Decode – Digital Design Sensations at V&A

I went to see the exhibition Decode – Digital Design Sensations at V&A. Various new media works were presented under 3 themes: code, network, interactivity.

The Code part presented mostly moving graphics generated by various algorithms: complex and certainly difficult to code but not visually spectacular. I would say the visitor would be more inclined to admire the amount of work put into it than the visual result itself. I would suppose that, for a visitor lacking the technical knowledge to evaluate the difficulty of the coding, the displayed works might have fallen a bit flat. A piece I did like in the code section (that had an interactive element to it) was a screen displaying graphics that changed depending on the sounds picked up by a microphone (Solar by flight404). I had good fun singing into it and clapping objects together to see how it would react to various pitches and impulsive sounds, and, from the crowd around the display, other visitors had fun being noisy too ! However fun it was, it was not very new though: it was exactly like the graphics from windows media player. I am not sure how much more difficult the real time factor would make it than the windows media version: I would think that the software transformed the sound into the frequency domain to extract meaningful parameters that controlled the visual. The microphone in the V&A version would pick up raw samples in the time domain that could be directly converted in the frequency domain. The job would be similar in difficulty if windows media was reading a CD, but if it was reading a mp3 or other compressed audio file, it would have to extract the raw samples first, so one more task to do. However windows media may not generate the visuals in real time as the music is being played: it may generate them in advance (since it has access to all the audio data in advance) when the PC has spare memory, and use those visuals generated in advance when the processor is busy. If windows media does not generate the visuals on the fly, then the V&A version would indeed be more difficult to code since it would have to be very optimised in order never to run out of memory.

The Network section mostly showed graphical displays of data mined from the internet. I failed to be really grabbed by anything in this section since I had no particular interest in any of the mined data, and the visual representations were rather functional, so not very enjoyable as a purely abstract visual experience. “Digital Zoetrope” by Troika was randomly displaying keywords mined from the Internet relating to “the experience of life in London” and I did look at the words refreshing themselves for a while, maybe expecting something vaguely psychogeographical to come up. But all that came up were names of places and even the name of an estate agent, so I got bored with it since I felt the artwork was staying on the routine surface of daily life and not really revealing me anything that had not been flooding the “money” of “lifestyle” pages of any paper for the last 10 years. It is possible, however, that more patience would have been rewarded by deeper meaning appearing on the screen.

The Interactivity section presented, guess what , artworks with an element of interactivity !

“Dandelion” by YOKE and SENNEP was beautiful, technologically impressive and highly entertaining. Blow away the petals of a dandelion using a fake hairdryer containing remote command ! I was impressed by the precision with which subtle change of movements influenced the trajectories of the petals.

Dandelion by YOKE and SENNEP

On a similar idea, Simon Heijdens’ “Tree” sheds leaves, supposedly reacting to the actual wind outside the museum (monitored by sensors). I liked the idea of linking the dark, muffled, highly controlled space of the gallery to the randomness and unpredictability of the natural world outside. Perhaps a comment on the use of technology for control and surveillance, yet, despite all our advances, we are still mostly powerless when the natural world really shows its full power. However, I was less impressed with the “fallen leaves” on the gallery floor which were supposed to react to the visitors’ walking in them. I walked through them at different speed, jumped through them and they did not react. I did see them move randomly where nobody was walking though.

Tree by simon Heijdens

“Oasis” by Everware is a large screen put flat on a table and covered in black sand. Strange Sea Creatures move about around the screen, breed, multiply and form colonies, responding to the way the visitors move the sand around on top of the screen. I experimented with moving the sand in different ways around and on top of existing creatures colonies and could not quite decode their behaviour. However, that was not a disappointing experience like the leaves failing to move when I jumped in them but rather un puzzling and fascinating experience. As I understand the artwork, it was not a game of “frighten the goldfish and see them scatter away” but rather the idea of disrupting the creatures’ environment to influence their evolution as a group: the creatures were supposed to try and settle in the areas not obstructed by the sand (sunlit and thus fertile ?) Because of this evolutionary subtext, I would assume the creatures responded in a subtle way to the shuffling of the sand on the long term. The one reserve I have about the concept is that I’m not sure the artwork was designed to cope with lots of people shuffling the sand twice every second ! Such quick dramatic changes in the environment do not make sense on an evolutionary perspective. I wonder if the designers/artists foresaw that and dealt with it, or whether the visitors’ constant shuffling of the sand upset the algorithm and the creatures ended up behaving in a completely random way in consequence. But in any case, I was fascinated by the experience of trying to understand the logic of another life form that had no direct way of communicating with me.

Oasis by Everware

“Venetian Mirror” by Fabrica is a large screen on which the image of the visitors slowly appear if they stay long enough in front of it. The longer you stay, the more distinct your image. Once you move away, your image slowly disintegrates. It looked exactly like a digital, interactive version of very long exposure photography. Seeing a still, ghostly double of myself slowly appearing on screen was uncanny, especially since my Doppelganger’s face was blurred in featureless dark shadows, like a Francis Bacon portrait. (I think that was a side effect of the low lighting in the gallery since other people standing in another direction appeared white). Still, fascinating and creepy !

Venetian Mirror by Fabrica

An interview with Golan Levin in the exhibition booklet attracted my attention. He says: “Previous art forms such as film, video, animation, sculpture and even painting have slowly incorporated the computer as an essential tool. It is – almost – no longer meaningful to refer to oneself as a computer artist; we are all computer artists now. The artists in this exhibitions at the V&A are perhaps in the last generation of people who could call ourselves this, before the term becomes meaningless. Our works are concerned, very specifically, with the social implications of computing technologies (technoculturalism) and the aesthetic potential of generative software (technoformalism). Soon, hopefully, we will all just be “artists” again.”

As digital technologies become ubiquitous both as practical tools in daily life and within art making, will the technologies in themselves soon stop to captivate the attention of artists? Will they soon go as unnotified as a pot of paint or a guitar lying about in someone’s studio? Will the attention of the artists shift back to this other part of the experience of being human that is mainly unaffected by the era in which we end up born and its specific technological progress? I think I already saw subtle traces of this evolution in the last 3 artworks I commented: “Tree”, “Oasis” and “Venetian Mirror”. They were using technology not to talk about technology but simply about life.

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