Exhibitions Museums United Kingdom

(Inter)facing the future

Show explores the impact of digital technology on art, music, film and design

Sculpted light: Umbrellium, Assemblance, 2014

As digital art steps out of online ghettoes and grows increasingly present in museums and galleries, the Barbican’s “Digital Revolution” show reflects how artistic technological developments sit alongside digital advances in the field of music, film, design and video games.

Conrad Bodman, the show’s curator, says that while the exhibition largely focuses on new initiatives and works made in the past five years, it was important to address the history of digital culture. It features a section called Digital Archaeology, which “highlights a series of key projects” from the past, from early online art, including works by the Russian net art pioneer Olia Lialina, to the Fairlight CMI, the notoriously complex digital synthesiser, and the early gaming consoles such as the Magnavox Odyssey. “Younger visitors will be surprised that there was exciting work happening back in the 1970s and before that,” Bodman says.

The more recent material reflects an increasing focus on spectacle, largely driven through the prolific commissioning of digital works for big public events. “A lot of the artists we’re exhibiting also show within festival contexts,” Bodman says, “and festivals have been big commissioners of media work over the years, so that’s provided a lot of investment. These works are fairly costly to commission because the technology is quite expensive, so it requires an investment that museums and galleries can’t always make.” He adds that museums are catching up, and have begun “representing digital practice”.

The show’s spotlight falls on everything from blockbuster films such as “Gravity” and “Inception”, to smaller, online endeavours such as Chris Milk’s and Aaron Koblin’s “Johnny Cash Project”, which Bodman describes as “a web tribute to Johnny Cash, like a memorial to him that allowed fans to contribute works of art to a bigger web database”. Bodman explains that “this idea of sharing is important in digital practice; it’s not just one way”. Also crucial is the idea that artists working digitally are increasingly escaping the traditional digital formats. “One of the interesting things about this area is that it’s screen-based practice, largely, so that does restrict artists quite considerably,” Bodman says. “And a lot of artists are moving away from the screen, and exploring other approaches to their work.” Among them is the designer Usman Haque’s collective Umbrellium, whose work Assemblance, 2014, is shown in the Barbican’s The Pit theatre and uses projected light, which “you’re able to sculpt and create forms within the space, both individually and more co-operatively”, Bodman explains. “It allows visitors to manipulate pure light, which is going to be very beautiful.”

Digital Revolution: an Immersive Exhibition of Art, Design, Film, Music and Video Games, Barbican Centre, London, 3 July-14 September

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