Many exhibitions are too quiet for their own good. The cautious whispering and awkward silences do not do much to strike interest or new ideas within visitors, let alone excite them. I often wish for more noise, more bustle and movement inside a space meant for communicating as well as seeing. As I entered the Digital Revolution at the Barbican Centre, I suddenly had all of this…all at once. Within a huge darkened room with flickering lights and screens, with electronic music playing in the background and a regular hubbub of noise, people were also visibly moving, talking, having fun, as they did not only watch the exhibit but also took part in it actively.
Digital Revolution’s ambitious aim is to regroup and present the most diverse and extensive achievements of the digital medium through an impressive array of genres and formats, from video games to music, animation and art installations. It presents its complex past, retracing the history of the very first computers and their games, but also veers beyond simple documentation into experimentation and entertainment.
The exhibition’s first segment, Digital Archaology, is concerned with the purely chronological, starting with relics from the 80s onwards, onto legends such as Pong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders or the first Tomb-Raider…all playable. There is a huge crowd yet surprisingly enough the glass displays that allow one player are laid out in a way that does not cram too many people in one corner…others are glad to wait for their turn or try different games, since most if not all of them can be tried out. The novelty of being in a time-travelling arcade does not wear off easily on anyone, whatever their age or experience with gaming.
This is perhaps because the exhibition made absolutely no concessions in terms of different tastes, aesthetics and genres. Commercial games like The Sims co-exist with indie DIY online games that enjoy messing with traditional programming and expectations, exploiting glitching, pixel art and the sense of powerlessness when the game spirals out of the user’s control, to become its own narrative. The section on games reveals a flurry of hideen gems, usually quite marginal and independent in nature that, in a few minutes, become their own digital performance piece, affecting us as viewers more than we affect the game. This is only heightened by our full involvement in the display, sensing the changes undergone as much as we understand them. A srange atmosphere is created, between a collective experience and a one-to-one relation with the game onscreen. The best thing is that many of these games are available online, for free. One of my favourite, Sodaplay, allows to tweak the movements of geometrical shapes to create unique objects evolving differently in an abstract space.
It was maybe for this reason that the section on digital art in films felt slightly more underwhelming after the video and computer games. While I was watching the way in which Inception created its paradoxical dream surroundings or how Gravity managed to make people seem as though they were spinning in space, I did not learn anything from it that I did not know before and there were limited options to engage with in terms of interaction. The short documentary on How to Train Your Dragon 2 was definitely more fascinating in the way in which it managed to tie the need for emotion and movement into more intuitive ways of animating CGI, capturing the magic and childlike wonder of animation coupled with pure skill in a way that has often been shunned in favour of its earlier, 2-D technology.
While the first part had been interactive enough, while remaining mainly involved with the history of the digital and its evolution, the next sections were involved in more experimental and collaborative contemporary works, including prestigious projects such as will.i.am’s exclusive music installation, Pyramidi, his giant and imperious digital effigy following every visitor’s movements as he sings. In the same way, DevArt, initiated by Google, showcased works that used motion capture to create digital art as an environment for moving, experimenting, even dancing.
Since movement was necessary to many of them, interactivity was key yet not always a given to all visitors; maybe we are too used to standing still and waiting for something to happen within a museum space, rather than making it happen. In that respect, help and advice towards visitors on behalf of the staff within the space could have been better handled, with more communication about what to do or even tacit encourahement from the helpers by initiating the movement itself. Yet the initial awkwardness and lack of clear direction was usually quickly overcome, as most of the visitors enjoyed the exhibits with an infectious energy. If the first part could be compared to a time-warp arcade, this one would be a futuristic hall of mirrors in a funfair, where our appearances, gestures and silhouettes are reflected, recorded and distorted.
The Treachery of Sanctuary in the State of Play, above, had three people at a time standing on a specific platform as their silhouettes are affected by the elegant yet morbid black silhouettes of birds: one disintegrating into a flock flying away, another pecked at until in disappears and the other growing wings that can be moved and flapped at will through the visior-player’s movements, creating a graceful and powerful exploration of the ways in which technology eats away at us while it transforms us. As visitors we are active participants in the performance and create its true meaning. As the exhibition draws towards the end, a less agitated corner allows visitors to listen to different kinds of music created via digital means, including a soundtrack by Björk. Digital Futures, towards the end, is a mix of digital dreams and utopias that are slowly becoming a reality, like 3D printing able to shape new objects and even clothes such as Studio XO’s 3D Printed Parametric Dress for Lady Gaga. With the installation Petting Zoo, there is even a desire to look towards AI and the sensorial (even emotional) that could be created in relation to it.
Ultimately, Digital Revolution is not only a celebration of digital art as an immaterial, eternally flexible and complex medium, steeped in a history old enough to be extensive yet young enough to be remembered. It is before anything else a celebration of the visitor and player, of the person behind the screen that allows digital art to express itself fully. The challenges that the digital can take on in order to push further the boundaries of art and technology are truly revolutionary. Yet, the real revolution is the creation of a space of discussion, discovery and communication that breaks silences and encourages people to touch as much as they can. I hope to see much more of it in the future, in other mediums and exhibition spaces.