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Connected but confused: show gives insight into digital creativity: James Bridle welcomes an exhibition at the Barbican on what artists, programmers and crowds have wrought, from the pixel to the cloud

June 19, 2014

James Bridle



The first general-purpose electronic computer, the Eniac (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), was built at the University of Pennsylvania between 1941 and 1946. It was designed to calculate the range of heavy artillery for the US army. The size of a couple of rooms, it had thousands of components and millions of hand-soldered connections.

The computer scientist Harry Reed, who worked on Eniac, recalled that it was "strangely, a very personal computer. Now we think of a personal computer as one you carry around with you. The Eniac was one that you kind of lived inside. So instead of you holding a computer, the computer held you."

Reed's observation is more apt, and more persistent, than he lets on. The computers haven't really got smaller; they've got much, much larger, from the satellite relays we consult every time we get GPS directions to the vast server farms in windowless sheds on ring roads, which we call "the cloud".

That this computation is less visible than it was in Reed's day, when an observer could follow the progress of a calculation in blinking lights across the room, doesn't make it less pervasive. The digital is both the infrastructure and the mode of our daily communication, and shapes our culture at every level. In most of the developed world, it is the foundation on which personal lives are built and multinational corporations operate; it underpins global communications and global wars. It is, in essence, in everything.

Given this, it seems crucial that it is also accessible to all; not merely engineers, scientists, politicians and policymakers, but also artists, commentators and the general public. There has never been a greater need for critical engagement with the role technology plays in society, but there's a corresponding problem with that engagement, as severe now as it was when CP Snow diagnosed it in 1959: the lack of understanding between the sciences and the humanities.

If anything, digital technologies have rendered this problem even more acute, as the vast, smoking industrial architectures of the 20th century give way to the invisible, intangible digital ones of the 21st. If technological literacy is going to rise, it will need the help of artists to enlarge its vocabulary, and the leadership and guidance of cultural institutions to frame the discussion.

Different institutions are approaching this in their own way. This summer, the Barbican unveils its take, called Digital Revolution. The Barbican has form in this area: in 2002, it staged the hugely popular Game On, a retrospective of video games that included everything from original Space Invaders arcade games to Grand Theft Auto. Digital Revolution aims to walk a similar line through the entire history of digital creativity, showcasing not only some of its signature events and works, but also the stories of their creators. According to the curator Conrad Bodman: "It's not a show that just looks at contemporary art but film, music, video games and design, the way they relate to each other, and sometimes merge into one."

A section called We Create includes early websites, film, multiplayer games, artworks and even hardware, all of which were enabled not by individual artists working alone, but by crowds of people connected through the internet. The Johnny Cash Project by Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin creates a full-length music video from individual frames submitted online, and allows anyone to vote for their own "final" version, frame by frame. Martin Bircher's Type Case is a delightful scrolling light display, showing the latest headlines framed in an old printer's type case, but its operation is made possible by the Arduino, an open-source hardware system, similar to the Raspberry Pi microcomputer. Placed next to the 1990s website Geocities, which allowed anyone to create their own homepage, it suggests that open hardware platforms are democratising access to physical forms of creativity just as the web did for the screen 20 years ago. The vast, and vastly successful, world-building game Minecraft is here too - a modern version of Geocities, giving many their first experience of creating online worlds.

The specific definition of creativity used throughout the show is fluid. As Bodman notes, it is often hard to locate exactly where this creativity resides, citing the cabinet design of the early arcade game Pong as being as story-worthy as the experience of playing the game itself. The game Broken Age, an early Kickstarter success and also included in We Create, is an example of a work where not only the visuals, but also the design's every step were in effect crowdsourced, documented and opened up to early backers for feedback and critique. This fluidity of process and practice, and the difficulty of assigning credit is one aspect that does feel fundamental to digital work, and extends to the wider remit of the show.

The Creative Spaces section, for example, focuses on new forms of storytelling and selects works based on their cultural effect as much as on the technology that underlies them. The mind-bending folding cities of Christopher Nolan's Inception appear alongside the huge lightbox constructed to shoot Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity (in which the only "real" things were the actor's faces). James George and Jonathan Minard's interactive documentary Clouds presents a portrait of many artists working with code today, shot in a radical 3D style using a hacked Xbox Kinect, the camera swooping around and even through the interviewees in a style influenced by video games. My own work, Dronestagram, also shown here, uses social media to disseminate satellite images of the very real landscapes of drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, collecting the "likes" and raucous comments of online followers.

The credit for Inception in this context is given to the film's Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor, Paul Franklin, who, Bodman notes, began his career in the video games industry. Likewise, the opportunity is taken to highlight some lesser-known and perhaps unfairly excluded digital pioneers. Particularly refreshing is the inclusion of Susan Kare, a member of the original Apple Macintosh design team, and the creator of the first icons for MacPaint (1984). Working with a highlighter pen and a gridded notebook, Kare in effect invented pixel art, drew many of the early digital typefaces, and defined many interface elements familiar to all of us today, from the pencil tool to the pointing hand cursor.

Kare's inclusion is part of the Digital Archaeology section, curated by Jim Boulton. He has been building this collection for several years, with the aim of preserving many important works from the early days of the computer and the internet. This is difficult work, and a powerful example of its difficulty sits at the centre of Digital Archaeology: the very first browser, WorldWideWeb, created by Tim Berners-Lee at Cern in 1991. It's in the nature of web pages and other digital documents that they are fleeting; the original version of the Cern website was never saved, just updated and overwritten as time went on. As a result, Boulton writes, "whilst 48 copies of the Gutenberg bible are known to exist, printed over 500 years ago, no evidence of the first web page survives, not even a screenshot."

Digital Archaeology displays groundbreaking games and websites on the hardware on which they originally ran - crucial for preserving the experience of interacting with them. This means that some of the works presented are more faithful to the original than the current version online, because of the way hardware and networks have changed in the intervening years. Olia Lialina's genre-defining internet art work My Boyfriend Came Back from the War first appeared online in 1996. In sparse black and white, peppered with small images that look as if they are scanned from even older black and white films, the heartbreaking story of a couple's doomed reunion unfolds in ever-smaller, continually dividing frames within the window of a web browser. For Lialina, it's essential that the piece is presented in its original format, which means installing a virtual machine on a modern computer, running a 1996-era version of Windows and the Netscape Navigator browser. Even the connection speed of the computer is throttled, so that the page updates at the speed of the mid-1990s internet, ie slowly.

My Boyfriend Came Back from the War is a drama that plays out in the cadence of the internet itself, a process of revealing and understanding and not understanding, which echoes the rhythms of argument, love and life, as they are reflected back to us by the technologies we build to understand them. It is a period piece, in as much as technology itself is always a period piece, inseparable from the times and politics that generate it.

Those politics were central to early net art of the kind pioneered by Lialina and her contemporaries, which explicitly sought to expose the mechanisms of the machine itself. http://wwwwwwwww.jodi.org, from 1995 and also featured in Digital Archeology, consists at first sight of an unintelligible stream of symbols and broken links. Only by examining the underlying code of the webpage does the artwork fully reveal itself: hidden within is a detailed schematic of a nuclear bomb. That operation, called "viewing the source", was one of the fundamental tools of the early web, allowing anyone to see how everything was built, and learn how to do it themselves. But even that option is fast disappearing from modern browsers, another contribution to the de-democratisation of the once-egalitarian - even utopian - early internet. It's something of a shame that artists such as Lialina and Jodi, still making important and critical work today, are relegated to a branch of history alongside early Game Boys and speak-and-spell machines.

Meanwhile, the Barbican has partnered with Google's in-house ad agency, Creative Labs, which has produced the final section of the show, called DevArt (short for developer art). Google has commissioned three new large-scale interactive works from software artists Karsten Schmidt, Zach Lieberman and duo Varvara Guljajeva and Mar Canet, and a fourth, the result of an open call online that required the participating artists to include Google products in the final artwork. On its website, Google says that "DevArt is a new type of art. It is made with code, by developers that push the possibilities of creativity and technology. They use technology as the canvas and code as the raw materials to create innovative, engaging digital art installations."

How this differs from 20-plus years of art made with code presented in other sections of the show is not explained. We're used to megacorps buying into national institutions, such as BP's links with the Tate, but for those institutions to actively support a corporate rewriting of history is a little galling.

None of this detracts from the power and artistry of much of the work shown as part of Digital Revolution, but it does necessitate some questioning of its title. Of a show developed to tour the world (Game On is still on tour 10 years later), it must be asked: how revolutionary is this vision of the digital when much of the work on display has been commissioned by advertising agencies, international publishing companies and Hollywood studios? In short, all of the cultural agencies that held power long before Harry Reed started setting switches inside the Eniac.

For a contrasting approach to presenting the impact of digital technologies on the world, another London institution, the Victoria and Albert Museum, is worth examination. While the V&A's Decode exhibition in 2009 contained much of the same interactive screen-based work as Digital Revolution, and a similar narrative of creativity and self-expression, it has started to dig deeper. After all, for every artist making pretty pictures based on visualising sentiments and words used on Twitter, there's at least a hundred NSA/GCHQ analysts doing the same thing with much more bandwidth and some very sophisticated tools.

In July, the V&A will open its first gallery dedicated to its new "rapid-response collecting" programme, a series of objects reflecting on modern politics and design. Early acquisitions included a pair of "fast fashion" Primark jeans made in the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, the collapse of which last year claimed some 1,130 lives, and a set of Katy Perry-branded false eyelashes, handmade by impoverished villagers in central Java for a penny a pair. More recently, the collection has expanded to include objects that tell more explicitly digital stories: Defence Distributed's now-notorious 3D-printed handgun, and a Motorola wearable computer used by Tesco to monitor the activities of its warehouse workers. Each is an entry-point to a complex network of financial, social and political intentions, shaped and enabled at every step by digital systems of communication, distribution, design and manufacture.

Speaking to the Guardian last year, curator Kieran Long said: "The V&A isn't a campaigning body but its task is to collect for posterity and display critical moments in the history of manufacturing and design." By drawing connections between digital machines and products, and the social processes that underlie them, the collection emphasises the need to think critically about our relationship with the digital.

When critical thinking is at its strongest, it often comes from exactly the sort of fluidity of practice that does run through Digital Revolution. The London-based architect and artist Usman Haque has been creating innovative software products alongside interactive artworks for more than 15 years. In 2007, he founded Pachube, a global data-sharing network that anticipated by years the current buzz around big data and the internet of things. In 2011, Pachube enabled hundreds of Japanese civilians to easily share weather and radiation data in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, boosting monitoring and relief efforts.

Haque's Umbrellium team has produced a new artwork for Digital Revolution, which takes up the entirety of the Pit, the Barbican's subterranean theatre space. Called Assemblance, the piece allows about 25 people at a time to physically shape beams of light with their hands, pushing and pulling them around the space - while also bumping into and potentially messing up the shapes created by other people. Haque calls it "a virtual reality", but not in the sense of a purely digital realm: "It's there, it's responding to you; you can see it, but as you try and approach it you can't actually feel it. For me, the idea is to question this distinction between the physical and the virtual." The process is akin to building a sandcastle on the beach, where you are building a structure that anyone else, or the elements, can destroy in a moment.

Assemblance attempts to answer the question: "How do we create things together in a shared environment, where we can't always trust each other, but we need to act together regardless?" This is the situation we find ourselves in now. In the digital world, participation is crucial as our various networks - social, media, national - require us to constantly mediate between acting as individuals and acting as a group.

For Haque, the digital has given us "the capacity to have an effect on the other side of the world almost instantaneously", from news events and economic flows to disaster response and warfare. "We can do things to other people in distant lands, and so the question of our responsibility, and our culpability, is thrown up in ways that it hasn't been before. On the other hand, we now have the capacity to connect with each other, and develop new ways to work together, rather than against each other."

Assemblance asks the audience to see itself as part of a networked whole, where actions have consequences. It also points towards the fact that "the digital" is not a medium, but a context, in which new social, political and artistic forms arise. After 50 years, at least, of digital practice, institutions are still trying to work out its relevance, and how to display and communicate it - a marker, perhaps, that it is a form of art.

James Bridle is a writer and artist. Digital Revolution is at the Barbican from 3 July to 14 September, barbican.org.uk/digital-revolution

Captions:

Susan Kare's 1984 design for Apple's onscreen hand tool. The icon is in the Digital Archaeology part of the exhibition

Digital participation, clockwise from top left: buildings bend in the film Inception; Umbrellium's light-beam artwork; point-and-click video game Broken Age; Robots of Brixton animation; Pixorama pixel art from eBoy; DJ Amon Tobin's stage show


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Source: Guardian (UK)


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