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Nam June Paik, 'Internet Dream', 1994. © (2008) ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Photo: ONUK (Berhard Schmitt) © Nam June Paik Estate
Nam June Paik, 'Internet Dream', 1994. © (2008) ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Photo: ONUK (Berhard Schmitt) © Nam June Paik Estate

Back to the future: six decades of art and technology

Tune into the Whitechapel Gallery's new show 'Electronic Superhighway' with our guide to art and technology over the past six decades

By Martin Coomer

The Whitechapel Gallery's first show of 2016 opens this week – the tech-tastic spring blockbuster 'Electronic Superhighway' (Friday January 29–Sunday May 15). Exploring how artists have adopted and critiqued new technology over the past six decades, the exhibition reveals how the invention of the computer, the internet and all their various bits and bobs have impacted upon contemporary art. We've tuned into the biggest tech-art stories since the 1960s to help get you plugged in and turned on. 

The 1960s

OK computer

It’s 1964. The Beatles are number one (probably) and American inventor Douglas Engelbart shows a prototype of the modern computer, making technology more accessible to the general public for the first time. Meanwhile, in Sweden, Ulla Wiggen creates some of the first paintings to feature the inner workings of technological devices – motherboards and other gubbins (left). Perhaps the most mind-expanding, boundary-breaking and generally groovy art-tech crossover comes from Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), a group of artists and Bell Laboratories engineers. EAT catapaults into life with a series of events, ‘9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering’ (1966), scoring firsts for the use of closed circuit television and TV projection on stage.

The 1970s

DRAM chips and floppy disks

On April 1 1976, young upstarts Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak don their best flares to unveil Apple Computers. By the end of the decade, San Francisco artist Lynn Hershman Leeson has made one of the very first interactive artworks. Using laserdisc technology, ‘Lorna’ (1979-82) invites viewers to engage with the titular onscreen protagonist using a remote control. You’ll discover that Lorna’s hobbies include watching TV and that she hasn’t left the house for four-and-a-half years.


The 1980s

Big ideas, big hair

Microsoft invents Windows in 1985 in response to Apple’s first GUI (graphical user interface) with its newfangled dropdown menus. Interested in telerobotics, Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac starts to explore the cultural impact of online experiences. He creates colourful animated poems using Minitel (which offers an early online service accessed via telephone lines) anticipating a world of interconnectedness while distilling the motivation behind most online experiences ever since with the title of one work: ‘Tesão (Horny)’ (1985, pictured).

The 1990s

The World Wide Web is born

Tim Berners-Lee develops HTML (1990), giving rise to the World Wide Web. By 1993 there are some 600 websites (sales of cargo pants go stratospheric). Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer warns against Big Brother-style surveillance with works such as ‘Surface Tension’ (1992, pictured), an interactive installation that makes use of a computerised surveillance system. It’s the first artwork in which the eye really does follow you round the room.


The 2000s

Facebookers and YouTubers

The decade begins as the dotcom bubble bursts. Facebook goes online in 2004, followed a year later by YouTube. Russian artist Aristarkh Chernyshev uses smartphone technology to create interactive art that subtly takes the piss out of marketing and art history speak.

The 2010s

Wikileaks, selfie culture and cat lols 

The decade sees the first generation of digital natives become artists but themes of narcissism, alienation, and our bonkers attitudes to sex and the human body prevail. For her instagram ‘performance’ ‘Excellences &Perfections’ (2014) Amalia Ulman fakes versions of herself according to various definitions of ‘hot babe’. Based on the life size human holograms found dishing out info in airports and railway stations, James Bridle creates ‘Homo Sacer’ (2014), which greets you with apparently conflicting government statements about your human rights, while ‘Text Butt’ (2015, pictured) by Olaf Breuning suggests we’re all now talking out of our arses.

Plug into art exhibitions across town

© Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Top ten art exhibitions in London


Fancy seeing an art show this weekend but no idea where to go? Well look no further. You can't go wrong if you head down to one of our ten favourite art exhibitions taking place in the capital right now.


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