If the show is looking to emulate how every aspect of our senses is touched by what the Barbican terms the ‘digital Renaissance’ – screens everywhere, each person focussing on something different, sounds and visuals merging together in a disorientating cacophony – it’s undoubtedly succeeded.
The Digital Revolution show, which opens this week, takes place throughout the Barbican centre, with various interventions and installations dotted around the building, as well as at the main thrust of the exhibition spanning the Curve space.
The show looks to explore how design, visual art, film, music and video games have been forever-altered through digital technology, tracing this ‘revolution’ from the 1970s to the present day, and hinting at the future, too, with new possibilities emerging through developments in coding, augmented reality, 3D printing and wearable technology.
Outside of the main Barbican Centre, in the Bloomberg space on nearby Finsbury Square, the Marshmallow Laser Feast studio has creates the Forest installation (which sadly we didn’t get time to see): a series of musical ‘trees’ formed of rods and lasers, which can be modified through visitors tapping, shaking and plucking the structures.
The Ab Rogers-created exhibition design is certainly impressive – creating the ‘festival’ feel the Barbican was clearly looking for in such an ambitious show. There’s certainly no shortage of stimulation, be it aural, visual or tactile; and there’s a definite sense that the visitor is expected to work to truly experience the show.
Whether it’s playing the games in the Indie Games Space; interacting with the many smaller digital pieces; making a wish and creating a digital butterfly or playing with the lasers at the stunning, highlight piece, Umbrellium’s Assemblance Pit theatre installation, participation is mandatory. Without it, the show means little.
The Curve gallery opens with a series of pieces that cleverly tap into nostalgia as much as they look to explore the history of digital. There’s a distinct ‘I had one of those’ murmur ricocheting around the displays of old Donkey Kong handsets and Game Boys, while the playlist of tracks that marked a new digital sound invention, such as tracks by the Human League and Kate Bush’s marvellous Army Dreamers give an inclusive feel to help explain technologies that can otherwise feel confusing and even alienating to those less-technologically aware.
Moving through the space, the show quickly gathers momentum as the pieces increase in participation and complexity. The State of Play section looks at possibilities for interaction through systems using cameras, tapping nicely into the selfies market. This, along with the next section, DevArt, will undoubtedly be the new Martin Creed balloons in terms of ubiquitous social network photographs: the perfect mixture of art, silliness, and an opportunity to post images illustrating that you’re interested in both for all to see on Instagram (yes, we were guilty of this.)
The DevArt section is rather wonderful, bringing together the results of a project between Google and the Barbican of pieces created using code. Varvara Guljajeva and Mat Canet’s piece, Wishing Wall, encourages visitors to whisper a wish into a tube, which is then written on a screen and turns into a cocoon. When a hand is placed by the screen, the butterfly lands on it and flies away. The dreams may not come true (we’re as yet, not a ‘little bit taller’, and the technology didn’t recognise our request that we were ‘a baller’), but it certainly makes for a beautiful, fun piece of art.
Another highlight of the section was Zach Liebermans Play the World. The piece is formed around a central piano, surrounded by speakers each tuned to a different live radio station around the world. These each correspond to a different piano key, and due to the live nature of the transmissions, means that each time it’s played, the sound is completely unique.
As such, it’s a huge amount to absorb – not to mention a huge amount for the Barbican to keep in order. At the opening morning, as is perhaps to be expected, many of the pieces weren’t working; but with so much to see, there was still no shortage of works to take in.
In many ways though, these glitches reflect the uncontrollable, often frustrating nature of the digital experience. Hindrances like crashes and unpredictability are as ubiquitous as the help that digital has given us in the age of Google maps, the Internet of Things and smartphones. What Digital Revolution does so well however, is to show the beauty in digital, the possibilities it gives for creativity and the hugely exciting possibilities it creates for the future of art and design.
Digital Revolution runs from 3 July – 14 September at the Barbican Centre, Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS