VISUAL ART: Of mice, men and machines — Isabel Carlisle on a show at the Barbican that plays ingenious tricks with computers and reality.

Last autumn the Barbican Art Gallery mounted an exhibition which went largely unreviewed in the national press. As a kaleidoscope of the style essentials of urban youth culture Jam was hard to pin down, but immensely popular — of 40,000 visitors, 68 percent were aged 15 to 24. Not so much an exhibition as an event, it pulled together fashion (including Alexander McQueen), club music, design in all its computer-age manifestations, and magazines such as The Face and i-D. Jam was about a scene on the move, retaining its subversiveness by being one jump ahead of the talent-hungry corporate giants, and it put the Barbican on the map for a new, young audience.

Serious Games looks set to pull the Jam crowd back in. It takes us into another rapidly eveloping cutting-edge world, this time of art, interaction and technology. It is both the limitation and the excitement of these works that they come into being only through human intervention; eye contact is not enough. High claims have been made for interactive art and art generated by computers and by virtual reality — principally that they make us rethink what art is all about. Serious Games has picked the best of the artists working in these new media, and it becomes clear that the most successful are those who deliver what human beings have always wanted from art: insight, ideas, beauty and magic.

This exhibition is not just for computer whizzes: there are clear instructions on how to use computer mice and trackballs to make the art happen. Indigestion by Diller and Scofidio uses video projection on to a flat table-top to create a dinner party for two where the host first blackmails and then poisons the guest. Only arms, hands and food are visible. The game is to change around the character stereotypes by pressing a button and listening to how they engage in conversation. A low-class masculine woman, for instance, sitting opposite a high-class effeminate man engage in subtly different verbal sparring from other combinations and permutations. It’s ingenious, if finally stultifying — but then, that’s life.

Bill Seaman’s triple video projection on to a long black wall invites you to highlight words and then click on them, which in turn prompts new video images (of urban landscapes and of a couple). The idea is to make a poem from assemblages of words. The problem is that the mind moves faster than this technology, and a very slow poem made by you with somebody else’s words is frustrating. In contrast, making music with Resonance of 4 by Toshio Iwai is captivating. By clicking on squares in the four chequer boards projected on to the floor notes start to play up and down the scale. The idea is to end up with four-part harmony, if your fellow visitors are so inclined.

Rehearsal of Memory, made by the British artist Harwood in collaboration with patients of Ashworth Mental Hospital, is the most thoughtful work here. Images of the patients’ naked bodies, made by pressing up against digital scanners and then projected on to a screen, are overlaid with single words like “prongs”, or tattoos such as a skeletal Old Father Time.

There is autobiographical text as well that tells appalling stories of self inflicted wounds. Clicking on a word, scar or tattoo triggers new stories, and the sounds of the voices mingle with those of water, heartbeats and of a shutter sliding violently in a door

The one virtual reality work, Osmose by Char Davies, is likely to be the favourite “game” in the show. Putting on a special helmet and a sleeveless jacket with sensor pads controlled by breathing in or out, you enter a virtual 3-D world. Inspired by scuba diving, the sensation is like flying, or falling through water in shimmering, crystalline surroundings. First engulfed in oak leaves, you drift down past a bare tree to a forest floor and then through it, so that looking up you see roots, pass streams of fireflies and then down again between huge panels of illuminated words.

Virtual reality worlds created by artists have become far more sophisticated in the last few years. This one may still look crude, but achieves a suspension of disbelief that is literally transporting.

• Serious Games (in collaboration with the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle) is at the Barbican Art Gallery until Aug 17. To book for a session of Osmose telephone 0171-638 8801.


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Last verified: Jun 17th, 2017