Experiencing Digital

Last night I went to the new Digital Revolution exhibition at the Barbican, and a few weeks before that I went to the Digital City event at the Museum of London. Both events ‘digital’ as a theme, and had a variety of different exhibits to see or take part in.

At Digital City there was an art installation using receipt printers to print out machine-transcribed recordings, an LED screen which displayed waveforms of audio recordings of tweets collected during the Olympic Games, a life drawing session which invited people to either sketch a human model or a video project of the same model, and a silent disco.

At Digital Revolution there’s a room of early computers and early computer games/software (many of which you can play), a section looking at the CGI in the films Inception and Gravity, several new art installations using projection, sensors and computer graphics, a 3D printer, an installation/song by will.i.am, a section where you can play some contemporary computer games by indie producers, and, downstairs in The Pit, an impressive installation using lasers and smoke machines to create lightforms you can interact with.

In short: both were a collection of disparate exhibits, some more engaging that others. Both times though, the overall experience was less the sum of its parts.

I think this is because digital, on its own, simply isn’t coherent or meaningful as an exhibition concept. I can see why both organisations might feel the need to ‘do digital’, but in the absence of anything else, it makes about as much sense today as doing an event about ‘canvas’.

The Barbican event describes itself as a “the most comprehensive presentation of digital creativity ever to be staged in the UK” - a noble ambition, but one that it’s bound to fall short on (there's only so much space, after all). It would have been more interesting, I think, to focus on a particular form (video games perhaps, or digital film, or art apps) or, to maintain a multidiscipline focus, a particular subject (conflict, or privacy, or time travel).

The vague notion of digital is particularly highlighted by exhibits where the digital-ness isn’t really the point. A silent disco might use digital codecs to encode and transmit the audio, but it could equally have used an analogue FM-style signal. Similarly, the lasers-and-smoke installation at the Barbican may use computer software to interpret the sensors and drive the laser projection, but this is invisible to the audience, and it’s at least conceivable that the effect could have been achieved with non-digital technology.

There’s plenty to be excited about within the realm of digital technology, but I’d like to see arts organisations treat ‘digital’ less as a novelty, and more as a regular part of their programming.