For as long as programmers have been writing lines of code, artists have been using the language to create things both beautiful and provocative. Technology might often be invented for utilitarian purposes, but it never takes long for artists to make it their own. Digital Revolution is a celebration of that fact. The exhibition, housed at the Barbican in London, charts the evolution of digital creativity over decades, including more than 200 works spanning everything from interactive installations and design to film visual effects and videogames.
Digital art, or rather digital creativity, as lead curator Conrad Bodman likes to refer to it, has only recently begun gaining widespread institutional recognition. In 2012 the MoMA acquired its first series of videogames (including Tetris and Pac-Man). Scores of museums and galleries have featured one-off interactive installations. Traveling back even further you can find examples like the SF MoMA’s 010101 exhibition from 2001, which looked at digital technologies. And for its part, the Barbican has been championing the field for more than a decade, most notably with its 2002 exhibition Game On, which explores the culture and history of videogames. Digital Revolution is a continuation of these efforts, albeit on a much larger scale. “There really hasn’t been a show that looked at digital creativity very broadly,” Bodman explains. ”When I did Game On, people were very not very accepting of the fact that digital culture could be shown in a cultural space.”
Like any exhibition that covers a span of years, there are a number of ways to make sense of it. Digital Revolution is split into a few different themes. Appropriately, it kicks off with “Digital Archaeology,” which glances back at iconic computational works from the 1960s to today. The oldest piece, William Fetter’s 1964 Boeing Man, is one of the first computer models of the human body ever created. An early version of Tim Burners-Lee’s World Wide Web page is showcased, as is a Pac-Man console and the work of Susan Kare, the Apple designer behind some of the most enduring computer icons around. “We Create” is a section dedicated to collaborative work like Minecraft and Geocities, while “Creative Spaces” highlights creative work done in the realm of set design. Both Inception and Gravity are featured, with the latter’s massive lightbox being showcased as a boundary-pushing use of digital technology.
Larger-scale interactive installations include pieces like Minimaforms Petting Zoo and Google’s DevArt space, which includes four new commissioned interactive works that were made using Google technology.
The response to the exhibition has been generally positive, aside from some discomfort from the art world around Google’s role. In response, a group of artists have created a virtual exhibition called Hack The Art World. They constructed a geofence around the Barbican, and once inside, visitors can access the work of 12 artists via a web browser. “Art made with code and computers has been around since the 1950s,” they write on the website. “There is no need to define it as DevArt and market it as something shiny and new.”
Rewriting art history, even as casually as through the title of an installation, is bound to grate some nerves. No one likes their art to placed in a box, and they like it even less if that box is courtesy of a corporate overlord like Google. But the fact remains that Google and its corporate brethren are sometimes the only way to fund large-scale installations, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Can it be an uncomfortable partnership? Sure, but there’s actually beauty in that provocation. Google might have set out to fund four new digital works, but we all ended up with far more than that.
Digital Revolution will be at the Barbican until September 14.