In a year that has given us the like Genesis Noir, Mundaun, and Cruelty Squad, a virtual art exhibition by one of the world’s greatest rock bands is perhaps not the most unusual release in the medium. Nor is it entirely unexpected – virtual appearances by real-life artists are becoming more and more common, and members of Radiohead have been playing with the boundaries between music and other forms of artistic expression for years. Guitarist Johnny Greenwood scored Paul Thomas Andersons There will be blood back in 2007, for example, and Anderson worked with frontman Thom Yorke in 2019 on a short film for Netflix and IMAX. There’s a sense that it was only a matter of time before Radiohead expanded into one of entertainment’s most interactive media with Kid A Mnesia: Exhibition.
It also fits well Kid A Mnesia: Exhibition commemorates 20-something years since the band’s fourth and fifth studio albums, recorded at the same time, but released in 2000 and 2001 respectively. Looking back, Children A and Amnesia is sometimes overlooked in the shadow of OK Computer – probably the band’s most famous effort, as well as the one that is often credited for revolutionizing their sound and putting them on a solid experimental trajectory. However, Children A and Amnesia pushed this trajectory much further, incorporating influences from ambient, electronic, jazz and post-rock and often avoiding guitars or traditional rock ‘n’ roll structures.
The choice to mark Children A and Amnesia in this way also makes sense from a purely personal point of view. As Yorke has explained, “this work period was when [Radiohead found their] voice through the work of art. “Meanwhile, Stanley Donwood, the lead creator of art for most of Radiohead’s career and an important author of Kid A Mnesia: Exhibition, has talked about making art while the band wrote music in the same room, so the two were intertwined as a single experience.
Although the existence of Kid A Mnesia: Exhibition is then not so surprising, it seems surprisingly good. Available for free on PlayStation 5 and on PC and Mac through the Epic Games Store, it’s basically a two-hour first-person perspective goose simulator through a collection of spaces that can be loosely described as a virtual gallery. You can walk or run, look around, zoom in and occasionally interact with an object. You can also scan QR codes with your real phone, which shows a map of the exhibition.
Some of the rooms boast impressive texture and lighting, and all are interesting. Demons trapped in amber or hissing between tree roots, the mountain tops from the deck off Children A visible through windows as a real view before an unexpected change of perspective, liner notes and sheets of text covering an entire space like peeling wallpaper – these are just some of the spaces available to explore, while whole songs, excerpts of songs and other sounds from the two albums fade in and out into the background.
Each area is marked with a sign for the songs it’s attached to – “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” this way, “The National Anthem” that way – but the spaces between the main exhibits are no less fascinating. Mostly spanning brutalist concrete architecture, they are populated with spooky stickmen reminiscent of some of the mood of Anderson and York’s Netflix movies. Sometimes they give way to black or negative space, as well as to a few other surprises that confirm that it would not have been possible to deliver this experience in any other medium.
There’s actually a sense in that Kid A Mnesia: Exhibition is the reverse of a traditional gallery. It is not uncommon for modern galleries and museums to rely on QR codes and augmented reality to enhance physical exhibits. Using QR codes that link from a virtual space to a physical, digital replicas of physical objects and clips from real-life performances, Kid A Mnesia: Exhibition turns this approach upside down. Instead of the digital being used to improve the physical, the physical is used to improve the digital.
Unfortunately, not everything works so well. A late game segment that I do not want to spoil begins eerily Children A“How to Disappear Completely”, but continues for too long without the ability to finish or exercise much control over how it unfolds. It’s impressive, with particle effects reminiscent of something Rez Infinite‘s Area X, but the overall impression is dulled by a lack of player agency, which becomes more and more frustrating as the sequence unfolds.
More problematically, scanning QR codes brings out not only a map of the exhibit, but a confusing array of items at eye-catching prices (anyone for a £ 95 fine porcelain jug?). Eventually, scanning the codes begins to feel like an inadvertent stumble through a museum gift shop and seems like a strange choice for a band that spearheaded the pay-what-you-want distribution for their music. Then again, given free access, one might understand the inclusion of completely optional revenue generation.
In any case, whether it’s bugs or features, these things do not degrade Kid A Mnesia: Exhibition as a fascinating artifact. There is a strange contrast between how fresh the music still sounds and how dated some of the cultural references have become – for example a red telephone box or caricatures of the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose political brand was the target of many of Radiohead’s disillusionment with it. point in time.
The emphasis on negative memories, abstraction and symbolism, as well as on repackaging the two albums in a soundtrack format, prevents the exhibition from becoming a nostalgia piece. Instead, it inhabits a strange gray area between the old and the new. Of course, this is important for Radiohead fans, but it’s worth spending time with anyone interested in what the video game medium has to offer beyond traditional play.