07/09/2014

Gather visits Digital Revolution

BY Neil Gilbert

Every time a story breaks in ‘the media’, by which I mean the papers, the TV, the radio – there’s a natural cycle that seems to go like this – it breaks, it goes viral, and then cynicism sets in.

Digital media’s no different: The excess of $100m raised through the Ice Bucket Challenge to tackle motor neurone disease is great, but now it seems it’s time to move on. What’s will make a big splash next? ?

I found myself reflecting on this at our latest team outing to the Barbican’s Digital Revolution exhibit (http://www.barbican.org.uk/digital-revolution).

It’s a compelling and fascinating take on the technology and creativity that have driven breathtaking changes in society over the last few decades.  The challenge in curating such a vast topic is not so much what to include as what to leave out.

This exhibition explores some big themes through the prism of art and design, focusing on consumer culture.  It begins with an entirely frivolous pursuit which has spawned multi-billion dollar industries and changed the face of our culture: gaming.

Ambient lighting and pumping 70s/80s electronica were a perfect platform for displaying the iconic machines which lead the way. The Altair 8800 with one of the earliest Intel chips; the ZX80; an early Mac.

These machines and the software they ran set the tone for the revolution to come: the endless innovations which have powered Silicon Valley, some burning out, others succeeding spectacularly but always the relentless drive to learn, change, do more.

The clunky hardware from a different era and early experiments in web design were nicely juxtaposed with some of the latest in CGI. Did you know that ‘Gravity’ was actually filmed three times, and only once with actors? (The other two times were layering digital effects.) This was brought to life spectacularly, alongside dazzling interactive laser displays.

The exhibition then morphed into early experimentations with web user experience – the unusual and inspired vied for space with the imaginative but unworkable. Looking back I could see an imperfect trail charting the evolution of user journeys to where we are now.

Then I came across the story of Tempt, an LA-based graffiti artist struck down by motor neurone disease (http://tinyurl.com/kpfw9w5). Where before his graffiti had defined him, he was now trapped in his own body, unable to move, only able to communicate blink by blink.

A collective of hackers, coders and scientists created a low cost tool called the ‘eyewriter’ which let him create art again through eye movement. His story was vividly told through film and the eyewriter itself. An exceptional example of how the fusion of creative and technology is changing people’s lives for the better. The ‘eyewriter’ is now finding its way into mainstream medical care.

And back to the Ice Bucket Challenge: yep, celebrities hopping on a bandwagon is tiresome. But it’s a really good bandwagon.