Barbican, London, until 14 September
Digital Revolution opens onto a darkened room lit by code that drops Matrix-style towards the floor, the flashing of video games and the blinking of computer screens. Clips of music repeat over and over, competing with the 8-bit bleeps and bursts from early video games. It’s immediately loud, exciting, daunting and disorientating.
If the curators were trying to recreate the feeling of being sucked into the barrel of the wave that is late night web surfing only to be puked out at the end, wide-eyed, sleep-deprived and wondering what exactly happened to the past five hours, then they started on the right track.
The exhibition is intended to showcase digital creativity and explore themes of community, collaboration, storytelling, interactivity and code, and highlight the pace of technological change over the past 40 years. It would be more accurately described as an archive of the entertainment industries (television, gaming, film, music) since the 1970s.
The themes were clearly chosen because digital technology is so often bound up with ideas about utopia and the extension of human possibilities — in life and in art. From the two-dimensional graphics of Pong to the meticulous choreography of art and technology used in the creation of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 film, Gravity, the speed of development with which advances have been made is indeed impressive.
While the exhibition focuses on a detailed chronology of this development, what it seriously lacks is any social or historical context — a look at what forces have driven the development of technology and what kind of social relations produced or have been produced by it — so, for example, how people might engage, adapt or subvert that technology for their own purposes; or references to the links between gaming and military technology.
Much of the interactive work only serves to highlight the extent to which interaction or “prosumption” (production/consumption) are heavily directed and delimited by the design of the technology.
Björk and will.i.am have collaborated on two of the works, which will doubtless get the exhibition plenty of media attention and discussion from cultural critics but which probably tell us more about celebrity culture than digital creativity.
As long as you go into this exhibition without the expectation that it will offer a critical reflection on technological development, on the priorities that drive it or the structures that make it accessible or inaccessible and to whom, it’s an entertaining day out for adults and children.
There are some pieces that are visually stunning — like Chris Milk’s The Treachery of Sanctuary. It reminds us that digital artworks are as capable of being beautiful and of evoking human emotions as their analogue counterparts.