Digital Impact @ Disseny Hub

Published by Tim on Saturday August 26, 2023

Last modified on January 25th, 2024 at 14:06

The Disseny Hub in Barcelona

A few days ago, I visited the Disseny Hub in Barcelona to see the exhibition “Digital Impact”. On the website, I read what it was about:

“Digital Impact is an exhibition, but more than that, it is an experience; it is a city to explore and a map to name those people creating art’s present and future. It is a door to a revolutionary world, a bridge from Barcelona to the immersive, the colour, the shapes and the limitless imagination.” (source)

Upon entering the huge exhibition hall, my eyes inevitably fell on a gigantic projection positioned in the center, an artwork by the ubiquitous artist Refik Anadol, who has become famous for his oversized video installations. A clear curatorial statement: Anadol owns the center. What I encounter here is a sensory overwhelming imagery of millions of particles tugged back and forth by physical forces. The installation wants to cast a spell on me, to put me in a state of paralysis with their boundless complexity. This kind of enchantment sparked a few interesting thoughts in me, which I would like to follow into their depths in this article.

Let’s look at the artwork from a technical point of view: In general, programming a particle system is relatively easy. There are quite simple physical formulas required to do this. It can even be done with a few clever prompts with ChatGPT. My first encounter with the topic was Daniel Shiffmans book and tutorial series The Nature of Code, in which he explains it in a few comprehensible steps. Basically, a particle system is a matter of defining the behavior of a single object with many variants and then generating a large number of these particles and letting them interact with each other. In his artwork “Machine Memoirs”, Anadol uses these principles in an advanced way and combines them with data, storytelling and tremendous computing power, which results in highly complex, generative imagery.

The installation definitely grabs me in the first moment, but shortly thereafter a strong feeling of skepticism rises in me. Soon I feel like this piece at the center of an exhibition titled “Digital Impact” is kind of problematic. Questions arise: Isn’t the *impact* of the most recent technological developments (especially AI) onto the systems we are involved in, first of all… worrying? A sentence I read in the Lowtech Manifesto just came to my mind:

High tech artworks market new PCs. Even if they aren’t meant to. Artworks that make use of new, expensive technology can’t avoid being, in part, sales demonstrations. Part of the message of an online video stream, whatever its content, is “Hey, isn’t it time for an upgrade?”. (source)

This statement is more than 20 years old but still carries an important message: Digital art very often persuades with ever more powerful computational power, quite parralel to Moore’s law. Artworks of this kind always come with the promise that next time they will be even more immersive, even more impressive.

My curiosity and interest is in a different kind of digital art and design, one that yields to less temptation to always want to get the most out of hardware and software, but rather looks for ways to cultivate a more skeptical attitude towards new technologies. I have great doubts about positions that view technology development as a determinism, a pre-decided game in which the outcome is definite. Technology is not a overly powerful alien power. Technology is what we make of it.

I would like to see an exhibition entitled “Digital Impact” that consistently foregrounds the overarching social, political, psychological and enviromental consequences of high-tech in a curious and constructive way. In my view, this happens too little in the really impressively designed exhibition, which is due to the curatorial decision that Anadol and similar artists and collectives occupy the center.

I exit the huge Disseny Hub building through the automatic sliding door and bump into a wall of heat and humidity. Last night was the hottest night in Barcelona since records began.

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