Digital Revolution vs Matisse Cut-Outs

Why is the Barbican so hard to get inside? Every visit requires a 360° traipse around its grim concrete fringe before finding a useful way in. A thoroughly real-world preparation then, for Barbican’s glimpse into the not-future; the digital revolution that happened while we were busy throwing fat birds at evil pigs.

Digital Revolution at Barbican

At first it’s a slightly awkward exhibition, filled with slightly awkward people, shuffling from screen to screen in the near-dark, lit by the odd down-lighter and the eery flicker of Cathode Ray Tubes. But once the history bit is out of the way – from the ZX Spectrum to the world wide web’s first browser – it starts to get interesting.

The will.i.am piece, Pyramidi in collaboration with Yuri Suzuki, is a fitting segway from the nostalgia card, played hard with a bank of first generation GameBoys running Tetris, into the next section, where it all starts to get a bit weird.

As the MIDI-wafts and 16-bit intro loops fade away, todays artists take over the show. The laser forest in the basement (Assemblance, by Umbrellium) is like a slow-motion rave, all swaying arms and bodies gently bumping into one another, captivated by the solid light that dissolves and re-forms.

 

Lasers aside, almost every installation, from the epic and beautiful, bird-themed, The Treachery of Sanctuary by Chris Milk (left), to Dan Rozin’s simple sketch mirror, has a Microsoft Kinect cunningly tucked away. They even braved using Leap Motion to control a piece explaining the visual effects in Inception, but I wouldn’t call it a success. Wafting aimlessly in thin air gets very boring very quickly; fingers need feedback.

At first I was disappointed there wasn’t anything more revolutionary but I soon regained my perspective. Interaction design has come a long way quickly; it’s no wonder some exhibits fall flat and some build on technology first pioneered five years ago. Like a toddler that used to bash two bricks together, and is only now learning to artfully balance one atop the other, this show may herald a revolution, but we’re still only getting to grips with our toys.

Matisse Cut-Outs at Tate

It’s interesting to compare Digital Revolution with Tate’s Matisse exhibition, also closing in September. They are vastly different in terms of content, presentation style and visitor interaction. But it was at the Tate, without an LCD screen, instruction panel, button, laser or joystick in sight, that I felt truly humbled and moved by an artist revolutionising the way he worked.

Cut-Outs is finely curated and supremely executed. I went twice. My old man spent £400 in the shop, a luxurious space made unavoidable as you exit the exhibition’s crescendo. Apparently Barbican exhausted such energy commissioning and installing their entertaining spectacle, they forgot the shop; a sad little cage in the lobby.

Conclusion

Digital Revolution isn’t high-art, but it is good fun. And it’s the summary of my life, and of the many others who spent the last 30 years fumbling with technology. I remember getting cramp playing PacMan, fawning over the Requiem For A Dream site by Hi-Res! at university and, as a professional, wishing I’d created the wonderful, crowdsourced music video Do Not Touch where visitors guide their mouse pointer through a philosophical assault course along side a thousand others.

The best installation was the three-panel birds piece by Chris Milk, because even though you see what happens, you still desperately want a go. It’s simple and beautiful, and in that way, more like a traditional piece of art.

The most fun I had was playing PacMac on an arcade machine, because two of us could lean in and scream at the ghosts, then compare highscores.

The most educational experience was the Gravity installation, because it presented a satisfyingly verbose explanation of one of modern cinema’s most epic shots. Sandra Bullock scrambling over the International Space Station as it gets smashed to pieces.

I suggest you go and have a play. The experience did leave me wondering – shouldn’t I have visited Digital Revolution through an Oculus Rift headset plugged into the live stream of a wandering automaton? Maybe not this time, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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