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A thought occurs more than once while exploring Kid A Mnesia Exhibition. You’ll turn a corner or open a door in the sprawling, multi-level compound where the exhibition is set, and suddenly the laws of physics disappear, or your presence triggers the ghostly emergence of elliptical text slowly illuminating some murky hallway. From here, the idea emerges, unbidden: Damn. I really need to do this again when I’m high.
I’m not entirely sure what I expected from this new digital art installation project from Radiohead and the band’s longtime collaborator/artist-in-residence, Stanley Donwood. But whatever conjectures I had, they were clearly insufficient. From the moment I entered a darkened corridor and followed the spectral glow of illumination peeking through a distant entryway, this multimedia extravaganza kept surprising me, to the point where, during one mid-song experience, I wasn’t even sure if I was still in the exhibition or if I had fallen into some beautifully impossible glitch. (I hadn’t.)
A little background: Radiohead and Donwood—whose artwork and prose provocations (made in tandem with Yorke) have adorned all the band’s releases, press materials, and merchandise since the My Iron Lung EP way back in 1994—had intended to make a physical art installation to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Kid A and Amnesiac. It was to be a massive, brutalist steel carapace made of shipping containers that could travel the world, a rolling display of the artwork and imagery they had birthed two decades prior.
Unfortunately, COVID happened—and a project already facing significant practical obstacles (it turned out the original blueprints for the exhibit at Victoria & Albert Museum in London would have collapsed parts of the building) suddenly looked DOA. But as Yorke and Donwood explain in a press release accompanying this new project, being freed from the confines of, well, reality may have been a blessing. Or, as they put it, “Our dream was dead. Until we realised… It would be way better if it didn’t actually exist.”
Cut to now, after two years’ worth of work with longtime producer Nigel Godrich, along with a director, set designer, and a host of game designers, and the results seem better, indeed, than what any physical installation could have delivered. When you’re floating in an infinite chamber, watching an unceasing parade of little creatures slowly rising from the inky depths and ascending heavenward, it’s hard to imagine any real-life version of this exhibit improving upon the experience. Whatever is lost in you-are-there immediacy is more than made up for by the imaginative leaps made by this digital art installation.
Let’s be clear: This is not a game. There are no buttons you push inside this world—no handles to pull, no mini-puzzles requiring you to do certain actions in the correct order to make something happen. (You will still try; despite being clearly told this, both by the advance press materials I received and the opening text intro to the exhibition itself, I repeatedly walked up to levers and assorted machines in the space, my video-game brain convinced that, surely, they didn’t mean no game elements.) No, you simply wander around, guided by nothing more than your own curiosity—and the occasional helpful museum-style arrows informing you of the way toward various installations.
And what a wander you get. There are a couple dozen installations throughout the exhibit—each paired to one or more songs from the two albums, often engagingly fractured or broken down into component parts, sometimes with video footage. But even prowling the hallways between the big set pieces offers plentiful riches, as the sheer amount of art produced by Donwood during that era means virtually all of the walls are covered with drawings, paintings, doodles, fragments of philosophical musings, and more. Yorke and Donwood insist that they had so much art made during that period, they didn’t need anything new for the exhibition. You wonder how they found time to sleep.
Trying to describe it can be a bit futile. Yes, you’re walking around looking at art, but you also encounter unsettling beings who fix their gaze upon you and follow you around the room, or suddenly pass through an artwork into a netherworld beyond, or burrow underneath a black-and-white forest until you rise from the ground, little devils skittering beneath your feet. At one point I walked right off a narrow path and fell into seeming nothingness, only to suddenly land on an identical walkway, surrounded by even more impassive stick-figure men, somehow eyeing me despite being faceless.
And no, you don’t need to be a Radiohead fan to admire the immersive artistry that went into this experience. It probably deepens your appreciation to be intimately familiar with the music, but when I pulled my non-Radiohead-fan significant other into the room to experience it with me, within three minutes they were entranced. “This is fucking cool,” they said. I know. It really is. I can’t wait to recommend this excellent new art gallery—one that just so 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.