Digital revolutions

July 2014

Computer Art Image of the Month

Assemblance

Click the image to enlarge

Credit: Usman Haque, Assemblance, a 3D interactive light field, 2014.

Image courtesy of Umbrellium. Reproduced with permission.

An ambitious exhibition of digital art and design opens this month at the Barbican Centre, London (until 14 September 2014), featuring artists previously discussed in this column, several works specially commissioned for the show - including our image this month, and much else besides to surprise and delight followers of the digital medium.

Usman Haque, working under the art collective Umbrellium, creates his first artwork for an indoor space, Assemblance - a still is pictured here. His architectural background shines through as this immersive experience takes over The Pit theatre to create a three-dimensional light field in which people can shape, manipulate and interact with each other and luminous forms. A mix of real bodies with the virtual.

Haque became well-known for his internet of things data infrastructure and community platform Pachube.com - described as ‘a convenient, secure & scalable platform that helps you connect to & build the internet of things,’ a geographical online index of where things are, who owns them, and how and why they are used. Assemblance uses 3D camera-tracking following the body’s movement in space. I am informed by the curator, ‘It’s about drawing a 3D space and will contain a surprise element - an illusion.’

This is a big, bold show claiming to be bigger than Decode at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2009-10 (the last large-scale, international exhibition in this country on the digital medium). I am pleased to see it opens with a history section, entitled Digital Archaeology with early computer works by pioneers of this medium including Charles Csuri (featured in this column previously) and Lillian Schwartz. Some artworks in this section will be displayed on hardware on which it originally ran.

I believe one of the challenges to full mainstream art world acceptance of this type of art is its little-known history which results in inaccuracies regarding what is ‘new’ and no knowledge of how it engages with timeless perennial artistic concerns. Such misunderstandings result in easy accusations of gimmicky popularity (its interactivity only amusing for children) or on the other hand too corporate, over-commercialised and thus without artistic merit. At the time of writing the show has yet to open and already there are vociferous online debates centring on these very issues. Apparently very few things in the arts have the ability to stir such strong opinions as the use of the digital.

Therefore the fact that a major institution as the Barbican is not afraid to produce an important show focusing on the digital is great news. In fact the Barbican has a track record of curating digital work - witness the highly popular Game On exhibition about key gaming developments between 1962 and the present (it did so well a second version was created and both are still touring the world after 10 years; currently in Sweden). Digital Revolutions follows on from their success last year of Stuart Wood’s Rain Room, another huge crowd-puller that had its run extended by popular demand.

Largely displayed in the Curve Gallery, the exhibition consists of nearly 200 pieces of work (games, artworks, film clips) in seven sections and took two years of preparation. It demonstrates an attempt to cover a wide variety of different ideas and types of artistic concepts using the digital as medium or delivery method. Highly-interactive with an emphasis on immersive environments, the curators seem to have taken inspiration from the ‘happenings’ of the 1960s. One of the curators Sunny Cheung tells me they were interested in ‘things that were/are creatively ambitious for their time.’

In the ‘Maker-Culture’ section five experimental artists use a variety of platforms including Arduino. ‘Creative Spaces’ showcases Hollywood special effects, much of which produced in Britain, now famous for this. Here is a large installation from the block-buster Gravity, showcasing how it was made. ‘State of Play’ is about artistic gaming culture. Finally the ‘Futures’ section covers indie games and cutting-edge work in this field such as augmented reality, artificial intelligence, wearable technologies, robotics and 3D printing.

Drawing these at times disparate subjects and projects together to make a cohesive whole will not be an easy feat. The curator spoke of the difficulties with categorising this type of art/design/commercial crossover that much work fits into. He felt that categories are no longer as clear-cut and defined as perhaps they were. For example on view in the ‘Music’ section is an installation by will.i.am, rapper and hip hop mega star, consisting of self-playing instruments.

From 1970s plotters to the onset of the iPhone - all with the only common thread between them the use of, in some shape or form, the digital; it certainly is a lot to take on in terms of curation, whether it’s too much for the viewer remains to be seen.

In addition there are a number of collaborations with Google under the banner Devart, a Google initiative which aims ‘to push the artistic possibilities of code’ by commissioning a developer to create a new installation, using open source technology. From an open call 200 entries were received, judged and the winner’s commission will be presented at the Barbican. Digital art shows are expensive to produce (and artists need funds!) so sponsors such as this might be crucial. However this has drawn criticisms along the lines of ‘corporate backed show lacking substance’ and ‘showcase for creative industries’.

Clearly with Digital Revolution the Barbican is increasing its speciality in digital art. The show will tour and there are five venues (including international) already lined-up. If it proves as popular as Game On it will be a welcome financial boost for an institution in a time of public subsidy cuts. However I am still waiting to see digital work incorporated thoughtfully into major shows alongside analogue work, rather than being side-lined from the arts in general as something ‘other’. Perhaps that really would be revolutionary.

Catherine Mason is the author of A Computer in the Art Room: the origins of British computer arts 1950-80, published in 2008.

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