Awkward Technology: Q&A With Artist Cory Arcangel

<p>We spoke with the digital artist about his latest piece, <i>Beat The Champ</i>, currently on view in London, and traveling to New York later this year.</p>

Cory Arcangel is one of the best known and highly regarded new media artists on the contemporary arts scene. And for good reason. Take for instance, his latest exhibition called Beat The Champ—an installation piece where 14 bowling games from the Atari 2600 to the Nintendo Game Cube, featuring blocky cubes and pixelated humans, are projected onto a curved wall. The video game is a familiar medium for Arcangel, who along with his former collaborator, Paul B. Davis, originated some of the earliest and most popular gaming hacks, stripping the games of their original context and reinterpreting them as something completely new. In Beat The Champ, for instance, the various bowlers from gaming past consistently bowl gutter balls, try as they might to go for the strike, forever stuck in a kind of bowling purgatory.

Upon walking in to the mammoth installation, you feel like a kid walking into an arcade, with the glaring lights from the large screens and the cacophony of digital sounds blaring out at you. It should feel like a fun and exhilarating environment, full of bright colors and bleeps and bloops, but upon closer inspection, you’ll find that there’s a sad tone to the whole thing. The repetition, the endless, fruitless games played over and over in a despondent manner by these pixelated heroes injects these vehicles of entertainment with a melancholic hopelessness.

We caught up with Arcangel at the exhibition opening in London to ask him some questions about it all.

The Creators Project: What were you looking to achieve with this latest installation?
Cory Arcangel:
The big question first, huh? I wanted to explore the idea of computers that are unfulfilled, stuck in loops, machines playing endlessly; that idea of redundancy, a road to nowhere. Maybe trying to demonstrate the awkwardness of technology. And to try to somehow encapsulate all the different stuff that’s happening with culture right now in terms of technology, like social networks, the virtualization of everything. I wanted to try and tackle those kind of issues.

What made you choose bowling?
Bowling I chose because I thought it was one of the most awkward virtual sports there is. Because you just have to basically aim the ball at pins. And so I thought that represented what I was trying to get across, with these awkward not-quite-human looking forms. And the uncomfortableness of those types of images seems to me to be very interesting.

What is it that you like about subverting video games and technology?
I spend a lot of time on the computer. It’s where I feel at home and luckily, within the last ten years, what one is able to do on a computer, and maybe more importantly, what has happened to culture in terms of computers has provided all these possibilities. But because people’s perception of technology is changing so fast, I find it really fun to get in there and start moving backwards. Walking in the opposite direction to everybody else. Even something like this, there would be no reason to do this other than fine art.

What do you enjoy about working in the medium of digital art?
Well, like I said, I spend a lot of time on the computer. I’ve had a computer since I was a kid and so it’s just where I’m most comfortable, on a desktop. It’s a personal thing. And also, a computer’s become a studio for so many types of media. Now a computer doesn’t mean anything anymore because you could have a recording studio on it, you could have a photo studio, it’s a place where you can do everything now. And that again provides so many opportunities.

How important is humor to you in your work?
I like humor a lot. I like to have it be an element of my work sometimes. I think it’s a great tool because—it’s kind of a cliche—but you’re able to say things with humor that are sometimes awkward to say otherwise. This bowling thing is quite funny but at the same time the humor masks a lot of pessimism and a pretty depressing outlook. It’s dystopic—these machines just failing over and over again. It’s not like a bright vision but at the same time, it’s funny, so humor allows you to mix all of those things together. Therefore, the experience itself becomes complicated and gray. Humor allows you to do that, otherwise it would just be straight depressing. Humor is very complicated, it can be tragic. Also, it’s intuitive, we often have no control over what we laugh at. It’s like this really amazing thing like music. You just hear it and it just does something to you on a level you can’t anticipate. And also I tend to like funny things.

Do you have a favorite video game?
No, I’m not much of a video game player. I like what they represent. Some of the other things I’ve worked with like Photoshop and social networks, I like what they all represent. I don’t have the patience. I like computer programming, that’s the thing I have patience for. Video games are another thing to work with. It’s a thing that’s out there that’s a piece of culture so it can be changed—something that I have that I use as a tool for my work. I haven’t painted yet though, I should use that.

Do you have any plans to work in any other forms, more traditional forms?
I’ve been making a lot of sculptures and photographs and drawings lately. But a lot of what I’m doing with these more classic mediums are somehow computer generated. Like I have a series of sculptures that are generated by a program I wrote and printed out by a robot that bends metal wire. And my drawings are made by a drawing machine. When they’re shown they exist as classical objects but the process behind them was mucking around with computer code, so it’s all related and it’s been really fun. It’s been my new thing.

Is there an exhibition of this coming up?
Well this bowling piece, after it’s here at the Barbican it’s going to go to the Whitney Museum in New York. And then there’ll be other works in that show that are the kind of works I just spoke about.

For more information on Arcangel, check out Motherboard.TV’s video interview with him here.