Words by Jake Bailey
In a single room, the Digital Revolution exhibition charts the rapid progression of mass consumer technology over the last 40 years.
For those seeking a dose of digital nostalgia, there was the chance to play classic arcade games like Pong (1972) and Pac Man (1980) or boot up early home computers such as the ZX Spectrum (1982).
I wasn’t the only one taking the opportunity to relive a misspent youth, recalling the shortcuts in Super Mario Bros (1985) and reminiscing about Ceefax – how we would wait for ages for it to scroll to the flight, cinema listing or concert we wanted to book, then having to frantically scribble down the details before it moved on.
It was interesting to see the varying reactions of visitors to these devices – some with fond recollection, others – who have never known a world without the internet – with amazement at the primitive technology.
The more up-to-date installations demonstrated how technology has been used in the creation of anything from recent blockbusters like Gravity to innovative music videos.
All very interesting, but how can these ideas influence the future as a business?
A large screen (above) demonstrated how visual effects in the ground-breaking sci-fi film Inception (2010) were created. The fold-over sequence of Paris, much like a moving video version of Google Streetview, caught the imagination because it was gesture controlled. Users moved their hands over an invisible beam to control the visuals – something which could definitely be part of the broadcasting future. Imagine never having to search for the remote control, but simply controlling your TV by waving at it.
Energy Flow, produced by London collective FIELD, uses an algorithm – apparently based on Greek dramatic storytelling format – to piece together 10 pieces of video art in many permutations, rendering themselves to create different narratives each time.
Although it produced a slightly abstract video, it’s worth considering how this might be used in the creation of non-linear TV programmes. Much like Punchdrunks’ alternative theatre piece The Drowned Man, viewers may soon be able to dip in and out of different storylines, moving on as they please and gradually building a picture of the story presented. So, rather than moving through a storyline linearly from beginning to end, the plot is is depicted in layers, with each expanding upon the last, gradually filling in gaps and adding depth to viewers’ understanding.
Fragility of digital
Play the World by Zach Lieberman drew audio from radio stations across the world, allowing the user to play clips via a piano keyboard. The end result was a cacophonous mix of jingles, adverts, music and bulletins, providing glimpses of a rich cultural tapestry.
A definite highlight for me was people-watching, seeing how visitors, particularly younger ones, interacted with the exhibits in different ways. There was delight and spontaneity, mixed with some trepidation and varying levels of attention span. Interfaces based on gesture or action, instead of touch, seemed to particularly appeal to younger visitors.
It was also interesting to note the importance of audio as well as video in many of the experiences. In many exhibits, visitors were using several senses at once to control the performance, leading to a far more active participation than just passively looking at paintings or watching TV.
The exhibition also served as a reminder of the fragility and inherent instability of much that is digital. A number of displays had crashed, were only partly working or had been withdrawn for repair.
Many of us live and breathe technology, but sometimes it’s good to sit back and take stock – to see where we’ve come from, in order to decide where we should go next.
Digital Revolution at London’s Barbican continues until 14 September.