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Herb Sundays 72: Cory Arcangel
The technology obsessed artist shares fragments of albums he enjoys + a deeper dive into Cory's work.
“Generally, I tend to listen to albums. I will listen to one over and over again for weeks, or sometimes months (with exceptions for dance music, contemporary classical, and other forms which can be single heavy). For this selection, I've picked some Sunday style cuts which are on some of the records I've roamed through over the last few years. I can highly recommend the albums behind some of these(!): Arkbro, CHORDS; Softcore Untd, Skokebenken; Bochum Welt, Module II; Triad, Triad God, etc, etc.” - Cory
Cory Arcangel (born 1978, Buffalo, NY) is an artist, composer, curator, and entrepreneur living and working in Stavanger, Norway.
From his bio: “Arcangel explores the potential and failures of old and new technologies, highlighting their obsolescence, humor, aesthetic attributes, and, at times, eerie influence in contemporary life. Applying a semi-archeological methodology, his practice explores, encodes, and hacks the structural language of video games, software, social media, and machine learning, treating them as subject matter and medium.”
They say in films that technology is usually what “dates” the piece, or that the universal aspects of the story become momentary when someone engages with a flip phone or a fax machine. The fascinating part of Cory Arcangel’s work is how it seems to morph over time and get even better, even though it is so thoroughly fixated on tech. I didn’t fully understand the scope of his work when I first encountered it in the mid-00s. Was it more akin to pranksterism or signal hijacking or was it just a general joie de vivre of the internet age? With more adult eyes, I can better understand the archival and almost desperate aspects of his art or the capturing of moments with an increasingly kinetic and dependent set of conditions for it to exist.
Cory’s breakthrough work is now over 20 years old. Super Mario Clouds (2002), or “an old Mario Brothers cartridge which I modified to erase everything but the clouds” is just that, a trip through the seminal Nintendo game minus all gameplay or characters.
The meaning of the work, like all great works, changes with time. We know it’s both familiar, as Mario is a sort of folkloric image set for those still living, but it has become something more than just a nostalgia piece for kids who grew up under low polygon clouds. Have we finally become Mario, fully inside his world? Is this a sort of afterlife or a retirement from the economic and careerist speedrunning these games taught us to do? Skies also feel like a potential forebear to liminal spaces, sharing that haunting netherworld of feeling, something lost in the ether beneath the commerce layer. This can also extend to the idea of archiving the lost hallways of the web as well as Arcangel’s work (he also runs a semi-faux Surfware brand, for web surfers alas) tends to roam.
The archival aims of his work have also been more pronounced in recent years as even the mainstream “acquired” websites and internet media brands of yore have been rotted out from lack of use. When I searched my own inbox to recall where I had seen Arcangel’s work over the years I was confronted by a panoply of lost companies, dead links, and speaking events never documented. Though we assume everything is recorded now, the sheer volume of things existing may be lossier than ever in fact.
“An artist has two jobs: one is to make the work and the other is show business, which is everything that happens after the work is made and leaves the studio. An artist has to do both; they’re related and they play off each other. But archiving is this weird thing that is right between those two functions. Most of what I make are performances, really. That’s the real way to think about all these digital objects, which require electricity and exists in these networks—they are temporary, ephemeral performances…We’re losing all these things, all these beautiful moments and I just, I just feel the need to capture them, almost so much that it becomes the work itself. A lot of the work is just capturing at this point.” (via Artnet)
Arcangels’ early work harkens back to perhaps a more playful, mischievous era of the web, one where the whims of nerds and lone wolfs had more potential for traction. Cory making consoles and computers do dumb things, like lose at video game bowling as in 2011’s Various Self Playing Bowling Games (aka Beat The Champ) or fourteen video game consoles programmed to throw gutter balls into infinity, which showed in The Whitney.
Reviewing Cory’s work in the Nü-AI age hits especially hard and as the internet has greyed, so is the mania that Arcangel’s eye seizes on. Arcangel’s meddling could be seen as akin to slowing down our computer counterparts, bringing them to the same mediocrity (and joy) as we seem to use technology. These "bot performances" (one just scrolls and likes every Amazon and Buffalo Wild Wings social media post) are a record of our moment with the web and increasingly can feel like a romantic history of our parity with the machines. These “performances” both reflect on our own banal use of ‘all the world’s information’ and perhaps more importantly, the banality of the information at hand.
While Boston Dynamics are placing policing robot dogs in fashion shows, and the language around AI is becoming cozier, the race is on to anthropomorphize the machine, but with that, a certain man-machine distance and the charm of the resulting aesthetics are in disarray.
So Arcangel’s work, like our vanquished hero Mario, traverses across a bridge of digital blocks that erode as he passes.
I reached out and finally linked with Cory in Jan of 2020 and it's one of the last professional meet cutes I remember that year. I’m not entirely sure why I did, but felt a kinship and was immediately comforted when we bonded over Detroit Electro, etc. I had also forgotten or never knew of his involvement in chiptune and other electronic music innovations.
The metaphor of meeting Cory at the precipice of a huge information gulf isn’t lost on me, and in that time I also encountered Cory's book, Working On My Novel (2014) which is a compendium of found tweets from people threatening to finally work on their novel. This felt shockingly accurate in the pandemic years that followed.
Almost like a perfect bookend, the first art show I remember sneaking out to was Cory's Century 21 exhibit at Greene Naftali a year later. Admittedly it is only now upon reading, that I fully understand what I was seeing. From Artforum:
"Eventually, Web 2.0 happened and scrolling became a way of life. In 2014, I made the “Surfs” series, where I navigated corporate websites for the brands Subway, Office Max, Starbucks, and Dunkin Donuts. Those also had to do with my interest in capturing online spaces that so often just vanish…. with fast fashion, like corporate online space, there’s no archive: It exists for a second and then the whole store changes. A lot of this exhibition is about holding onto experiences—virtual and IRL—that aren’t meant to exist for a long time."
The show’s centerpiece is a custom-built machine-learning computer that plays the 2014 mobile role-playing game Kim Kardashian: Hollywood:
"Then there’s /roʊˈdeɪoʊ/ Let’s Play: HOLLYWOOD, 2017–21. The project originated from a note I made for myself on March 1, 2016 on my private are.na channel for ideas: “Deep Blue playing Kim K game.” In my mind, I imagined a huge server that you could see playing the game. Working with Henry Van Dusen and Kevin Roark, who built the hardware and software, we realized we would have to make our own supercomputer. So we built a machine-learning software which runs on custom hardware—/roʊˈdeɪoʊ/—that looks at open-world role-playing games—in this case, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood—and tries to make sense of what it’s seeing….
Since it learns visually, the software could work on any RPG game. Because Kardashian is so open-ended and vague, we needed something other than the money and stars /roʊˈdeɪoʊ/ <em>has accumulated to keep it going. So </em>/roʊˈdeɪoʊ/ is also programmed to try to get to new places it hasn’t gone before. It looks at the space it’s in—the objects in the room, color temperature, etc.—to determine whether or not it’s in a new place. Sometimes, an ad pops up and bounces the game to YouTube, and then it can get loose on the net. We left that functionality in because it’s even more dystopian than watching it play the game…
In that sense it’s like having an animal in a work or a performance in the gallery. It’s not playing a cached version of the game or anything like that. If the game needs an update, that has to happen in the exhibition. Likewise, if the game goes offline or gets pulled from circulation, the whole thing will stop. It’s really as live as it can possibly be.”
FYI: these playlists will erode too as various rightsholders and streaming services change international rights and other aspects over time, enjoy them while they last, and be sure to tell a friend! - sam