(originally printed in Videography magazine, Feb. 2010)
London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, generally acknowledged as the world’s largest institution of decorative arts and design, was founded by Queen Victoria in 1852. You might think that digital video technology was the last thing the grand monarch had in mind, but the V&A was originally conceived as a “Museum Of Manufactures”. From its very beginning, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, it sought to be a place for the study of the point of art and technology.
“Decode: Digital Design Sensations” is a new exhibition the V&A is putting on in partnership with contemporary arts & design organization, onedotzero. “Decode” runs from Dec. 8, 2009 to April 11, 2010, and strives in every way to break the boundaries of the typical museum experience. The Victoria & Albert Museum has been collecting digital art since the 1960’s. An exhibition called “Digital Pioneers” showcases this material concurrently with the “Decode” exhibition.
Today’s interconnected world of social and digital information, becoming familiar to even the most luddite household, has broken down traditional structures of space, and time too, in media. People are increasingly used to the idea of watching a movie when and where and how they want to, for example, and the 20th century notion that it is an experience restricted to a brick and mortar theater with predetermined show times is moving toward becoming a novelty of the entertainment.
Shane Walter, co-founded onedotzero in the mid-nineties, and has been on the cutting edge of digital media production since. He is named as the curator of the “Decode” exhibition, but thinks of himself as more of a producer, and collaborator. A couple of the pieces in the show were commissioned directly by onedotzero, with Walters taking an active interest in their production.
“Decode”, arranged more along the lines of an extended festival than a gallery show, takes for granted the 21st century decentralization of media and then tries to see into the far reaches of digital media with fluidity and change being the focal element. Not only does an audience have an array of choices regarding its relationship to the digital pieces presented in the show, but the pieces themselves are morphing and changing as a result of their relationship to the audience.
The exhibition is divided according to three themes – “Code”, “Interactivity”, and “Network” – each representing an element of the digital creative process. “Code” presents pieces that use computer code to create new works and looks at how code can be programmed to create constantly fluid and ever-changing works. It emphasizes the idea that the code itself is a kind of creative entity that makes content – and that is willing to collaborate with the audience if instructed to do so. It’s asif the original programmer had created another little artist existing in a virtual realm – The Code.
“Code nowadays is a raw material,” says Shane Walter, “A coder is as creative as someone is a sculptor, for example, or a painter or designer.”
A museum space is traditionally, almost by definition, a place where something is preserved in stasis. The Decode exhibition strives to turn that on its head. “We’re saying,” says Walter, “Yes, touch things as much as you want, take pictures, and you can download elements of the exhibition, you can upload things too. We want to make you, the visitor, a part of the exhibit.” Some of the exhibits in fact can’t exist without an audience there, and are designed to spring into motion in response to the movement of the visitors, as if the exhibit itself was an artist, interpreting its subject – the museum-goer. Golan Levin’s “Opto-Isolator II”, for example, takes the form of a human eye that stares at the viewer, and blinks and moves in direct response to the viewers blinking and movement. “A lot of these ideas and techniques have been around for some time, but I think only in the last five years have people been using them less as a novelty and more part of their digital toolbox.” ”
The “Network” portions of the exhibition focus on and utilize the digital traces left behind by everyday communications. Walters points out how the digital web that we live in is something living, connected to us in a very intimate way. “It’s almost impossible to switch off. Even when you’re asleep , your Facebook is still going, your Twitter feed. You’re leaving all these digital traces behind. So artists are trying to make sense of this area by data mining this realm, and using that data to re-represent the world.” Aaron Koblin’s “Flight Patterns” uses FAA data to create animations of flight patters that are both ghostly and dream, as well as fascinating and informative. Repeatedly in Decode, hard fact and hallucinatory visions combine to produce a revelatory experience.
DECODE also offers people the chance to actively participate with via Karsten Schmidt’s piece, “Recode”. Created as a digital identity for the exhibition, the code for the ever changing CG piece is available on an official Decode Google code page, which also has a detailed user guide and gui. New creations can then be uploaded as part of the Decode exhibits online gallery, contributions which are considered no less legitimate than the original Karsten Schmidt work.
A fascinating challenge Decode presents to the museum world is that the digital media in the exhibit is entirely fluid and in fact quite difficult to practially catalog in a museum’s inventory. If it’s constantly changing and altering, how legitimate is the description of the piece, and if viewers are an integral part of the experience, can they be said to be part of the museum’s archive?
Decode presents a fascinating array of digital wonders and fascinating experiences, types of things which might have been seen on by attendees of SIGGRAPH, but have not been offered to a wide audience. Technologies that might have languished as a mere curiosity, have now, in the hands of artists, been made to communicate – and in some cases, commune – with a new generation of media audiences.