A sourpuss' take on digital art, plus one neat example

I recently attended the Digital Revolution exhibition at the Barbican Center in London. My reaction? Meh.

It has some high points, but overall struck me as a collection of things that would work better as YouTube videos I could watch in peace at home, and "art" that fails because its technology doesn't really work very well. Sorry, I tried to like it....

As is the case with most art, the difference between great and horrible can be very subtle and difficult to put into words. What makes one scribble worth millions while another is a child's drawing barely worth its refrigerator space? 

People traditionally associated with the art world know (or at least think they know) how to tell the difference between great vs. terrible paintings and sculpture. But it is quite apparent that they have no clue how to tell in the case of interactive digital installations.

For example, something I pay a lot of attention to is the precise dynamics of how something on the screen moves when you touch it. Is there a "feel of steel" between finger and object? Does it move in an organic way, if it's meant to be organic? This can be very easy to get wrong, and very hard to get right. A number of the exhibits, including big prominent ones with long lines to see them, got this kind of thing completely wrong. Badly, embarrassingly wrong. Like, if this were in a product we were working on, we would never tolerate it in a beta, let alone ship it, let alone put it in a museum as an example of great digital art.

A common disappointment is something meant to be a simulation of a physical phenomenon, which gets that simulation awkwardly wrong. A simulator that lets you fly like a bird in a virtual world by flapping your arms? Sounds great, until you realize that the physics of flying is stilted, robotic and largely unresponsive to your arm movements.

A lot of the exhibits would probably have come off a lot better if I'd had the chance to play with them for an extended time without other people around. But that's not really an excuse: They were meant to be experienced under the conditions I saw them in. By and large, these installations did not live up to the standard for public interactive media that has been set by many installations in, for example, science and children's museums, which make far better use of the medium. But those are generally made by professional software developers, not "artists", so I guess they don't count?

It was refreshing to move on later in the day to an installation at the Roundhouse in the Camden district of London, of which I was able to enjoy an extended private tour.  (This building also, separately, has a pretend beach installed upstairs, but this is neither here nor there to the present story.)

Helmholtz isn't a simulation: It implements interesting interactive behavior in a direct, physical way, rather than trying to mimic it in a computer. As such, it has a  purity and directness that is lacking in many such efforts. It is, in effect, a measuring instrument in the guise of art.

The idea is simple: A grid of hundreds of individual LEDs, each of which lights up when the sound pressure level at its location exceeds a certain threshold. It's a bit like a spectrum analyzer display, except operating in the spacial domain rather than the frequency domain. Because the space is about as big as the wavelength of low tones, it's possible to see waves of sound traveling through the space. We were even able to set up standing waves in the circular chamber. Music was most pleasing to watch!

As with some of the exhibits at the Barbican, it was a bit tricky to tease out the most pleasing behaviors, but there's an important difference: This difficulty reflects a genuine difficultly in controlling the shape of standing waves in a circular chamber, not bugs in the software. Because the interactivity is real, it can teach real intuition about the behavior of sound waves that would be difficult to experience any other way. It lets you see things for the first time, and they are real things, not artifacts.

You can see Helmholtz in action for just another two days: If you're in London, check it out.

(Full disclosure: I know the creator of Helmholtz, and I have a bad attitude about things that call themselves art. So I'm not to be trusted either on how cool Helmholtz is, nor on how meh the Barbican exhibit is.)