This was a show designed to make the head spin. For one thing, the art of Ryoji Ikeda is quite an extreme audio-visual event. The sounds he uses go right to the uppermost and lowermost limits of human perception, while the images are composed of starkest black and white. Sections of seeming quiet and inactivity slam into thunderously loud strobe-lit passages which contain far too much information for the brain to process. In a sense, this is an art installation with rock show dynamics, which probably explains the excitement engendered in some members of the Barbican Spill Festival crowd, who whooped deliriously as Ikeda took us on this extraordinary journey, a journey which ultimately touched on concepts so grand they were as dizzying as the spectacle.
Ikeda’s Datamatics, which converts raw sequences of data into audio and visual signals in real time, was premiered in 2006; this extended version 2.0 has been around since 2007, though I haven’t quite caught either of them before. Even if I had, I doubt it would have steeled me for the sensory onslaught which awaited. It began with microscopic clicks, overlaid with more regular beeps, and a slow building hum, which gradually made me feel like I was listening to all of the data that was flowing through all of the world’s communication networks, particularly when combined with all the information that was streaming and scrolling across the giant screen, fast-moving lines connecting and disconnecting rhythmically. This led into a section where the lines on screen became more angular and tangled, like the keys on an overworked typewriter, the pressure to communicate quickly overwhelming the medium. When it reached its most intense, it would cut to the inverse: a blinding white screen, with vast expanse of weighty near-silence.
It was after these early pyrotechnics that it really began to make me feel giddy in whole new ways. We were shot out into a three dimensional space, rotating amongst the galaxies while individual stars amongst the seemingly random pattern were picked out with monotonous regularity. Wolf 359. Alpha Centauri. Barnard’s Star. Ross 154. Tau Ceti. New details began to appear on screen, such as each star’s magnitude, distance from the earth, and spectral classification, all of this data feeding into an increasingly red-shifted sound mix, the collection of tiny sounds building to a rocket engine roar. Amongst this, in a moment that was blink-and-you’d-miss it quick, the cursor homed in on a particular white dot, and accompanied by a beep no different from any of the others, the text simply said “Sun”. There we were. Tiny, indistinct, inconsequential amongst this complexity.
Then we were given new data sets, three letter abbreviations littering the screens. LIS. ILE. SEN. ASP. PHE. As the vectors began to join up into shapes and then into longer chains, it became obvious that we were dealing with very different sort of raw material: amino acids, the building blocks of biological material. These became strands of DNA, the unique genetic codes ripping across screen like Ikeda was an operative in the human genome project, racing to unravel the data that underpins life itself. When he executed a jump-cut back to the cosmos, his message was clear: everything we know, all matter and, for that matter, anti-matter, can be ultimately reduced to sets of data, which obey the same fundamental logic. The vastness of the audio-visual scope was matched by the head-spinning sweep of the context: Datamatics is Ikeda’s grand unified theory. As I found myself becoming entranced by the spinning dials of the show’s frenetic finale, I was reminded of the quote from the quantum physicist Paul Dirac: that the laws of nature should always be expressed in beautiful equations. I’d wager that Ikeda agrees.