The interplay of high and low culture is hardly a novel concept. However, rarely is it posed in such an interesting way as in Cory Arcangel's exhibition on through September 11th at the Whitney Museum, investigating our relationship to technological kitsch and innovation. Arcangel's first major museum show in the US continues the Whitney's series of summer full-floor artist projects, with the majority of the works being produced over the past nine months during its preparation.
When entering the exhibition you are immersed in a cacophony of video games, metal guitars playing classical music, and the low hum of processors and servos. The main exhibition space has been darkened to allow the projection of Various Self Playing Bowling Games (aka Beat the Champ), 2011, a series of six iterations of Bowling video games from systems ranging in vintage from 1977 (Atari) to 2001 (Nintendo GameCube) all programmed by Arcangel to endlessly roll gutter balls. While the first five give off the impression that this endless failure is simply by chance, the most recent game shows the path of the ball laid out before it is released, giving a notion of direct intentionality leading to a questioning and frustration on the part of the viewer and a poignant introduction to Arcagel’s seeming thesis of technology’s telos as at once self obsolescence and authorial effacement.
Research in Motion, also from 2011, a ready-made of "dancing stands" commonly used in product displays that have been synched to swivel in unison, sits much more reservedly in a corner, evoking aesthetics of early conceptualism more than the 80s/90s nostalgia of many of the other works. The arrangement of the stands at different heights, resulting in the tops of some moving while others remain stationary, intervenes rather interestingly with the architecture of the space. The square tops mirror (both literally and formally) the ceiling, with the effect of destabilizing its structural integrity.
The remarkable thing about the exhibition is that just when you feel a hint of disappointment with a work, a second look sheds an entirely new light. Take Volume Management, 2011, for example, a sculpture consisting of ten LCD HDTVs still in-box, stacked five on top of five. At first glance it seems rather derivative in comparison to Arcangel's more historically investigative works, the material seeming utterly too common to be brought into an art context. Yet, this is precisely the point. By confronting us with an item that recently passed from Veblen to common he eliminates any feelings of nostalgia that are evoked by some of his more artifactual materials, perfectly encapsulating the major themes put forth by the exhibition.
In our ever more cyborgic contemporary moment, Arcangel invites us to reexamine how we relate to the technology that passes through our lives: what gets eliminated while other things rise to ubiquity and perhaps how something might be lost in the fight for constant innovation. That said, one would be hard-pressed to conclude that he is advocating for a slowing of this progress. After all, two pieces Real Talk and Airport, both from 2011, invite the viewer to make a call, send an SMS or check their email while making their way through the galleries by providing enhanced cell reception and Wi-Fi, respectively. Nor should one conclude that art becomes devalued somehow in its technologization. The move from paintbrush to mouse where one click is all that’s needed to evoke abstract expressionism—as it seems in Arcangel’s series of Photoshop gradients—and moreover, that the instructions of how to execute that click are given to you in the works’ titles is not an indication of depravity within the artistic community but a perfect mirroring of our open-sourced, hyper-connected epoch.
(Images: Cory Arcangel, Various Self Playing Bowling Games (aka Beat the Champ), 2011, Various hacked video game controllers, game consoles, cartridges, disks, and multi-channel video projection, dimensions variable; Various Self Playing Bowling Games (aka Beat the Champ), 2011, Various modified video game controllers, game consoles, cartridges, disks, and multi-channel video projection, dimensions variable. The Curve, Barbican Art Gallery, London, February 10-May 22, 2011; co-commission with Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Team Gallery, New York; Lisson Gallery, London; Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg and Paris; and the artist, Photo credit: Eliot Wyman/Courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery, London; Photoshop CS: 84 by 66 inches, 300 DPI, RGB, square pixels, default gradient "Spectrum," mousedown y=22100 x=14050, mouseup y=19700 x=1800, from the series Photoshop Gradient Demonstrations 2008-, 2010, Chromogenic print, 84 x 66 (213.4 x 167.6), Private collection; Courtesy Team Gallery, New York, and the artist)