From the invention of television to Instagram, the art world has been keeping an eye on rapidly evolving technological advances. Artists are able to question the effect technology has on society, whilst also using it as an expressive medium.
The Electronic Superhighway exhibit, named after the term coined by the artist Nam June Paik, whose work features in the exhibition, is a sensory spectacle. It charts some of the most profound statements on the relationship between society and technology from 1966 to the present day, whilst touching on recurring themes such as how this informs our identities, relationships, pop culture and of course, our anonymity.
‘Electronic Super Highway’ by Nam June Paik, here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Fittingly, as you move through the exhibit you are moving back in time. The first space displays contemporary pieces from the years 2000-2016, and the exhibit ends with pieces from the pioneering Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T) movement which began in 1966. When you walk into the first section of the gallery which houses the modern-day pieces, you are hit by a cornucopia of sensory information. From a holographic woman telling you that ‘citizenship is a privilege, not a right’, to Pac-Man sounds and a giant image of a woman’s butt with Whatsapp messages coming out of it, it reflects our current information overload, and the dizzyingly fast-paced nature of the web as it is today.
This section included a lot of pieces which I felt brought to light some interesting issues and questions that we face in the modern day, such as the hyper-chaotic world created by Ryan Trecartin. His video installation depicts the changing face of how popular culture is consumed by following a variety of incomprehensible characters, played by his friends and family. It felt as if he had captured a dystopia in which all future generations were made to watch YouTube videos on repeat, A Clockwork Orange style, whilst being drip fed psychoactive drugs, which was oddly compelling viewing and one of my favourite pieces.
Moving through the exhibition, and back in time, the rooms became calmer, quieter, and darker harking back to a time when internet culture had first taken off. Artists’ depictions during this time appeared to show some prescient reservations for the future of technology, but also a sense of excitement and wonder. This was perhaps most aptly represented in the video art piece by Nam June Paik titled ‘Internet Dream’, consisting of several televisions depicting a cohesive visual extravaganza – one of his signature styles.
Moving on to the last section of the exhibit, which showcased some of the first collaborations between scientists and artists on emerging technologies, I couldn’t help but feel slightly bored by its contents in comparison to the first section which, much like the internet itself, grabs your attention and pulls it in multiple directions. However, I realise that this is probably due to the fact that as part of the generation growing up during the internet boom, sensory overload is what my attention span is used to. Consequently, the ironic truth is perhaps that to me, reading worn out exhibition guides sadly cannot compete with dancing avatars and scam email karaoke (one of the more light hearted exhibits).
I would definitely recommend this exhibit to anyone who is interested in the cultural impact of technology – particularly the internet – on our society and ourselves, and it is sure to be a standout exhibition of 2016.
Electronic Superhighway is open every day except on Mondays and is located at the Whitechapel Gallery (77 – 82 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX) near Aldgate train station. Tickets cost £13.50 including GiftAid and £11.95 without. The exhibition will run until the 15th of May 2016.
Sarah Cowen-Rivers is studying for an MSc in Science Communication.
Image: Ryan Somma