Artists, Performers, Engineers

Five years ago (in the second article we ever published) Ann Jones wrote about Christian Marclay’s The Clock. Today she reflects on two exhibitions that deal with performance, cinema and the internet – all those things Mostly Film loves to explore…

Nam June Paik 'Internet Dream'
Nam June Paik ‘Internet Dream’

It’s hard to know what came first. I’ve been thinking a lot about technology recently. And about memory and history, what the future will look like, and what we once thought today would look like. My dad was an electronic engineer who started to develop the technologies that now lie at the heart of our day-to-day lives but he died too young to witness the future he knew was coming. And at the heart of all this is the vague, unformed question of what he would have made of the 21st century (or the late 20th century, come to that). And suddenly there seem to be a lot of exhibitions exploring the territory of technology – or possibly I’m noticing them because of my own preoccupations.

In the pieces I’ve written for Mostly Film over the last five years I’ve often returned to questions about the relationship between art, film and cinema and to film in the gallery space. When pondering what to write about now, I was initially enticed by Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern; the title, after all, aptly sums up a major aspect of film. And, Performing for the Camera is a good show, by turns funny and  slightly earnest (although despite my fascination with it, and despite having a pretty good idea how it was done, I think on balance I’d rather not have seen the ‘how it was done’ image for Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void; I preferred being able to maintain the pretence in my head), and this is certainly a good time to be reassessing the relationship between photography, performance and the selfie. But, though Mostly Film is, well, mostly about film, it owes its existence to the internet. And the existence of the internet and its effect on art and on film is something I haven’t really looked at here – although no matter how many exhibitions I see, my knowledge of much of the art that I write about is informed by the internet.

And in these days of Instagram, the internet is the main repository of us performing for the camera. Appropriately, Performing for the Camera finishes with Amalia Ulman’s Excellences & Perfections, a durational performance which took the form of a photo-narrative revealed over a 5 month period in 2014 on Ulman’s Instagram and Facebook pages; an exploration of the construction of womanhood which I first heard about, appropriately enough, on Twitter. Ulman’s work seems to me to talk about the cult of youth and the pressures of living in an age when lives are played out on social media and seemingly endless streams of selfies ensure that nothing is forgotten. It also features in Electronic Superhighway (2016-1966) at the Whitechapel Gallery, an exhibition which looks at the relationship between art and computer technologies by delving back through the last 50 years to the start of what ultimately became the internet and to early collaborations between artists and engineers.

Amalia Ulman 'Excellences and Perfection' Instagram Update, 20th June 2014
Amalia Ulman ‘Excellences and Perfection’ Instagram Update, 20th June 2014

The term electronic superhighway, while clearly dated (it was coined by video artist Nam June Paik in 1974 to describe a possible worldwide network of cable), somehow manages to retain a sense of optimistic excitement about the promise of future technology before commerce and kittens colonised cyberspace. In the 1990s (when I abandoned a lucrative but dull IT career in the financial sector to run away to art school), the internet emerged blinking into the mainstream in the form of the World Wide Web and governments started to worry about keeping up with (and controlling) a world that was moving too fast to be fully understood. The term Information Superhighway was everywhere (Tony Blair’s shadow cabinet even included a Shadow Minister with Special Responsibility for the Information Superhighway). It should have sounded excitingly futuristic but the appeal of this always-on connected future was off-set by the nagging sense that anyone using the term information superhighway was in some way suspect. It seemed to be the preferred term for people who were either trying to control the internet or simply didn’t get it. Or both.

But, vaguely naff connotations of the now largely forgotten term information superhighway aside, where would we be without the internet? And what’s any of this got to do with art? With a sense of anticipation, I headed to the Whitechapel Gallery to see Electronic Superhighway. I like art. I like the internet. And perhaps most importantly of all, I’m very much in favour of the work of Nam June Paik (as a side note: Tate Modern has a room of Paik’s work on display at present; I treated myself to a visit while there for Performing for the Camera and it didn’t disappoint).

Electronic Superhighway (2016-1966) takes a back to front approach, starting with the now and delving back half a century to Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), a radical collaborations of artists and engineers (founded by artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman and engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer from Bell Telephone Laboratories) that created performance art events, environments and experimental music and theatre. This reverse chronology works well: we start with the frenetic and often confusing work of the post-internet 21st century and work back through the net art of the 1990s to the pioneering video works, drawings inspired by computer technology, and paintings by Peter Sedgley that change colour according to the light shining on them. At the start of the exhibition, I was slightly edgy; worried about missing out, my attention flitted from work to work. So the whole experience was mirrored in one extraordinary piece: Evan Roth’s Self Portrait: JULY 17, 2012 a vast digital collage of screen grabs which spills out across the floor to provide a visual record of one day of one person’s internet activity. Scary stuff.

Evan Roth 'Self Portrait JULY 17, 2012'
Evan Roth ‘Self Portrait JULY 17, 2012’

Though the upstairs spaces have just as much to see, there was something about the nature of the work that made me feel I could pick and choose with more autonomy and focus on one work at a time without the others butting in and demanding my attention. The past was more focussed, perhaps. This section of the show particularly fascinated me, in part, I think, because, despite the apparent simplicity of some works, the sense of excitement of the artists and technologists who worked together to push at the boundaries of what was possible technologically remains very much in evidence. The work here represents audacious technological experiments made in what now seems like a time of innocence before the complexity of the internet age took hold; things were both simpler and much more difficult then.

Though I remember the excitement around experiments in net art in the 1990s (I even took part in a webcast from the ICA which I have a feeling we billed, doubtless inaccurately, as the world’s first artist-run net broadcasting station) and have seen some of the earlier works in art museums over the years – and read about more, both online and in actual books – there is a lot here that I knew far too little about and, a few key names aside, much of the contemporary work was not really on my radar. I wouldn’t describe Electronic Superhighway (2016-1966) (or its companion exhibition Big Bang Data at Somerset House, which closed recently, or, come to that, Tate Modern’s Performing for the Camera) as an especially fun way to spend an afternoon in a gallery – apart from anything else, with the inevitable and necessary inclusion of work made for the internet, at times I felt I could have stayed at home and viewed the work from the comfort of my sofa. And as time is very much of the essence at exhibitions with a lot of time based work, an app or a set of URLs wouldn’t have gone amiss. But it held my attention and showed me work I knew far too little about but which I’m pretty sure I will keep coming back to.

All told, Electronic Superhighway (2016-1966) is an intriguing journey back in time. It talks about the way artists respond to an ever-changing world and of the impact they have on the nature of change. In particular, in the context of my own preoccupation with ideas around technology, memory and what the future looks like, it’s given me a lot of food for thought. I wonder what my dad would have made of it all.

Electronic Superhighway (2016-1966) is at the Whitechapel Art Gallery until 15 May 2016. Performing for the Camera is at Tate Modern until 12 June 2016. There is a room dedicated to the work of Nam June Paik in Tate Modern’s Media Networks display.

About Ann Jones

London-based artist and educator who somehow seldom gets time to actually make any work, who writes about art, somewhat irregularly, at and occasionally contributes to – writing about art, mostly.

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