Digital World: Art in the Computer Age

As artists embrace digital code as a raw material, new forms transcend the boundaries of the organic and the artificial, addressing unique issues of intimacy, and interaction in the computer age.

The 21st century has seen an onslaught of technology into the everyday; the digital age is most definitely upon us. With its influence pervading our lives, digitisation has conquered the way we communicate with one another, the way we watch films, the way we listen to music and increasingly the way we read. The V&A’s Decode: Digital Design Sensations explores the role of digitisation in today’s art and design, its influences on the artist and the creative possibilities presented by continued technological innovation.

Curated by Louise Shannon, Deputy Head of Contemporary Programmes at the V&A Museum, and digital arts organisation, onedotzero’s Shane Walter, the realm of the digital is demystified, “digital pervades all aspects of our lives today and there is a desire to understand what that means.” The title, Decode: Digital Design Sensations, immediately addresses this breaking down of any techy obstructions for the works on display. More democratic than the art world, design focuses on the improvement of everyday life, on bettering our existing state and making advances work for the normal person. Decode reflects this belief in a visual sense, with the “sensations” transporting the viewer to an all-encompassing experience. As the digital has encroached on all areas of our lives, so it will also create a sort of sensory overload, moving the exhibition experience to a tactility unfamiliar in a visual art setting.

Explorations focus around three themes: Code as a Raw Material, Interactivity and The Network, each addressing the potential of digitisation to affect our art, our reactions to art (and art’s reactions to us) and our connections with one another. The premise is initially bewildering for a technophobe – a proliferation of codes to imitate and transcend nature, a distortion of ourselves reflected from our own interpretation, and a visualisation of the terrifying extent to which our sanitised gadgetry encourages us to expose our souls to complete strangers. But if the essence of design is to make the privileges and knowledge of the few accessible to all, the V&A is traversing that philosophy, opening up digital coding to the public, not only as a form of design, but as a source of beauty and engagement in the digital field. Shannon furthers: “The beauty of much of this work is the possibility to play with scale. A screen based work can also become a projection covering a building. The work is dynamic and, in a sense has no edges.” As such the works have spread outside of their designated space in the Porter Gallery towards other areas of the V&A, with Internet-based pieces also encouraging remote visitors to explore the works on an international scale. It is an apt reflection of how digital culture has invaded our lives, and visitors will be greeted by Julius Popp’s Bit.Code, spinning a basic digital code across a screen over the V&A’s Grand Entrance, and in the John Madejski Garden, Jason Bruges’ Mirror Mirror (both joint commissions by the V&A and exhibition sponsor SAP) further expands this concept, while Karsten Schmidt created the identity for the exhibition. The work’s constant mechanical whir reminds us of digitisation as the white noise behind 21st century existence, and at certain points visitors are confronted with the frequency of web feeds and blogs, highlighting the shared identity created through the Internet.

Code as a Raw Material addresses the computer code as the basis of 21st century industry, it manipulates our understanding of what can be a raw material alerting us to this new resource for the digital age, which is moulded by the artist into forms and creations that showcase a life of their own. The works on display have a peculiarly organic quality, at odds with their inherent artificiality, with Daniel Brown’s On Growth and Form, mimicking the generation of flowers in a manner that converges the boundaries between man, art and nature. But can computer code really be considered raw? Walter defends the categorisation through the manner in which “the code becomes organic and self-generating as a real organism would behave. The hardware and software may be synthetic, but the behaviours are very real and not artificial at all.” On Growth and Form is part of an existing series with a new commission based on Brown’s response to the V&A’s Print and Drawing collections, entwining the traditional with innovation from the digital realm. “The exhibition is about presenting the latest developments in digital art and design today and drawing a dialogue between this work and the existing collections.”

Walter hopes to democratise digital design with the exhibition’s second segment, Interactivity, a focus which embraces the public’s increasing expectations for engagement with cultural products at all levels, in the age of Twitter and the Red Button. “It is about demystifying the black art or magic of digital, but also showing that the work can be poetic, emotional and poignant. The interactivity is very important in breaking down barriers and encouraging visitors to get involved.” In a manner Interactivity challenges the gallery context, visitors become immersed in the work, while fostering “an open mindedness and understanding of the area twinned with a fun, informative and touching experience for visitors.” Golan Levin’s Opto-Isolator conjures age-old connotations of the eyes as windows to the soul, by reflecting an artificial eye back onto the viewer and reacting to the viewer’s own eyes and mannerisms. The work once more questions the boundaries of the organic and the artificial, and alerts us to this ambiguous territory in an unsettling manner: “You cannot help but have a relationship with this work as the eyeball tracks you. Even though you know it’s not real, its behaviour, human scale and responsiveness draw you in so you really feel watched with the sensation that this is the soul of the machine you are in dialogue with.” Through Graffiti Research Lab’s Back Door, Interactivity works on two levels, by also enabling visitors to consider their own work through an open access hard drive, with opportunities to upload, and view, the work of visitors surrounded by the work of the artists.

The Network addressed the new confessionals of our age – blogs, and the resultant intimacy through more and more removed connections with strangers in an online world. Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar’s We Feel Fine, is startling in the simplicity through which it presents complex emotions. Continuing the personal exposure of artists such as Tracey Emin and Sophie Calle, We Feel Fine couples the anonymity of the Internet with very exposed souls. Bloggers’ emotions are represented in colourful floating spheres and the ecstasies, anxieties and heartaches are categorised into a Google format, with visitors filtering information by gender, age, city, or most chillingly, by emotion. In an age of “lols” where everything is abbreviated and reduced, Harris and Kamvar’s work invites us to interrogate this reduction, but also highlights a universality, there’s always someone feeling the same way as you. By creating a visual piece from intangible emotions, the work helps us to make sense of cyberspace, “some of the works data-mine this information to present this back to us so we can see literally emotional maps of parts of the Internet and parts of the world. Data visualisation is becoming increasingly important – as we wade through streams of information in our lives, we need to understand it.”

Towards the end of this century’s first decade communication technologies have changed exponentially, and Decode is a timely recognition, allowing Shannon and the V&A to “showcase the current trends in contemporary digital design practice, but also highlight issues that this form of art and technology raise in our everyday lives.” Decode is coupled with Digital Pioneers, showcasing the V&A’s national collection of computer generated art alongside the very forefront of the work today. But is the artist diminished by the digital codes’ creation of new forms? The new functions of digital design represent an artist’s removal from practice in a similar manner to the workshops of Warhol, where the impetus remains with the artist, and the work welcomes further collaboration. Shannon describes it as “the designer relinquishing creative control.” In such a rapidly evolving field innovation and collaboration lie at the heart of this practice, paving the way for increasingly interactive design to engage and embrace the visitor, as well as the artist.

Decode: Digital Design Sensations opened on 8 December until 11 April 2010.

Pauline Bache