Beyond Pong: why digital art matters
James Bridle. THE GUARDIAN. 18/6/2014
From the GPS that give us directions to the drones that drop bombs, the digital shapes our culture at every level. So why is digital art still a sideshow? As a groundbreaking new exhibition opens, James Bridle looks at pioneering works from the first arcade games to films made fully in CGI – and argues that it’s high time we took it seriously
The first electronic general-purpose 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 it, recalled that the ENIAC was “strangely, a very personal computer. Now we think of a personal computer as one which you carry around with you. The ENIAC was actually 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 have chosen to 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 the majority of the developed world, it is the foundation on which our 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 policy-makers, 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 and smoking industrial architectures of the 20th century give way to the invisible, intangible digital architectures of the 21st. If technological literacy is going to rise, it’s going to 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 gameswhich 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 encompasses 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 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.
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