Digital arts in Barcelona: building momentum

​El Centre Ideal se submergeix en l’univers de Frida Kahlo aprofitant les arts digitals més trencadores. © Blit Studio

Business is booming for audiovisual creation studios in Barcelona now that virtual reality, immersive installations and digital animation are stirring up more and more interest. These creators, mainly based in the 22@ district, squeeze out all the potential of the most innovative technologies, outdoing themselves on each project and making what once seemed like science fiction a reality. We talked to the digital arts professionals who worked on the latest immersive exhibition at the Ideal Centre, dedicated to artist Frida Kahlo, and on many other projects.

The Martes Studio headquarters are exactly what you would imagine an office in Barcelona’s 22@ district to look like: a single, long room with infinite tables, on which one Mac is lined up after another. At the entrance, we find various bikes and a lit-up sign that says ‘Life on Martes’. At the back, tropical plants lean towards the light pouring in through the big windows. On the left, a pool table and a ping-pong table offer something to do during time-consuming renders.

Founded in 2017 by Roger Amat, Joan Molins and Xavi Trilla, this studio is in charge of the immersive installation currently being hosted by the Ideal Centre, where an immersive biography of Frida Kahlo is being projected onto 800 square metres of screen, creating a hypnotic, absorbing experience that uses 27 synchronised projectors to conquer the walls and floor. These are cutting-edge audiovisual techniques being met with increasing appreciation from the public, companies and institutions alike. ‘These techniques have been in development for ten or fifteen years, but now they are being consolidated’, Joan Molins explains. ‘There’s starting to be more investment, more spaces, more museums, more infrastructure, more opportunities’. Roger Amat adds, ‘It’s not just that there’s more money around; these kinds of productions have also got cheaper to make. The technique has been democratised’. Xavi Trilla concurs: ‘It’s got to the mainstream: it’s now for all audiences. Therefore, there’s more supply and more movement’.

Martes Studio also creates special effects for advertising, TV, fashion and music videos, and has worked with musical phenomena like Coldplay, C. Tangana, Bad Gyal and Lunay. One of their most recommendable pieces is the audiovisual gem The Performers: Jacques, which they created for the irreverent French musician.

When we ask them where they think the industry is going, Joan responds convincingly: ‘Towards automation!’ Xavi backs him up: ‘Towards taking our jobs away!’ All three of them laugh, and Joan explains what he means: ‘Artificial intelligence will optimise most of what we do now. The expectation is that we’ll be able to focus on the creative bit, and the machine will take care of the more fiddly parts, like cropping images, chroma keying and looking for archive material’.

Going inside the screen
Until very recently, we tended to associate the digital arts with virtual reality glasses, but this tool has not really taken off. ‘The glasses separate you from your environment, and that puts a lot of people off: they get embarrassed, they feel exposed’, explains Jordi Massó, the audiovisual technical director at the Ideal Centre. He sees a future where immersive experiences will be created through ‘implants in the eye or glasses like these ones’, he says, pointing at his ordinary glasses, ‘so that physical and digital reality combine without you needing to wear a big contraption on your face’.

Massó tells us that, meanwhile, centres with immersive rooms like Ideal are popping up all over Europe and the world. ‘It’s still just a screen you enter, but it’s so successful. We are surrounded by screens, constantly staring at one, so the next step is to go inside this screen’.

Videoclip de Coldplay “Champion of the world”, amb postproducció i efectes especials de Martes Studio. © Martes Studio Music video for Coldplay’s “Champion of the World”, with post-production and special effects by Martes Studio. © Martes Studio
La Fura dels Baus empra arts digitals per potenciar l’espectacularitat de simfonies com la Simfonia núm. 6,  “Pastoral”, de Beethoven. © La Fura dels Baus La Fura dels Baus uses digital arts to make symphonies like Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the ‘Pastoral Symphony’, even more spectacular. © La Fura dels Baus

The interview with Jordi Massó takes place in a kind of production room with four monitors, which are used to check that the facility’s projectors are working properly. Massó is also the creator behind the mapping of an exhibit at the Frida Kahlo event titled El somni [The Dream], a projection that depicts the Mexican artist’s long and painful, yet creatively fruitful, convalescence after a road accident.

When asked about his own dream, Jordi reveals that he would love to be the audiovisual director of an opera. ‘Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Verdi’s Requiem. I listen to it a lot’. He fell in love with this genre after working with La Fura dels Baus and multidisciplinary artist Franc Aleu: all pioneers in the use of cutting-edge audiovisual stage design in operas. Massó considers himself a potential artist: ‘To give yourself the artist label, you have to have your own style and language, and I’m still looking for mine’.

Painting with code
Another of the creators behind the ‘Frida’ exhibition, Sergio Albiac, supports this concept of the artist in the digital world: ‘I feel like an artist, 100%. I paint with code. Throughout the history of art, artists have always used the most advanced technology available to them at the time’. For the Ideal exhibition, Sergio has developed a photo booth that works using artificial intelligence.

The feminisation of the digital arts
Mariona Omedes wanted to be a painter, but then she discovered the world of post-production in London and she said to herself: ‘I’ll paint using movement’, she explains through laughter on a video call. Omedes is the co-founder of Nueveojos, the studio that has contributed to the Kahlo exhibition with a multilayer installation, in which five transparent layers are superimposed on one another to create three-dimensional images. Nueveojos works for public institutions, production companies and agencies, and for two years now, it has been in charge of the visual stage design for the Goya Awards.

Mariona, who began to manipulate images digitally in 1989, has witnessed ‘a crazy evolution’ in the technical sphere and in terms of access to equipment. She has also seen the recent, gradual incorporation of women into a highly male-dominated industry: ‘It’s really exciting, because I haven’t come across many [women] in the process, and I really like how they work. I’ve had to deal with a lot of alpha males’.

Lucia Segurajáuregui, co-founder of Play a Bit, confirms that the sector is becoming more feminised: ‘In the Matics collective, there are as many women as there are men. And I’d say we women are more hardcore’, she says with a chuckle. The group she is referring to, Matics, is a non-profit association that seeks to create a community that revolves around the digital arts. According to Lucia, the whole sector is characterised by team spirit.

This is evidenced by the installation Play a Bit created for Ideal: an ‘infinity room’ where the visitor can interact with a host of animations from the Mexican artist’s imaginary, including flowers, fruits, hummingbirds, monkeys and skulls, all constantly moving. To calculate the spatial measurements for this sensory, interactive installation, she sought help from her friend Diego Suárez, who is also a member of Matics. ‘In two seconds flat, I had his help’, Lucia explains.

Toni Jaume, Lucia’s business partner, points out that the sector is growing because ‘more and more curators of cultural events are thinking about these new languages: they no longer focus on a print, an analogue sculpture or a bog-standard audiovisual piece. They are thinking digital. We are living through a turning point: the paradigm of entertainment and cultural leisure is changing’.

Less ‘wow’, more story
However, this paradigm shift will be closely linked to the contents of the work. Marc Colomines, creative director of Blit Studio, explains: ‘Audiences are used to the “wow” moment now. Someone who has gone to see the video mapping at the La Mercè festivities five years in a row won’t be surprised any more. You have to tell them something, get them excited with the story, not just the effects, or perhaps both’.

Blit’s headquarters are similar to the Martes office: an open-plan industrial space, countless computer monitors, a vintage slot machine and a notice board, from which two old tickets to the El Dirty club night at Razzmatazz hang, among assorted colour prints of past projects.

Blit has created the virtual-reality glasses experience that constitutes the last part of the Kahlo exhibition. When Marc founded the company, in 2015, he had not even considered working with this technology. At that time, he was a video jockey (VJ): he played images live to the rhythm of the music at festivals and night clubs in London, Madrid and Ibiza. In the latter, he was the resident VJ for two years at the legendary Space Ibiza club. He had always used images made by others, until he decided to create his own visuals. From there, he moved on to animated graphics, then mapping, and finally, virtual reality. Today, we can see his creations at museums, concerts and brand events.

La cantant Nathy Peluso durant la gala dels premis Goya 2021, amb escenografia desenvolupada per Nueveojos. © Nueveojos Singer Nathy Peluso during the 2021 Goya Awards gala, with stage design developed by Nueveojos. © Nueveojos

Barcelona: capital of the digital arts?
Most of those interviewed believe that Barcelona is home to so many studios dedicated to the digital arts because of its baggage in the areas of architecture and of graphic and industrial design. ‘We have a long design tradition’, Xavi Trilla muses. ‘Before, it was graphic design, and now it’s digital. We’ve wised up and modernised. We’ve evolved’. Sergio Albiac highlights the importance of schools like Eina, BAU and Elisava.

Mariona Omedes, of Nueveojos, puts the city’s status down to a balanced combination of aesthetic instinct and work ethic: ‘There is a lot of good taste in Barcelona, as well as artistic culture and aesthetic discernment. There might be guys with incredible skills in the USA, but their work is mediocre. On top of that, we Catalans have a special way of working; we’re very thorough, professional… This makes us stand out, because I can assure you that the world is full of people doing the same thing’.

Sergio Albiac utilitza algoritmes digitals i intel·ligència artificial per pintar retrats. © Sergio Albiac Sergio Albiac uses digital algorithms and artificial intelligence to paint portraits. © Sergio Albiac

We move on a few metres, through El Poblenou, until we reach Broomx. Its founder, Ignasi Capellà, provides a sceptical voice, going against this idealised image of Barcelona as a hub of digital creation: ‘We sometimes engage in a bit too much navel-gazing: we pat ourselves on the back for what we have and we don’t look elsewhere, where a lot is being done with a lot more ease. If we really want to be a country known for new technologies, innovation and digital talent, we need more support for technological companies and centres. We appear on all the lists of the most innovative cities, but we need to be realistic: companies come here because of the climate and the wages. Hiring a programmer here costs half as much as it would in France or Germany, and a quarter as much as it would in the Nordic countries’.

As I chat to Ignasi, we walk through Park Güell, we go swimming with dolphins and we drive along a road with sky-high palm trees on either side. All of this scenery is generated by the MK360+: a projector that, in just a few minutes and through a mobile app, adapts to the dimensions of any room and whisks the user off to countless parallel universes, without them having to get up from the sofa. The MK360+ and the MKPro, the two projectors created by Broomx, have emerged as alternatives to the usual video mapping, which normally requires many projectors and is expensive, and to virtual reality glasses, which tend to feel isolating.

Digital creation enters hospitals
Though Broomx initially designed its immersive experiences for museums and hotels, they are now being used more and more in hospitals and nursing homes for elderly people. ‘People with neurological diseases tend to be closed off within themselves. They have emotional ups and downs and need a lot of care and medication. Our tools help them to improve their emotional well-being, socialise, have fewer crises and slow down their cognitive decline’, explains Ignasi.

What is more, Broomx projectors help healthcare workers to control their stress levels – which sky-rocketed during the pandemic – through meditation and mindfulness sessions. Broomx works with Vall d’Hebron Hospital, Olot and La Garrotxa County Hospital and the Medical Emergencies Services (SEM).

Ignasi, a sociologist by training, believes in the humanities-oriented side of the digital arts. ‘Yes, this is a profession in which resources worth millions have been invested, but what is it for? How can it be assessed? What impact does it have?’ For him, answering these questions ‘requires non-tech profiles, such as sociologists, philosophers, psychologists… We’re underrepresented, and we’re necessary’.

Les teràpies immersives tenen grans resultats en pacients amb trastorns neurològics i psicològics. © Broomx Immersive therapies are having great results in patients with neurological and mental disorders. © Broomx

The challenges faced by the digital arts
There is a consensus that the main obstacle in the sector is budget. ‘Our products are fleeting. Sometimes they are shown once for four minutes and nobody sees them ever again. It makes the client reluctant to dedicate a lot of money to them’, Marc Colomines laments. For Jordi Massó, the problem is ignorance. ‘People know little about this field, and they think projects can be completed in a few days. Sometimes you have to leave in order to be valued’.

‘I've worked twenty hours in a row sitting at a computer’, Mariona Omedes recognises, ‘and on crazy projects that require months of work–sleep–work–sleep–work–sleep. I’m not sure everyone is cut out for this job’. Toni Jaume corroborates her account: ‘I’ve found myself in stressful situations many times, not knowing whether or not the effort is worth it, but we always end up getting it done and achieving success’. In Sergio’s eyes, the most satisfying part of the job is ‘the feeling that you’re working in a field with no limits’.

For Marc, one especially fond memory is working at Medusa Festival, an electronic music festival for which he and his colleagues designed some spectacular visuals and stage design. ‘When you see a crowd of 50,000 people take out their phones to record what you made, you know you’ve done well’.

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