Cory Arcangel: Video Games For Art's Sake

Anyone entering Cory Arcangel’s exhibition “Pro Tools” at New York’s Whitney Museum this week could be excused for thinking they had stepped into a technology morgue.

Anyone entering Cory Arcangel’s exhibition “Pro Tools” at New York’s Whitney Museum this week could be excused for thinking they had stepped into a technology morgue. As the New Yorker’s Andrea K. Scott puts it, Cory finds "abject beauty in the way that modern technology is doomed to obsolescence.”

But for all of his faded, found digital artifacts, Arcangel’s the sort of rare new media artist who creates computerized works with heart and flesh and soul. His work has appeared in museums and galleries the world over, including the New Museum, MOMA, and Galerie Ropac. This week, the Whitney will open a solo show of Arcangel’s work, a remarkable achievement for an artist who’s just turned thirty-three – and especially for one best known for art based on video games. (Haters take note: the National Endowment for the Arts recently paused the the debate about video-games-as-art with a stamp of approval.)

From “Pro Tools” at the Whitney Museum.

Arcangel came to prominence in the late nineties with a series of works made by hacking Nintendo game cartridges. Among these, he is perhaps best known for Super Mario Clouds, a hacked Mario game wherein all game sprites except the clouds have been erased. In this period, working in collaboration with Paul B. Davis and their programming ensemble BEIGE, Arcangel began developing an aesthetic for the age of recurring technological desuetude for which he’s now celebrated.

Over the last decade, the scope of Arcangel’s aesthetic saw incredible evolution. Moving forward from the early videogame pieces, Cory’s work grew to embrace the beautiful, unfiltered human id piped into homes via the Internet. In works like Arnold Schoenberg’s, Drei Klavierstücke, op. 11-I played by cats on pianos, Cory edited together YouTube clips of the titular animal playing the great Austrian composer’s music. Other Internet works like Sorry I Haven’t Posted skewer unexamined Internet habits. In that piece, Arcangel wrote a program to search and re-blog every blog post titled or leading with the line “sorry I haven’t posted.”

Arcangel’s work also raises questions about his chosen medium. Pieces like Video Painting and Photoshop CS: 110 by 72 inches, 300 DPI, RGB, square pixels, default gradient “Spectrum”, mousedown y=1098 x=1749.9, mouse up y=0 x=4160, a canvas depicting a simple rainbow gradient, address the role technology plays in facilitating art appreciation: his title reveals the simple mouse movement needed to produce the gradient effect in Photoshop. In the series to which this piece belongs, Adult Contemporary, Arcangel’s works address the modern artist’s interaction with digital tools. Whereas his early work subverted consumer electronics, the pieces in his Adult Contemporary series, like the work of the net artists JODI and Alexei Shulgin, see Arcangel using technology to make art in a willfully uneducated manner.

Unlike programming, “art is totally impractical,” he tells Motherboard, “and you never know if the result is the best result. Anytime somebody makes anything they should be congratulated because it’s such chaos, to be able to position yourself at all to produce something.”

It’s this willingness to locate his work in the uncharted, messy territory of the digital age that makes Arcangel so worth congratulating. At once conceptually rigorous, serendipitous and quietly funny, his work offers a chance to look again at that world, and notice, for instance, the sublime beauty in a video game cloud.