We all know, computer technology in the first place and subsequently the Internet unlocked a world of (potentially) infinite possibilities for everyone, and in this case also for artists . As with the net tho, when it comes to “new media art” (to use an old fashioned umbrella term) it’s not always easy to distinguish between what is good and, well, not-so-good.
The Whitechapel Gallery tries to bring a little order to the chaotic variety of artistic practices in the post-Internet era with Electronic Superhighway (2016-1966), an ambitious, yet uneven and not always coherent exhibition tracing backwards the origin and history of Internet(-inspired)/computer art.
Entering the downstairs gallery, we are confronted by an anarchic constellation of works produced over the last sixteen years and spanning painting, sculpture, film, photography, performance art and mixed media installation. There are a couple of blurred photos from Amalia Ulman’s Instagram project Excellences and Perfections (2014-15) that reflects on how the attitude towards the female body has changed due to the boom of social media; Celia Hempton’s chat-inspired paintings, portraits of random people she met online in a chatroom; Douglas Coupland’s photographic series in which geometric forms and stripes cover the faces of his sitters; Cory Arcangel’s Snowbunny/Lakes (2015), a manipulated Instagram image of Paris Hilton skiing in Aspen; and Evan Roth’s Self Portrait, a very detailed record of his online chronology unfolding like a tapestry before our eyes.
There is also A Family Finds Entertainment (2004) by Ryan Trecartin: something between a gay themed sitcom and a low-budget Youtube show with a good deal of improvisation, this rather disconcerting film follows the adventures of teenager Skippy in coming out to his dysfunctional family.
In the upstairs gallery, we find a selection of works using the Internet as a medium, including seminal jodi.org (1995) by Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans, a website with an enigmatic alphanumeric front page behind which hides a varied collection of images and diagrams; and Olia Lialina’s My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (1996). Set against the backdrop of war, Lialina’s work is an interesting example of interactive hypertext storytelling with a simple and clean design marked by the use of black and white web pages and grainy GIFs.
The exhibition continues with Morning, Mr. Orwell (1984) and Internet Dream (1994) by the father of video art, Nam June Paik (who, in 1974, coined the term from which the show title is taken): the former is a collection of pre-recorded materials from such artists as John Cage and The Thompson Twins, broadcasted live on New Year’s Day 1984 from a series of satellite-linked television studios in New York, West Germany, South Korea and Paris; and the latter is a video-wall of fifty-two monitors displaying electronically-processed images. Also worthy of mention are Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Lorna (1979-82), an interactive video installation on the life of an agoraphobic female character living as a recluse in her apartment; Vera Molnar’s Homage à Béla Bartok (1978), a silkscreen print after a computer plotter drawing in homage to the Hungarian composer; Ulla Wiggen’s TRASK (1967), a masterful painting combining the digital skeletons of motherboards and the artist’s own technological motifs to exemplify the interplay between realism and abstraction characterising machines themselves.
And finally, the show ends with a diverse array of artefacts by E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), a non-for-profit organization active in New York in 1966 bringing together artists (including Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman, among others) and engineers – the forerunners, we may want to say, of contemporary digital artists.
With several relevant works and a few mehs, Electronic Superhighway sheds light on a still largely unexplored area, that of (post-)Internet art and its precursors. Overall the exhibition provides a good starting point for the newcomers to the field, but it seems that the exploration is far from over.
Electronic Superhighway (2016-1966) will be running until 15th May at the Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High St, London E1 7QX.
Words by Jacopo Nuvolari @jacopo982