(Previously published on Fax Magazine)
The Electronic Superhighway exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery, London, explores the relationship between art and technology from 1966 to the present day. Artists throughout this period have incorporated technology into their work as medium and as muse, exploring how technology has affected our lives and the difficulties and possibilities it bestows for the present and future. Curator Omar Kholief arranged the works in the exhibition in reverse-chronological order, with the intention of constructing a genealogy of art impacted by technology. Beginning with a diverse range of works from contemporary artists and tracing lines back through art history, the exhibition serves to inform an understanding of art and ourselves in the present.
An array of contemporary works are situated on the ground floor, with paintings, films, animations, sculptures, prints, installations, and photographs all compiled in one space, grappling with the issues of our time and developing new aesthetics. Prints of Amalia Ulman’s now famous Instagram performance art piece, Excellences & Perfections, hang beside a screening of Ryan Trecartin’s wild, hyperreal film, A Family Finds Entertainment, exploring the effects of consumer culture and mass media on identity construction. Petra Cortright’s complex abstract digital paintings, printed on aluminium, shift and change colour as you view them, and Jon Rafman’s computer generated interiors contribute to his ongoing investigation into the relationship between the real and the virtual, and the effects a blurring of the real-virtual distinction have for life in the 21st century. In the gallery you find yourself surrounded on all sides by such a variety of artworks that you get a sense of the incommensurable, similar to the experience of viewing the giant wall of televisions by Nam June Paik later in the exhibition. This feeling is somewhat alleviated, or at least made sense of, as you move through the gallery and see the art historical context from which the contemporary works emerged.
One gallery is given over to some of the major names of the ‘net.art’ scene of the 90s, including Jan Robert Leegte, Olia Lialina, and Jodi. Being influenced by Paik and other television artists, and having its roots in conceptualism, net art is concerned with decentralisation, dematerialisation, production, and consumption. Previously deemed an immature art form by the establishment, and as an outsider to the art world, net art is often hailed as radically democratic and praised for liberating art from the white cube. As such, viewing the works within the white walls of a gallery space comes with more than a tinge of irony. Exhibiting net art does seem overbearingly contradictory, considering it is designed to be accessed from any geographical location and at any time. I found myself tentatively touching the keyboards in an atmosphere that didn’t allow for what should be the private exploration of a website on a personal computer, and I became hyper-conscious of the aura that surrounds the white cube. Some critics have gone so far as to say Internet art, now that it has been somewhat accepted by the establishment, is dead; that it has been consumed by the ever-hungry capitalist hegemony and is unable to function as a site of resistance to dominant forces any longer. This standpoint aside, for a show aiming to develop a genealogy of the relationship between art and technology, the Internet art exhibit is indispensable.
The exhibition takes its name from the term coined by Nam June Paik and his installation Electronic Superhighway. The installation comprises a pastiche of flashing televisions organised and divided by neon strips into an outline of the United States, a simultaneous celebration and critique of consumer culture representing late-20th century America in its interconnected yet incomprehensible immensity. Internet Dream, another of his television pastiche works, is on show at the exhibition. Made up of 52 televisions, the work forms a mesmerising wall of distorted, flashing images all operating together. The unintelligible video captures the sublime sense of overwhelming that comes with the latest stretch of our ride down the electronic superhighway, the information age. Paik’s famous video art piece Good Morning, Mr Orwell plays on a dated television set amongst other TV art in the room beside. The film was originally broadcast internationally on the 1st January 1984, to mark the beginning of the year made famous by George Orwell’s novel 1984. It places high and popular culture side by side, and some of the footage was heavily manipulated as in Paik’s large television pastiches. By live broadcasting, the piece operated as a new method through which Paik realised his goal of forming global communication networks.
About halfway through Good Morning, Mr Orwell, a figure, performance artist Laurie Anderson, stands on stage wearing a plastic suit with her face concealed in shadow, and slowly booms: “Put your hands over your eyes. Jump out of the plane. There is no pilot. You are not alone. This is the language of the on again, off again future. And it is digital.” The performance is comical and has a distinctly 80s sci-fi aesthetic, but the image of a blind, disorientating freefall from a plane struck a chord with me. It seems to reflect something of living in the 21st century, under increasing threat from climate change, terrorism, economic crisis, all-encompassing consumerism, social media, and rapid technological development. But these narratives all too easily construct a pessimistic outlook of the contemporary world. The works on show at Whitechapel Gallery incorporate these themes, attempting to illuminate, explore, and understand them, and in so doing provide the potential for developing new discourses rather than being defeated by an uncertain future. We might be blind and disoriented, they seem to say, but we are not plummeting towards doom.
Electronic Superhighway is on show at Whitechapel Gallery in London until 15th May 2016.