Yota Space: The light fantastic
Behind its ramshackle facade, a disused, Stalin-era shopping centre in St Petersburg has been transformed to house a digital revolution in art – and its most innovative pioneers are British, says Matilda Battersby
A vast building completely covered in scaffolding and billboards protrudes from a busy street in St Petersburg. Its presence is a clattering contrast to the baroque architecture and frozen canals which surround it. Behind this temporary façade nestles a disused Stalin-era shopping centre, within which a surprising transformation has taken place.
Exposed walls, empty shop fronts, pillars, staircases and ceilings have been painted black and swathed in blackout curtains. This rather sinister line in interior decoration is purely functional, for within its darkened folds one of the world's biggest and most ambitious digital-arts festivals is taking place.
Billed as the "world's greatest exhibition of digital art", Yota Space, the brainchild of the mobile broadband firm Yota, is also Russia's debut digital festival. It is interesting, then, that the artists invited to Russia to show the incredible things the world can do with digital art are predominantly British or working in Britain. And this is what strikes one most forcibly – that the greatest digital artists in the world at the moment are British.
The exhibition space is vast: installations cover five floors of the 15,000sqm shopping centre. A digital festival on this scale has never been seen in the UK, where digital art is still seen more as an accompaniment to other art forms, music in particular, rather than the main event.
Yota's team has spent the last year researching the world's best digital artists, inviting them to show here and commissioning new work. As such, British digital artists like Chris Levine, Jason Bruges and Brian Eno have managed to wriggle their way through the bureaucracy to bring their visions to this fantastic new space.
On launch day, even the minus temperatures and a snow blizzard couldn't dampen the excitement. Stepping through a rather unimpressive, makeshift entrance, our guide warned a posse of shivering journalists: "Be careful inside. It's very dark and there are places you might trip."
Once accustomed to the blanketing gloom, visitors come upon Volume, an installation by British-based arts group United Visual Artists (UVA). The installation is comprised of 47 bollard-sized columns which light up and play music as censors respond to the movement of people among them.
"Volume works with a motion-tracking system," UVA producer Keri Elmsly explains. "Each column has a different set of notes composed by Massive Attack's Robert Del Naja. It's been composed so that as people move around it, any given set of notes work in harmony with each other."
A floor above, another British artist's work was getting people to behave equally strangely. Colours of varying luminescence appeared like bright ink in water on a giant cinema screen. Like Volume, Mehmet S Akten's Body Paint relies on human movement. Once onlookers cotton on, they begin waving their arms and jigging about, watching awestruck as their movement is translated into a riot of colour.
Akten set up the Mega Super Awesome Visuals Company, another London-based group of artists who somehow manage to live up to their name, eight years ago. Their intention is to "hijack technology to create emotional and memorable experiences," which, judging from the euphoria of the people doing silly dances in front of Body Paint, they've probably succeeded in.
English former architect Jason Bruges' Peasouper was nothing special at first glance. Three large glass cabinets, not dissimilar to the one Damien Hirst put his shark in, stand apparently empty in the darkness. But stand in front of them and something weird happens. After an unnatural delay, your own image is reflected statically back at you – a ghostly replica of your first curious glance a few seconds earlier.
Bruges explains that the work was inspired by the tale of Echo and Narcissus, in which the latter falls in love with his reflection. "People really like seeing images of themselves," Bruges says. "Which is why I've been looking at digital narcissism. Without anybody standing in front of it, it would be nothing."
The glass cabinets are actually filled with a mixture of water and glycerine, which changes the way light and images are refracted, although it appears to be a dusty nothingness. It is quite surprising finding a "peasouper" – such a quintessentially British description of a London fog – in Russia's second capital. But with the icy temperatures outside, it is also quite appropriate.
A trip up to the fourth floor reveals yet another British gem. Chris Levine works with lasers, LEDs and optics to produce sculptural light displays, the most famous of which is a 3D hologram of the Queen. For Yota, he's taken a subtler route. At first, the small room he's been allocated looks like it contains only three strip-light bulbs. Positioned vertically in the centre of each wall, their strong light sends blobby imperfections across your eyes.
If you keep your head still, nothing happens. But the second you look away an image of Buddha quite shockingly appears out of nowhere. Blinkingly asking "Did you see that?" a look at the next bulb pops the word "Love" inexplicably, ephemerally into your mind.
"It works by scanning through an image which has been cut into strips really quickly, so that the full image is played out on your peripheral vision," Levine says. "This technique is called 'persistence of vision' – it has been in the public domain for a while. I've just taken it to the next level." Entitled Alright Now, there is something very baffling about the piece. Unlike Volume or Body Paint, which kept visitors amused for hours, Levine's piece prompted a quick exit.
An entire floor of the Yota festival was curated by Britain-based digital-arts organisation Onedotzero. Weaving in and out of the small curtained spaces, visitors are greeted with a variety of interactive offerings on a smaller scale.
Shane Walter, Onedotzero's creative director, says that the reason Britain has become a digital-arts hub is that there's a community of artists who happily share technology and code and work in a "collaborative" way.
Onedotzero's best piece was London-based, Italian-born artist Quayola's Strata series. Taking inspiration from the ornate ceiling of Rome's Chiesa del Gesù, he has produced animations splintering the "geographical formations" of classical paintings, so that the colours, shapes and gestures of hundreds of years ago mutate into a movable digital form.
Brian Eno is one of Britain's more familiar digital-art names, although he is probably more famous for his Roxy Music days than his light displays. Yota persuaded him to bring his most famous work, 77 Million Paintings, which filters (yes, you guessed it) 77 million paintings through a set of colourful shapes, like an onyx – the same pattern of which could mathematically never be repeated in our lifetime.
Eno's work is a crucial example of the fusion between music and digital art that has taken place in the last two decades in Britain. He says digital art and music have a "natural cohesion". But anyone who's been to a "new media" art festival in this country knows that the emphasis is much more on the music.
It will take a long time for digital art to be considered commercially in the same way that other modern art is in Britain. Elmsly claims that calling it digital art has rather "ghettoised" the movement, which adds to the scepticism and small-mindedness among critics.
This emphasis on experience over the aesthetic is possibly one of the reasons digital art is received somewhat scathingly in Britain, as purists judge it as a sort of arts theme park rather than something Saatchi might invest in.
Selling digital art is still an extremely difficult area in Britain as mainstream galleries are often loath to represent it. This, coupled with the fact that you can replicate the code of a digital piece endlessly without additional costs (meaning works can be installed in many places at once and not bought outright), makes pricing a bit of a minefield.
As technology advances, the potential for digital artists becomes infinitely greater. But as the building blocks evolve, the cost of producing such work increases massively. And with Britain's arts spending being hacked into, it is becoming more important for our home-grown digital artists to form relationships with commercial sponsors like Yota – something which may further devalue a critical response to such work.
For now we can only wonder where this art form will go. At Yota Space the British artists seem pleased just to have a forum in which to share ideas. It will be interesting to see, once Britain has been hailed abroad as a hub of digital pioneers, if the art world and public at home will take more of an interest.
Bright sparks: five top British digital artists
He is an English architect-turned-artist producing digital installations in public places. Recent work includes 'Surface Tension' on Westminster Bridge and Platform 5 at Sunderland Station. For the 2012 Olympics he is making a bridge of lights that will allow crossers to try and race Usain Bolt's sprint speed.
A Central Saint Martins graduate, Levine's Hypervisual 1.2 exhibition has toured 12 different countries. His hologram portrait of Queen Elizabeth II was commissioned by the Island of Jersey to commemorate its allegiance to the monarchy. He has produced laser shows for Massive Attack, Razorlight and Paul Weller.
The former Roxy Music band member forged concurrent careers in music and digital art. Last year he curated a new-media festival in Sydney, projecting his '77 Million Paintings' on to the Royal Opera House's sails. He was this year's guest curator at the Brighton Festival.
He is an Italian-born artist who has been working in London for nearly a decade. He takes cues from nature or architecture and translates the shapes and forms within them into animation, integrating computer-generated graphics with video. His works 'Strata#1 Rome' and 'Topologies' were commissioned by Onedotzero in 2010.
AKA Memo, he is founder of the Mega Super Awesome Visuals Company, and aims to produce interactive art experiences provoking an emotional response. Born in Istanbul, Akten has been based in London for 15 years. His work has been exhibited at the V&A, Royal Festival Hall, Edinburgh Film Festival and Glastonbury.
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