Being greeted by a conversation emerging directly from someone’s arse isn’t entirely unfamiliar to anyone that’s ever engaged with the comments sections, chatrooms and forums of the internet. As an enormous image on a gallery wall designed to push the viewers’ eyes immediately between its bum cheeks, it’s hilarious and will doubtlessly be incessantly Instagrammed. For all these reasons, it’s a fitting opening to the Whitechapel Gallery’s superb new exhibition Electronic Superhighway.
The show presents work from the past 50 years examining the impact of computer technologies and the internet on art and artists. What’s so compelling and refreshing about it is the fidelity to this theme: where a lot of artworks, exhibitions and curators seek to prove that technological means are media, just as college and clay are, the works here engage entirely with the technological processes that realised them, or the theme of the internet itself.
The aforementioned arse is a 2015 work by Olaf Breuning, Text Butt, which succinctly introduces a central concern running through the show – the relationship of technology with the body. A text message conversation around sexuality is totally separate but wholly entwined with its intended corporeal conclusion, Olaf’s work seems to tell us, and that idea re-emerges in Mahmoud Khaled’s Do You Have Work Tomorrow?, a piece made up of Grindr conversations photographed using an analogue camera and neatly arranged in small black frames.
Making private online conversations into public, performative pieces is a continually pertinent theme: social media isn’t going away, and neither is the problem of what and what not to share, and with whom. Cory Arcganel’s modified Instagram image of Paris Hilton skiing ties into this idea of the online self as perpetually staged; while Amalia Ulman’s social media performance work, displayed as selected stills, magnifies notions of the female identity as an entity presented to the world for scrutiny and criticism. Her Instagram-based work Excellences & Perfections saw the artist create a series of online personae and stage a drawn out performance that “tricked” nigh-on all her followers into thinking she was posting unironic images of herself posing in her underwear, getting breast enlargement surgery and going to rehab. It’s a divisive and fascinating look at the performative nature of social media; societal views on women, vanity and the body; and tech’s power for trickery and falsehoods.
Alongside the Arcangels and Instagram artists, the show presents more unexpected artists working in screen-based media, such as Happenings pioneer Allan Kaprow. His work (on display towards the end of the show, which is arranged in reverse chronology), is a black and white video piece documenting a performance which tried to link people using satellite television connections. The overwhelming cacophony of noises is comprised almost entirely of “Hello, can you hear me? Can you see me?” and shows both how far we’ve come in the last 60 years technologically, and how little has changed.
While many visitors are likely familiar with the work of Nam June Paik thanks to the Tate Modern’s long-standing housing of his Bakelite Robot, his impact on the world of tech-based art is hard to overstate. The show takes its name from a term discussed by the artist in 1974, and his 1994 work Internet Dreams forms one of the centrepieces of the show. Its 52-monitor video wall is a strangely chilling piece that bears down on visitors with its ever-shifting pattern of electronic abstractions, and sits nicely alongside a work created a decade previously, Good Morning, Mr Orwell. When it was made in 1984, the artist saw it as a direct response to Orwell’s dystopian tale set in the same year, and broadcast material from artists such as The Thompson Twins and John Cage to around 25 million people around the world through satellite-linked television studios.
Many exhibitions in the past few years have looked to that inescapable forcefield of the digital world – the Barbican’s 2014 Digital Revolution, Somerset House’s current Big Bang Data, but Electronic Superhighway manages to do so in a way befitting an art gallery: there’s an academicised approach, a refreshing eschewal of gimmickry and constant acknowledgement of internet-related art’s place in the wider canon of art history. Some of the most recent work on show, such as that by Douglas Coupland, explicitly references its modernist concerns using Mondrian-esque shapes and colours to comment on surveillance and online facial recognition software.
Throughout the show is a sense of temporality and notions of the “archaeology of image,” in the words of curator Omar Kholeif. One work, Constant Dullaart’s Jennifer in Paradise, uses the first ever Photoshopped image – a woman on a paradisiacal beach unveiled in 1987 and taken by Photoshop’s co-creator John Knoll (his subject is his then-to-be-future wife) – and reconfigures it into a huge wall-spanning work for today, using today’s Photoshop features. Others take on transience and permanence presenting a far more instantaneous conclusion, such as the piece opposite Jennifer in Paradise. Through a baffling assault of images, creator Evan Roth lays out all his cached online information from 24 hours. Just one day of online use has produced reams and reams of data – or in this context, art – and shows how in today’s world where everything constantly connects, there’s no hierarchy to be made from such disparate entities of porn, politics and pop music.
What Electronic Superhighway overwhelming proves is the increasingly problematic divide between the online and offline worlds; the physical and the virtual. It feels like an important new chapter in a very important wave of self aware art being disseminated in constantly evolving formats (Instagram, YouTube). Art is presented not always as things to look at or ponder, but things to use, such as Trevor Paglen’s Autonomy Cube, a WiFi hotspot that renders users invisible by encrypting their data. The breadth of work on show in form and concept feels exciting and bold; and as all great exhibitions should, it leaves you with a thousand questions and a thousand new ideas, fears and fondnesses for the world around us.
About the Author
Emily joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in the summer of 2014 after four years at Design Week. She is particularly interested in graphic design, branding and music. After working It's Nice That as both Online Editor and Deputy Editor, Emily left the company in 2016.