Cory Arcangel carves new digital worlds from the web, popular culture, and consumer electronics.
By Aaron Jentzen
Photo: Robert Fimmano
Cory Arcangel spent much of the past year stuck in the 1990s, collecting and archiving more than 800 records of then-popular “trance” techno. Once, this vinyl filled dance floors; now, says the wellknown multimedia artist, it’s “an almost completely inert collection of a kind of vernacular that has now moved on.”
A playful twist enlivens the moribund collection: Arcangel’s personal rating system, from one star (“no good at all”) to five (“incredible”). Exceptions abound: “If any song had a saxophone solo, I gave it a five just because I thought that was ridiculous,” he says.
The 34-year-old gives off a restless, upbeat energy, as if bouncing lightly on his toes. Today, he’s finalizing the record collection, surfing the web, and making a sculpture based on basketball shoes for people who can barely walk.
“If you had to distill Western culture down to one object,” Arcangel says with wry wonder, “it would probably be an Air Jordan for a 3-year-old.”
His work style is “very scattered,” Arcangel admits, “but it’s kind of how I’ve operated in the last 10 years.”
Cory Arcangel: Masters, on view through January 27, 2013, in the Forum Gallery at Carnegie Museum of Art, surveys a decade of his output, appropriations of video games and Internet culture, digital media and consumer electronics. During the run of the exhibition, neighboring Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh houses the debut of Arcangel’s record archive, with visitors encouraged to explore the collection using a turntable listening station.
“Ultimately, I think Cory’s primary medium is digital technology,” says Tina Kukielski, curator of Cory Arcangel: Masters. “He is most interested in how he can modify, manipulate, hack, change it in some way, to open it up to a new kind of experience.”
Kukielski, an associate curator for the museum’s upcoming 2013 Carnegie International, has followed Arcangel’s career since 2004, when his video installation Super Mario Clouds made a splash at the Whitney Biennial. Last summer, Arcangel became the youngest artist since Bruce Nauman in 1973 to be given an entire floor at the Whitney; today, his work appears in major permanent collections.
Pittsburghers may remember Arcangel’s engaging playfulness from a 2003 Wood Street Galleries show and a 2005 group exhibition at the Museum of Art. While the current show has broad appeal, “I think the work will be easily translated and consumed by those efficient in computer language,” Kukielski says in a nod to the nearby campus of Carnegie Mellon University.
After all, Arcangel’s work, “always existed between the art world, between the online world, between works ultimately realized or maybe just ideas that lived on the Internet,” she says. Her goal with Cory Arcangel: Masters was a “show that would best emulate the confluence of those practices.”
Arcangel grew up in suburban Buffalo, N.Y., during the last days of analog—“a really lucky time,” he says. “It does give me a different perspective from somebody younger or somebody older.” Initially, Arcangel studied classical guitar and later electronic music composition, graduating from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. After some time away from music, it returned as a strong element in his art practice.
In Sweet 16 (2006), for example, two screens show rock guitarist Slash playing the intro of Guns N’ Roses’ hit “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” The looped videos appear identical, but one is shorter by a single note. With each repetition, the videos drift further out of sync, yielding new configurations. Every 16 minutes, they realign. (Composer Steve Reich is known for this “phasing” technique, as is progressive rock group King Crimson.)
“That is one of my favorite things I’ve ever made,” Arcangel says. “That one I’m happy to see any day of the week.”
One of his most recognizable works derives from a hacked video game; Super Mario Clouds (2002) shows the classic Nintendo game’s scrolling landscape stripped of all but its pixelated clouds. “You don’t really need to know about Mario Brothers or video games,” explains Arcangel, who as a kid, never owned a Nintendo gaming system. “Those are computer-generated clouds, a computer rendering of the landscape. And that’s all you really need to know.”
Super Mario Clouds is now 10 years old—an eternity for consumer electronics—says Arcangel, and technology’s rapid march subtly changes the work over time. At the Museum of Art, it appears for the first time on a flat-screen TV, a technology that didn’t exist when Arcangel created the work. “In a way, it will reference its own aging in the installation,” he says. “Things like that are super exciting to me.”
Arcangel notes a shift in his work about six or seven years ago—a time of widespread computer use, when the general public took to blogging and social media with gusto. Moving on from “esoteric computer programming,” Arcangel began “trying to deal with all of this content that was being created—a type of curating.”
In Drei Klavierstücke, op. 11 (2011), he recasts the work of amateurs armed with ubiquitous video cameras. Downloading countless YouTube videos of cute kittens walking on piano keys, Arcangel used a program he designed called Gould Pro to identify specific notes and splice the clips together.
The result? Arnold Schoenberg’s 1909 atonal composition, performed by kittens. It’s a collaboration of sorts between animals and computer code, between Arcangel and over-sharing pet-owners with smartphones.
“What does it mean now to communicate your actions to people? That is kind of the currency of a lot of culture right now: broadcasting your thoughts or your actions or your interests to the public,” Arcangel says.
“Computers aren’t just for nerds anymore— it’s such a relief.”