Radiohead’s interactive exhibit takes music and games to new territory
Radiohead’s first idea to celebrate two decades of their flagship albums Child A and Amnesiac was to crash a brutalist spaceship in the Victoria and Albert Museum, “inserted into the urban fabric of London like an ice pick in Trotsky”. It was to be made from shipping containers and would go around the world. But the V&A would not give permission; neither does the Royal Albert Hall. Eventually, Covid-19 thwarted the plan altogether, so the group opted for an alternative plan – an “interactive exhibit,” released last week, which plays out like a video game, an opportunity for fans and newcomers alike. to take a psychedelic walk through two seminal rock albums.
The group has always been interested in taking advantage of new technology to release their work, from the early adoption of streaming to Child Aexit from in 2000 to In the rainbows, which in 2007 was made available as a pay-what-you-want digital purchase. For this year’s reissue of Child A and Amnesiac, the group joined TikTok with a series of surreal videos. In this context, a game looks like a suitable new experience, especially a celebration Child A, released at the dawn of the digital age of music and marking a transformation for the band, which left behind the guitar riffs and choruses of OK Computer for oblique song structures and an expanded sonic palette of sections of strings, synthesizers and drum machines.
Although this is called an exhibit and plays like a musical walking simulator, the experience of Kid A Mnesia exhibition is far more ambitious than walking the digital corridors and looking at virtual art. The player wanders through a nightmarish labyrinth full of moments of serenity and beauty, in keeping with the tone of anger, anxiety and paranoia of the turn of the millennium that runs through these albums.
Developed over two years with game studios namethemachine and Arbitrarily Good Productions, the exhibition immerses the player in the rich visual world created by lead singer Thom Yorke and longtime collaborating artist Stanley Donwood. Their striking images deserve more attention: two books of their works have been published alongside the reissue albums and the interactive exhibit.
Donwood and Yorke’s album covers evoke a lonely world that expands thoughtfully in interactive 3D space. The landscapes are haunted by the anguish of politics and climate change, the often sickly colors. As you navigate the labyrinth of tunnels, disturbing creatures appear – slender figures with smiling faces, white papier-mâché monsters and minotaurs, lost and doomed in mazes of their own making. In an interview, Yorke described them as “personifications of the vibe of the day, going in and out of songs and writing. The Faceless Terrorists; selfish politicians; corporate bigwigs kissing.
Beyond the artwork, on digital walls and 3D renderings of Radiohead‘s bestiary, there are dramatic backdrops in certain rooms that soundtrack to particular songs: a swirling paper hurricane set on the tumbling guitar of “In Limbo”, a crimson chamber similar to a uterus which pulses along to the heavy hearted piano of “Pyramid Song” and a spectacular cube of light which pulsates to the nervous percussions of “Packt Like Sardines In a Crushd Tin Box ”.
The band’s longtime producer Nigel Godrich took each song apart using the original multitrack recordings and restructured its elements so that they were triggered at key moments in the experience. As a Radiohead fan, I was overjoyed when I walked into a hallway and was swallowed by the syrupy synths of “Everything in Its Right Place” and discovered an amber drop that once entry, burst the furious “The National Anthem” bassline from the speakers. Because each song is rearranged by your movements, the experience is often akin to hearing these songs for the first time – and they still sound fresh today.
Musicians today are beginning to realize the marketing possibilities of the playing space, but few – apart from Björk – have studied the artistic possibilities of games. It’s refreshing to have an experience that pushes us deeper to fully engage with these songs. Maybe one day such music games related to new releases will be as common as music videos today. The revolutionary idea of MTV was that music wasn’t just for listening, it was also for watching. The Kid A Mnesia exhibition argues that the next evolution in music could be gameplay.
‘Kid A Mnesia Exhibition’ is now available for free on PS5, PC and Mac