Electronic Superhighway (2016–1966) & Big Bang Data

Whitechapel Gallery & Somerset House, London, UK

Whitechapel Gallery. Electronic Superhighway 2016 - 1966 Installation view Gallery 1 (6)web.jpg

‘Electronic Superhighway (2016-1966)’, exhibition view at Whitechapel Gallery, London

‘Electronic Superhighway (2016-1966)’, exhibition view at Whitechapel Gallery, London. Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, London

That technology has incorporated us is a  truism worth repeating. Marshall McLuhan’s pronouncement of media as ‘extensions of man’ feels oddly nostalgic; rather, the go-to Cassandra of the digital age is Friedrich Kittler, who conceived of ‘so-called man’ as being ‘split up into physiology and information technology’. The idea of incorporation  is key: the digital subsumes us, quantizing  the continuous world into discrete units  of representation. Today, our experience approaches the knife-edge of Kittler’s  binary, the meeting point between bodies  and code.

It’s enough to make us quite excited – and more than a little anxious. In London, this  winter has seen a raft of exhibitions confronting our uneasiness at being swept along by the digital tide, from Simon Denny’s Silicon Valley-inspired solo exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery to the concurrent survey exhibitions, ‘Big Bang Data’ and ‘Electronic Superhighway’, at Somerset House and Whitechapel Gallery, respectively. Across the Atlantic, journalist and filmmaker Laura Poitras’s first museum exhibition opened at the Whitney in February, just days after Rhizome and the New Museum co-hosted the inaugural ‘Open Score’ symposium on art and technology. It seems we’ve hit a watershed  of consciousness about our data-saturated existence: we don’t quite understand it, but we’re swimming all the same.

Curated by Olga Subirós and José Luis  de Vicente, ‘Big Bang Data’ is a sprawling, international show. Upon entry, Timo Arnall sets the agenda with Internet Machine (2014): a three-wall projection roving through the heaving innards of one of world’s largest data centres. The leaden thrum of hulking generators, server racks and cooling tanks refutes any vaporous imaginaries of the ‘cloud’. This forms the historical argument of ‘Big Bang Data’, as it takes visitors through the material development of electronic communication. Vitrines of hardware display the evolution of fibre optics and storage media through the decades; a floor-mounted map delineates the geographic infrastructure of the internet and the corporations by which it is operated. They describe submarine cables crossing every ocean, data centres refrigerated by the Arctic Circle or housed within cold war-era mountain fortresses. Data is terrestrial, wired into the geology and undergirding our anthropocene world. By the same token, it tracks us and remembers us better than we do ourselves in funny and unnerving ways. James Bridle’s book, Where the Fuck Was I? (2010–11), turns the revelation that iPhones were routinely storing unencrypted location data into an unintentional diary of the artist’s activities over the course of that year.

3. Black Shoals [the first stars in the planetarium] © Joshua Portway and Lise Autogenaweb.jpg

Joshua Portway and Lise Autogena, Black Shoals; Dark Matter, 2015, still of real-time representation of the financial markets

Joshua Portway and Lise Autogena, Black Shoals; Dark Matter, 2015, still of real-time representation of the financial markets. Courtesy the artists and Somerset House, London

Big data is essentially a problem of representability, as iterated by precursors like Florence Nightingale’s ‘coxcomb’ infographics (1854–55), showing causes of death during the Crimean war, and Charles Joseph Minard’s bleak cartographic diagrams of Napoleon’s 1812 Russian campaign. Today, the scale of real-time information capture  is simply too vast for human cognition.  The exhibition is parenthesized by two poetic depictions of the informatic sublime. Ryoji Ikeda’s immersive video projection data.tron [WUXGA version] (2007) is a monochromatic attack on the senses that has viewers drifting through a horizonless point cloud cosmos, before dropping them into a sea of fit- inducing visual static in which every ‘pixel’ is an individual digit. Meanwhile, Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway’s Black Shoals; Dark Matter (2015) turns live trading data from global stock exchanges into astral  constellations that gently flicker and convulse according to the currents of the market.

‘Electronic Superhighway’, curated by Omar Kholeif, represents perhaps the most comprehensive attempt so far to historicize art after the internet, canonizing its key protagonists alongside their ‘new media’ forebears. The show divides loosely into the so-called ‘post-internet’, net.art (as archived by Rhizome) and early tech-art pioneers, beginning with the seminal Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) collective, formed in 1967. Reflecting the unwieldy scope of its subject, ‘Electronic Superhighway’ is a disparate and disorienting experience. Albert Oehlen’s digitally inflected abstract canvas Deathoknocko (2001) hangs alongside Wafaa Bilal’s Domestic Tension (2007), a webcam diary of a performance in which the artist spent 30 days locked in a gallery with a paintball gun remotely controlled by online participants. Oliver Laric’s Versions (Missile Variations) (2010) and Constant Dullaart’s photoshop manipulations of Jennifer in Paradise (2013–ongoing) lay bare the illusion of the digital referent. Meanwhile, Camille Henrot’s deeply impressive Grosse Fatigue (2013) deftly arranges a haptic poetry of layered video windows over a spoken-word composition, suggestive of both exhilaration and utter exhaustion.

Half a century of artists working with, through and against technological media presents a general shift in attitude from feverish exploration to anxious immersion. A narrative thread might be drawn from Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Lorna (1979–82), an interactive installation about a woman who never leaves her TV, through Olia Lialina’s eerie ‘netfilm’ My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (1996) and into the heady cocktail of awesome exuberance and panoptic threat that marks much of the post-internet art that has emerged in recent years. In the main exhibit, Hito Steyerl’s triptych Red Alert (2007), comprising three glowering red Apple monitors palpably radiating heat, is a silently foreboding presence amongst the fray. 

Art drags behind life: technology has produced us – artists and all – as its ‘users’. Kittler proposed the digital as the final, totalizing media, capable of remediating reality as such. Rather than asking the familiar questions (we’re all anxious about social media), the most compelling works in ‘Electronic Superhighway’ directly engage technologies: Trevor Paglen and Jacob Appelbaum’s sleek minimalist sculpture Autonomy Cube (2014) routes local wi-fi traffic over the anonymous Tor network. Meanwhile, Jeremy Bailey’s Patent Drawings (2011–ongoing) for virtual ‘apparatuses’ are brilliantly ludicrous satire and just a little bit believable. One of his speculative products (for augmented-reality nail polish) has already come true as a Shanghai start-up. 

Gary Zhexi Zhang is an artist and writer. He is currently artist in residence at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK.

Issue 178

First published in Issue 178

April 2016

Most Read

The rapper and artist have thoughts about originality in art; Melania Trump tries graphic design – all the latest...
The dilapidated Nissen hut from which Rachel Whiteread will take a cast
Yorkshire residents complain that the concrete sculpture of a ‘Nissen hut’ will attract excrement, vandalism and litter
Poul Erik Tøjner pays tribute to Denmark’s most important artist since Asger Jorn
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...
Photographer Dragana Jurisic says her account was deactivated after she uploaded an artwork depicting a partially naked...
In further news: open letter protests all-male shortlist for BelgianArtPrize; Arts Council of Ireland issues...
From Sol Calero’s playful clichés of Latin America to an homage to British modernist architect Alison Smithson
Everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, Rhonda Lieberman, is as relevant as ever
‘Prize & Prejudice’ at London's UCL Art Museum is a bittersweet celebration of female talent
The curators want to rectify the biennale’s ‘failure to question the hetero-normative production of space’; ‘poppers...
A fragment of the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens will go on show at the Venice Architecture Biennale
‘Women's role in shaping the history of contemporary art is being reappraised’
Three shows in Ireland celebrate the legendary polymath, artist and author of Inside the White Cube
The legendary performance artists will partner up again to detail their tumultuous relationship in a new book
An open letter signed by over 100 leading artists including 15 Turner prize-winners says that new UK education policy...
Naturists triumph at art gallery; soothing students with colouring books; Kanye’s architectural firm: your dose of art...
Avengers: Infinity War confirms the domination of mass culture by the franchise: what ever happened to narrative...
The agency’s founder talks about warfare in the age of post truth, deconstructing images and holding states and...
From hobnobbing with Oprah to championing new art centres, millennial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is following a...
A juror for the award last year, Dan Fox on why the Turner Prize is and always will be political (whatever that means)
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
One of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years, Tom Wolfe discusses writing, art and intellectual...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018