Information overload: Whitechapel packs in 50 years of computer art

Electronic Superhighway is a flawed but fascinating survey

by José da Silva  |  25 February 2016
Information overload: Whitechapel packs in 50 years of computer art
Nam June Paik, Internet Dream (1994). © (2008) ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe. Photo: ONUK (Berhard Schmitt). © Nam June Paik Estate
Electronic Superhighway (2016-1966) at the Whitechapel Gallery traces the impact of computer and internet technologies on artists over the past 50 years. And much like the internet, it is a jam-packed, spam filled, free-for-all. Running in reverse chronological order, it includes works by 70 artists, from lo-fi 60s plotter drawings to Jacolby Satterwhite’s 2016 fantasy computer game sex video.

The contemporary contingent (which reads like a who’s who of trendy young artists with Hito Steyerl, Cory Archangel, Ryan Trecartin et al) fills the ground floor gallery with an assortment of flashing lights, projections, images, flirty iMessage conversations and a bare bum that talks. Just like trawling the internet. While it can be tricky to navigate the sheer number of works, there are a handful of gems that are worth taking time on.

Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue (2013)—a standout video work from the Venice Biennale in 2013—still hits all the right spots with its colourful, desktop-window collage of footage shot in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution, overlaid with a seductive beat and voiceover recounting the history of the universe. Eva and Franco Mattes’s My Generation (2010)—a series of home videos of teenagers smashing their games consoles in frustration, displayed on a shattered desktop computer—is a keen reminder that much of what “exists” in the digital world has physical implications or manifestations in the real world—whether they be the actions of exasperated adolescents or the ocean spanning cables that transmit data referred to in Trevor Paglen’s work.

The title of the show is taken from a term coined by Nam June Paik, the Korean-American pioneer of video art. His bank of TV screens, Internet Dream (1994), is as mesmerising as always but despite the prescience of his title, it is Jill Magid’s Surveillance Shoe (2000) alongside it—a creepy up-skirt video—that is more reflective of today’s Big Brother. The show ends with works from 50 years ago with archival footage of the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.)—a collaboration of artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg, and scientists on a series of performances in 1966—and Peter Sedgley’s sumptuous, glowing OpArt “target” paintings.

The exhibition raises important questions. Firstly about how to display work created for the internet. Images from Amalia Ulman’s Excellences & Perfections (2014), made for Instagram, have been blown-up to the size of large canvases exposing, and negating, the intimacy of her pioneering project—look at it on your phone where it was made to be displayed.

Then there is the difficulty of navigating a technological history that has many strands that do not neatly tie up. This is not helped by some of the wall texts that should guide visitors but instead baffle (one work apparently “implies there is more to discover”) or are dully didactic (analogue photographs were “developed in a dark room”).

But despite its flaws, this ambitious show is a major step forward towards understanding the information highway that many of the most interesting contemporary artists are careering down.

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