Thursday, 1 April 2010

Decode:Digital Design Sensation at the V&A

Unexpectedly I had a few hours to kill today while up in central London (thanks to the much appreciated upgrade of my passport processing from 1 week to four hours - a great relief after all my worrying!). I didn't really know what to do with this lump of 4 hours, so I sneakily went into WHSmith's in Victoria Station and browsed a Time Out to suss out some options. I leafed through various sections and finally hit upon an interesting sounding exhibiton at the V&A which finishes on 11th April - so it was/is very much a 'now or never' opportunity.

I'm very glad I plumped for this odd little gem (which only cost £5 to see). I very much like quirky and amusing interactive art - and judging by how crowded the place was, there are plenty of others who share this preference (the throng included lots of children, a number of teenagers and, less expectedly, a large group of traditionally dressed hasidic jews).

The exhibition is divided into three themes: Code, Network and Interactivity.

The Network pieces turned recorded data (from blogs, aircraft flights, motion-sensors etc) into visualisations - with spidery threads and twirling mulit-coloured lines dancing across the screens. The speeded-up criss-crossing animation of flight-paths across America over a 24 hour period on a specific date in 2008 was mesmerising- and very wriggly!

Among the Code pieces, my favourite was a randomly generated series of arcs, starting as a series of single lines on the brightly lit white screen, which then repeatedly replicated and intensified in dark blood-red, until reminiscent of some cross between a biology text-book and an abstract painting. The intensification would reach maximum after a few minutes and then 'reset' with another blank white screen and a new sent of single arc-lines... Many people were photographing these transcient images, to capture them before they vanished forever. If I'd had a camera with me, I would have done just the same I'm sure - although the movement and transformation from one second to the next was a vital part of it, rather than any one frozen image.

Among the many Interactive pieces, I particularly liked the giant slow-developing photo-sensitive screen. When you sat on the stool, or stood next to it, your portrait would slowly appear as a giant black and white image on the wall in front, with huge jagged-shaped mirror-fragments surrounding it. You had to stay very still for quite a while to achieve a clear image, or you could move and create a blurred image instead. I also discovered that I could 'fix' a first image of myself, sitting on the stool, then move and stand beside the stool to create a second image. My first 'self' still remained visible as the second image emerged from the misty grey background. It was quite a spooky effect - like haunting myself!

The motion-sensitive 'body paint' piece was particularly popular with children: waving an arm across the screen created a huge splatter of virtual paint, and it was great fun to over-lay splat upon splat of randomly generated colours. Next to it was a virtual dandelion with a real (infared) 'hairdryer' to blow away the feathery individual seeds by directing it at different parts of the image on the screen (fun but superficial I felt: it was just a bit too video-game-ish for me). Elsewhere, on another screen, virtual raindrops appeared to bounce off my shadow-head or arm. More intriguing - and vaguely sinister - were the semi-transparent digital creaures seeming to swim and swarm like real living organisms in a stark white world under a glass table-top covered with (real) black sand.

I ended up with sore feet and an aching back - but it was very much worth it. And I still had time to explore some other parts of the V&A, which is not a museum I had expected to like so much! In particular I was in awe as I passed through the 'Cast Courts' - it was like walking through a giant's horde of holiday souvenirs, plucked from the whole of antiquity. There were so many huge pieces, all crowded together higgledy-piggledly, with two towers (one called the Trajan tower) which stretched right up through two floors to the curved glazing of the gallery's roof. And it was jaw-droppingly wonderful to gaze up at the plaster-cast of Michaelangelo's beautiful marble statue of David: I hadn't realised quite how ENORMOUS the work is, in all its (ahem) rude splendour.

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