Looking back over the introductory decade of the twenty-first century, Decode: Digital Design Sensations comes as a strikingly relevant punctuation point to the last month of the naughties. In an era during which technology has advanced at such a rate that we can no longer grasp the extent of what that which we have created has to offer, it is the creative thinkers who have dared to imagine what computers can do. As a self-confessed MCLUHANITE with a love of all things digitally networked and computer coded, I have to admit that, upon queueing to collect my ticket, I was a little more excited than usual during my wait in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s majestic entrance hall.
With a considered, universal selection of works, the exhibition seeks to both uncover and exemplify some of the mysteries that cloud the digital. An effort is made to explain what should be looked for in each piece – code, interactivity and network – and not all contributions focus on all three categories, making it easier for visitors to differentiate between the works and consequently, understand the characteristics present in them. Interactivity, the hero of the digital age, is key to many pieces and a nod is given to the building’s neighbour, the Science Museum, as visitors are actively encouraged to touch screens and speak into voicepieces.
An exciting visual and intellectual feast, the frivolously entertaining and the mind-bogglingly incomprehensible mingle within the dimly lit space (something of a trademark of the prestigious gallery). London-based design studio, SENNEP, inject some fun into the showcase by presenting Dandelion, an interactive screen that allows you to scatter a dandelion’s seeds by pointing a prop hairdryer at it. Complete with the familiar sound of the appliance’s whirring fan, the infrared technology used is easier to understand when paired with the childhood memory of creating the same effect in the real world. Some would say it tricks users into being more machine-friendly; others, that it simply translates digital systems into an understood language, diluting the unfamiliarity with such technology and making it appear more grounded and tangible.
SENNEP’s Dandelion (2006)
Nature is a recurring theme throughout and Sennep are not the only studio to use recognisable symbols from the natural world as a metaphor within its work. Everyware’s Oasis consists of a sensitive screen covered in black sand, programmed to generate representations of organisms where the screen is uncovered. Users are invited to sweep away particles from small areas and as colonies of bodies grow, the machine’s reaction to the exposed areas demonstrates a virtual awareness that can be coded within a computer. C.E.B. REAS presents kaleidoscopic visuals informed by coded algorithms that appear to morph organically as crystal formations or blossoming flowers might and digital pioneer, JOHN MAEDA, also includes forms indicative of blooming flowers or nervous synapse diagrams in his graphic representation of digital information.
Oasis II, by EVERYWARE (2008)
On the contrary, data.scan presented by the Japanese digital composer RYOJI IKEDA creates infinitely scrolling charts and numbers that draw parallels between star maps and data recorded from the human body. Although not as traditionally enjoyable an exhibit as ROSS PHILLIP’s interactive Videogrid or Sennep’s Dandelion, Ikeda uses mesmerising precision and cryptic astronomical terms to overwhelm the viewer, highlighting the vastness of technological ability. The unfathomable nature reinforces the power that lies within digital systems and poses vital if unanswerable questions about the hidden potential that we so often do not explore from our own desktops.
Formed at the Royal College of Art, London, TROIKA have rapidly become new stars of the digital. Their Digital Zoetrope appears as a sophisticated yet beautiful response to the age that we are living in, its LED technology relying on the very human mechanism of persistence of vision to succeed. We Feel Fine, SEP KAMVAR and JONATHAN HARRIS’s website that searches online sources such as blogs for statements about feelings and SASCHA POHFLEPP’s Social Collider, a program that scans Twitter for user-decided topics play on the networking possibilities of the internet. Perhaps not as emotive as Listening Post, a real-time floor-to-ceiling wall of digital displays that scroll with data gleaned from chatrooms and forums, they highlight changes in human communication and accessibility in a personal, interactive way. I can’t help but feel that Pohflepp’s choice of the Nintendo Wii as the operating handset for his work is a poor one; unless you are familiar with the console, user interactivity is a nightmare and many visitors pass by the work defeated.
Weave Mirror, by DANIEL ROZIN (2007)
Although a stimulating stand-alone exhibition, this cross-section of recent works is given a critical weight and context when paired with the museum’s two rooms dedicated to the early years of creative experimentation with digital technology. Subtitled Digital Pioneers, it includes examples of the first artistic representations of computer processes such as CHARLES CSURI’s “Flies” and “Random War”. Csuri’s use of imagery depicting horseflies and Harold Cohen’s characteristic foliage anchor the modern pieces that deal with nature as a visual theme, making these galleries essential viewing alongside the contemporary exhibition.
In many ways, Decode: Digital Design Sensations feels like a brave step for a museum steeped so thoroughly in tradition. An exciting declaration of commitment to both the digital and to all progressive art mediums, the exhibition is a crucial sign of the times in which we live and a gutsy indicator of what is to come during the next ten years of technological advancement. By the end of the century, this selection of work is likely to appear as a drop in a virtual ocean but for now it should be celebrated and carefully examined as one of the most pertinent specialised major museum ventures of recent years.
Decode: Digital Design Sensations is open until 11th April 2010.
Digital Pioneers is open until 25th April 2010 and can be found in rooms 88a and 90.
Text: FABIAN L. JAMES