Technological Expressionism

A new exhibition Pro Tools by Brooklyn-based digital artist Cory Arcangel at the Whitney explores the relationship between cultural production and digital technology.

Cultural production is increasingly dominated by technologies about the workings of which most people are completely in the dark. Uploading videos to the Internet and digitally manipulating our photographs are arguably the dominant modes of visual expression in our society, using tools which are designed to be used without understanding how they work, leaving us increasingly disassociated from the modes by which we express ourselves on a day-to-day basis. Since the early 2000s, Brooklyn-based artist Cory Arcangel (b. 1978) has been making work that explores this relation between cultural expression and technology. Combining a formidable level of technical ability with a whimsical sense of humour and a marked ambivalence about the technologies he makes use of, Arcangel modifies and adapts appropriated digital technologies, critically recasting the tools we take for granted.

In a large-scale summer exhibition, Pro Tools, curated by Christiane Paul, the Whitney Museum of American Art is presenting a wide-ranging selection of recent work including sculpture, video, works on paper and interactive computer-game modifications. At the centre of Pro Tools is Various Self Playing Bowling Games aka Beat The Champ (2011), which was co-commissioned by the Barbican, and shown at The Curve gallery there this spring. The piece features large-scale multi-channel video projections of 14 different computerised bowling games spanning from the late 1970s to the present-day. The sound of all the games playing at once makes for a blaring cacophony of electronic sounds; the flashing images an overwhelming visual collage. In its sweep from the pixellated blocks of the Atari 2600 to the clean blue and white lines of the Sega Genesis, and the edgy polygons of early 3D graphics in Playstation 1, Beat the Champ is like an evolutionary timeline of computer imagery.

The visual history of bowling games encapsulated in Beat the Champ is a playful counter-narrative to traditional histories of 20th century art; the relentless thrust of computer game designers towards realist representation can be seen as an inverted version of the move towards abstraction in 20th century painting. As the curator of Pro Tools, Christiane Paul points out, it’s this awareness of and sensitivity to historical perspectives that sets Arcangel’s practice apart: “I think it’s definitely what distinguishes his work from many other works [of digital art], that he enters a dialogue with traditional art forms and history.”

Beat the Champ is also distinguished by its sense of humour and its humanity. All of the self-playing consoles have been rigged so that they roll endless gutter balls. We see the disappoined reactions of the various computer characters as they’re caught up in a repetitive loop of groans and anguished gesticulations, before dusting themselves off and having another go. As Paul has noted: “It makes you laugh, but at the same time, you notice there is something dystopian in it.”

Arcangel’s arcade is distinctly Kafkaesque, a post-modern funhouse in which the bowlers continually re-enact a modern version of the Sisyphus myth in which King Sisyphus was punished by having to roll a boulder up a hill eternally and watch it roll back down again. In Masters (2011), another modified computer game exhibited for the first time in Pro Tools, the gallery visitor gets a taste of this unceasing disappointment. Viewers are encouraged to interact with the golf game, putting the ball towards the hole. As with Beat the Champ, this is an impossible task because Arcangel has modified the game in such a way that the ball will never drop into the hole.

In pitting the human player against a modified technological tool, Masters critically examines our everyday interactions with technology. It draws attention to the increasing way in which we live our lives through and are governed by technologies that most of us don’t understand or have any control over. In this, it recalls other works by contemporary digital artists such as Mary Flanagan whose [giantjoystick] (2006) is a 10-foot tall working computer joystick, looming over the people who attempt to use it, stressing the control that technology has over us. The form of cultural and non-malicious hacking that Arcangel practices is a way of wresting some control back from technologies that seem insurmountable to the uninitiated. “The message here is never simple”, notes Paul, “on the one hand there is a denial or a rescinding of control, and on the other hand, there’s a celebration of the do-it-yourself aesthetic and what people can do with these technological tools.”

Failure and futility are at the heart of the Beat the Champ and Masters’ aesthetic, recalling an earlier piece, Permanent Vacation (2008), in which he set up two Mac computers to send “out-of-office” emails back and forth to one another indefinitely until the systems became overloaded and crashed, like a tennis game between two exhausted office-workers on their permanent vacation. There’s a sense in which these pieces comically dramatise the importance of humans working with technology and manipulating it rather than being controlled and frustrated by it.

What Arcangel seems to be addressing in these pieces is the idea of amateurs being able to modify and adapt the “Pro Tools” of technology. One of the first pieces with which he achieved great acclaim was Super Mario Clouds (2002), a Nintendo cartridge in which he erased everything except the clouds and the blue background so that what remained was a strangely moving and poetic scroll of little computerised clouds. Arcangel’s commitment to the “do-it- yourself aesthetic” can be seen in the fact he has put instructions and source code to replicate the work on his website, as if encouraging other would-be amateur technology-modifiers. As a token of how ahead-of-the-pack he was, in 2002, when Arcangel first posted this piece to the Internet, he had to do so as a moving-gif file because videos couldn’t yet be uploaded to the Internet, a situation that is almost unfathomable today, with the proliferation of video material online, and in particular on YouTube.

The video piece There’s Always One At Every Party (2010) riffs on the popular YouTube genre of the supercut, an exhaustive montage presenting every instance of a particular thing. In this case, Arcangel presents every instance from the T.V. series Seinfeld in which Kramer’s “Coffee Table Book about Coffee Tables” is mentioned. At once critiquing the indulgence and self-reflexivity of the supercut genre, There’s Always One At Every Party also celebrates the way technologies such as YouTube facilitate expressiveness, in which private obsessions can be broadcast, shared, and, in the best examples, questioned. In the context of the video, Kramer’s coffee-table book seems to refer to Conceptual Art and the practice of making art about making art. As with much of Arcangel’s work, There’s Always One At Every Party retains an ambiguous relationship to the technological tools of its production, in which there’s an implied critique of the ease and lack of rigour in most products of the obsessive remix culture.

Arcangel initially trained as a musician at Oberlin Conservatory, Ohio, earning a Bachelor of Music in classical performance and electronic composition, before changing his focus towards the visual arts. Music remains important in his practice. Paganini Caprice No. 5 (2011) takes the critique of remix culture one step further, re-presenting Paganini’s Violin Caprice No. 5, made up entirely from individual notes taken from YouTube videos of heavy metal. Paganini Caprice No. 5 is produced using software that Arcangel wrote himself, and which he ironically called Gould Pro, after the world famous pianist Glenn Gould (1931-1982) and riffing on the popular suffix to high-tech software. Gould Pro enables the user to recreate pieces of classical, atonal and baroque music from YouTube clips at an alarming speed, faster than previously available commercial editing software. As a feat of software writing, it’s as virtuoso as a violinist attempting the Violin Caprice No. 5, but the speed and ease with which the software makes remaking these incredibly difficult pieces of music possible has an obscenity to it; an implied critique of its own logic.

Paganini Caprice No. 5 (2011) also highlights one of the most important elements around which Pro Tools is structured; that of the product demonstration. The piece is essentially a product demonstration of Gould Pro, chosen for the high level of virtuosity it demands of the musician in order to show the speed and accessibility of the software. Similarly, Arcangel’s series of prints Photoshop Gradient Demonstrations (2011), is nominally designed to demonstrate the fades between colours available on the software Photoshop. Calling to mind Abstract Expressionism, the prints are compelling explorations of chromatic abstraction, and mutedly expressive too in the way the colours bruise into one another, particularly around the purples, blues and reds. The expressive quality of the prints is offset and humourously undercut by their titles, which list the exact commands and mouse-clicks required to reproduce the images. By foregrounding the process so explicitly in the titles of the individual prints, and by appropriating the branding of the software in the title of the series, Arcangel makes reference to the themes of appropriation and the process of re-contextualisation at the heart of the readymade. On the other hand, the artist himself maintains that he produced the images in an improvisational fashion, using the mouse-click loosely and intuitively, in the manner of an Abstract Expressionist paintbrush. There’s playfulness inherent in this fusion of two distinct artistic impulses, like a remix of Sam Francis and Marcel Duchamp.

The influence of Duchamp, and in particular his readymades, is evident in Arcangel’s sculpture Research in Motion (Kinetic Sculpture #6) (2011). The piece is made up of shelf-stand units which move at a certain speed, giving the impression of “dancing”. The stands are freely available commercial products, designed to display products in a shop. As with Photoshop Gradient Demonstrations, Arcangel appropriates the form of product demonstrations, drawing comparisons between the act of exhibiting in a gallery and the act of exhibiting commercial products. By taking a commercial product and re-contextualising it within the gallery, Arcangel creates a whimsical and bizarre sculpture that is also strangely expressive. The title of the piece Research in Motion is also appropriated from the world of commerce; this time the telecommunications company who developed the Blackberry Smartphone. Dancing is an emotive human activity, a way of expressing ourselves and engaging with others, but with the human element taken out, dancing is absurd and vaguely eerie in making animate the inanimate. The sculptures seem to reference another popular YouTube genre, of amateur dancing, or dancing in different locations, such as the phenomenon of Where The Hell is Matt, a video created by Matt Harding in which he filmed himself dancing in over 42 countries and which has had over 16 million views to date.

In their simple geometric forms, the stands also refer to minimalist sculpture, such as the clean angular lines of Sol LeWitt’s modular, cubic forms he called “structures”. LeWitt’s sculptures have been influential not only to other artists but crucially to product-designers, who have appropriated and popularised elements of the minimalist aesthetic. It’s as if Arcangel is re-appropriating the aesthetic by casting it in a gallery, albeit in an absurdly modified form. There’s a surreal quality in the sculpture, its movements when viewed out-of-context are almost too bizarre to be believed as a genuine commercial product.

Digital and new media is one of the most rapidly evolving areas of contemporary artistic practice, and there is sometimes a danger that in its rapid evolution it falls into the same traps of innovation and obsolescence of the technologies it makes use of. Arcangel’s work successfully resists these pitfalls by maintaining a strong sense of the relation of his practice to historical artistic movements, and an equally strong ironic distance from the media he employs. As Arcangel himself puts it: “People are always surprised when I tell them I don’t really enjoy playing computer games.”

Pro Tools ran until 11 September 2011 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, USA.

Colin Herd