Digital Revolution: Barbican Exhibition Clocks The Latest Aesthetic Take Over

Digital Revolution

Digital Revolution the exhibition takes up a vast presence at the Barbican, filling its theatres, exhibition spaces and corridors, even permeating other channels such as communication: an automated press email was filled with rhetoric marvelling at the technology of the out of office reply. Indeed, consistent with the connotation “all-encompassing” attached to the term ‘Revolution’, the Barbican thus communicates how technology and its aesthetic has, similarly by stealth, taken over all aspects of our lives in the latter half of the 20th Century. Indeed, it begins with the chronological development of computing specifically within the home in the 1970s, progressing through to the present day in charting major developments and culminating in specially commissioned – and undeniably spectacular – pieces for this show. Why this beginning date, and not the earliest computers developed in the late 19th century, spearheaded by Charles Babbage? The agenda appears to be positing technology – specifically that of the 70s onwards falling into the category of mass consumption – as an art form: the exhibition inhabits the Art Galleries, and the whole thing is permeated with a persistent and exhilarating visual display. Yet this is as developed as the argument gets: no explicit claims to be or comparisons with art movements are made. If the focus is to be as specific as is implied both in historic period and in covering only mass media, a greater assertion of its undeniable – but unsaid – parallels with art would lend it its justification as an Art Exhibition.

Indeed, a harsher critic might label this an exercise in ticket sales: it is a categorically entertaining show, ticking all the right boxes in appealing to the widest audience; exhibits are interactive and inspire hours of play for all ages, and references to technology across this era provide a huge range of Proustian madeleines – from Pacman to the Terminator – appealing to anyone who consumed popular media from the 70s to present (the soundtrack of 1988’s Megablast conjured painfully acute memories of a childhood in front of a brain coloured Atari). Recognition and nostalgia prove two very powerful factors in the appeal to an audience. In addition upon entering a helpful steward encouraged me to “play with the exhibits as much as you like”. This is a show of instant, eye popping appeal filled with modes of interaction, with little emphasis on the more reflective and intriguing aspects of art that are best digested slowly following consumption. I like many was sucked into the instant gratification of a riot of whrrr-blip sounds and electronic imagery, a sensory overdose of dizzying lights and screens; yet if this is now the major mode of art and its consumption today as suggested by the Barbican, it paints a depressing picture (no pun intended) of a miniscule attention span and an unquenchable desire to be stimulated, that art can no longer be an image to be read, but our mode of engagement with it has changed so that a dialogue must be opened between image and receiver, and an entertaining one at that. While waiting for an immobile piece to start, an attendant assured us, “Don’t worry, this isn’t just it”; everything has to move, to entrance us.

And yet there are strong parallels with art and art history glaring it us. Though the language of art and curation is used in referring to the exhibits and digital creators, the Barbican stops short of real evaluation or more fully considered conclusions regarding the fuzzily outlined medium they have posited as “the future of art and technology”: the field includes “a range of artists, film-makers, architects, designers, musicians and game developers, all pushing the boundaries of their fields using digital media”. What then is the unifying characteristic of the actual art these fields are pushing? The answer seems to be simply “wow”: works have been selected and commissioned specifically to further technological advances, and in turn the interactive potential for the viewer (read ‘maximum spectacle’), rather than a definitive visual aesthetic. Awesome pieces thus include ‘Treachery of Sanctuary’ by Chris Milk, a triptych of three screens which reflect via LED display the viewer standing before it, though when the viewer raises his arms or moves around, the projected image appears to spread brilliant bird wings, or a flock of tiny birds emanate from the silhouette. An installation of pop music demigod – Pyramidi – is a hyped up surround sound music video in which animations dress the singer’s disembodied head in various vaguely god-like guises, while three retro looking contraptions move automatically to the sound. It is unclear whether the irony of using a basic forced perspective technique rather than digital wizardry is intentional or not; the projecting light onto a convex face shape as the source of the head’s eeriness (viewers claim its eyes follow you around the room) is in actuality as ancient as early 90s pop videos and present in the hideously dated ‘Fade to Grey’ by Visage in 1991. There is a great deal of “wow” (which is great in an art show) but no “why”.

It is the issues regarding dating and pushing boundaries that most compellingly present parallels with any art movement. Like the Renaissance and its quest for perspective and figurative solidity, digital technology strives to continuously improve on the sophistication of visual presentation. Like each new progression, regardless of the degree of time elapsed between each, the previous achievement instantly becomes obsolete, old looking, laughable. Excerpts from the Matrix in 1999 show the beginnings of bullet time photography, which now look rather crude, just like early attempts at perspective would have been mind-blowing at the time but superseded by the next stage in visual development. This is illustrative of the equally developing visual sophistication in the eyes of the viewers. We repeatedly think that this is the pinnacle of technological achievement, what more can possibly be done? But then, this is probably exactly what generation after generations thought for the duration of art history. In presenting “the future” to us, the Barbican reveals that there is no future, or rather it becomes obsolete as soon as it becomes present. It is a simultaneously thrilling and sobering paradox.

Interestingly, while art movements arguably have a traceable curve or arc in stylistic development as well as a technological one, the digital medium is so wide reaching in this age, involving innumerable programmers that it appears no coherent visual sensibility can be cultured. Perhaps given the expanding worldwide community ensured by digital communication, there is conversely no cultural collective. In this sense the term ‘Revolution’ really is applicable, though it would have been helpful to hear this debate, or at least some comment, from the Barbican. By stealth, it has illuminated to us a mode of art as consumed by the masses. In not discussing what part of it represents art, merely showing us the continuing achievements of technology, the increasing irrelevance of traditional visual arts are implied, as well as an audience that is greedy in its thirst for stimulation. The pieces are enormously engaging, dizzying, and mind bending, dazzling in technological sophistication, yet how much mental development is gained from several hours playing games?

 Words: Olivia McEwan © Artlyst 2014 Photo: Courtesy Barbican