We Were Never Digital – an assessment of the Barbican’s Digital Revolution exhibit

I thought I’d publish the original version of this short article on digital art here on Virality since the final version has been understandably edited for more “general” consumption on The Conversation news website under a different title (Barbican’s digital exhibition is nothing more than gimmickry). The approach has become a little lost as a result of conforming to journalistic conventions (I would never use the word “sexy” ;-). Incidentally, according to the readability metrics on the content management system I made a bad score of 15, which means that this original effort is written with university students in mind. I think that means I’m trying to purposefully confuse people. So I’m hoping that there is a small audience here for this kind of academic mystification engaging, as it does, with digital art in terms of a more nuanced and raw assessment of refrains, contemplative distance, affects and software power. 

We Were Never Digital

Tony D Sampson

Those planning to visit the Barbican’s Digital Revolution exhibition will perhaps want to question the legitimacy of events that celebrate art revolutions of any kind let alone the contested notion of a digital revolution. Without doubt, a technological paradigm shift has impacted the media arts, prompting novel approaches using computers dating back to the 1950s, but such transformations to the media in which art is produced do not necessarily equate to a revolution in art itself. Perhaps something more than a change in technology is needed to spark a revolution. Indeed, although art has clearly been influenced by computing, the direction of art itself may never have been, or need to be, digital.

Before we accept the rhetoric of revolution the relation between the digital and the art world needs to be examined against this backdrop of contestation. As a starting place, Ewan Morrison and Matthew Fuller’s influential interventions, published in 2004, demonstrate how the art world’s ambivalence towards the digital continues to make its influence difficult to discern. 1

According to Morrison the art world hates digital and interactive art because of the death of distance it introduces to contemplative subjectivity. While the power of the digital to exorcise the middle distance is widely celebrated in network capitalism, 2 some authors contend that this realization of McLuhan’s global media implosion introduces a dangerous process of disintermediation in which the virtual eats up the real. For Morrison, interactive art similarly consumes the “objective distance” between subject and object, without which, he argues, there is no contemplation or metaphysics. Interactive art produces a virtual vacuum resembling Baudrillard’s horror of a collapsing culture. 3

“The [interactive] artwork is no more than an image of the viewer,” Morrison contends. “You are being invited to participate in the collapse of your own culture.”

In contrast, Fuller more interestingly grasps the love of the digital as a kind of refrain which occasionally passes through mainstream culture influencing its directional flow. Digital art, in this sense, need not be digital at all. Jeff Koons’ description of his baseball series as a form of artificial intelligence evidences the extent to which the terminology and methodologies of software culture have produced what Fuller calls “sympathetic refrains” incorporated within the mainstream. Another artist (and writer) who brings the digital refrain into the artwork is Ricardo Basbaum. If Koons’ does AI then Basbaum’s NBP shape explores viral and participatory encounters on a network.

Morrison and Fuller draw attention to two different interpretations of digital revolution. Morrison’s death of objective distance is typical of over generalizing late 20th century end of narratives, but it also leans heavily on the fading relevance of a Kantian metaphysics of art. To be sure, digital and interactive art invades Kantian representational spaces of contemplation. Significantly, representation is not dead; self-evidently digital art represents. Early work with analogue technology, including Laposky’s experiments with oscilloscopes in 1952 and the opening up of Bell Labs to artists like Rauschenberg in the 60s, produced novel visual imagery, but art also produces affects. Some might even say that art is affect. It has a viscerality that precedes contemplation, propagating the refrain more productively depending on our love or hate for the sensation of art. Indeed, digital art is perhaps unique insofar as it does not need to be visual. It can influence and appeal to other senses in more implicit ways, via sensors, for example, or invisible databases. So while visual contemplation seems to collapse, the space and time of affective experience need not necessarily diminish.

As it is presented at the Baribican exhibit, it is difficult to tell apart the artistic refrain and the chronology of digital invention. From entering into Conway’s Game of Life (cellular automata nicely projected onto the floor as well as the screen), past the small reference to EAT, through geeky obsessions with old gadgets and games, and beyond into the wow factor of CGI spaceships, Kinect hacks and Lady Gaga’s latest range of wearable technology, the art seems to get lost in a history of apolitical fairground attractions. It is not so much the death of objective distance that we have to fear as it is a failure of the artistic refrain to express itself in ways other than the gimmickry of superficial immersion. There are some moments when art and technology fuse nicely together. Umbrellium’s Assemblance is still very much a fairground-like experience, but it at least explores the material sensations of the virtual. Morrison’s much cherished real has not disappeared from the bodily experience of interactive art here. Indeed, in the midst of the haze the virtual has found a body. It has become haptic; a moment of material incorporeality. Like most successful fairground attractions, it’s great fun too.

But this refrain is intermittent. The wearable technology on display on the way out of the exhibit, for example, might have interestingly reflected on Conway’s cellular automata, but ended up little more than a series factory presets one might find on a B&Q Christmas tree.

Perhaps it is not surprising that this exhibit lacks a clear refrain. Those with a vested interest in controlling the flow of cultural mainstreams will always endeavour to steer these refrains or try to fence them in. But, a refrain is always exposed to what Fuller calls the “impossibility of control.” Artists and curators will try to manage their own historical emergence, but they are always exposed to the chaos of outside events. The direction of art is, as such, an improvised trajectory that never becomes whole. It is within these chaotic movements of uncontrollable creative emergence rather than fields of containment (galleries, museums etc) that novel art eventually thrives.

Indeed, Fuller’s digital refrain should not be taken for a revolution in itself. Instead it should draw attention to the potential role a dissident art might play in confronting communication and power in a post-Snowden era. But this particular piece of digital history was sadly missing from Digital Revolution. Art’s chaotic trajectory needs to open up to an ever expanding software infrastructure of control. In this light, digital art should not spend too much of its time blandly celebrating technology for technology’s sake (gimmicks dammit!). Art should instead critique the operations of power within these software systems. Like this, diverse interventions, including Rothenberg’s Reversal of Fortune: Garden of Virtual Kinship and YoHa’s Invisible Airs help to expose the often invisible and sometimes immeasurable lexicon of software control including data captures, algorithmic interactions, pervasive interfaces, interruptions and glitches, loops, and memory storage functions, transferred between machines outside of, but nevertheless affecting, everyday life.

After the revolution is over we will need to pick up the refrain again in Berlin!


1. In this article Morrison and Fuller present 10 reasons each for why the art world hates or loves digital art. I have picked up on just two or three of these. See In the Name of Art (Ewan Morrison and Matthew Fuller on imaginaria and digital art), Mute, 21 January 2004. http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/name-art-ewan-morrison-and-matthew-fuller-imaginaria-and-digital-art

2. Much of the digital economy is based on disintermediation (cutting out the middle) linking consumption directly to the Amazon warehouse, for example.

3. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press, 1994.


Jeff Koons

Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Two Dr J Silver Series, Spalding NBA Tip-Off), 1985


Encased: Four Rows, 1983–93


Ricardo Basbaum: Me-You Series, diagram, 2007



Ben Laposky: Oscillon 520, 1952


E.A.T. – Experiments in Art and Technology, 1967


Stephanie Rothenberg: Reversal of Fortune: The Garden of Virtual Kinship, 2013



YoHa, Invisible Airs, 2012




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