Although Cory Arcangel is among the most technologically literate of today’s artists, he remains a devotee of obsolescence. He resuscitates out-of-date technology, pieces of software and hardware, trawling through the quickly growing rubble of our preoccupation with the new and improved. He traces the way the formerly innovative passes into uselessness, and he endeavours to bring the redundant back into partial and modified use – an imperfect resuscitation of old technologies.
Redirecting the purpose of these technologies, Arcangel creates a narrative that places the histories of art and technology side by side. In his recent exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the galleries were full of carefully nursed counterpoints. References to technology (Photoshop, plotter machines, flat-screen televisions) were placed alongside an art-historical vocabulary of readymades, Abstract Expressionism and the avant-garde. But the appeal of Arcangel’s approach lies less in its conceptual underpinnings and more in its emotional world. His work is populated with geeks, losers and otaku, and is both precise and boisterous. In some of his most beloved works, Arcangel makes razor-sharp interventions into the zinging, clanging world of video games: Super Mario Clouds (2002–5), for instance, reduces the frenetic landscape of a Super Mario Brothers game to a Zen backdrop of floating clouds.
The centrepiece of the exhibition at the Whitney was Various Self Playing Bowling Games (aka Beat the Champ) (2011), a work about losers, and a brief history of video-games. A series of large-scale projections feature six bowling video games dating from the 1970s up to the 2000s, each of which has been hacked so that the player bowls a perpetual stream of gutter balls. The defeatist narrative works in opposition to the narrative of technological advancement, offering a nice panorama of the rapid transition from the highly pixellated images of the ’70s and ’80s, through to today’s uncannily realistic renderings. The immediacy of the work comes from the familiarity of the game and its visual language. One of the pleasures of Various Self Playing Bowling Games lies in watching the increasingly realistic depictions of rage and frustration, as gutter ball after gutter ball is inexorably rolled. Players shake their heads, stamp their feet and occasionally throw themselves on the ground. While there’s something of a philosophical bent to the work (the dystopian lack of agency, the double-edged ring to ‘self playing’), it’s worn lightly.
Which isn’t to say there’s not plenty that is serious in Arcangel’s work; in a lot of ways, he sets the stakes of his work high, and looks beyond the typical confines of the art world. There’s a strongly democratic tendency at work here, which has to do with the material references of Arcangel’s work, and also the inherent nature of what remains the artist’s showcase manoeuvre: hacking. One of the key themes in Arcangel’s work is a kind of viral transparency. For example, posted on his website are the source code and instructions for the modified Super Mario Clouds. And for this exhibition, the museum lifted the prohibition on photography while also – at Arcangel’s instruction – boosting its mobile phone reception. This was a renegotiation of institutional regulations, to be sure, but also a nod to the culture of Facebook posts and live tweeting. The democratization of the museum goes hand in hand with the viral nature of social media.
Arcangel extends this idea of accessibility, perhaps less successfully, in ‘Photoshop Gradient Demonstrations’ (2008–10), a series of glossy prints that make reference to Colour Field painting, but – as the title discloses – were generated by manipulating the gradient tool in Photoshop. Each print is titled according to the coordinates of the gradient tool, thereby giving the information necessary to produce the image yourself; at the same time, the works themselves are produced to the highest technical standard, printed, mounted and framed at considerable cost. Here, the material divide between the everyday image on the computer screen and the deliberately ostentatious product (destined, one imagines, for the wealthy collector) ends up reinforcing a social divide Arcangel elsewhere subverts. More successful is Paganini Caprice No. 5 (2011), which uses Arcangel’s Gould Pro software to create a YouTube-derived musical rendering of Niccolo Paganini’s composition (c.1815). The Gould Pro software – named after virtuoso pianist Glenn Gould – allows Arcangel to make super-fast editing cuts, isolating individual notes from a seemingly inexhaustible bank of YouTube footage featuring amateur electric guitar players.
Arcangel gently satirizes the high art/low art divide, as well as the culture of YouTube compilation videos, but at its heart Paganini Caprice No. 5 is a multitudinous portrait of the hobbyist musician. Arcangel is the artist of the amateur and the loser, whether in bowling or elsewhere. He is also the artist of the fanboy, the figure that surfs (and is occasionally drawn under) the surfeit of things. His strongest asset is the direct way he accesses our attachment to subcultures and popular culture, the way we derive meaning and identity out of it. Arcangel finds emotion rather than sentiment in that attachment, and in his skillful riffs on the obsolete and out of date, the uses of nostalgia.
First published in Issue 142