Flickering Insight from the Whitechapel’s “Electronic Superhighway”

“The internet does not exist,” wrote Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, and Anton Vidokle in e-flux journal’s critical anthology of the same name. Perhaps in the past the word might have carried meaning, but the internet “now only remains as a blur, a cloud, a friend, a deadline, a redirect or a 404 … It has no shape. It has no face, just this name that describes everything and nothing at the same time.” What does it mean to speak of the internet when the condition of being online has become so inextricable from our experience of the world? We are long past the point when one might meaningfully speak of engaging or disengaging – short of taking a monastic vow – with a global network to which we are connected by devices in our homes, our offices, and on our persons. The internet and computer technologies have penetrated, and by extension altered, every aspect of our experience.

Electronic Superhighway (2016-1966) at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, addresses the question of how we got here. This sprawling survey – which aspires to “show the impact of computer and internet technologies” on artists since the mid-1960s – is arranged in reverse chronological order, meaning that the visitor steps into a ground-floor gallery crammed with screens, computer generated images, LCD panels, makeshift installations and, in the case of James Bridle’s Homo Sacer (2014), a slightly sinister hologram reciting recent British and European legislation on the subject of citizenship. It’s a remarkable compendium of many of the most important works of art made since the turn of the century, from Camille Henrot’s enduringly fascinating Grosse Fatigue (2013), perhaps the most effective expression of the overstimulation and anxiety provoked by access to a surfeit of information in the digital age, to Constant Dullaart’s Glowing Edges_7.10 (2014), a generic Photoshop image, looped through the various filters made available by the program, which exemplifies the artist’s preoccupation with the control exercised by corporate systems over our perception of the world.

The effect of entering a room so busy with images, sound, and objects is – no doubt deliberately – disorientating. Amidst the commotion it’s possible to identify connections and links between some of the works, but there are at least as many jarring formal and conceptual contradictions. That dissonance can be productive: the austere hard-drive sculptures and printed cartographies of Trevor Paglen, with their determination to expose the physical infrastructure of a militarized digital network, initially seems to sit uncomfortably next to a series of printed Instagram posts from Amalia Ullman’s Excellences & Perfections performance (2014), for which the artist created an archetypal social media persona that she later revealed to be (like all such constructed identities) a fabrication. Although incongruous, the juxtaposition is in many respects illuminating: both artists are engaged in deeply political attempts to reveal the underlying structures that govern our engagement with digital material, be they material or ideological.

Nevertheless, these unlikely connections do necessitate a certain sacrifice in the viewing conditions afforded to the individual artworks. The riot of competing stimuli in this first room – sounds bleeding into each other, the close proximity of screens – makes it difficult to exclude peripheral works from your attention when considering, say, Celia Hempton’s paintings. This might be framed as an enactment of the digital experience, with its short attention span and endless distraction by sidebars and other enticing, marginal visual stimuli, but it does on occasion serve to diminish the works. Hito Steyerl’s Red Alert (2007), a monochrome triptych over three flat screen monitors that plays both upon the unending state of fear under which we live now and the history of abstract painting, is tucked in a corner. At the Reina Sofia, where the work is currently part of a retrospective of Steyerl’s work, the screens are placed at the end of a long corridor, and the effect is remarkably different. This isn’t necessarily a criticism – compromises are inevitable in a group show of this scope and ambition – but the first room is more effective in conjuring received ideas of what internet culture is “like” than it is in providing a platform for single works of art to impress themselves on new audiences.

The selection of works throughout the show is largely impeccable, combining totemic figures such as Nam June Paik (who coined the phrase “Electronic Superhighway” in 1974) and the collective Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) with more recent luminaries such as Cory Arcangel, Jon Rafman, and Ryan Trecartin. A few emerging names are thrown into the mix, too, and I was pleased to stumble across a work by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, who demonstrates that established forms and approaches to sound, image, and language – jazz, concrete poetry – can operate equally well in a digital context.

The first floor is an enjoyable treasure trove of “net art” from the 1990s, a period in which artists explored the possibilities of the web as an interactive space (similar experiments took place in literature, though hypertext fictions such as Douglas Cooper’s Delirium (1994) and Mark Amerika’s GRAMMATRON (1997) have been unjustly neglected). A particular highlight is Olia Lialina’s My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (1996), a branching interactive narrative enacted through a browser screen on an antiquated desktop computer, while special mention is due to the room of browser-based works curated from the Rhizome archive.

Further back in time is Lynn Hershman Leeson’s pioneering interactive art installation, Lorna (1979-1982), which allows the viewer to enter the living room of the eponymous character who stays indoors all day channel-hopping. A fitting conclusion is provided by Allan Kaprow’s Hello (1969), a video documenting a video link-up between artists in different television studios who communicate by saying “Hello, I see you.” The work pre-empts the cyber-utopianism of the internet’s early days – the conviction that an inherently emancipatory global network would foster new communities – but, from a post-Snowden perspective, seems also to anticipate blanket surveillance and the wholesale invasion of our personal privacy.

Yet the curatorial gambit of starting in 2016 and working back to 1966 is only fitfully productive. An achronological approach – reflecting the way that we engage with material in the flattened temporal space of the internet, which we tend to navigate through thematic links rather than historical ones – would have been easier to understand; an inverted chronology acknowledges that there is a timeline of influence while simultaneously obscuring it. More broadly, there’s the danger in seeming to reduce the wide range of influences on contemporary artists to a narrow lineage. Much of the work exhibited in the first room – Amalia Ullman, to take an obvious example – owes a great deal more to the appropriation techniques, media awareness, and identity politics of the Pictures Generation than to Nam June Paik or the academic avant-gardism of E.A.T. Trevor Paglen is more easily understood with reference to post-minimalist sculpture and the political turn of the 1970s.

It’s no longer the case, as it was twenty-five years ago, that an artist requires specialist or technical knowledge to engage with digital technology. Nor is the field any longer marginal or avant-garde. Choosing to work with technology is not a statement of affiliation so much as a straightforwardly practical decision for an artist working now.

The saturation of digital culture means that art made today is necessarily “post-internet,” much as all image production is “post-photography” (whether it chooses to be or not). As the proliferation of styles in the opening room demonstrates, we’re past the point when using computer or digital technology signifies membership of a codified movement. It’s become as meaningless to say of art that it’s influenced by the internet as to say if of our daily experience. Which might explain why Electronic Superhighway does a valuable job of shedding light upon the past, but offers little insight into the future.

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