We were primed to peer at the world through rectangles long before the digital revolution. The flat-screen on the wall and the phone in your hand frame the world much as paintings have for many centuries—or windows, come to think of it. But the way the glossy electronic screen has taken over so much of our attention, so much of the time, is astonishing. While that’s not a new idea, it’s still one well worth exploring in an art exhibit.

“I’ll Be Your Mirror: Art and the Digital Screen,” on view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth through April 30, is one of the largest such shows in years. It aims to show us how artists have responded to the momentous changes brought by screens since 1969, the year of the TV spectacle of Apollo 11 and the launch of ARPANET, a proto-internet. It includes works by more than fifty artists, the biggest number ever in a group show here.  It comprises stacks of vintage TVs and cell phones, a couple of putty-colored old computers, augmented-reality experiences, video game imagery, NFT somethings, an Amazon drone prototype, pieces responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. My status update: anxiety-ridden.

For the luddites who go to museums to get a break from screens, there are also paintings on canvas and framed photographs and drawings. The show ranges widely in materials, themes, and even time periods, really—1969 was a long time ago. It’s divided into nine sections, which include Surveillance, Ecology, the Loneliness Epidemic, and the Posthuman Body—some of which are illustrated better than others. The whole show is hard to get your arms around, but there are plenty of moments that fascinate. Some pieces, with their unsettling reminders of what big tech hath wrought, will linger in your thoughts for a long time. 

The internet looms large. The first work you encounter is Penelope Umbrico’s wall-size 48,586,054 Suns from Sunsets from Flickr (Partial) 11/05/20 (2020), a grid of sunset photos users uploaded to Flickr. It, and Molly Soda’s Me Singing Stay by Rihanna (2018)—a screen showing synchronized YouTube videos of users singing the song, each alone in a bedroom—illustrate the striking and dispiriting similarity of much of the imagery we all consume online, and even of what we produce. But Soda’s piece, and a few others here, convey a sense of community that we sometimes get from digital connectivity too.

More disturbing are the pieces commenting on new levels of surveillance made possible by screen technology. After he seemingly randomly drew the attention of the FBI as a terrorism suspect and endured a months-long investigation, artist Hasan Elahi responded by embarking on a project of self-surveillance. A huge wall is printed with thousands of photos he took of the routines of his life—places he drove to, meals he ate, toilets he used. Zoom out and the pixel-size images add up to pretty expanses of color. Lean in and the photos are disquieting—so innocuous, so like your own day.

Across the gallery Jon Rafman’s Nine Eyes of Google Streetview (2008–ongoing) is nine large framed prints of screenshots the artist ripped from Google Street View. He styles himself a digital flaneur, doing Baudelaire one better by roaming streets all around the world, all from his computer at home. He saves Google shots that are strange, disturbing, or just funny: the small selection here includes a scene of someone facedown on a car hood, surrounded by cops; a group of figures casually walking down a sidewalk wearing hazmat suits; and a Dallas driver giving the Google camera the finger. It’s chilling that a powerful corporation can see all this, and that we users can too, becoming digital spies without even thinking about it.

Nam June Paik, a pioneer of video art starting in the sixties, is represented with two pieces. One, TV Buddha (1992, though he first created these in 1974), features a small Buddha figure sitting in front a TV monitor playing a feed from a camcorder that’s filming him as he faces it. People can glimpse themselves on the monitor as they pass by, but they can’t face the screen head-on, as curator Alison Hearst points out in the catalog, with Buddha in the way; we’re just looking in, not part of this closed loop. Today, the arrangement also means you can’t take a clean selfie, as a succession of gallerygoers were finding out on my visits, in a little dance you probably didn’t see as much of in 1974.

In the earlier pieces here, out-of-date technology lends a nostalgic appeal, in addition to (or replacing, after all this time) whatever viewer response the artist intended. A pair of Frederick Hammersley works—curvy, modernist shapes faintly visible on paper—are described as “computer-generated ink drawing(s) on continuous form paper”—so dot-matrix printouts, basically, with the perforated edges left on. It’s strange to see these up on the wall in frames, but think of what it meant to produce them in 1969. And he was right to help people “see” this technology at that moment in time—a glimpse at something that would soon become the stuff of everyday life in our homes and workplaces and schools.

In one corner stands a table with a 1985 Amiga desktop computer and a comically bad early mouse. It’s loaded with simple images Andy Warhol created using this model—he was reportedly pretty excited by its possibilities. You can sit down, click on some slow-loading Warhols or his scrawled signature and be amused by the funny old technology. (The show’s title, by the way, is from a Velvet Underground song for which Warhol shot footage of Nico trimming her bangs—it may remind you of a TikTok video.)

We’re a bit like Warhol in the eighties or Hammersley making computer drawings in 1969—the newer technologies confronted in these galleries are things we’re marveling at right now. Artist Morehshin Allahyari, after much meticulous research and collaboration with historians, used 3D printing to create replicas of ancient artifacts from Nineveh that were destroyed by ISIS in 2015. She released the plan for one object so that anyone could print it but kept the others back in protest of what she calls “digital colonialism,” as Hearst explains in a catalog essay. Simon Denny’s pieces interrogating some of this decade’s most-hyped new technologies challenged my aging brain and my digital know-how: One, involving an Amazon drone patent drawing, included an enhanced-reality experience that I won’t spoil (I had to download an app to make it work). Others comment on energy-hogging crypto mining and NFTs; these are homely “mining rigs” shown with LED displays of non-fungible tokens and bearing terrifying titles like NFT Mine Offset: Ethereum Kryptowährung Mining-Rig 45 MH/s (2021).

But I delighted in some lighter pieces. The most ridiculous thing I did, as a screen-addled visitor, was to try to take a photo, using my right hand, of the iPad in my left hand that was pointing at some flamingo sculptures and augmenting those with overlaid images of digital flamingo-bots (this was Kristin Lucas’s FlARmingos, 2017); you’re supposed to dance with them, not get tangled up in devices. Another joyful moment comes from trans-femme artist Huntrezz Janos, who creates face filters for use on Instagram (a space with a transphobia problem) that embolden users to express themselves. Anyone can try Janos’s filters on Instagram, but the Modern commissioned two larger-scale versions for the exhibit—they’re like full-length mirrors, and (phones up!) we know what to do with those.   

The everyday annoyances of the digital age intrude on the museum-going experience. Various tablets and phones used in the works have to be kept charged; cords reach down toward outlets, much like on our living-room walls; and the brand logos of some of our digital overlords could hardly be kept hidden. A second Paik piece, Video Flag Y (1985), a stack of 84 televisions whose screen images together create a big American flag, was turned off on opening day, with a sign saying it was “currently under repair” and giving a QR code (sigh) that would let you view a photo of it on your little pocket computer. The darkness cast a gloom over an entire sizable gallery. Other works have sound elements, so there’s sometimes a distracting shriek, say, coming from a screen you didn’t want to pay attention to at that moment. Intentionally and unintentionally, the exhibit effectively makes you notice what we’ve done to ourselves.