The first thing I felt when I entered the Barbican’s new ‘Digital Revolution’ exhibit was nostalgia. In front of me were the ghosts of technology’s past, puzzling all the young kids in the room with their bulkiness, squareness, resolutely black-and-whiteness. A monitor where you could play Pong, a glass case containing an original Apple II machine (basically a glorified typewriter), an old Speak-and-Spell from my kindergarten days. The opening display seemed designed to tell to us that the ‘revolution’ had started a long time ago.
As it turned out, this was the part of the three-sectioned exhibit I ended up spending the most time in. Partly because I always do this — spend inordinate amounts of time reading every blurb next to every object at the start of the exhibit, and then realize I’d better hurry up if I want to leave before dinner time. But partly also because of the precious familiarity so many of those objects offered. I spent several minutes watching a steady stream of people play the original Mario Brothers game, delighting in the range of ages queuing up and smiling when I remembered which tunnels turned into secret passageways, and where special tokens could be found. I watched the multi-screen multimedia display several times over, gawking at the clips from Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’ (the soundtrack to a beloved home video my father made in the 80s), the gameplay segments from Castle Wolfenstein (the very first computer game ever played in our house), the VFX clips from Jurassic Park, The Lord of the Rings, Terminator 2, and The Abyss (James Cameron was a theme), and the brief snippets of Parappa the Rappa, an animated rapping beagle (which I certainly never thought I would see in a world-class museum exhibit). But I guess that’s the thing about pop culture — you don’t always realize in the moment what is defining the time that you live in.
This opening historical room gave way to detailed exhibits on the state of digital play in film, video games, and music. I skimmed through the Inception documentary but watched every last bit of the one for Gravity, a film that stunned me in not only in the vision of space that it offered, but in the way that vision made me feel. Something that I hadn’t noticed when I saw it, but that seemed obvious once it was mentioned, was how long so many of the takes were — on average 45 seconds long, as well as an opening 17-minute single sequence. As I discussed in my Donmar Coriolanus review, I increasingly find myself thinking that the long shot is the most interesting, immersive, and involving kind of cinema. Next in the exhibit I started to learn a bit more about Minecraft, a video game phenomenon that I still don’t really understand, and I listened in with many sets of headphones to artists and audiences talking about advances in digital music and music video making. One of the last things I explored in this room was Arcade Fire and Chris Milk’s collaboration The Wilderness Downtown. This project sets one of the band’s songs to an online, interactive music video that asks you to enter the address of the house you grew up in and then features footage of it in the multi-windowed film that follows. It made me wonder if nostalgia-creation is actually a hallmark of some of the most successful digital art — does it mask its own innovation and newness by sending us back into a rose-tinted past? Why do we like photographing things on our very 21st-century phones and then filtering them to look like faded Polaroids from the 70s? Just typing my childhood address into the browser triggered a sense of nostalgia, and it was in equal measures disappointing and reassuring to see that the footage this produced didn’t quite get the location right. Google maps haven’t completely charted our universe.
The final room in part 1 was filled with interactive digital art projects, most of which I tried to use and couldn’t quite get — I had moved from the past into the present, and my sense of familiarity had faded. Ditto for part 2 of the exhibit, which allowed you to go into a pop up arcade in the Barbican foyer filled with what they called ‘indie’ computer games — that is, those produced non-commercially. I spent a feeble 10 minutes trying to play a few of them, and wishing my brother were there with me. I’ve never been very good at video games, both in terms of the hand-eye coordination many require, and the patience the more exploratory, world-creating ones demand. For the hopelessly task-oriented among us like me I find it hard to enjoy waiting to figure out what kind of game I’m playing, and so I moved on to part three without much delay.
Getting to part 3 involved going down several flights of quiet, concrete stairs to the very bottom of the Barbican Centre, a kind of compound in its own right. A small group of people clustered at one of the doors, the room behind it usually used as a cinema, and there the ushers gave us a series of instructions — no children under 5, it’s very dark in there, don’t look directly into the lasers. We nodded and trundled past, and then made our way through a darkened corridor with a few sparse words scrolled along it — ‘reach out your hands’, ‘feel the light’, ‘play with others’. As we all padded through I was reminded of my two experiences this year going to Punchdrunk productions, which disorient you at the start in order to immerse you in the world constructed at the end of the tunnel (not unlike a haunted house). The smell of the air also took me back to Punchdrunk — slightly musty, cool and damp.
When we finally entered the main room we saw a dark space before us with about a dozen projectors suspended in the air, shooting rays of light down to the ground. And as we each approached the beams, we found that they moved with us, responding to our touch, swinging away like a tether ball, dividing into multiple strands, and inviting us to explore them through movement. As I (literally) tried my hand at fanning out one of the beams, I saw the air curl and haze in front of me, and I realized the source of the musty smell — smoke machines, no doubt also used in Punchdrunk’s foggy sets. And as with their shows, this was an immersive experience of sorts, asking you to be an active participant in the scene created. The stark difference though was the lack of any narrative. Dancing and playing with the light lasers was more of a sport than a theatrical show — there was no predetermined story, no beginning or end, just movement, response, color. When I finally left the room I was flooded again with overhead lights, and I realized that that was it, that the exhibit was over.
Climbing back through the concrete stairways of the Barbican, I found myself thinking about how fun so many of the displays in the exhibit has been, but also about whether or not there was much more beyond that. They clearly demonstrated ingenuity, innovation, the merging of creativity and commerce, and to some extent the way we use technology to recreate and celebrate the past. But what about art? What was there to make us think harder about what it means to be alive, to be a part of a culture or society, to seek out beauty? To some extent this was present too, in the snippets from Gravity and the interactive lights, which the exhibit blurb said should make us question how much of a divide there really is between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’, between ‘us’ and ‘others’. But I don’t think we can say that such questioning was the main event. That was reserved above all for interactive play, and it made me wonder if this, even more so than the production of nostalgia, is the real calling card of digital art.