Back to the Future: A Review of Barbican’s Digital Revolution


This interactive exhibition promises to unite artists, designers, musicians and developers who are pushing their fields using digital media – so I went along to see what, if anything, libraries could learn from it (and to play with some cool stuff).

If you can’t get down there to see it yourself then here’s the lowdown.

What should I pay attention to?

Firstly, it was RAMMED. I probably chose the worst weekday outside of school holidays to go, because there was a teachers’ strike on, but it was really busy.

The demographic was interesting – it was full of dads and sons aged about 7+. Lots of library services have mentioned to me their hopes that featuring more ‘gadgets’ and a bigger tech offer will bring in precisely that demographic. And from this highly unscientific study it does appear to work. But there were also loads of women and girls there – proving that those of us with ‘XX’ chromosomes love tech too.

Secondly, there were some interesting and thought provoking exhibits that libraries would/should love to get their hands on:

  • e-textiles, including a dress with flexible LEDs that respond to your mood, a solar dress that generates renewable energy and a sculpture dress made with a 3D printer (by a company based in London – I will be contacting them but here is a showcase of their work)
  • e-makeup with LED lights on the face and a headdress that light up when you blink
  • thought controlled gaming – it’s basic but it can detect brainwaves to let you shoot moving spaceships with your mind
  • Cyborgs – tech that modifies human perception/capabilities (although this part of the exhibition was extremely limited)

All of these could/should be able to be exhibited and played with in libraries without too much trouble.

I’ll get on the case…

There were other things that people seemed to love and which libraries could probably source from their own communities such as retro hardware and 70s/80s/90s computer games.

What could be done better?

What disappointed me was the lack of depth and participatory activity throughout this ‘interactive’ exhibition. It was possible to set off pre-programmed art works that used motion sensors (and they were often very beautiful) and play games but there was no sense of getting underneath this digital revolution and understanding how it happened or how you could do it yourself. Fundamentally it was engaging the consumer rather than the citizen or citizen-artist. That was disempowering – the opposite of what the digital revolution should all be about.

I think the programme of workshops and school activities may be trying to remedy this, but for the basic punter there wasn’t much for me to do except watch and wave my arms occasionally.

I also thought that the majority of the stuff there fitted a futuristic/sci-fi aesthetic – none of it would have been out of place on the decks of Babylon 5. As such it didn’t really challenge anyone’s perceptions of what the digital future might look like or our role in it – for me that borders on the negligent.

And lots of the tech didn’t work – I tried engaging via social media, listening to audioguides on a downloadable app (too loud in there to hear anything) and either I don’t have any brainwaves or the thought controlled gaming wasn’t working.

I liked this about the exhibition though – one important aspect of the digital revolution is that it has been/will be glitchy and imperfect. Freak occurrences and malicious human actions may mean it doesn’t work at all. I wanted to ask ‘why isn’t it working?’ as a genuine and interested question.

So what?

I came away thinking ‘libraries could totally do this!! And they could do it better!”

So now we just need to get started.

I have some thoughts on that, apart from contacting some of the exhibitors to see if they’d like to partner with libraries. Here are some Digital Revolution-inspired activities libraries could take on:

  1. crowd-source a retro-tech exhibition of old mobile phones, working computers and retro games (there has to be a Meetup group for that)
  2. Display the visual markers from the Gibson-Martelli artwork MANA around the library with details of the app which will allow people to experience this augmented reality art
  3. Encourage your coding groups to do some DevArt by contributing to the Google-sponsored DevArt platform looking for coding-inspired artists
  4. build your own e-textile – here’s how:

But then you can make it even better  – include how-to diagrams and Youtube videos; host coding workshops and maker sessions where people take apart old computers and figure out how they work; ask people’s opinions, host a programme of talks, forums and discussions about the digital revolution.

Get people really thinking. Isn’t that what we’re all about?

(Image: Barbican)


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