News, — October 10, 2011 11:16 — 0 Comments
Digital hacker-turned-artist Cory Arcangel blurs the boundaries between art and technology and was the youngest artist since Bruce Nauman to stage a show over an entire floor at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in May. That show was called Pro Tools, so you can see where he’s coming from, and why we dig him — and why we’ll be checking him out in London this week
The best description of Cory Arcangel’s work, he says, came from an 11-year-old boy on a school trip. "He comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, Mister! I geddit – these are all tricks!’ That," Arcangel grins, "was pretty much the most concise explanation of the whole show."
That show, Pro Tools, opened at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in May, after a triple whammy of New Yorker, New York Times and New York magazine profiles. The following day Arcangel turned 33, making him the youngest artist since Bruce Nauman to stage a show over an entire floor of the building.
Now the contents of Pro Tools are packed into a ziggurat of boxes threatening to engulf his small Brooklyn studio. Arcangel is wolfish of face, high-pitched and croaky. Today he’s wearing a denim baseball cap and a bright blue sweatshirt that reads, in icy font, "Frost This Jack!". He has a habit of throwing back his head and laughing a silent, body-shaking laugh – a fitting mannerism for one of the few contemporary artists who can make audiences laugh out loud in galleries.
Humour aside, his work gets to the heart of what technology can and can’t do for us. His latest show, Speakers Going Hammer, opens next week at London’s Lisson Gallery, just as the art world throngs to the Frieze art fair. According to Alex Logsdail, associate director at the Lisson: "Cory’s work encompasses all of the trappings, the great successes and massive failures in a modern life centred around technology and surface pop culture."
Arcangel has cited influences as wide-ranging as Ed Ruscha, Steve Reich, Tiger Woods and Weekend at Bernie’s, and his pieces incorporate material as diverse as Schoenberg’s music and LOLcats YouTube clips.
The centrepiece of Pro Tools was Various Self-Playing Bowling Games (it was called Beat the Champ when it was shown at the Barbican earlier this year), in which clips from bowling video games from the 1970s to the present day were projected on to a wall. The sad joke was that all had been hacked, so that the player endlessly threw only gutterballs. Lots of people stood in front of it, chuckling; others found it unbearably poignant.
"To succeed in a virtual scenario, you just need to hit a button at the right time," Arcangel says. "It’s funny to me that when it’s already been made so easy for you, there’s a lot of effort going in to still making it not work. It’s the kind of funny you can’t explain – the classic idea of a machine that keeps bumping into a wall, the machine that can’t quite do its job."
After a summer of 16-hour days preparing for Pro Tools, it seems crazy that almost every piece in Arcangel’s forthcoming show will be brand new work. He shrugs and smiles. "What I’ve tried to do is to not stop," he says, which has also proved a good strategy for dealing with the feverish level of attention. "Now I finally have a studio it provides protection. You come here and have all these other things to worry about, like [he picks up a line drawing of a car] the hubcap on the Ford Taurus." The drawing was created by a 25-year-old automated pencil plotter, bought on eBay, which he’s eager to demonstrate.
"Isn’t that cool!" he squeals, holding up the finished sketch. Like a child parading his toys, he’s keen to give me a studio tour. Arcangel shows off a pair of hot-pink Ugg boots (to be filled with lead), an assortment of hi-tech golf clubs, a small robotic dog and a deodorant can. "Somehow it’s all related… I’ve been trying to get to the idea of design’s idea of the future. I’m attracted to these because culturally they’re relevant right now."
Next to them is a humidifier, which will eventually fill a room of the Lisson Gallery with Sprite vapour. "Originally it was going to be Coke Zero," he says, "but we had it running all day in the studio and it was like a fog in here. So I picked a soda that was just sugar and water – that didn’t stress me out, medically."
In 2009, after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer, Arcangel had an operation to remove his lymph nodes. He is, he says, in good health now, "but for a while it changed my work, because I couldn’t think straight. So certain works came out really strange. Otherwise it’s hard to say, y’know…" He looks uncomfortable, and pulls the sleeves of his sweatshirt over his wrists. "It just gives you a different perspective. You don’t get as caught up in things, I guess."
Arcangel grew up in Buffalo, New York, and studied classical guitar at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he’d practise for eight hours a day. He might have become a classical musician were it not for the institution’s internet connection. "In 1996 I got access to high-speed internet. I remember being in my dorm room in college and thinking: ‘I want to be a part of this.’"
He switched from a major in classical guitar to music technology and began learning computer code, which remains one of the key tools at his disposal. "I could sit and do that for hours," he says. "I think it is my only true zen activity."
He also admits to spending a lot of time on his website, which to me looks like something a middle-aged accountant might have built for himself in the late 1990s. He is thrilled when I tell him this – "Yeah, totally!" – but it is not, he insists, in any way ironic: "Irony implies you’re making fun of something, but I’m not making fun of anything – I am an enthusiast towards these types of cultures. It’s important to let people know I do take this stuff seriously, even though it’s a lot of fun."
Other people started to take his work seriously around 2004, the year the Whitney Biennial featured a piece called Super Mario Clouds. It was a blissfully simple idea: Arcangel hacked the original Nintendo game so the background of white clouds and blue sky were all that remained. In the process, he made the leap from online nerd to art world darling. A recent New Yorker interview claimed the work brought to mind Constable’s cloud paintings and James Turrell’s skylit Quaker meeting house.
Arcangel recognises that "some of my works are really hard to understand, but people can enjoy the majority of them without a lot of the baggage or fine art knowledge behind them".
Among these is his favourite piece in Pro Tools, which used written signs to encourage people to use their mobile phones (there was also boosted reception in the gallery).
"That was one of the things I thought was the most successful," he laughs, "encouraging people not to pay attention to the work!" More seriously, though, he adds: "It seems to be a relevant gesture now, given how people experience media."
Neatly proving his point, throughout our conversation Arcangel eagerly Googles things to illustrate what he says. He’s particularly animated when it comes to YouTube.
"My favourite genre of video is people demonstrating their stereos," he says. "Here, I’ll show you my favourite. It’s called ‘New Cables for My Stereo‘."
It’s a steady shot of an imposing sound system in someone’s living room. Nothing is happening, except that the new cables and stereo are playing some Enya. "Isn’t that great?" he giggles.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010