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DIGITAL REVOLUTION: How far we’ve come

Jim Boulton, co-curator of the recent Barbican exhibition Digital Revolution, on the the influences behind the exhibition and how far we’ve come in terms of a digital culture.

I was lucky enough to be involved with Digital Revolution this summer, an exhibition at the Barbican that celebrated the transformation of the arts
through digital technology. My job was to curate the first of eight rooms, the others spanning CGI, User Generated Content, motion control, sound and vision, computer art, video games and our digital futures.

My role was to tell the history of digital creativity in a hundred artefacts but I also tried to give a taste of things to come. The hundred exhibits were a microcosm of the culture that the artists and designers in the rest of the show lived through and were influenced by. This meant balancing mass market phenomena, like Star Wars and Pac Man, with more influential pieces like Lillian Schwartz’s animations and Edwin Catmull’s Computer Animated Hand. And of course, I had to include some personal favourites, like Manic Miner and the theme from Miami Vice. I also threw in a few good stories with cultural resonance, like Andy Warhol being taught how to use a mouse by Steve Jobs at Sean Lennon’s 9th birthday party and going on to create a portrait of Debbie Harry using ProPaint at the launch of the Amiga 1000 a year later.

A hundred projects sounds like a lot but when you throw in a few pieces of hardware ­ like the Magnavox Odyssey, the Fairlight CMI and the LinnDrum – it boils down to around three key pieces per genre per decade, so a lot of the exhibits picked themselves. The most difficult part was deciding where to start. First I thought of starting with the first creative use of a computer, suggested by Paul Brown, Christopher Strachey’s 1952 programme, Love Letters. Another starting point was the invention of the microprocessor in 1971 but that excluded Pong and we couldn’t have that. In the end, I decided to start at 1970, the first truly digital decade, with the project that most clearly demonstrated the (unknown) creative potential of computers – The Game of Life. Beyond the brief, I also wanted to say a few other things. Firstly, that the digital revolution was largely driven by dropouts and misfits. I doubt Ralph Baer, Steve Wozniak or Ed Catmull had great social lives but these people took the computer out of the lab and into our homes. And they often did it alone. Take Tomohiro Nishikado, he not only conceived, designed and programmed Space Invaders, he wrote the soundtrack, built the hardware and even drew the artwork for the arcade cabinets. Perhaps the most important point I was trying to make I was least successful at ­ at least nobody mentioned it in the reviews (or maybe it¹s just too obvious). As computers get more powerful, they get less visible. In projects up to and including 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the presence of the computer is clear but by the following year, with Gollum¹s appearance in The Two Towers, the line is not so apparent. Two exhibits in the show explicitly make the same point – Vuc Cosik’s ASCII Camera and JODI’s both highlight the manipulative nature of technology and were inspirations for the rest of my selections.

In retrospect, perhaps the strongest message that came through was not one I actively sought to get across. A hundred projects jammed into a confined dark space told the story of how far we’ve come in how short a time. And how much fun it’s been.

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