Mirrorcity at the Hayward Gallery

Apollo Magazine, November 2014. Original article

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Mirrorcity: Glimpsing the digital revolution

If mirrors were once considered to be portals into different realities, today’s mirror is the digital world. Almost everything has a digital component: scan a barcode or download an app to get information, wear a bracelet to track your health, use a hashtag to follow the conversation. As we live in a “digital mirror-city that echo our own”, Mirrorcity at the Hayward Gallery poses the question: “What is our current experience of reality?”

Mirrorcity is the second exhibition in London this year to look at the transition to a digital world is reflected in art. The summer’s Digital Revolution at the Barbican was a great examination of the emergence of digital imagery in the culture, from the blocky video games of the 70s, to today’s three-dimensional light beams that respond to touch. While Digital Revolution felt more like a walk through history than an art show, it illustrated perfectly how it has taken a very long time for digital tools to become a viable part of art practice.

Mirrorcity picks up where Digital Revolution left off, at least chronologically, as it focuses on how contemporary artists deal with the “challenges, conditions and consequences of living in a digital age”. While the show is decidedly mixed, one overall feeling remains: the digitisation of art is still in its infancy. The digital world, or the internet, is an augmentation of daily life now, and not an escapist place without consequences. But this development is still new, meaning heavy use of digital elements in art will easily feel gimmicky. Artists are working out how to use digital elements to enhance what they are trying to say, but the successful implementation of these new tools is a work in progress.

Because the best pieces in Mirrorcity are those with no obvious digital components whatsoever. Emma McNally’s large-scale drawings, presented so as to surround you as you walk into the room, are both overwhelming and subtle at the same time. They bring to mind nautical charts, the view from a plane through clouds, a map of stars, or maybe even a piece of music. McNally has described her work as a form of “visual thinking around questions of emergence”, intuitively creating a code that can be read with the right machine.

The feeling of a digital presence is even more clear in Katrina Palmer’s work. “Reality Flickers” is a plain metal box with a big hum, with two chairs inviting you to sit down and let it surround you. Hannah Sawtell’s also uses sound in her work, as well as software and devices such as tablet computers, as she works create a “dense digital situation”. Susan Hiller opts to immerse the audience in darkness, even offering cushions so we can lie back and forget the body as we take in her video piece, where colours and shapes overwhelm the senses as we are sucked into her world.

Mirrorcity explores interesting questions such as how we can navigate the space between the digital and the physical, but visitors emerge only slightly the wiser. Because as long as we are looking at a screen, the digital experience still happens outside of ourselves. Whether this is the fault of the show, or just the current point of technological development, is open to debate. At the moment, we walk around with the digital world in our pockets, as more immersive experiences, like so-called wearable technologies, are often considered too intrusive.

Last year’s Light Show, also at the Hayward Gallery, had a more modest mission statement, looking simply to thrill its audience with light-themed artworks. It’s very possible that digital tools were used to create some of the experiences in Light Show, but frankly, no one cared. We just wanted to jump between light strobes, and sink into bright rooms that made us lose perception of time and space. The digital mirror that echoes our lives has a similar ability to transport us, but Mirrorcity offers only a glimpse of what that may feel like. But maybe it is just too soon for art to truly reflect how the digital is changing our lives? After all, this is a revolution, and it’s all happening so fast. We don’t quite know what it means yet.

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