Screen Dreams

The Barbican’s ambitious new show is great fun but does it still make sense to talk of ‘digital’ creativity as a separate mode of production? asks Antonia Wilson

Last month a new exhibition opened at the Barbican in London, aiming to trace the history of digital creativity, from the early years of videogames, synth music and computing, through to a look at contemporary interactive arts, film VFX, creative coding and even wearable tech.

Digital Revolution is another ambitiously large show from the Barbican curators, who have packed a sensory-overloading playground of genre-bending digital creativity into the smaller Curve gallery. From the outset this gives it a slightly claustrophobic arcade vibe, with dark corners and glowing displays filled with nostalgia-fuelled objects from an archive of tech-y retro pastimes.

Digital technology, as with the exhibition itself, is all about inquisitiveness, and although there is a vast amount to take in here, the show reflects a taste of the endless realm of possibility in the future of creative activity. It’s the kind of place that reminds us that imagination drives development.

Looking back to the 1970s, the exhibition opens with the Digital Archaeology section, with hardware highlights including Photoshop and Wacom tablet predecessor, the Quantel Paintbox (1981), used for title sequences, weather maps and Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing video; and the Fairlight CMI (1979), the first synthesiser that could sample sounds. Early computers including the Commodore PET, and the Apple II (both 1977), sit with games and other familiar favourites like Pong (1972), Speak & Spell (1978), and Nintendo’s Game & Watch series (1980), many of which invite interaction from visitors.

While many people’s reaction might be ‘I had one of those’, what value do we place in these artefacts now, and why put them in a gallery space? Aside from bringing joy to the vintage collector or retro-fetishist, they also play an important part in presenting some key moments of technological innovation; showing those of us who can remember these objects just how far we have come, and introducing them to generations who may not know a non-digital world.

Jim Boulton, curator of this section, believes that with the rapid obsolescence of many digital formats, it is imperative to preserve this work, before we reach a “digital dark-age”. “Even where the code of early videogames and computer art has been preserved, they can no longer be seen in their original environment,” he says. “Archaic mainframe computers and early consoles are inoperable. This is where we can make a distinction between archaeology and archiving: archaeology examines the viewing problem. A book displays itself but computer art, videogames and websites are invisible without the appropriate software and hardware.”

The sections that follow include We Create, which explores the shift from content consumers to content producers; Sound & Vision, looking at how imaging tech has changed the way we experience music; State of Play features gesture-controlled installations that use camera technology; and DevArt includes interactive art made with code. Whilst Our Digital Futures presents some intriguing experimental work in communications, augmented reality and high performance textiles.

In these areas of the exhibition, the sense of a journey, chronological or otherwise, seems to fall away, and somewhat disparate works are squashed together because they are made online or include a microchip, and are therefore banded together as ‘digital art’. Curating such an assortment of work en masse in this way makes you wonder if the aim of presenting a ‘revolution’, rather than an evolution, is verging on sensationalism. Are we really witnessing a revolution “equal in magnitude to the transition to the modern world from the Middle Ages”, as Boulton suggests?

That said, the majority of the works themselves are incredible achievements by pioneering designers and entrepreneurial engineers, with creative projects that aim to stretch the possibilities of human experience. For instance, there’s a behind-the-scenes look at the development of visual effects in film, including the Paris street ‘fold-over’ sequence from Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010, VFX supervisor Paul Franklin of Double Negative) projected in multiple layers and controlled through Leap Motion by visitors. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013, VFX supervisor Tim Webber of Framestore) is also examined over a sequence of screens showing the effects process from pre-vis animation, to in-studio live filming, to CGI, to the final finished film.

Pyramidi (2014) sits nearby – a 6ft tall 3D animated bust of will.i.am made using projection mapping, which unnervingly follows visitors around the room, alongside three robot instruments performing his newly commissioned song, Dreamin’ About the Future, created in collaboration with Yuri Suzuki.

Another monumental installation, Chris Milk’s The Treachery of Sanctuary (2012), uses interactive shadow play controlled by participants’ limbs that become birds in flight and acquire reactive wings. Milk previously collaborated with Aaron Koblin of Google Creative Lab on Arcade Fire’s interactive music video, The Wilderness Downtown (2010), which used a similar bird motif. It’s viewable nearby alongside other interactive and computer-generated music videos.

There’s more fun to be found in Wishing Wall (2014) from Varvara Guljajeva and Mar Canet, which turns spoken wishes into cocoons of words that transform into butterflies. And in the Pit, a short walk from the Curve, is Assemblance (2014) from Umbrellium (Usman Haque and Nitipak ‘Dot’ Samsen) an atmospheric 3D interactive laser room, with secret elements that are unlocked through visitors’ movements.

There are also some amazing projects utilising tech for communications including Not Impossible Foundation’s BrainWriter (2014), a progression from EyeWriter (2009), which NIF released the instructions for online in order to expand development amongst peers. It tracks eye movements and brain activity to allow communication, originally designed to help paralysed graffiti artist TemptOne draw again, and is exhibited here in game-form for visitors to try out.

Without doubt there is some breathtaking work here. But through the show as a whole, there’s a sense that ‘the digital’ is being presented as some kind of independent element, which supposedly artists and designers are increasingly choosing to ‘bring into’ their work – as though it’s a separate discipline that is always consciously borrowed from. Yet perhaps ‘digital creativity’ is now something far less distinguishable, less noticeable even, as a genre at all.

There’s a digital element to the majority of contemporary cultural production, which is so often created with the assistance of computers – so has digital culture, simply become culture?

With technology increasingly laced into our everyday lives, for most people it is just another way of experiencing the world around us. And with reach and access to digital tools broadening, this type of work, once seen as radical, has now become part of how we understand and express our experiences, as great creative work always has done.

Digital Revolution is at the Barbican until September 14, with accompanying catalogue designed by Praline (£24.99). More details at barbican.org.uk/digital-revolution

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