REBOOT Pioneering Digital Art at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam

In the old days painters would buy their pigment in powder form and mix them with some sort of oil, or egg white, to produce their paint. But even in those days mechanical or technical elements were involved if they wanted to do print making. With the invention of photography artists found a completely new way of working and more recently new synthetic paints were developed.

Art has always been reliant on technology one way or another. In the past fifty years or so that technology has not only become the means but also the end. The early synthesizers were probably the vanguards of the new electronic art age and I remember the old light shows of the swinging sixties, fairly crude though they were.

But Pandora’s Box was well and truly flung open with the advent of computers and other digital interfaces which established a whole new world of possibilities for artists of all disciplines. REBOOT Pioneering Digital Art at Het Nieuwe Instituut gives us a comprehensive survey of digital art, starting in 1960 through to 2000 and brings us up to date with brand new work by a number of international artists.

Computer generated images are everywhere, creating worlds that only exist on a screen or printed page. It is impossible to know what is real anymore. But there is much more to it than that as this fascinating exhibition demonstrates.

It will come as no surprise to discover that there are a lot of flashing lights and bleepy noises, but this isn’t just a stand-and-look exhibition. Most of the pieces are interactive. Right at the beginning is a little room with a chaise longue covered in white leather with a decanter and two glasses on a side table. On the sofa are a pair of headphones and an iPad and you are invited to lie back, relax and discover what happens when the piece is activated. Or you could try Homa’s Phantom which takes place in a little area complete with chair, big screen, joystick and track-ball where you can digitally wander round an imaginary landscape – it was raining when I tried.

In an early manifestation of AI, in the early 1990s, artists Driessens and Verstappen developed Breed, a software programme designed to design sculptures. Some of the examples can be seen in a glass case. Just around the corner from them are three old computer monitors endlessly moving shapes around, one of them reminding me of one of the first computer games, a sort of tennis which involved hitting a moving ball backwards and forwards.

There were a couple of really nice musical pieces as well such as a display of three pairs of glove-like objects with harnesses, wire and switches. Nearby a video demonstrated that when worn on the hands and waved about you could conduct your own orchestra. But the one I liked best was the digitized street barrel organ, one of the small ones on pram wheels. Cihad Caner’s piece was a nice combination of old and new. There was still a wheel pumping the air through and the music was still produced by a concertinaed punch-card passing through. But the punch-cards were produced by AI and the pipes had been reconfigured for a digital age.

But the biggest and most sensational piece in the exhibition was a huge revolving arm with a large loud speaker at one end. It moved its pen like a caged tiger, letting out little growls when its sensors picked up someone standing nearby. If that person moved, the speaker would follow them.

Like in the movies, computers enable artists to go where they have never gone before, the only restraint is their imaginations and, I guess, the amount of available memory.    Michael Hasted    28th November 2023

REBOOT Pioneering Digital Art continues at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam until 1st April 2024