Decoding digital art – and the nature of art itself – at the V+A

Decode entrance way piece at V&A

We’re on vacation. In England. It’s snowing.

So instead of running around outside making snow angels and throwing rock-laced snowballs at the jolly little neighbor kids, (my suggestion), we’re huddling inside with Little Big Planet, tea (Earl Gray, hot), and a buttload of iPhone footage, some of which is from the Decode exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Lucky you!

Gary and I went with Richard Franke, Designer at EA Criterion. I’ve asked everyone what they thought of it.


I found it a bit disappointing really. As someone who deals with interactivity at the cutting edge of the games industry perhaps I had higher than reasonable expectations. Most of the exhibits were little more than interactive toys, the likes of which have already been surpassed by many games (and even actual toys). The only thing which made some of them stand out was their sheer scale – which, given that a lot of people have large screens at home nowadays, isn’t that much of a USP.

One or two pieces stood out as more pleasing, such as the ‘grass’ which lit up and made noises when you brushed past it. It actually surrounded you and made you feel a part of it. Although it did almost feel like an interactive piece of interior design than ‘art’. I also enjoyed the mechanical display, though again all that was was a novelty monitor which just displayed the people in front of it.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that creating something which can be legitimately called ‘interactive art’ should for me be more complex than making lights, mechanical things or fractal images wibble about when you touch/shout at or stand in front of them. What questions was I supposed to be asking myself as a response to them? Was this worth the entrance fee?


One thing that was interesting to me (besides all the lesbians making out) was the contrast between Decode and the rest of the museum. The nature of art itself has changed in a pretty amazing way. The other wings of the V&A are filled with ancient, detailed, enormous, dramatic, symbolic, mystical,  intricate things, things that an artist (or a hundred artists) spent a lifetime perfecting. Before the industrial age, art was rare and special. Today it’s everywhere. The act of going to a museum to see it is archaic. Fun, but archaic. So when I do bother going to a museum, I expect to see something special. Decode, for 2010, was not special. I will admit, however, that most of the people who will see it at the V&A aren’t the types who normally go looking for new interactive technology, so they may gain a new perspective on it.

Some might say that this exhibit has helped raised interactive art to a new level in the public eye – but I left feeling more like it had been cheapened. The most exciting art in this medium can be found on the internet, on your phone, in your game console – and you don’t have to pay an entrance fee to see it.


Everyone I saw there had an iPhone and was using it to document the exhibit. The user interactions taking place on mobile phones were richer than anything demonstrated by the artwork on display. I had a hard time engaging with any of the artwork. People already relate to the intersection of the Virtual and the Real in day to day life. Its not enough to merely state this connection.

The visualizations running on displays set into the wall were experiments done with Flash and Processing. It was presented like eye candy, but the visuals weren’t eye candy. This was a wasted opportunity to showcase the ideas behind the work. How was it made? Why was it made? Why this instead of that? What did the previous version look like? This is procedural artwork after all, so I’d like to have seen more about the process!

The gestural interface pieces were tech demos. They lacked heart and there was nothing more to them than a basic feedback loop – I moved my arm and stuff onscreen moved in response to that. I used a fake blow dryer to blow some leaves around. By comparison, game consoles and mobile phones use the same feedback loop to create engaging experiences.

I liked the mechanical displays.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Thea Kinyon, Nick Porcino. Nick Porcino said: RT @theakinyon Decoding digital art – and the nature of art itself – at the V+A: #decode […]

  2. […] Franke, besides being an all-around gentleman and perfect host, is a 13-year veteran of the game industry. Startopia, NFL Street, Black and Burnout 3: Takedown […]

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