BY Gary Zhexi Zhang in Reviews | 20 FEB 16
Featured in
Issue 178

Electronic Superhighway (2016–1966) & Big Bang Data

Whitechapel Gallery & Somerset House, London, UK

BY Gary Zhexi Zhang in Reviews | 20 FEB 16

‘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.

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’, (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 based in New York, USA.