Kid A Mnesia: Exhibition – A masterful blend of music and visuals

Teeth grinning wildly. A sea of trees, washed of colour as to appear lifted from a book. These are the first things you see when you load up Kid A Mnesia: Exhibition, Radiohead’s latest venture into virtual art. It’s as you tentatively walk through the only door in sight and ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ creeps in as it creaks shut behind you that the eerie brilliance sets in.

From then on, you are left to explore a vast labyrinth commemorating the music of Kid A and Amnesiac, the releases that cemented Radiohead as a madcap force to be reckoned with at the turn of the millennium. Visually, the exhibition employs the contrasting cold and warm aesthetics of the twin albums to outstanding effect. Pristine white interiors and their uncanny sheen give emphasis to the vibrance of more dilapidated areas like the Pyramid Atrium, which acts as something of a central hub leading to each location. Here, and in many other sections, the experience makes full use of its digital nature, conjuring up immersive environments that could only exist within the confines of a computer; featureless clay figures and particle ghosts aimlessly shuffle from room to room, overgrown roots shoot up grey walls, and imposing structures hang weightless in the air, suspended in nothingness. Elsewhere, rampant graffiti and newspaper clippings surround you, while televisions display hellish cartoons and studio footage. Imagine the most surreal dream you’ve had, imagine at least ten more, then make pathways from one to the other through the deepest, darkest corridors of your mind, and you’ll have something close to what’s offered here. 

So far, we’re only skirting on the surface of what this treasure trove holds. After an hour of walking, I thought I had discovered most of the major features, but was pleasantly surprised to find that what I’d seen made up only around one-third of the exhibition. In fact, I had missed many of the larger exhibits. 

Though the visual elements are impressive in their own right, the way they integrate with the audio is the crux of the ‘gameplay.’ One chamber, set to the mechanical groove of Amnesiac opener ‘Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box,’ features an ominous cube at its centre. Stepping on any of the floor markings in its shadow causes your surroundings to warp, and dramatically alters the mix – one isolates angular reversed guitar melodies and casts a spectral maroon overlay into the room – while walking up and down the scaffolding around the edges adds and strips away the track’s descending bass riff. There are many more of these interactive moments to be found, and each one makes slow exploration rewarding. Even lingering in the areas between installations is worthwhile, with each boasting a completely unique atmosphere.

Kid A Mnesia: Exhibition is for the most part nonlinear, and the one occasion in which the player is forced to remain in one area for a certain amount of time winds up feeling just as freeform as the rest. Stopping to fully appreciate every detail could take hours, but it’s refreshing to sink time into something for the thrill of discovery rather than achieving any specific goal. 

That isn’t to say this is a relaxing time. The world around you poses little threat (many of the creatures you come across seem docile, perhaps even friendly) yet a foreboding sense of dread is prevalent throughout. After all, the music on which this museum bases itself can hardly be described as easy listening: ‘Idioteque’ and ‘Like Spinning Plates’ weave social panic and biting political commentary into their lyrics;

While you make pretty speeches,

I’m being cut to shreds

‘How To Disappear Completely’ plays out like a cross between a lullaby and an anxiety attack; and ‘Knives Out’ sees the band descend to morbid depths;

If you’d been a dog

They would’ve drowned you at birth

All of these emotions and more are reflected in this audiovisual fever dream. Arbitrarily Good Productions and Namethemachine have done an outstanding job of translating the ‘feel’ of these albums into a multimedia format, though the contribution of longtime collaborator Stanley Donwood cannot be understated. Having designed all of the group’s artwork with frontman Thom Yorke since The Bends, everything you come across in the exhibition is as much his work brought to life as theirs. His artistic output with Radiohead has been plentiful, and every project they’ve worked on together could easily produce something as extensive as this. Repetition is rarely their style, but it’s hard to resist the idea of expansions celebrating other release eras. That being said, there’s more than enough here to satisfy.

No matter the order you experience events in, the exhibition is bound to leave you feeling intrigued, impressed, and just a little bit terrified. Between this and the awe-inspiring Dreams of Dali, the argument that video games are a lesser art form is growing thinner by the day. As a matter of fact, staring up at the towering oddities scattered through the exhibits reminds of witnessing Dali’s elephants in that VR project, if markedly more frightening. One can only shudder at the thought of Kid A Mnesia: Exhibition in virtual reality – perhaps simultaneously out of primal fear and immense excitement at the possibility. 

Unless that daydream comes true, your best bet for experiencing it is in the dark, with a good set of speakers or headphones and a decent slice of your day carved out.

I’ve been wary to avoid the term ‘game’ in this review because it forfeits most of the mainstays of modern gaming, save for movement. However, it’s hard to envision this being done in any other format, and despite a message at the entrance insisting ‘this is not a game,’ in my eyes it encapsulates exactly what games stand for: Immersion. Moreso, it’s emblematic of the integrity and generosity Radiohead fans have become familiar with. Art this detailed often comes with a hefty price, so granting free passes to anyone with the hardware to run it is as bold and selfless as their 2007 ‘pay-what-you-wish’ release of In Rainbows. 

If your machine can handle it, this is a must. With or without prior knowledge of Radiohead, there’s something to be found for everyone, enticing faces and places lurking around every corner. It really is something to be experienced, equal parts macabre and melancholy, and at all times evocative.

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