No More at the Apollo (and was that Danny De Vito crawling around onstage towards the end of the gig or a hullucination?) Then of course we travelled to both New York and Berlin to see Meshuggah; still not sure Sarah really digs it, but I think if nothing else she enjoys the gurning look of joy on my face for a couple of hours. I should mention two shows Sarah couldn’t get along to, sadly: singer-songwriter Rufus Wainright at the Brighton Dome (seriously, one of the finest gigs I’ve ever been to) and jazz pianist Brad Mehldau at, you guessed it, The Barbican, as part of the London Jazz Festival. And talking of jazz, we’ve hugely enjoyed our old friend Jez Nelson and Jazz On 3‘s monthly Jazz in the Round shows at the Cockpit theatre in Marylebone; looking forward to many more of them in 2013.

We only made it to one of the Proms this year, but it was a pretty special one; the massive, 120-strong Aldeburgh World Orchestra was recruited online from 35 different countries for three weeks of concerts, including a Sunday evening prom at the Albert Hall. As though the logistics weren’t tricky enough, the band – conducted with the usual verve by Mark Elder – played an astoundingly tricky (but very, very powerful) set including Britten’s Sinfonia de Requiem and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, in possibly the tightest, most aggressive interpretation I’ve heard live.

As I write this Sarah has got the annual film marathon which comes with being a BAFTA judge, so I’ll reserve judgement on the film front except perhaps to say that Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is really quite breathtaking. Oh, and that the most fun we had in terms of cinematic experience this year was a very special screening of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in the appropriately baroque setting of the Brighton Pavilion’s music room (thanks to Brighton’s Cine-City festival for that one).

Three very different gallery shows highlighed the work of three very different (but undoubted) geniuses: the massive Cindy Sherman restrospective at MoMA in New York; Ferran Adriá and El Bulli: Risk, Freedom and Creativity at Palu Robert in Barcelona; and, almost certainly our shared art highlight of the year, Grayson Perry’s The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British Museum which pulled off the remarkable feat of being simultaneously funny, deeply moving and, well, angry.

We finished the year off, appropriately, with a concert of Bach’s Christmas and New Year Cantatas given by period music specialists Florilegium at King’s Place. It was the opening show of a year-long season: Bach Unwrapped and we’re looking forward to much more.

So that’s it. A a hugely enjoyable year, and one that’s going to be difficult to top, although, that said, we’re already looking forward to, among other things, Kraftwerk at the Tate, Cirque du Soleil at the RAH, the Barbican’s post-Duchamp show, the Southbank’s Rest is Noise season, Neil Young, Richard Thompson… and maybe, just maybe, Meshuggah in LA.


Over the weekend Sarah and I popped into the Barbican to check out the “Weekender“. An annual event held each autumn, the weekender opens up the entire centre to the public for a series of participatory events around a particular theme.

This year’s event, billed “Natural Circuits”, offered ways for attendees to “Connect to your creative side through two days of free digital activity”. From the pieces and happenings that we witnessed, I think I’d say that for me the theme was about connecting our digital media activity to our experience of the real, physical world. The virtual-physical divide and cross over is not necessarily a new theme for a curated series of events, but it’s one of the most vital facing creators, and the Weekender – which, it should be pointed out, is very clearly aimed at families – approached it with exactly the kind of originality and flair you’d expect from the folks at the Barbican.

Amongst the pieces we saw were:

Claire Collinson’s Short and Tweet – a room full of iMacs set up for visitors to tweet poetry. Creative writing sessions were provided throughout the weekend to get the poetic juices flowing and you can read the results by having a look at #bweekender.

Stories from an Invisible Town are a series of stories and anecdotes by Hugh Hughes, prompted by his mother moving out of their family home. Sitting in comfy chairs, surrounded by packing boxes with players hidden inside them, we listened to the stories on headphones as if in his half emptied house. The stories are by turns dark, moving and funny, although the sound bleed from the neighbouring installation highlighted the essential problem of sound-based group shows in galleries.

Hidden Fields – and this was the culprit, although very impressive it was! Part video game, part installation, part disco (!), the piece allowed participants to dance in front of a giant screen, their movements affecting the semi-abstract images on the screen, to the accomplishment of a gently shifting electronic-orchestral ambient score. Quite mesmerising.

Black Country Atelier‘s 3D Printed Wildlife, in which kids could design wildlife themed tree decorations which were then immediately “printed” was a chance to see the wonder of 3D printing up close.

And finally, our favourite: Circumstance’s A Sleeping Bird, an ensemble piece played back on the speakers of synced mobile phones housed in rather lovely wooden boxes. These were carried around the centre by members of the public on various routes preordained by the artists and meeting at certain points. It’s rare to hear music move around a space (Sarah pointed out that conceptually it was a bit like Janet Cardiff‘s Forty Part Motet – in reverse) and the acoustics of the Barbican’s Ballardian concrete spaces suited it perfectly.

The Centre was packed on the day we visited (not just with Weekender attendees but with visitors to the the blockbuster photographic show Everything Was Moving and Random International’s digital installation Rain Room) and from the look on everyone’s faces, the event was providing a lot of delight on an otherwise wet, cold and generally miserable London weekend. Congratulations to the Learning team at the Barbican, and in particular Anna Rice (Music & Cross Arts Producer) and Emma Ridgway (Visual Arts Curator and Cross Arts Producer) for pulling off such a massive, and evidently successful event.