The moment I stepped into Digital Revolution, “an immersive exhibition of art, design, film, music and videogames" which opened at the Barbican this week, I got an eerie foretaste of the experience to come. As I entered the first of six dark and cacophonous rooms - chunks of Elastoplast-coloured hardware splayed in cabinets before me like archaeological relics from a pre-Ive era, the Linn LM-1 baseline of Don’t You Want Me Baby thumping deep in my bones - my hands started to pixellate and flash.
A projection of The Game of Life swept over my body, its glowing squares swarming over my skin. Predating and creating in a ruthless cycle of algorithmic evolution, these cells are the protagonists of a zero-player game invented by British mathematician John Horton Conway in 1970, and they represent one of our earliest examples of a self-perpetuating and self-organising computer system.
The moment was a neat microcosm of a theme that emerged to link Pac-Man to music videos, Twitter miniskirts to CGI: the tension between tech as liberator, and tech as engulfing force.
Unlike its agricultural and industrial predecessors, the digital revolution has always been driven from the bottom up. The Barbican's show tells a story that belongs to ostracised artists, frustrated teenagers and misunderstood misfits; from Matthew Smith, the British game designer who at the age of seventeen inserted penguins, eggs and toilets into the outstandingly successful Manic Miner, to Markus Persson, the Swedish founder of Minecraft whose high-school careers advisor told him that making a living out of computer games simply wasn’t on.
Even the most commercial installations, such as will.i.am and Yuri Suzuki’s “rhythmic and sonic robotic experiment” Pyramidi (2014), which features golden robotic instruments in octahedron-shaped cases playing along to a newly commissioned song beneath a 3D Systems sculpture of the musician’s head, have a whiff of anarchic silliness beneath the shine.
As I flapped my arms in front of Chris Milk’s extraordinary piece of digital shadow theatre The Treachery of Sanctuary (2012) and saw my silhouetted arms whoosh into wings, or watched Tim Schafer, the creator of the Kickstarter-funded point-and-click adventure Broken Age (2014) talk about his nostalgia for the emotional storytelling and wit of 1980s games, I came to realise that tech has always offered its underdog supplicants (myself included) the chance to articulate what they feel they have lost in the physical world, or indeed what they never had.
Power; epic purpose; community. Wholeness.
This is most movingly reflected in the section Our Digital Futures, which focuses on wearable tech. A pair of thick-rimmed glasses with sensors taped onto the side might look cobbled together, but the accompanying video unveils them as a hack by The Not Impossible Foundation that allowed LA graffiti artist TemptOne to paint for the first time since being paralysed by a neuromuscular disease. The man with headphones clamped on beside me had tears in his eyes.
But amongst all the exhilarating innovation, these makers retain a palpable need to remind us of the essential disconnect between the digital and the real worlds. The arrival of the Internet saw a proliferation of digital art works such as wwwwwwwww.jodi.org (1994) and Form Art (1997), which frustrate as much as they inspire, highlighting the illusory nature of user control and exposing the contrast between slick UIs and the messy, secretive and sometimes dangerous underbelly of the Web.
Similarly, although this shadowy, noisy exhibition offers womb-like anonymity, it also demands that we engage our physical bodies with the exhibits, often collaboratively, whether that involves grabbing Game & Watch controls for a bout of two-player Boxing or gyrating in front of Les Metamorphoses de Mr Kalia, the Kinect-powered installation that won the first Google-Barbican sponsored prize for DevArt.
Those who complain that tech makes people into anti-social robots should compare it with the lines of passive, po-faced automatons whispering their way through the average London 'culture' show. For once, an exhibition justifies the adjective “immersive”; as a site for both transcendence, and embodiment.
This is a beautifully curated and accessible exhibition, aptly held in what is London’s most solid yet magical space (the Barbican Centre may be a massive block of concrete but it somehow manages to disappear, with Platform 9 3/4 coyness, every time you try to navigate your way there). It will be a great shame if it is only frequented by gaming and sci-fi fanboys; Digital Revolution isn’t about machines so much as the humans that harness them; fragile, funny, flawed anti-heroes who deserve a mainstream spotlight.
Digital Revolution is open until 14 Sep 2014 at the Barbican Centre, Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS.
This article originally appeared in TCN.