Douglas Coupland Deep Face (2015) Acrylic on B&W photograph, mounted on diabond
, Whitechapel Gallery, London, to 15 May 2016
BACKWARDS. It’s an unusual way to lay out a retrospective, but that’s how the Whitechapel Gallery has arranged Electronic Superhighway, its new exhibition of art after the internet’s emergence.
“We wanted to map a history of art against the history of the internet,” says curator Omar Kholeif. To start at the end, the show concludes with museum-style exhibits of artists’ early forays into networks, notably artefacts from landmark shows on each side of the Atlantic. A series of events held by the Experiments in Art and Technology group in New York in 1966 is represented by Robert Rauschenberg’s tennis racket, which turned off one of the venue’s 36 lights with every strike of the ball. London, meanwhile, had Cybernetic Serendipity, held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1968; its concerns – computers and music, the rise of robot workers – are still topical today.
Before that is a collection of works that focuses on the use of computers and networks as tools, rather than as the objects of study. Some of the works are diverting – I was amused by Eduardo Kac’s blocky animations for. But the works don’t necessarily have much in common: systems art sits next to interactive fiction and video installations, and there are gaps that make the history hard to parse. It’s a bit like collecting works made with paint, regardless of subject or technique.
The exhibition’s main room, stuffed with post-millennial works, is more successful. Here, there are pieces that engage with each layer of the internet, from apps to hardware. In Excellences & Perfections, for example, Amalia Ulman records the fruits of four months spent reinventing herself via Instagram. In Queer Technologies, Zach Blas’s fake products offer achallenge to software’s heteronormative default settings. And Trevor Paglen’s Autonomy Cube provides visitors with “dark” internet access through a Tor relay sealed in a translucent plastic box.
Tweaks on life
Many works, however, simply present incongruous uses of everyday tools – a conversation onat the height of the Arab Spring, say. Others obsess over image manipulation, from Photoshop to pencil scribbles to CGI. Some are mildly amusing, some a tad disturbing, but little is truly provocative or arresting.
The dull but inevitable question is: why do these works qualify as art? After all, the web is stuffed with such experiments, ranging from the absurd to the profound, and from the solipsistic to the universal. Many are executed with playful glee – absent, expired or expunged from the rather po-faced works here. Neither can there be much claim to superior aesthetics, because the gallery setting dilutes the impact of as many pieces as it strengthens.
So the dull but inevitable answer is intent. Do the works on show in Whitechapel seem meaningful? The difficulty of answering that question is itself instructive. Just six years on, it’s hard to tell whether a piece of art made in 2010 was radical or trite. Perhaps it’s simply too soon to judge: right now, it’s a reminder that the internet has already been through multiple iterations.
To end at the start, visitors are greeted by a giant pair of buttocks overlaid with text-speak bubbles, a glyph for the Snapchat era by Olaf Breuning. There’s not much hinting at the next iterations. Even at the level of craft, there’s no tinkering with augmented reality or artificial intelligence. Only a few works, such as James Bridle’s “holographic” Orwellian bureaucrat orop-art mugshots – designed to dazzle not just human eyes, but those of facial-recognition AIs – are more evocative than reflective.
Rauschenberg’s tennis match seems absurd until you realise it prefigures: think Wii Tennis. The art in Electronic Superhighway, by contrast, seems as if it’s struggling to keep up with the digital edge. Perhaps right now, technologists, not artists, are the ones defining art after the internet.
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