With much fanfare, the Victoria and Albert Museum opened its new Medieval and Renaissance galleries at the beginning of December. These spectacular spaces tell the story of European art and culture from the decline of the Roman Empire to the end of the Renaissance period. Immediately across from the new galleries however, in the Grand Entrance, stands a piece that is almost diametrically opposed in both location and aesthetic, bit.code by the German artist Julius Popp.
Some three metres tall, bit.code is composed of spinning black and white zeroes and ones. Periodically, they align to form popular words drawn from a selection of websites monitored by the machine. Its presence may cause some harrumphing from the more conservative V&A members but it is one of the centrepieces of a show that continues the institution’s proud tradition of championing the new alongside the treasures of antiquity.
Decode: Digital Design Sensations brings together 35 works from an international array of designers and artists working with code and digital technologies. Many of them will be familiar to CR readers. The likes of Joshua Davis, Stanza and Matt Pyke have all been featured extensively in these pages over the past ten years or so, while Daniel Brown, rAndom International and Sennep’s Hege Aaby have all been chosen in our Creative Futures scheme for young talent.
By placing their work in the hallowed halls of the V&A, Decode gives those who have spent the past decade engrossed in code a new-found level of respectability. It suggests that work in this sphere has reached a level of maturity and complexity that deserves consideration alongside the output of the Medieval and the Renaissance across the way.
The show, which was curated jointly by the V&A’s Louise Shannon and Shane Walter of the onedotzero festival, is split into three sections. Code as a Raw Material presents “pieces that use computer code to create new designs in the same way a sculptor works with materials such as clay or wood” according to the accompanying press bumpf. Here you will find the generative work of Joshua Davis (who is represented by a 2009 piece, Swarm Draw) and John Maeda as well as On Growth and Form by Daniel Brown, which draws on images from the V&A collection to create a series of beautiful ever-changing exotic plants. Here also is an interactive version of James Frost’s House of Cards video for Radiohead presented on a touchscreen so that the visitor may drag and spin the piece to provide new perspectives, and Arcs 21 by Lia, the only female solo artist in the show but a veteran who has been making digital art since 1995.
The second section is Interactivity, which seems sure to detain most visitors the longest. Here digital art reveals its fun side as various works invite the user to wave their arms, stamp their feet or similarly engage with them. In Mehmet Akten’s Body Paint visitors create on a virtual ‘canvas’ by waving their arms, while in Dandelion, by Sennep and Yoke, you can blow off the seeds of a virtual dandelion using a hairdryer. Not everything is so cheery though: the eerie Opto-Isolator by Golan Levin is a human-sized mechanical eye which follows the gaze of the viewer, blinking one second after you do.
This section is home to two of the strongest pieces in the show – Chris O’Shea and rAndom International’s Study for a Mirror, in which a kind of light-reactive digital screenprint detects faces using a hidden camera and prints them with light, and the Israeli artist Daniel Rozin’s Weave Mirror. The latter uses 768 motorised laminated c-shaped prints which go from light to dark. The user stands in front of a screen: the shadow they cast behind them is then translated into a ghostly portrait on the Weave Mirror as each element whirrs and clanks into place acting as a mechanical pixel.
The performance and result, as the digital and the mechanical combine, are utterly beautiful. In the show catalogue Rozin draws a parallel between his work and the hybrid nature of many new products, noting that soon “we will develop an expectation from any material and object to be smart and responsive”.
Lastly is a selection of works brought together under the theme of The Network, emphasising the data-mining aspects of digital work that scours the net for traces of our existence and seeks to make sense of them. Here we have We Feel Fine by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, which extracts comments from bloggers about their mood, presenting the data as floating spheres, plus Fabrica’s Exquisite Clock which uses found and submitted imagery that resembles numbers to form the digits of the current time. Here also is one of the most successful pieces in the show, Aaron Koblin’s Flight Patterns, which monitors all the flights over the continental USA in one day.
Koblin’s piece reveals the potential of digital work to make the leap from demonstrations of technical prowess to work that has something powerful to say and an elegant way of saying it. Flight Patterns raises all sorts of questions – about sustainability, about safety, about geography. Compare it to another analytical piece in the show – Stockspace by Marius Watz in the Code section. Watz’s piece draws data from activity on the stockmarket and presents it as abstract geometric forms. It is undeniably beautiful but tells us almost nothing about what is going on. We learn nothing from it.
Perhaps betraying the origins of many practitioners as technicians or designers rather than artists, some pieces in the show, though seductive and technically brilliant, lack rigour when it comes to coherent underlying meaning or messages. The technical triumphs over the conceptual.
Nevertheless, Decode is an important, hugely enjoyable and timely show about an emerging area of practice that has enormous potential to aid our understanding of the key forces at play in our world. It’s a more coherent and insightful show than Design and the Elastic Mind, the MoMA New York show from 2008 which covered similar territory. In the future it may even be seen as something of a landmark – the point at which the mainstream recognised that digital art has matured to the point where it can deliver on its potential to create powerful and beautiful experiences. It just needs a little more substance beneath the surface.
Installation photos copyright V&A Images. Decode is at the V&A’s Porter Gallery until April 11