Dune by Dan Roosegaarde, 2007
The V&A’s “digital design sensations” are a fun afternoon and not much else, says William Wiles
There’s something of a carnival atmosphere at Decode, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibition of digital design. All the exhibits have clusters of people around them, and it’s a chatty, laughing crowd. Far more than a regular design exhibition, the emphasis is on interactivity, so people are waiting to have a go or waiting for something to happen. Flight404’s Solar, for instance, is a popping, fizzing sound-sensitive animation, so its viewers are whistling, whooping and yelping to make it respond. Everyware’s Sand Pit, in which little electronic creatures can be influenced by pushing about black sand, is consistently mobbed. Mehmet Akten’s joyous Body Paint has people throwing shapes, which appear on a big screen as sprays and bursts of colour. There are also a trio of funhouse mirrors, by Random International, Daniel Rozin and Fabrica, which have people lining up to see their reflection rendered in different ways. Fabrica’s mirror, in particular, is very pleasing – a clear image only appears if the viewer stands still for a long time, and the slightest movement fogs the reflection. Amid a clutch of motion-sensitive devices, it encourages stillness and concentration, a clever and counter-intuitive strategy.
Decode is a lot of fun, then, but is it anything more than that? There’s plenty of sideshow candyfloss – where’s the design nutrition? The text accompanying the show is vague, saying at most that digital technologies have become a new tool for designers. True – so how are they using this tool? In answer, the text refers more to art than to design – perhaps not a surprise, given that the show was a collaboration with new media arts organisation onedotzero. But really the work is in a new field: digital crafts.
This isn’t to say that the work in Decode is just for looks. It’s easy, for instance, to think of uses for Aaron Koblin’s Flight Patterns, a time-lapse animation of commercial flights over the USA, a piece that is also captivatingly beautiful, a cat’s-cradle of light. Information visualisation is going to be an essential design discipline in a future world characterised by its dependence on ever-growing streams of data of ever-greater complexity. But we’re left to think that for ourselves – Decode doesn’t generally interest itself in the real-world applications of the technology it displays.
That shortcoming is more important than it might first appear. Digital technologies are highly disruptive – all around us, their effect is revolutionary, upsetting industries and social systems, changing the way we work, play, live and think. But Decode doesn’t feel very revolutionary or dangerous – it’s pretty and entertaining. Despite its subtitle – “digital design sensations” – there’s little that’s very sensational about Decode, nothing that hits you at gut level and makes you realise that the world’s going to be very different. Individually, these pieces are all perfectly meritorious, although it should be said that a few weren’t working when I visited. But when the work on show is taken as a whole, its focus on aesthetics and making the raw, terrifyingly abstract world of data and the network attractive and seemly, makes it feel similar to the bourgeois Victorian decorative arts that took inspiration from nature. It’s the 21st-century equivalent of William Morris wallpaper.
Indeed, the nature theme recurs throughout the exhibition, from Dan Roosegaarde’s thicket of LED-tipped wands at the entrance to Simon Heijden’s Tree projection (which responds to the wind outside the V&A) and John Maeda’s exuberant floral animation. Roosegaarde’s chirruping, flickering shrubbery, which flashes energetically when visitors brush past it, is one of the more affecting pieces in Decode. It’s charming, but there’s a hint of menace about it – a suggestion of unsympathetic animal intelligence and our primal suspicion of dark undergrowth. Decode could have looked more at the pity and terror of the new world, at its grandeur and transforming power, at the digital sublime. Instead we have digital crafts, which are … nice.
Decode: Digital Design Sensations is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, until 11 April
Body Paint by Mehmet Akten, 2009
Weave Mirror by Daniel Rozin, 2007