To Aldgate East and the Whitechapel Art Gallery, where I fill in the form to renew my lapsed membership, and it’s rather pleasant to discover that now I’ve finally finished growing up, I qualify for the oldie’s discount, which brings the fee down to only £30. It does say on the form that I’m meant to show proof of age to claim this reduced charge but the woman behind the desk is too polite to ask for any chronological ID. Instead, I think she just takes a surreptitious scan of the barcode lines on my forehead and calculates that I’m a long way from the Justin Bieber end of life’s spectrum and fast approaching the craggier, Sid James and WH Auden region, and so it’s safe to let me through.*
Electronic Superhighway, the current exhibition in the Gallery, is an ambitious – some might say misguided – attempt to survey the relationship between art and the internet over the past few decades. To do this, the curators have gone for the more-is-better, scattergun approach and crammed as much art as they can into the Gallery spaces. So, there’s a vast assortment of stuff from over 70 artists working in a wide variety of media, from old style oil paints and photography to collages, assemblages and, not surprisingly, stacks of videos and other displays made possible by harnessing a whole bunch of different digital hardware. Everything appears to me to be a bit cramped and confused, a fact not helped by the labelling, which is sometimes hard to find and, if finally located, either gives too little information or, more often, far too much. It surely can’t just be my tired old eyes that start to glaze over when a caption is determined to explain to me the relevance of some bit of art by spouting a fog of buzzwords on appropriation, deconstruction, digital manipulation, algorithms, interconnectedness, mediation, cognitive processes and sausages. Well, maybe not the last one – that was just to check if you made it to the end of the list.
In general, what comes across from this techno tour d’horizon is just how completely wrong-footed most artists have been by the speedy development of the internet and all the extraordinary evolutionary changes in methods and manners of communication that have come in its wake. Instead of acting in their traditional role as an avant-garde, introducing new ways of looking at things, helping to frame the language by which these novelties can be understood and leading the drive that results in their acceptance by the general public, most of the artistic community have been left struggling to keep up or simply decided to ignore it all. So everything from computer games and 3D printing to reality TV shows, sexting, texting, shuffling music, taking selfies, and on to the tsunami of social media madness that consumes so much of so many people’s attention, has been left to develop in a universe parallel to that in which most of the artworld rotates.
To those of us who think that artists, if not exactly the unacknowledged legislators of the world, are meant to play some part in exploring the way it works and shifts about, acting as outliers to alert us to future sociological trends, all this comes as a bit of a disappointment. And it’s hard to find an artist in this exhibition who has managed to originate any idea or insight that is new or surprising or anything beyond restating the clichés and truisms of the new digital age that we all now take for granted. This seems to me to be in striking contrast to earlier times when, for instance, the Impressionists reacting to the emergence of photography managed to completely redefine how we looked at the world, or the way the Dadists and Surrealists rebelled against the First World War and opened up everyone’s eyes to the whole psychoanalytic can of worms that wriggle around in society’s subconscious. And if one thinks back to the 1960s, arguably the last time there was a major paradigm shift in the way society understood itself, artists like Paolozzi, Hamilton, Blake and Hockney in the UK and especially Warhol in the US, were in the forefront of helping to set, and then direct, the agenda of the new swinging, permissive society that influenced the lifestyles of a generation. The only person I can think of who has even come close to surfing the new digital age is probably Banksy and he’s just a cartoonist, not a proper artist.
One could argue that the recent generation of artists have put up a pretty poor show in general which has resulted in this pretty poor show in particular at the Whitechapel, where all is exemplified by the very first image to greet the visitor. It’s a giant photograph of a bum with some text quotes emerging from the cleft, presumably an awfully feeble pun about talking out of one’s arse.
So, what else is on offer? As mentioned, there are lots of videos varying from high-production value, glossy animations of superheroes dancing in a forest, via some scary horror scenes filmed through night-vision goggles down to what looks like the courtroom proceedings of a war crimes trial or a local planning application tribunal. Aside from these riffs on Avatar, the Blair Witch Project and News at Ten, the other favoured stylistic form is the fast-moving collage of random consumer images that may have been new and exciting when Paolozzi was playing around with it sixty years ago but now just looks a bit tired.
If it’s clear that there’s a connection between these digitally produced images and the so-called superhighway then it’s less obvious with some of other works. There are, for instance, a couple of large unexceptional abstracts, that appear, at first sight, to be like any piece of normal post-war Americana. It’s not until one looks at the accompanying captions that one realises that, in one case, the series of brushstrokes have been downloaded from different websites and printed on sheet of metal, and in the other, a flat screen projection of a blue blob is slowly changing shape in reaction to eye movements from the audience viewing it. It’s mildly interesting, I suppose, but a shame that neither image is particularly arresting.
Is there anything else of note? Not really, there are some heavy impasto oil paintings of body parts and a line of prosthetic hands, one providing a perch for a bird and another holding an apple, but these seem to be related to some back road, cul de sac off a side turning of the super highway and I’ve no idea what either of these has to do with the main motorway. There’s also a large video of a blinking eye and a couple of paintings of circuit boards and…and, well, around this point I started to get a bit circuit bored myself and stopped taking notes.
The things that I liked best were the archival stuff, like Nam June Paik’s wall of video screens from the 1970s all blasting out random colourful nonsense and, even more ancient, Allan Kaprow’s quaintly dated black and white film. This shows various people reacting with delighted astonishment and surprise when they look into a bank of TVs and suddenly see themselves on screen. I can’t help thinking that the overall exhibition might have been more successful had it started with these works and then progressed with fewer, more carefully chosen items acting as exemplars for a more structured history about the impact of the new technologies on art and vice versa. Although, I think that the curators may well have struggled to put a coherent theory together and perhaps the main problem is that we’re all still waiting for the new Walter Benjamin upgrade to be released, the one that tells us all about Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction and Limitless, Immediate, Cost Free Dissemination.
* This is the annual paying show at the Whitechapel so, if you’re not a member, it costs £10 to get in (or £12 if you’ve not yet achieved seniority).