Forward and Back: A Futuristic Trip Down Memory Lane, at the Barbican Centre

I was in London this weekend visiting my parents, and on Saturday I went with my father to the Digital Revolution exhibition at the Barbican Centre. If you’ve never been to the Barbican, you do need to pay it a visit, not so much for the arts building (theatres, movie screens, galleries, a library…), but for the area it’s in. To me, it’s so not London, but so London at the same time. It’s smack in the City, with brick, cement and lots of uniform windows. No terraced houses in sight. It does have its share of London’s irrationally curved streets with silly names, but you get around the area by what they call highwalks, a maze of raised pedestrian pathways that lead you past apartment building entrances, administration offices, and entrances to other pathways. It’s grimy-ness and elevation create an other-worldliness that feels completely futuristic until you look down and see parts of the ancient London Wall.

It’s not even modern, the complex was built in the late 60s and 70s and includes residential apartments, restaurants, a comprehensive arts centre, the Museum of London, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, offices, services, and two Underground stations… Surprisingly, it’s not quite as bewildering as it sounds, it’s well signposted. Personally I find it very beautiful, in a disoriented, not-quite-blending-in kind of way. I’ve always loved a touch of the industrial. Nostalgia may have played a part: I went to school there when I was 11-12 years old. The City of London School for Girls. Scary.

the Barbican Complex

The main objective of this exhibition is to provide a “sense of the incredible journey we are all involved with, both in terms of how far we have come and the endless possibilities which lie ahead”. (I’m quoting from the programme.) Objective achieved: I spent the exhibition squealing with nostalgia (my first computer! Ok, not exactly, I’m not that old, but it was similar…):

early computer

…and gaping at the special effects and interactivity of some of the art:

Digital Revolution exhibition at the BarbicanThe main challenge in putting together an exhibition like this is what to leave out. There is so much material to cover, even if you choose as a focus a small subset of the digital world. And with the current pace of innovation, there’s a very real risk that the exhibits seem out of date before they’re even shown (like the 3d printing section). For “the most comprehensive presentation of digital creativity ever to be staged in the UK”, as the website proclaims, it does seem rather small. I mean, we are a couple of decades into the revolution, and even a large gallery like the Barbican doesn’t come close to covering what’s already out there. The programme states that the “exhibition charts the key ‘creative’ individuals and defining moments which have had the most significant impact on the development of the digital age”, which seems to throw down an open challenge to name “key” figures that are missing.

But, limitations in space, time and scope aside, the selection was interesting, interactive, and in general, pretty exciting, especially for those not involved with digital technology on a daily basis. And it was well organized: you buy your tickets (well ahead of time) for a set 15-minute interval, and you are gently ushered through the exhibit, to avoid bottlenecks of disbelieving gawpers. It was delightful to see excited children stunned into silence, and grown men playing with the buttons and wheels like gleeful kids (I’m looking at you, Dad!). As always with tech shows, a few of the exhibits weren’t working properly, a major drawback with digital art. And I’m not convinced of the efficiency of entire rooms limited to a few people at a time, or of museum personnel explaining the same concept and rules to visitors one at a time. But art shouldn’t really be about efficiency, should it?

What most struck me about the exhibits was the demonstration that we are part of the display. Digital technologies are about interaction, connecting, participating… YouTube, Twitter, blogs, etc., give us the power of communication, the power to influence and to shape via our computers, tablets or phones. Now we can be part of the digital art that we enjoy. It’s a completely different feeling to taking part in something via text or video. Rather than doing something which we share, we are something. Several of the artists exhibited designed the interface, the program, the effects… But we are the subject. We connect with the art like never before.

interactive art at the Digital Revolution exhibition

In general, the curators managed to convey a sense of doing the undoable, yesterday. Most of the exhibits had a comfortable “retro” feel, even the most technologically surprising ones. The room in which you activate and guide strobe lights with your hand felt like the nightclubs of our youth. The 3d image that tracks everyone in the room simultaneously with its gaze (while making each think they’re the only one being tracked) is of an Egyptian mummy (that bears a striking resemblance to will.i.am, whose music is reverberating in super-stereo around the room). Robots that looked like very realistic birds (familiar) had, instead of a head, a cellphone with a picture of a bird’s head (familiar, but… not?). I loved the exhibit where you play a note on a piano, and speakers all around you reproduce, in sequence, that note taken from radio stations around the world. I mean, really, radio? Reassuringly “old”. And new at the same time. Much like the Barbican itself.

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