Places: Through the Laser Field

Digital Revolution video feature Barbican Centre © Sidd Khajuria

MDLab visits the Barbican summer exhibition ‘Digital Revolution’; an exploration of the transformation of the arts through digital technology since the 1970s.

Our journey began in the Barbican’s Curve space, playing cult-classic games on original devices from the ’70s, surrounded by screens showing early gaming imagery like a retro-futuristic Piccadilly Circus. Then, moving through the early days of net-art with ‘Jodi.org’, a more distinctively digital aesthetic emerged with the Flash sites of the mid-late 90s, as exemplified by an archived ‘praystation.com’.

A flock of smart ‘Escape’ pigeons, made from hacked bits of broken mobile phones, was a charming introduction to physical expressions of digital work. Finally we were brought up to the present era of Google-sponsored innovation: Aaron Koblin’s ‘The Wilderness Downtown’, and then an exhaustive and exhausting examination of the extraordinary amount of CGI work that went into making ‘Gravity’.

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The Treachery of Sanctuary in the State of Play section Barbican Centre © Matthew G Lloyd/Getty Images

Now our digital history education was complete we got to the exciting bit, discovering the new pieces of work commissioned for the exhibition. Will.i.am’s ‘Pyramidi’, was an overbearing experience for all the senses, enclosed in a tomb-like room was a stentorian ego-trip of a singing Sphinx head, based on none other than Will.i.am himself. However a highlight of the show was both the simplest concept and the easiest to interact with: Chris Milk’s ‘The Treachery of Sanctuary’ where the movements of participants were mirrored by swarms of ravens to darkly dramatic effect.

Finally the most captivating piece of all ‘Assemblance’: found in the Pit of the Barbican. Walking into the space it took a few moments for our eyes to adjust to the dark haze, the only source of light radiating from shifting beams of light in saturated hues. The further we moved through the space the more complex and magical the illusion became. Although initially the luminous forms appeared to have a mind of their own, through play it became possible to shape and manipulate the trails of light to invent forms and patterns. Gradually, a participatory element to the experience developed as we became aware of each other’s creations, and it was possible to unite our gestures and build complex luminescent structures together. Moving out of the space, we were left with a sense of wonder and delight. This simple installation enabled people to not only have a shared experience but also benefit from invention and interaction with one another.

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Umbrellium’s Assemblance section Barbican Centre © Duncan McKenzi

‘Digital Revolution’ is a brilliant portrayal of the work being created by the digital creative community and a nice progression for the Barbican following their success with Random International’s ‘Rain Room’  in 2012. However in light of how educational the opening of exhibition had been, it was then a surprise to have no explanation unveiling the technology behind ‘Assemblance’. It also would have been interesting to consider Umbrellium’s artistic influences; for example the Telegraph’s art critic Alaistair Sooke identifies Anthony McCall as a clear inspiration.

On reflection these omissions by the Barbican highlight the current stage of the ‘Digital Revolution’ for creatives. Thematically there is no connecting thread between the participants beyond the use of a wide variety of modern technologies, and perhaps as a consequence there is no clear line between ‘digital makers’ &  ‘artists’, as the work is curated by medium and the focus is on the technology itself rather than the content. However it seems inevitable that we will eventually reach a tipping point, as Lindsay Howard, curator of the recent Philips digital art auction ‘Paddles On’ described in an interview with POSTmatter, “Very quickly, the word ‘digital’ will drop off and we’ll simply discuss this work as contemporary art”.

‘Digital Revolution’ is on at the Barbican Centre, London from 3 July – 14 September 2014.

Experienced by Yolanda O’Leary, MDLab Digital Strategist


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