REVIEW: Decode: Digital Design Sensation, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

8 December 2009 – 11 April 2010

There’s something quite alluring about the concept of art dressed as play and Decode: Digital Design Sensation at the V&A offers the ultimate interactive playground. Luddites need not be afraid – this is high-end technology with a heavy dose of fun as viewers are necessarily encouraged to engage with the works as participant, performer and ultimately, as creative collaborator in the realisation of each work, in terms of both its form and its interactive potential.

Loosely divided into three thematic areas: Code, Interactivity and Network, Decode presents a range of genuinely engaging works, both literally and intellectually, and overwhelmingly the exhibition succeeds in liberating the notion that technology – as design, animation and sophisticated, complicated software – cannot be considered as authentic an artisanal tool as the paintbrush.

The exhibition starts beguilingly, with a dark pathway, either side of which appears to be overgrown plastic grass. As is regularly the case in Decode, it takes a small enthusiastic child to demonstrate its function. Running up and down the corridor, grazing her palms across the tops of this swaying ‘grass’ the action activated some sort of light sensor within them and they came to life, like a dormant plant at the start of spring.

It’s an engaging beginning that perhaps unfairly sets expectations quite high for Code, the first thematic section of the exhibition to be encountered. Code explores how computer code is being increasingly used as a design tool. While undoubtedly clever, it lacked the kind of wonderment – and the tactility – that would define the rest of the exhibition.

Curatorially it was no doubt clever to begin with these works, which perhaps for a more tech savvy audience would have had more resonance, but for this viewer, felt clinical and a bit slick.

From here on however it is an intoxicating mix of joy and astonishment. It is silly, funny, involving and often, surprisingly, also quite beautiful. The distinction between ‘Interactivity’ and ‘Network’ seems occasionally indistinct, both within the space and between the works as ideas of response, engagement, communication and trace can undoubtedly be located in most of the works here.

Exquisite Clock by the Italian communication centre Fabrica is exactly what it says on the box. Using unusual images of numbers found in the everyday and constantly uploaded by members of the public, the clock keeps real time, with the image-numbers changing as the seconds, minutes and hours tick by. Watching time pass has never been so arresting, if you’ll excuse the irony.

Ideas of time and trace are central to Aaron Koblin’s Flight Pattern (2009), itself a work of and about time and its passing. Koblin has taken complex computational data from the American Federal Aviation Administration on 205,000 flights that occurred on 12 August 2008 and made visual these journeys with tiny threads of colour that stream across the screen. It’s an exquisite work visually and reflecting on the enormity of what each of these threads represent – cargo, passengers, hours of check-in – makes its simplicity all the more breath-taking.

In the installation Dandelion (2009) by the UK and Danish design studios Senep and YOKE, visitors confront a dandelion clock on a large screen, swaying gently against a bright blue sky. Taking a hairdryer and blowing it, gun-like, toward the screen, a concealed infrared light mimics an extremely stiff breeze and scatters the seeds until they fall gently to the ground. In Mehmet Akten’s Body Paint (2009) it is human movement that activates the work. Akten has created a custom software program that converts gesture and motion into a very space age paintbrush. It’s all very Jackson Pollock as viewers flail their arms in front of the screen to produce wild thrashes of colour against the otherwise blank ‘canvas’. It’s both liberating and inspiring, in a genial sort of way, to realise the creative potential in an otherwise unexceptional physical gesture.

Updating the very traditional art of portraiture, random International’s Study for a Mirror (2008) creates a temporary portrait of each viewer as they stand in front of the blank photosensitive surface and their visage is captured in ultra violent light. Like a nostalgic exercise in revisiting old memories and photos, the portrait never entirely holds and the light eventually fades, taking the image with it before the next visitor stands and the process is repeated. The stillness required of the viewer while their image is being captured and the gradual nature of the image’s realisation feels as odds with the at-times dizzying sense of progress and innovation at play within the wider exhibition (never mind the world at large), but it provides a moment for purposeful reflection and a neat lesson in the value of pausing occasionally to reflect on the magnitude of such technological development.

One of the works that arguably best reflects the relationship between interactivity and network is Ross Phillips’s Videogrid (2009). A large double-sided screen featuring 25 squares that each play a one-second loop of film recorded by participants, Videogrid, is a series of animated portraits and simple storylines – think eight year old boys channelling Charlie Chaplin and Punch and Judy – that evolves and constantly updates with freshly recorded contributions from participants. The short films are recorded against one side of the screen and projected on the other, with the 25 squares presenting a dynamic, kaleidoscopic network of moving images.

Even the most hardened of technophobes would be hard pressed to deny the popular and critical success of Decode as a highly memorable art experience. With such a slick subject matter it could have risked seeming more like a technology expo than an art exhibition but the sensitivity to realising a whole host of original images and the overwhelmingly holistic approach to image and image-making – taking into account the use of colour, composition and even texture – made it so much more. What Decode successfully proves is that art, even today, remains open to endless reinvention.