For all its utopic potential, the internet also holds the power to be discordant, wild, unruly. This untamed exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery is a real-time, IRL demonstration of the internet’s rebellious web of influence, revealing how it has blown apart human interaction, production and the way we inhabit the space around us. Indeed, the visitor occupies the gallery space as a kind of pixel, a cursor scrolling through dissonant, often disruptive works, flitting from one dark, digital corner to another as though clicking from tab to tab. Noise and distraction are everywhere, with no work ever really isolated from either its neighbour or from its position within the exhibition’s trajectory. My senses are overloaded with images – some moving, some tactile, many manipulated – and as I carve my own route through, I realise I am experiencing a familiar feeling of visual over-stimulation with too much choice. The exhibition has replicated what it means to be online.
Discourses around connectivity have centred for the last few years on the fact that there no longer exists a distinction between online and offline. Networks buzzing in our pockets have brought the non-space into the space, eroding much of our sense of autonomy. Many of the artists displayed here are on a mission to regain control and to disrupt the heteronormative nature of technological networks. Trevor Paglen and Douglas Coupland seek to retain individuality, with Paglen’s ‘Autonomy Cube’ functioning as a sculptural piece of software to mask encrypt visitors’ virtual identities, while Coupland’s black and white headshots of people are made anonymous – headless, even – through Mondrian-like giant pixels. The obscured features are a critique of facial recognition software in use by companies such as Facebook, raising unsettling questions about how often we are seen against our will.
Yet the public setting of our online lives has also engendered a kind of performative playing out of our everyday existence. Over the course of five months and 475 Instagram posts in 2014, Amalia Ulman challenged this pluming of oneself for the approval of others in her own, selfie-fuelled performance. As Ulman changed physical aspects of her appearance, the account became more than just a parody – ‘Excellences & Perfections’ broke new ground in blurring the distinctions between the artist’s professional work and personal life. Instagram was repositioned as a fertile site for performance-based artists grappling with issues of self-identity. It is unfortunate that in transposing Ulman’s work to the gallery, blowing up the selfies and mounting them on aluminium, the original context of the social media platform has been lost. Like 17th-century emblems, the images work together with accompanying text to illustrate an idea, an emotion, or a certain satirical nuance.
The rest of the downstairs space is filled with works occupying the dizzying feeling of ‘too much’. This includes Evan Roth’s ‘Internet Self-Portrait Cache’, a printout of every webpage Roth visited over the course of the day, which naturally cascades from the high ceiling and spills out across the floor – or Camille Henrot’s exquisite film ‘Grosse Fatigue’, which, in its visually pleasing game of internet object association, seems to signal a more hopeful outlook on the impending infinity of possibilities at our fingertips.
Chronology reverses in the upper galleries, where a section of the exhibition co-curated with Rhizome displays browser-based works from the 1990s to present, archived and preserved for posterity. It’s intriguing how amusing it is to once again be using interfaces that are 5, 10, 15 years old and the wave of nostalgia this produces. This is an important part of the process of conserving these works, which have interaction at their core and depend on the viewer’s reactions to function. As so many of these works were speculations on the future effects of our online lives, sites such as Martine Neddam’s ‘Mouchette.org’ (1996) – which presents unnerving narratives about teenage-girl users – are imbued with new relevance in the issues they foreshadowed.
Progressing back further to Nam June Paik’s video sculpture ‘Internet Dream’ (1994), where 52 monitors dazzle as the potential of telecommunications once dazzled the ordinary citizen. It is perhaps this aspiration of utopia that differentiates early pioneers like Paik and the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) group to today’s post-internet mavericks. In 1966, where this exhibition begins, all possibilities were beginning to open up; in 2016, everything is open to us – and everything about us is open to other people. This exhibition, which, for its ambitious breadth and scope will no doubt go on to be a seminal moment in the new media art canon, presents artists questioning the peculiar moment we find ourselves in in ways that astutely mirror the web. Load more, please.