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Friday, 18 July 2014

Review: Digital Revolution

I went to see the Digital Revolution exhibition at the Barbican yesterday. It was much better than I expected. This exhibition includes part of Google's DevArt initiative. That framework is unusual for arts projects funding because it requires the use of Google APIs and thus is problematic in terms of controlling artists. Also, things I've read have implied it to be a sort of anti-historical move, as if Google invented the idea of doing arts with a computer

The exhibition, therefore, provides a solid historical grounding in the history of computer creativity. Many historical digital arts projects are displayed. Some of them running on emulation, but many running on the original machines they were designed for. Thus I learned about an art movement called the Algorists, who's ideas live on in the Algorave movement. Much of art works were interactive, thus giving visitors a chance to interact with old hardware and software platforms as much as the artwork. For example, there was a piece of web art that was running on an early version of Netscape Navigator, on a period machine.

This is where the exhibition lost focus. Unsatisfied with showing a record of historical projects on historical machines, they went further to amass a collection of old digital stuff, more suited to the Science Museum. So next to an iPad showing Conway's Game of life, there was a completely unrelated early computer. Across from the Algorist was a Linn Drum in a glass case, with some headphones playing a song by the Human League that used this drum machine (which created some cacophony, discussed below).

The historical computers included working versions of several home game computers, so kids could get their first taste of Super Mario Brothers on 8 bit. Near that was a NeXT cube running the web browser written for it. This part of the exhibit was apparently calculated to make me feel old. Just to reinforce that, I will now complain about the loudness.

The room itself had a lot of projection displays and loud sounds that seemed to lack context. They were seemingly played through the entire room and would turn out to be linked to one of the displays in the middle. A short excerpt from some display somewhere and then on to the next loud thing. So the projections might show Super Mario or something else and then a blast of the Human League, all in an effect full of sound and fury, but with very fuzzy signification.

Other parts were blatantly corporate. The huge installation explaining how they did the animation and lighting for the film Gravity was interesting, but, again, perhaps better suited to the Science Museum.

The new artworks did tend to be quite good and were, thankfully, mostly not in the room of old computers and flashing lights. One piece was birds made up of upcycled mobile phones, with bird heads on the phone's colour displays. There was an (even louder) pop music video experience which used the hollow face illusion on a projector screen, which was stunning when experienced for short periods. (Alas, that I did not take notes on titles and artists and this information appears not to be on their website.)

Next along was an installation using Kinect, which was strikingly well constructed. Users had to assume the arms over head kinect pose. However, rather than being an annoying pre-requisite to further interaction, the piece used the starting position of an essential element of verticality which began with the hands. In the final bit of it, hands upwards dramatically opened to wings upwards.

All of the new art in the first section was interesting and a lot of it was fun (Shelly Knotts burst our laughing at one point) and some of it, such as the kinect piece were inspired.

There are also interactive installations in the free parts of the building, for example a video game that tracks where you're looking to control which way the player's actions were executing. A kinect-using robotic petting zoo was enigmatic. The robots were definitely interacting, but with what? The small display screens up top suggested that the robot's gaze was not looking where you might expect (or that the kinects were aimed poorly, but let's be generous).

The second part of the exhibition was a cage full of modern computers running indie games. I didn't have time to hang around in a cage trying out a lot of games. Many modern games are really complex and beautiful and take hours to figure out what the potentials of the environment really are, so I'm not sure about this format, but I have a feeling a similar format is used at industry events.

The third and final part was interactive laser beams in a fog-machine-filled room deep in the basement. After I got over making quiet jokes about sharks with laserbeams (which took longer than it should in an adult), the piece was fun and the interactivity well-designed.

Standard tickets are £12.50, which seems steep, especially considering the amount of corporate branding all over the signs and website. If Google is going to pay for art that's designed to promote themselves, then they should actually pay for it. Steep ticket prices also do nothing to ameliorate the digital divide, nor do displays encouraging people to download apps to their smartphones. I've programmed (as in curated) smartphone based art in the past, at the Network Music Festival and I'm not against it in general, it just seemed off in this context. To be fair, in pieces that were driven by apps, the Barbican had installed tablets running the app, so us smartphoneless riffraff could still use the piece. However, in a time of austerity, I feel public institutions such as the Barbican should be making an effort to encourage open access, especially for something that is intended to be the next major cultural/export product from the UK. The exhibition is clearly intended to promote this and recruit people into the field, so I feel the high price is an impediment to the (obviously, blatantly) commercial goals of the project.

Is it worth the price? I don't know, but it's a lot easier to get to than ZKM in Kalrsruhe or the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris.

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