Future Shock review – like a pretentious nightclub where no one is dancing | Art

When you’ve seen one laser carving clouds of smoke to create illusory 3D spaces that warp and shift before your eyes, you’ve seen them all. And I saw this special effect in Back to the Future: The Musical, so the two installations that use it in the latest subterranean art spectacular in the cavernous club-like depths of 180 The Strand cut no dry ice with me.

There are other parallels between this exhibition and Back to the Future, which is at the Adelphi, down the street. Both are science fiction. But whereas the story of Marty McFly and his time-travelling DeLorean wittily plays with ideas about crossing your own timelines, there are no ideas or wit in Future Shock. It is a light show without a gig. The electro music accompanying most of the installations sounds so samey in its soothing beeps that it just washed over me. At least in Back to the Future you get some laughs, and a car flies over the audience at the end. This is like being at a pretentious nightclub where no one dances.

Subassemblies by Ryoichi Kurokawa
Visual sensation … Subassemblies by Ryoichi Kurokawa. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

It started well, with a cinematic environment by Ryoichi Kurokawa that’s like a canyon dwarfed by two towering projections, one pastoral, the other urban. Trees and rocks, corridors and rooms melt and shapeshift and finally merge in a captivating visual rush that feels like a real glimpse of the art of the future. As virtual reality and AI make our capacity to generate – or get machines to generate – almost infinitely supple spaces and images, what can’t artists create? Illusion is back. Visual sensation is back. O brave new world, I thought, as I moved through the gloom into the next space where blue lights had me bedazzled.

But the mind can only go five minutes or so without wanting to piece everything together and find meaning. It quickly transpires there is none here. Lawrence Lek’s virtual-reality sci-fi film about an imaginary post-apocalyptic China looks good(ish) yet rambles pointlessly: it is a game waiting for a player. Weirdcore, “one of the UK’s leading audiovisual artists”, isn’t anything like weird enough, just putting you in a chillout space with mildly interesting patterns and sounds. And so it goes on: a succession of gimmicky entertainments that try to disguise with slick sound and vision their fundamental absence of purpose.

The artists in Future Shock may well be at the cutting edge technically, but even if the great art of tomorrow is made with digital media and machine learning, it won’t look like this. Art needs content, intellect, emotion and poetry – or at least a couple of those – but this is just an urban son et lumière. The world is filling with “creatives” who play about with digital toys and create groovy effects that don’t have much function but to distract. That is fine, in its place: the skills demonstrated here could, and probably will, provide nightclub atmosphere, theatre designs and rock-festival lighting to set the sky on fire. Fantastic. Just don’t claim it is art.

Theta by Lawrence Lek
Drive on … Theta by Lawrence Lek. Photograph: Courtesy of Sadie Coles

It is all so slick. Nothing shocks or offends. Can this be a deeper problem with virtual reality as art? The truth may be that we need the sordid, irritating presence of filthy life to feel something as art. The only sign of that here is in a freaky installation by Actual Objects that confronts you with talking, lifesize virtual human beings. Moving, gesticulating and speaking in horribly real yet obviously unreal ways, these uneasy simulacra of ourselves are genuinely disturbing. This is proper science fiction. Will we soon be in a world where it’s hard to tell actual humans from fake ones? One of the characters is a ranting middle American guy who held me with his asinine views and unnerving actuality.

That was a bit of real future shock, from deep in the uncanny valley. Then it was back to lights dancing in the dark and music they found on scrap paper in Brian Eno’s bins.

I suppose you could take reassurance from this. If the future is no worse than a slightly silly labyrinth of pretty but ephemeral electronica, we will be lucky. Outside, the news was waiting. If you need mindless escapism from the real world, this is as close to it as an art exhibition can get.

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