Inside the Barbican’s Digital Revolution

Barbican - Digital Revolution, Pyramidi 02, 20140715 by Aaron Lee (1448x815)Digital Revolution is a celebration of computing and all things interactive. By bringing together artists, filmmakers, architects, designers, musicians and game developers, it hopes to give you a sense of the breakthroughs that digital creatives are making across culture, as well as remind you just how dramatically digital technology has changed all our lives in less than 50 years.

What follows are some of the moments that fascinated me most as I explored the chambers of this computing archive and its digital delights.

Digital archaeology
Before you even set foot in the low-lit hall of the first exhibition, what initially hits you is the carousel of computer-generated imagery being projected onto dozens of wall-sized screens above your head. Snippets of Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Pac-Man, Mario Bros, Parappa the Rapper, GTA III, Angry Birds and a parade of other films, games, digital art and archive footage give you an idea of just what you’re stepping into.

Barbican - Digital Revolution, exhibition Digital Archaeology, 20140715, by Aaron Lee (1448x815)Down on the chamber floors rests the hardware that made many of these experiences possible. Early home computers, boxes of oversized circuitry and complicated-looking instruments that have all played a part in shaping the digital world we take for granted today.

There’s lots to see throughout the exhibition, but this first leg is perhaps the area were nostalgia will surface early and often for anybody old enough to remember life before broadband. From the primitive-looking LED interface on Ed Robert’s Altair 8800 to the tough, plastic casing of the Apple II, to the desktop camera that looks more like a safety deposit box, to the very first web browser and the creation of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee and CERN; the exhibition provides just a glimpse of the computing developments since the 1970s.

Gaming: so hot its vintage
Video games and the consoles that powered them are well represented too. Pong, the original arcade version of Pac-Man (harder than it looks. I got to level three before those pesky ghosts finished the iconic pizza-puck off), Tomb Raider, The Sims, Angry Birds and several post-2000 web games are all in attendance. Seeing the original Nintendo Game Boy and the first Sony PlayStation, both in their respective matt grey casing, brought back memories. (Yes, if like me, you’re in your 20s, then it’s time to accept that the 90s are officially vintage, bordering on ancient in tech terms.)

Barbican - Digital Revolution, Sony PlayStation, 20140715, by Aaron Lee (1448x815)Further on, the public takes centre stage as titles such as Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar’s We Feel Fine and, of course, the construction game monolith that is Minecraft demonstrate how user-generated content is enabling us all to interact and create in ways that weren’t possible before the internet. Meanwhile, a video profile of Tim Schafer, creator of Grim Fandango and Psychonauts, takes you on a tour of his studio, Double Fine, and describes how crowdfunding has saved the adventure game genre and, in the process, enabled him and his team to create Broken Age.

Another area of the exhibition also houses about a dozen headsets and controller units offering the darlings of the indie games circuit: Journey, Thomas was Alone, There Shall Be Lancing, Papers Please, The Unfinished Sawn, Fez, Proteus, Spelunky and Jeff Minter’s Attack of the Mutant Camels, among others. It would have been nice to see multiple headsets for each title however, as that would help make the experience for observers more inclusive.

Nevertheless, the exhibition’s curated look at the enormous role video games have played in advancing digital storytelling and experiences is nothing short of spectacular.

Film and music: pixels killed the video star
Whether it’s the early synthesizers on Snoop Dogg’s ‘Glory Box’ or computer-generated dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, music and film owe much of their evolution to digital technology.

Barbican - Digital Revolution, Gravity, 01, 20140715, by Aaron Lee (1448x815)Presented using three panels of mounted monitors that created a cinematic enclosure that fills your vision, the special effects of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity are easy to lose yourself in.

However, as captivating as blockbuster film effects can be, what’s more impressive are the digital film and art projects that have the experiences of everyday citizens at their heart. Robots of Brixton is one such project. This 2011 short film by animation studio Factory Fifteen is a futuristic social commentary that uses the 1981 Brixton riots as its inspiration. The artwork on show is eye-popping. Gangly robot designs with inquisitive eyes fill one frame, while in another a young boy can be seen steering a makeshift canoe through blue seas littered with bottles, cans, discarded wooden pallets and an endless reef of junk. The latter in particular is a marvel with colours so rich it looks as though it was torn out of some loony holiday brochure of the future, offering holidays to bizarre, portside locations.

Barbican - Digital Revolution, Pyramidi, 03, 20140715, by Aaron Lee (1448x815)Will.i.am’s latest incarnation in Pyramidi (main image) is surely the most elaborate exhibit by a well-known musician. Created by the eccentric recording artist and tech enthusiast in collaboration with sound artist Yuri Suzuki, this installation has the hollow-eyed floating head of Will.i.am, adored with an ever-shifting assortment of pharaoh’s crowns, singing ‘Dreamin’ About the Future’, a new composition written especially for the piece. Below the Tron-like talking head, elaborate golden models are encased in pyramids of glass.

Beyond the dominating presence of Will.i.am, digital music apps, such as Björk’s Biophilia and Brian Eno’s Scape, show how mobile devices are inspiring musicians to reinterpret the process of music making and give their fans new ways to engage with music as a result.

Body electric
Moving away from the home computers, games and films, you get to the objects and installations that are blurring our relationship between the real world and the virtual ones even more.

Augmented reality, artificial intelligence, wearable tech, 3D printing and a chamber of lasers are all crammed into dark halls of the exhibition. A robotic table lamp tilts its head as you move closer to observe it observing you. Step in front of the first of many AR set ups to see your eyes turn into smoking trials of white light. And broken fragments of Nokia and BlackBerry headsets are used to create the bodies and wings of unsettling mechanical birds.

Barbican - Digital Revolution, exhibition Digital Futures, 20140715, by Aaron Lee (1448x815)Elsewhere, an installation with a keyboard, surrounded by a circular speaker setup, blurts out music and chatter from radio stations throughout the world, spanning different time periods. A 3D printer, encircled by a giant, conical structure of 3D patterns, can be seen generating new real-world objects, layer by layer. Further along, you find Robots in the Sky, a game that translates brain activity and iris moments into an on-rails shooter. The black Parametric Sculpture dress, draped with amoeba-like globules, represents another of Lady Gaga’s fashion fancies, while the iMiniSkirt – a silk skirt clad in tiny LEDs – presents a future where emotions can be displayed in an instant as a series of colours, words and live animations – and all below the waist. Charming.

One of the most mesmerising installations is by Chris Milk – the music video director-turned-cross-media innovator, who conceived the real-time 3D interactive series Three Dream’s of Black for Danger Mouse’s Rome album in 2011. The Treachery of Sanctuary is described as an interactive triptych that transfigures stories of birth, death and spirituality into an augmented reality experience across three huge, white floor-to-ceiling panels. Flocks of birds, smudges of black against the stark white background, can be seen and heard circling above. Cameras track the viewer’s body movements and translate them into shadow projections, giving you wings in one instance and scattering your entire body into hundreds of fleeing birds in the next.

Barbican - Digital Revolution, Chris Milk, 20140715, by Aaron Lee (1448x815)

Digital Revolution’s finale, Umbrellium, a chamber of lasers, closes the exhibition with a combination of ambience and immersion. Passing your hands through the prism of light, you can scatter it, creating cascading curtains of light about your body. Add a bar and pump in some Prodigy, Aphex Twin and DJ Fresh, and the pit’s transformation into a new age EDM night venue would be complete.

Final thoughts
Digital Revolution just the sort of exhibition we should see more of the UK’s arts venues championing, because it treats digital media with just as much cultural importance as fine art. Only with buttons to press, bizarre engines of visual trickery, cascades of light to play with and a surreal sense that the art galleries of the future are going to look far more like a cross between these exhibits and the Science Museum than the Tate Britain.

You could argue that any sense of clear structure is shattered by its attempt to encompass and present so many different snippets of the technology. But then, where else are you going to find an exhibition offering the chance to interact with Inception’s city-blending special effects, discover just what the deal is with Minecraft and control a three-metre avatar using your own body movements? Digital Revolution is an enthralling wander among the technology of our past and present, and is something the art scene should take serious note of.

For more on Digital Revolution, visit the Barbican Centre

Images: Aaron Lee; All exhibits and artwork belong to their respective parties

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