EXHIBITION REVIEW: Electronic Superhighway

By: Hazel Rowland | Date 14.02.2016
The Whitechapel Art Gallery’s latest exhibition Electronic Superhighway reveals the exciting and eclectic relationship between art and technology.
Nam June Paik, Internet Dream (1994), video sculpture, 287 x 380 x 80 cm. ZKM | Collection © (2008) ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Photo: Steffen Harms
You would be forgiven for being a little taken aback upon entering Electronic Superhighway at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. As soon as visitors step into the exhibition space they are greeted by a huge image of a woman’s backside with snippets of text speech coming out her arse. The nudity in Olaf Breuning’s Text Butt (2015) certainly grabs viewer’s attention – even if it is only vaguely amusing – but it does not set the tone for the rest of the exhibition. Electronic Superhighway isn’t an exhibition about individual artists. Instead, with the work of over 70 artists on display, it gives a broad survey of the relationship between art and technology over the last 50 years.

Indeed, the first room is incredibly kaleidoscopic. The number of different mediums is extensive, ranging from video installations, sculpture, photography, paintings, and to digitally manipulated prints. Although this huge hotchpotch of artworks can be overwhelming, it is nevertheless an exciting display of all that technology has to offer.

Some artists use technology to expand what they can do with their art, such as Jacolby Satterwhite with his video installation Reifying Desire 6 (2013). Satterwhite revels in the possibilities offered by digital media, layering computer-generated and analogue images to the soundtrack of upbeat dance music. Homosexual erotic imagery abounds, but it isn’t that shocking: Scatterwhite’s work is a liberating mixture of colours, abstract shapes and imaginary worlds that captivate the viewer, with eroticism being only one part of it.

Other works do not have such an optimistic view of technology. James Bridle’s Homo Sacer (2014) shows a projected hologram of a woman, similar to the artificial announcers increasingly found at airports, train stations and government buildings (there’s one at Waterloo underground station, ‘kindly’ telling passengers to be careful when going down the escalator). Bridle has the hologram speak phrases from UK, UN and EU legislations regarding the nature of citizenship. In giving the hologram rather profound statements that are said so blandly, Bridle highlights the coldness of such technology.

The first room presents works created between 2000 and 2016. Much of it feels very of the moment, especially since a good number of the artworks could only have been made within the last decade: the Netflix avatar is used as a symbol in one painting, Douglas Coupland comments upon Facebook’s face recognition technology, and Amalia Ulman used Instagram in her five-month project Excellences & Perfections (2014-15). These artworks are very cutting edge, but whether they will ‘last’ is another question. It is nevertheless refreshing to see works that are so responsive to current concerns, speaking with a contemporary urgency.

There are some moments in Electronic Superhighway that could benefit from further guidance, however. The exhibition only displays a selection of Ulman’s Instagramm photos from her project Excellences & Perfections. These can only be considered representative of the actual artwork, where she used her Instagramm profile to stage a five-month scripted performance inspired by extreme makeover culture. The exhibition captions fail to explain this, which sadly does not do any justice to Ulman’s art.

The exhibition goes backwards in time as it progresses, looking at internet art from the 1990s onwards, then the first video art created in the 1960s and 70s, and finally the first computer generated art. Lilian F Schwartz’s video artworks, UFOs (1971) and Googoplex (1972) are particularly entrancing. Putting on headphones, Schwarz’s video artworks become extremely immersive: you hear upbeat primitive music whilst you watch dynamic shapes and colours moving on the screen. It is very difficult to tear yourself away from.

The number and diversity of artworks on display at Electronic Superhighway is impressive. This can be overwhelming, as the exhibition does not trace a straightforward chronology, and there doesn’t appear to be many clear relationships between the artworks other than that they somehow use or comment upon technology. But this is precisely what makes Electronic Superhighway so exciting. In the last 50 years artists have explored the vast possibilities that new technologies offer art in incredibly numerous and varied ways, and – as this exhibition proves – these are still very far from being exhausted yet.


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