What we think of as digital, simply isn't!

 Many of the shapes, icons and typography that we think of as digital and modern simply aren’t, these concepts were explored long before the tech could achieve a true representation of what was in the minds of artists and designers.

I was recently in Barcelona, visiting ISE 2024, which for those who don’t already know, is a massive technology show. So massive that I walked over 12 miles in one day, and I’m pretty sure that I didn’t get to every part of it.

The show was a spectacular display of new tech, the scale and intricacy of some of the products on show was breathtaking. But what I found in MACBA (the Museum of Modern Art Barcelona) the day after feels every bit as cutting edge as the stands at ISE, but it was over 50 years old and truly analogue art, old school and whatever other terms you care to use.

This reminded me that digital forms, as we think of them today, have been a source of interest for artists for much longer than the technical capability of apps or AI.

MACBA interior, main hall


A love of minimalism

As a fan of the less is more approach to…well, pretty much everything if I’m being honest, this building didn’t disappoint, with just enough of the beautiful forms and shapes of the art nouveau movement within the structure to add interest and surprise. From first sight, I knew that this place was going to deliver the peace and sanctuary that I was craving, and hopefully some visual inspiration too.


MACBA exterior

Entering another world

Stepping into MACBA I left the hustle and bustle of an incredibly vibrant city behind me. I admire the use of space within the building, it has a real sense of scale, it’s not lavish, that wouldn’t be very ‘modern art’ after all, but it has a real presence, created by the size and scale of the buildings..It’s an impressive design that strikes the fine balance between scale and minimalism that does not become intimidating.

On the day that I visited the sun was bathing the white walls in it’s glory, making them positively radiate and glow, bringing the building alive, vibrant and energising. MACBA is a world of white minimalism, pretty much what you’d expect and I love it for that, but this minimalist aesthetic is delivered in such a way as to be both breath taking and welcoming.


MACBA sunshine pouring in through the windows


I appreciate that this might not be everyone’s idea of warm of welcoming, but on this bright sunny day, after a day inside hall after hall of artificial light, packed with people and products, this was exactly what I needed and I couldn’t wait to explore it all.


Lichtzwang detail1

Art with a distinctly digital feel that was totally natural

Daniel Steegmann Mangrané was the featured artist at the time of my visit. His work is often inspired by nature and natural forms. I found the series of geometric shapes or tiles produced on graph paper with water colours to be fascinating. To give it’s it’s proper name, this series is called Lichtzwang. Over the course of 15 years from the mid 90's, Mangrané used the natural colours he saw within his garden to create these intricate colour palettes.


Lichtzwang series


I was intrigued by the manner within which he had chosen to capture this. Natural colours and palettes of colour feel like they would, or maybe should blend into one another, especially within a watercolour piece, that would be the natural choice. This is where the real joy of fresh thinking comes, demonstrated in this case via a precision that takes the work to another level.

First we have some stunning colour groupings, taken from nature that’s always going to win my heart. Then you look at the format within which it has been captured, the tiny squares of graph paper, using water colour.


Lichtzwang series detail


Wait a minute, if you have ever used watercolour paints you’ll know just how tricky this medium can be to control. Delivering it, day-in day-out with absolute precision of colour tone within these tiny squares shows a discipline and attention to detail, that is incredibly high, dare I say it, almost robotic in it’s accomplishments, but perhaps I’m being overly influenced my our ‘modern’ day.

Looking at this series I was initially drawn to the colour combinations, which are stunning. Having read the background behind the pieces, understanding the manner within which they have been produced, I find this work even more impressive.


Jon Gibson Melody III book II cover


It wasn’t just Mangrané’s work that caught my eye, I was also drawn to this piece by Jon Gibson, called Melody III book II. It reminded me of the pixel configurations that we have explored within several of our shirts - Pixel, Binary and Glitch. We are celebrating technology and the modern world, yet this piece of work is over 40 years old! And it looks like it could have been made yesterday – to me at least!


Melody III book II detail


For me it’s timeless. It’s also minimal, the definition of less is more and I love to think that people were exploring these forms long before they became part of what we think of today as digital assets or digital art. And they are certainly not AI generated.


Jon Gibson Melody III book II further details

Recharged and ready to go

I was in the BARCA for just over 2 hours. I could have easily stayed longer, but it was a beautiful spring day outside and I wanted to drink in some of that glorious sunshine that had brought the interior alive.

Given the intense levels of activity that I’d been involved with over the previous 36 hours, taking 2 hours to explore and indulge myself was absolutely the right thing to do. I’m sure that I could have ploughed on, writing up notes, following up emails and other messages, but spending time away from a screen, absorbing new art and artists refreshed my battery, my thinking and has already inspired me to develop some more shirt ideas alongside our made-on-demand service.

Learning the power of downtime

It’s taken me a long time, I was at least a decade into my career before I felt confident enough about stepping away, refreshing my mind and recharging. I hope that others don’t repeat my process, it’s an easy trap to fall into.

Stopping yourself, taking a break, means that you can come back to things with renewed enthusiasm, nourished and not just ready for action, but ready to innovate, to push the boundaries and create something new.

It’s always tempting to think that staying the course is the best plan of action, and I’m not for one second suggesting that anybody should give up and throw in the towel, but realising when you are tired, fatigued and in need of a recharge, is so powerful. Yes, you can soldier on, but the quality of what you’re producing will almost certainly dip.


Thanks for reading

If you’re looking for more insights to MACBA and the work of Daniel Steegmann Mangrané, here's his official Instagram page, I’ve covered some of his other work in a post on the Busy as AB website, where I’ve looked at the incredible detail, print theory and typographic elements of his work.