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ONE thought occurs more than once during exploration Kid A Mnesia Exhibition. You turn a corner or open a door in the expansive complex on several levels where the exhibition takes place, and suddenly the laws of physics disappear, or your presence triggers the ghostly appearance of elliptical text that slowly illuminates some murky passage. From here, the idea emerges, uninvited: Damn. I really need to do it again when I’m tall.
I’m not quite sure what I expected from this new digital art installation project from Radiohead and the band longtime collaborator / artist-in-residence, Stanley Donwood. BWhatever assumptions I had, they were clearly inadequate. From the moment I stepped into a dark corridor and followed the spectral glow of light peeking through a distant entrance, this multimedia extravaganza kept surprising me, to the point where during an experience in the middle of a song, I did not even was sure if I was still in the exhibition or if I had fallen into a pretty impossible mistake. (I did not have that.)
A little background: Radiohead and Donwood – whose artwork and prose provocations (made with Yorke) have graced all of the band’s releases, press releases and merchandise since My iron lung EP all the way back in 1994—had planned to make a physical art installation to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Children A and Amnesia. It was supposed to be a massive, brutalistic steel shield made of shipping containers it could travel the world, a rolling exhibition of works of art and images they had given birth to two decades earlier.
Unfortunately, COVID happened – and a project that is already facing significant practical obstacles (it turned out the original drawings for the exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London would have collapsed parts of the building) suddenly DOA looked like. But like Yorke and Donwood explain in a press release accompanied by this new project, to be liberated from the boundaries of, well, reality may have been a blessing. Or, as they put it: “Our dream was dead. Until we realized … It would be much better if it did not actually exist.”
Cut to now, after two years of working with longtime producer Nigel Godrich, along with a director, set designer and a host of game designers, and the results seem to better than what any physical installation could have delivered. When you soar in an infinite chamber and see an incessant parade of little creatures slowly rising from the ink-colored depths and ascending to the sky, it’s hard to imagine that any reality version of this exhibit enhances the experience.. Whatever is lost you-are-there-immediacy is more than offset by the imaginative leaps that this digital art installation takes.
Let’s be clear: this is not a game. There are no buttons you press inside this world – no handles to pull, no mini-puzzles that require you to perform certain actions in the right order to make something happen. (You will still try; despite being clearly told this, both by the pre-printed material I received and the introduction of the opening text to the exhibition itself, I repeatedly went to handles and various machines in the room, my video game brain was convinced , that, they certainly did not mean none game elements.) No, yyou simply wander around, guided by nothing but your own curiosity – and the occasional helpful arrows in museum style inform you of the path to various installations.
And what a hike you get. There are a few dozen installations throughout the exhibition – each paired with one or more songs from the two albums, often engagingly divided or divided into components, sometimes with video recordings. Bout even prowling the hallways between the big set pieces offer ample wealth, as the vast amount of art that Donwood produced in that era means that virtually all of the walls are covered in drawings, paintings, doodles, fragments of philosophical considerations, and more. Yorke and Donwood insist they got so much art made during that period, they lacked nothing new for the exhibition. Yyou wonder how they found time to sleep.
Trying to describe it can be a little futile. Yes, you walk around looking at art, but you also meet disturbing creatures that arrange theirs look at you and follow you around the room, or suddenly pass through a work of art into an underworld beyond, or dig down under a black and white forest until you rise from the ground, little devils shimmering under your feet. At one point, I was walking straight out of a narrow path and fell into apparently nothing, only to suddenly land on an identical walkway, surrounded by even more passive men with stick figures, who somehow looked at me despite the fact that I was faceless.
And no, you do not have to be a Radiohead fan to admire the immersive artistry that went into this experience. It probably enhances your appreciation of being familiar with the music, but when I pulled my non-Radiohead fan significant other into the room to experience it with me, they were fascinated within three minutes. “This is fucking fat,” they said. I know. It really is. I can not wait to recommend this excellent new art gallery – one that happens to bend the rules of time and space.
Kid A Mnesia Exhibition is available as a free download on PlayStation 5, PC and Mac.
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