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Review: Electronic Superhighway

Whitechapel Gallery

London, UK

29 January — 15 May 2016

“Electronic Superhighway” rebuts the “new” in “new media,” making history of the past 50 years of tech-based art production. The migraine-inducing two floors are alive with aggregation. Curator Omar Kholief’s taxonomic approach hangs works in a reverse chronology and loosely splits them into the categories “tech art” (1966–1994), “net art” (1995–2001) and “post-internet art” (2000–2016). It’s a crowded, salon-style install, a mess apparently mimicking the Internet as we’ve come to know it.

Much of the show’s contemporary material grapples with the Internet’s unmanageable outflow, the sheer volume of what’s accessible coupled with the anxiety of what remains invisible. Camille Henrot’s video Grosse Fatigue (2012) appears as both the conceptual lynchpin and a respite from the chaos, delighting in serendipitous connections as it suggests the futility of comprehensive categorization. Another central work is Ryan Trecartin’s A Family Finds Entertainment (2004) with its manic, intimate, made-for-YouTube performativity. The exhibition reminds us that a double sense of being both watched and constantly watching is not a recent phenomenon: consider the roving, motion-sensing eye of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Surface Tension (1992), which presages NSA-driven paranoia, or Lynn Hershman Leeson’s interactive Lorna (1979-82).

Amid all the monitors, headsets and outdated platforms, what seems most obsolete in “Electronic Superhighway” is optimism. This may be strongest in Nam June Paik’s Good Morning Mr Orwell (1984), a celebratory rebuttal of the titular British author’s famous dystopian vision. And so the abandon with which artists once romped through novel platforms appears to give way to self-aware complicity in an age of a militarized, corporatized Internet. Subversion becomes as important as enjoyment, and the motif of the millennial as a wily, system-literate participant is characterized by Amalia Ulman’s finely constructed selfie artwork, Excellences and Perfections (2015). “We can’t work on the assumption that immersion has no consequence,” wrote McKenzie Wark recently of our all-encompassing relationship with the digital. “Electronic Superhighway” comes to tenuous terms with the pleasures, dangers and uncertainties of our present moment.


This review appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Canadian Art.