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Ingesting Electronic Superhighway: From Experiments in Art and Technology to Art After the Internet brought about the familiar experience of an overdose one might have after seeing an art fair or large-scale biennial. This ambitious exhibition, covering fifty years of digital culture and curated by Omar Kholeif, considered how the world’s ceaseless flow of electronic information and unrelenting proliferation of images have come to impact contemporary art. In her introduction to the extensive companion catalogue, Whitechapel Gallery Director Iwona Blazwick describes the nature of the “electronic superhighway” and the exhibition itself as “a place of information and confusion, euphoria and nightmare” (20). Indeed, the term “confusion” essentially characterizes much of one’s journey through this multimedia show.
In his essay, Kholeif states that the exhibition and publication are set up in reverse chronological order, like a time machine going backwards from 2016 to 1966, as a means “to retrospectively consider the trajectories from which these contemporary practices emerged” (28). In theory, this is an excellent idea, but in practice the reverse chronology does not easily lend itself to a linear storytelling or even narrative arc about the history of this complex field. The first floor of the display, meant to function as present and future iterations of the theme, immerses the viewer in a busy, crammed installation. It is unclear whether this presentation style was intentional, given that the physical effect it achieved could be considered as a conceptual entry point into the overflow of information and images in our oversaturated post-internet world. Many two- and three-dimensional objects, including projections and computers wedged tightly together, were set in combination with larger works hung defiantly on walls where there was not enough room to step back and see the pieces from a better distance; and much of the art itself, which was full of fast, moving simulacra, was dizzying. Perhaps it is then unfair to apportion blame to the curator, for much of the “noise” derived from the viewing experience was likely due to the nature of the electronic superhighway itself. I would have enjoyed the exhibition more, however, if Kholeif had counteracted this effect of the electronic superhighway with a tried-and-true antidote: carving out space for visitors to pause and critically reflect. For instance, I don’t recall seeing a reading room, and, ironically, if there was one, I missed it, given the plethora of information overload in the galleries.
The one exception to the maze of objects on the first floor was a memorable installation by Zach Blas. It was a standout among other the works owing to its distinctive figurative approach and the artist’s eclectic, personal definition of technology. The color of Blas’s sculptures—bright pink—also helped, functioning like a rainbow flag waving amid a rambunctious crowd. Indeed, the artist’s purposeful choice of shading brings the crux of his message to the fore, which conflates queer identity politics and the aggression of capitalist, identity-based data. His three contributions, the installation Queer Technologies (2007–12), the sculpture Facial Weaponization Suite: Fag Face Mask—October 20, 2012, Los Angeles, CA (2012), and the video Facial Weaponization Communiqué: Fag Face (2012), all explore the invasive technology of biometrics. Blas believes this often inequitable form of data collection, especially as practiced at airports around the world, subjects the public to blind domination and control. His amorphous blob-like masks lack definition or detail and work as a form of resistance to illustrate his protest against governments that seek to scrutinize and evaluate the minutiae of everyday life as told by the human corpus. By “queering” or “disrupting” official zones of recognition into a rhetoric of misrecognition, Blas reclaims authority over how bodies are portrayed within the public imagination. The work also references and echoes the conforming versus nonconforming struggles of the queer body itself. Other recognizable names in this section of the exhibition included Olaf Breuning, Douglas Coupland, Jill Magid, Trevor Paglen, Taryn Simon, and Ryan Trecartin, among others, but their work did not leave as lasting an impression as Blas’s.
In quite the opposite move, the historical display on the top floor of the gallery was beautifully spaced out for visitors. Here, the work of the “experiments in art and technology” formed a more sensitive dialogical relationship than that of the slapdash, post-internet framing on the ground floor. On greeting the first few pieces, the show suddenly, and momentarily, became energized; in a small white-cube annex, Nam June Paik’s Internet Dream (1994), composed of fifty-two monitors housing flickering abstract electronic patterns and as relevant today as it was when first unveiled, sat adjacent to Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s large video projection Surface Tension (1992). The bigger-than-life close-up of a blue/green eye on a white face reveals a bouncing black pupil moving back and forth across a computer screen, almost like a ping-pong ball. Echoing our embodied experience of staring into the void, we feel fatigued as we stare into the colossal eye, yet we cannot seem to look away. The wonderful dialogue set up between the Lozano-Hemmer and the Paik—as if the eyeball is gazing into all fifty-two monitors—might have been a more dynamic entry point to the exhibition, particularly given Paik’s conceptual influence on the overall show. In a number of the essays in the catalogue, the contributors pay homage to this seminal conceptual and performance artist, as he was one of the first prominent figures to wrestle with the complexities of the electronic superhighway. In fact, it was Paik who coined the term itself. Adding to the delightful Paik/Lozano-Hemmer juxtaposition was a dated computer monitor with a typed sign taped across its dusty screen informing the audience that the video was not operating owing to a technical malfunction. I cannot recall the artist or title of this 1980s video, but I found this accidental break down of equipment ironic, fitting, and orthodox all at once.
In this melancholic yet pleasurable zone showcasing archaic yet still-vibrant work, one had more room to breathe, and the feeling of a mini-survey was achieved by the inclusion of many recognizable artists who contributed so much to the digital art movement that progressed from the 1960s to the 1980s, such as Allan Kaprow, Nancy Holt and Richard Serra, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Stan VanDerBeek, Lillian F. Schwartz, Manfred Mohr, Vera Molnar, and Eduardo Kac. The crowning achievement of this section was ephemera from the archive of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), a motley group of artists and engineers that was especially active in 1966 and included Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Yvonne Rainer. They experimented together to push the limits of technology.
Located in another small annex, also on the top floor, Kholeif aimed to have the audience consider and/or reconsider the aesthetics of various desktop interfaces of social media platforms and the internet at large. Unfortunately this part of the show also seemed chaotic and unfocused. Or perhaps I remain unconvinced of the aesthetic qualities of the internet as an artistic medium because of the entrenched bias of my art-historical training. I am left to wonder about the pitfalls and challenges of curating net art. As I alluded to earlier, maybe the key is to isolate people, or make them wait, or, cynically, force them to converse with one another—these are the conditions that seem to arouse deep absorption with technology in our busy lives. Then the psychosomatic effects of the electronic superhighway could truly be geared up more memorably than just as a screenshot. As some consolation, for those who wished to persist with expertly mining all the data in the exhibition, it was on display for four months, meaning that visitors had ample time to go back for more.
Alas, given the overall lack of ability to reflect within the exhibition’s complex structure, it ended up becoming enmeshed with all the other data out there in the stratosphere and quickly fell into the world of cliché, similar to the memes that spread across the first sixteen pages of the catalogue. Perhaps exhibitions such as this should abandon a preoccupation with questions around “fame,” as Blazwick describes in her essay in which she alludes to Andy Warhol and pits his famous quote against the art world’s “it” essayist, Hito Steyerl (also in the exhibition), who talks of the image in terms of “death,” “poverty,” “quality,” and “invisibility.” In the future, post-internet exhibitions could instead focus on a generative question around “distinction”—after all, the internet offers unprecedented scope and access for creative self-definition by many diverse users within our global village. Exhibitions of this ilk, like the work of Blas and earlier generations before him, should also aim to stand out among both the still and moving crowd.
PhD candidate, Department of Visual Arts, University of California San Diego
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