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Digital revolution: how technology has changed what it means to be an artist

A new exhibition at the Barbican shows how the technology behind video games is turbocharging the human imagination. But is it art? (Yes.) 

Umbrellium at the Barbican.

At the Liverpool Biennial this month, I had an epiphany: the video installation is the last refuge of the scoundrel. In a world where almost everyone I know carries a video recorder around in their pocket – and where Google is trying to get us to wear them on our faces – the mere act of committing something to tape is no longer alienating enough to kick the mundane into that strange sphere we call “art”. In 1972, when Ana Mendieta made Untitled (Death of a Chicken), an art gallery was probably the only place you could see a naked woman, splattered in blood, holding some recently deceased poultry. Now we have Reddit.

At the biennial – alongside several great exhibitions, including a well-curated selection of Whistlers at the Bluecoat – there were some spectacularly dull video installations. One was even canny enough to make a feature of its dullness by asserting: “Uri Aran plays with the way endless repetition can strip the banal of its meaning.” Oh, does he now? I resent artists who make me feel like this – like I’m some great big square who doesn’t get the ineffable postmodern profundity of resting a box of raisins over a vitrine filled with snot and would probably just prefer an insipid watercolour of a bee.

Nonetheless, I maintain that the feeling of “Yeah, but I could have done that” is lethal to the enjoyment of modern and conceptual art – and without the obvious artistry evidenced by mastery of a skill such as painting, sculpture or ceramics, it is easily evoked. Artists, take note: you can’t just film an orange for seven minutes and pretend it’s a meditation on solitude.

A small cheer, then, for the Barbican’s new exhibition “Digital Revolution”, which is devoted to the effect that technology has had on art and design. There is a video installation here that is enough to make anyone a convert to the medium: Chris Milk’s The Treachery of Sanctuary (pictured below). It features a triptych of video screens in a dark room, mirrored in a pool of water, which project your silhouette on to a white background. You see yourself stomp, fidget and gesticulate.

In the first screen, your silhouette disintegrates into birds and flies away; in the second, the birds peck you to nothingness. The final screen allows you to become a bird: fling open your arms and your silhouette suddenly has gigantic eagle’s wings, unfurling with a satisfying “whoomph”. The artist’s notes reference religious fervour, self-doubt and the cave paintings of Lascaux but even without any of that knowledge, the experience is memorable. It is art of this precise moment in history. First, it uses Kinect – the motion-sensing hardware developed by Microsoft that lets you pretend to ten-pin bowl or jet-ski from the comfort of your front room. Second, it uses that technology to answer a need created by another: specifically, that CGI moment in a science-fiction film when an ordinary human being suddenly sprouts wings (the X-Men movies do this well, as does Kevin Smith’s Dogma). Watching those films, surely every viewer wants to know what that might feel like? It turns out that even a small approximation is immensely satisfying. Every adult who stood in front of Milk’s triptych looked as wonderstruck as a child.

The other huge opportunity that the advance of the digital realm offers to artists is the possibility of crowd-sourcing. Elsewhere in the show, Milk has collaborated with another artist, Aaron Koblin, on The Johnny Cash Project, which offers people around the world a chance to redraw a frame of their choice from the video for the song “Ain’t No Grave”. Some are faithful replicas, others wild interpretations in a pointillist or impressionist style. The finished video, updated regularly on YouTube, is both recognisable and eerily estranged from its source material. Again, this is a work that speaks to a specific cultural moment. Technology has created the shared reference, through the mass-media power of the music video, and supplied the means to mimic it, through Photoshop and other software.

The reason I got this reviewing gig is that the exhibition also features games. There are early classics, which show how the commercial power of titles such as Pong, Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros drove innovations in hardware, alongside examples of later experimental and indie games.

A breathless pause here to deal with Roger Ebert’s question, which has haunted the medium for the past decade: can a video game be art? The answer, on this evidence, is yes. Ebert, a film critic, suggested that the interactive element of games showed there was no guiding creative intent: “I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist. Would Romeo and Juliet have been better with a different ending? . . . If you can go through ‘every emotional journey available’, doesn’t that devalue each and every one of them?”

But what many of the best games do is show their workings – they uncover the straitjacket of context within which your choices are made. My favourite title, BioShock (not on show here), is a good example, because of its unreliable narrator. The Barbican gives you a chance to play last year’s bleak indie hit Papers, Please, which forces you to act as an immigration official in a crushingly monotonous Soviet bureaucracy. Every choice leads to misery; there is no way to “win”.

Cute Circuit.

The problem with Ebert’s question was that it prompted a retrenchment. As a journalist born in the 1940s and a representative of the more established medium of film, he unwittingly pushed the button in every gamer marked: “But grown-ups don’t understand me!” And so, for several years, games manufacturers decided the best way to gain the approval of the cultural gatekeepers was to mimic cinema. The 2000s became the decade of the interminable cut scene, in which you were forced to watch mediocre mo-capped actors plank their way through utter bibble about lost home worlds and tactical assault teams before you got to the good bits (that is, shooting people in the face).

Finally, though, games are shrugging off their inferiority complex and the irony is that only now is their artistic potential being realised. While it’s true that the mega-hits – the soldier-simulations and dystopian rampage fantasies – are often immensely dumb and cliché-ridden, the same could be said of Hollywood blockbusters. At least in the game world, indie titles have an easy route to consumers, through the Steam software for PC and Mac and the Xbox and PlayStation marketplaces.

Avant-garde games have gone in two distinct directions, both driven by the urge to get away from the desire to “win” or “lose” and a desire to be more self-consciously “artistic”. Some, such as Dear Esther, Dys4ia or Gone Home, try to tell small-scale stories through a game mechanic focused on discovery; they are perhaps better described as “interactive fiction”. Others, such as Journey, Flower or Proteus, do away with any measure of progress and concentrate instead on creating a pure sensory experience.

What this exhibition delivers is a feeling of abundance, of creativity, of the potential of this palette of tools to turb0charge the human imagination. There’s more, too: a sense of connection unimaginable even 30 years ago. Inside the online game Minecraft, there are vast cities built by the mouse clicks of thousands. The indie title Fez has puzzles that are so difficult they can only be solved by an online horde comparing notes on a forum. But underneath it all, there is fragility. The Barbican’s first section, “Digital Archaeology”, reminds you that what is cheap to create is also easily discarded. In 2012, New York’s Museum of Modern Art started collecting the source code of old games, reasoning they could easily be lost for ever as the consoles needed to play them broke down or were thrown out as rubbish.

There’s the rub of artistic expression in our digital world: we can send data across the world at a keystroke, but in 100 years’ time, the highest achievements of our culture might be inaccessible to us, locked away in a digital space to which we no longer have the key. Mind you, when it comes to video installations of solitary oranges, I’m not sure that’s any great loss.

“Digital Revolution” is at the Barbican Centre, London EC2, until 14 September

The Liverpool Biennial runs until 26 October at various locations across the city

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster