With its post-apocalyptic looks and lost bits of nature, London’s Barbican Estate deserves a blog post all its own, but I wanted to share my experience with “Digital Revolution,” a unique exhibition hosted in its depths at the Barbican Centre.
This exhibition successfully brings together a selection of old, recent, and exclusive works, aiming to show the convergence of technology and creativity in design, music, film, videogames, and, actually, everywhere in our culture since the ‘70s. The boundary between these spheres has become nearly invisible, as creative minds have progressively found, crafted, and used digital tools to explore the possibilities.
Without any gimmick—it’s 100% Space–Invaders-sticker-free!—this exhibition is a truly refreshing and inspiring museum experience designed for everyone. I suspect it will not export to the U.S., and I doubt all of you will be able to visit London in the next month, so I wanted to share here my thoughts and favorite parts.
The journey starts with a brief but necessary retrospective of digital antiques, surrounded by a dozen synchronized screens showing historical references to the digital landscape (the appearance of GIFs, iconic video games, famous movies using ground-breaking CGI, etc.). I say “brief and necessary” because this exhibit is not about nostalgia but rather about how our accomplishments over the past 40 years have informed a better understanding of the creative innovations being showcased and the breadth of possibilities for the future.
I got to play on an original Pong arcade station with a CTR screen. The Fairlight CMI, 30 years old and one of the most iconic sampling synthesizers, was on display. A 9-year-old kid held an original Game Boy in his hands and played his first game of Tetris. Visitors checked out a couple of obscure NetArt pieces using Netscape.
Showcasing these artifacts presented some real curatorial challenges, since, unlike books, sculptures, or paintings, they need another medium to be visible. It’s also very hard to find replacement parts for the consoles, and newer browsers deprecate old code. The fast digital obsolescence makes these works—and, by extension, our own work in the digital sphere—very fragile. Worse, the easy ability to duplicate digital content makes them less valued. The exhibit carefully labels these once innovative creations, giving their authors due recognition for their ingenuity.
The exhibition continues with more recent works grouped according to a series of themes. We Create glorifies projects that touch a sense of collaboration in their conception—such as the beautiful Broken Age, a point-and-click game supported by more than 80,000 people via Kickstarter; in their actual making and goal—like Aaron Koblin‘s work and Chris Milk’s Johnny Cash Project, where visitors are invited to collectively draw a tribute to Cash; or in the community that they developed—like the sandbox Minecraft with its millions of players and contributors and its omnipresence in the collective memory. Getting to watch a group of kids discover they could actually play Minecraft during the exhibition reminded me that “Digital Revolution” is truly a celebration of interaction. It understands that if a project (a game, a website, an app, etc.) is meant to be interactive, it has to be showcased in a participatory way because the user, the human, is such an essential part of it.
Another piece linked to We Create is Universal Everything’s Together, which invites people to create a short frame-by-frame looping animation. Pending review, contributions are displayed on a long wall of screens. As I regularly work on motion design at Second Story, I just loved this piece. The interface felt a bit raw, but constraint allows creativity, and the installation is still very attractive and educational. It’s a great way to understand the basics of animation and to challenge yourself to create contributions to inspire others.
Nearby, visitors can also play a few recent independent games, testaments to the ability of small teams to create powerful and rich experiences now that the tools they need are more affordable and knowledge is more accessible. Fez, Paper’s Please, Antichamber and Journey are some of the award-winning titles available.
State of Play
State of Play gathers body-conscious interactive installations, where creators experiment with play and gesture using the user’s physical behavior and tools to observe it like Microsoft’s Kinect (something we are very familiar with). Les Métamorphoses de Mr. Kalia, one of the pieces commissioned to Google DevArt, was definitely my favorite. The experience is quite simple: when in position, a character follows your movements and you take part in a short surrealistic interactive story (sort of a body extension of Google’s Puppet Parade). The piece is visually poetic, there’s a great sense of mystery and revelation in the relationship between participant and spectator, and best of all, you are given a link to replay your performance on the website right after you finish your story (by the way, here are my moves). Another very curious installation—that I unfortunately missed due to its unobvious location—is Umbrellium’s Assemblance, which allowed people to interact with lasers and sculpt the light with their shape and gestures.
Creative Spaces showcases some examples of technology’s influence on how we tell stories. A documentary describes the impressive Apollo project, a tool conceived by Intel for Dreamworks animators, that they used for How to Train your Dragon 2. This new tool enables a faster approach to their animation and lighting work, helping them to avoid needing to render every individual change they make—an apparently standard process in animation. Apollo improves efficiency and allows them to focus on the core of their craft.
The exhibition also includes two behind-the-scenes physical installations on two recent blockbusters. We first learn about the making of the city-bending scene in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. But while the content doesn’t differ much from what you see in the bonus section of your Blu-Ray, the experience offers the opportunity to use a Leap Motion controller—another familiar tool at Second Story—to interact with the content. Moving the hand from left to right over the sensor will play the scene forward, moving the hand down to up will make you browse through the different steps of the process as layers, from the first documentation shots to the conceptual art to the non-textured 3D explorations to the final render. This interaction sounds fairly simple, but without boundaries and because of a very discreet user interface, many would start the experience moving their hand in all directions, only understanding after a couple of seconds that you use just two axes. Even so, it is not a bad experience and is actually a very inspiring way to browse through content.
We also learn about Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and how they built an entire set of environments and tools to capture the actors’ performances and help them empathize with their characters. The installation was shaped like one of their tools, the Light Box, which immersed the actor in a cube of LEDs displaying a rough animation of what a character would see while in action. In the exhibit, several screens are precisely synchronized to display the different steps of a very complex scene where the visitors get entirely immersed. These screens then progressively reunite, revealing the final rendition.
Innovation also happens outside of Hollywood. The interactive documentary Clouds features artists, developers, and hackers talking about their thoughts on code, data, community, goals, and challenges. The documentary is actually a full 3D environment, where interviewees appear in-between illustrations created by coders, shot with a combination of Kinect’s RGBDToolkit and a DSLR camera. Interview by interview, the viewer can navigate through a large network of topics, here again enjoying a unique, non-linear experience.
Finally, with a bit of a political bent, James Bridle gathers online information about American drone strikes in Afghanistan and Yemen and publishes aerial images of the locations along with the date and a description of the event on an Instagram account named Dronestagram. This creates a virtual space, open to discussion, to bring closer and better reveal events of the same nature happening in less accessible areas and rarely covered by the media. I was surprised and excited to learn about this project and to see it in this exhibition. It’s an attempt to showcase a less entertainment-oriented piece aimed at raising debate on socio-political issues in the real world.
This section mostly covers how the development of visual arts, via synesthesia, helped create new experiences in the domain of music for both audiences and musicians. We find Arcade Fire’s Wilderness Downtown and its multi-window and geolocated interactive music video, Radiohead’s House of Cards music video, shot using only proximity sensors, Bjork’s album Biophilia and the apps that accompany each of its songs, Amon Tobin’s Isam 2.0 show with its impressive projection mapping performances, and Holly Herndon and Akihiko Taniguchi’s Chorus music video featuring 3D captures of messy work environments. There are so many terrific examples of this kind of work that it’s impossible to be exhaustive, but curator Conrad Bodman has gathered here a solid representative sampling.
I am not sure the setup for watching these videos was ideal, however: a wall of screens displaying them looped as a mosaic with headphones hanging in the front in order to hear the music. It felt hard to appreciate each piece on its own and keep focus on a single video at a time. Nevertheless, it’s a good conversation piece that inspires the visitor to remember other similar works that have moved them in the past.
Beyond music, I discovered Energy Flow, a collaboration between FIELD, Intel, and VICE. It’s an app that explores deconstruction of narration by using an algorithm to randomly associate and edit videos and sounds. This algorithm consequently creates a new story every time it is watched. The results are infinite, feel very poetic, and are open to interpretation.
Our Digital Futures + DevArt
Certainly the most experimental part of the exhibit, Our Digital Futures lets artists explore the potential evolution of the relationship between our environment and the human body. Alongside examples from the fashion industry introducing us to 3D-printed materials and wearable computing is Kinisi by Katia Vega, a tech-infused make-up project. Sensors are placed on a person’s specific facial muscles and LEDs are placed on their skin and hair. Digital signals collected by the sensors during specific movements (a blinking eye, an open mouth, raised eyebrows) activate a light sequence on the face. Products like Google Glass are already aiming at introducing facial interfaces, but this goes a step further by starting a conversation about the possibilities of skin and muscles as interfaces.
Back on the subject of synesthesia, we learn about colorblind artist and Cyborg Foundation founder Neil Harbisson who cannot see colors but can hear them via an antenna implanted in his skull. A camera placed at the top of the antenna, facing what he sees, translates the colors into sounds. More than experiencing colors in sounds, he also hears sounds, voices, and music in color.
Another body-enhancement project, the EyeWriter, was created by the Not Impossible Foundation, allowing people with forms of paralysis to write and draw using their brain waves and by tracking their eyes. The team has built a low-cost device, now available to everyone. A version of it has been created specifically for the graffiti artist TEMPT1, now entirely paralyzed except for his eyes, so he can continue his artwork.
Exploring the notion of urban camouflage, artists Gibson/Martelli came up with MAN A, an installation and art app where people can, via their smartphone or tablet, reveal invisible tribal dancers from a scene filled with markers at the intersection of camouflage, barcodes, and QR codes.
Finally, close to the waiting lines, people can interact with robots in Petting Zoo, built by Minimaforms. These creatures are artificially intelligent, evolving, and reacting to their environment and human behavior via camera-tracking systems. The interaction is awkwardly intimate with what look like the probes from The War of the Worlds. They don’t hurt and can be playful but also visibly angry. A slightly frustrating low wall is set up to preserve humans, making it harder to get close to the creatures.
“Digital Revolution” is a truly interactive, well-curated museum exhibition. I sure hope the links above are inspiring and make you want to visit it, should you find yourself in London before mid-September. Indeed, a lot of the pieces shown in the exhibition can be viewed online —isn’t that the case for pretty much all works of art now, anyway?—but the Barbican Centre exhibition is unique enough to be worth experiencing in person.
— Swanny Mouton, Interaction Designer