Tool Time: Cory Arcangel at The Whitney


Cory Arcangel (b. 1978), Various Self Playing Bowling Games (aka Beat the Champ), 2011. Hacked video game controllers, game consoles, cartridges, disks, and video, dimensions variable. [image via Artforum]

In many ways Cory Arcangel's solo show, on view now at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is about the failure of art and technology. This isn't to say the show is a failure; far from it in fact. Instead it's the way in which Arcangel's work frustrates the expectation that art, particularly art that engages with technology, somehow demonstrate a kind of expertise that justifies its elevation to the status of art. If the purpose of technology, broadly speaking, lies in its use-value, then it is his decided refusal of the kind of productive functionality that one expects from technical objects that makes many of the pieces on view so frustrating. Equally frustrated is the desire for an artfully crafted object expressing a unique critical vision. Instead Arcangel offers us objects that have been hacked and broken, that refuse or distort our interaction, or whose simplicity, effortlessness, nostalgia, and humor mask complex socio-technical systems. As Ed Halter noted in an interview with the artist for Rhizome in 2008, Arcangel's work seems to operate in two extremes:

You either introduce a ridiculously enormous and therefore pointless amount of work into it, or you reduce the work by using automation, or defaults, or outsourcing. So you either extend the amount of work to an enormous extent that makes it absurd, or you reduce it to nothing which undercuts its legitimacy.

Arcangel exerts incredible effort to accomplish the most banal of tasks, or produces aesthetic works that require little if any effort to manufacture — on the part of the artist, at least. In this way the works reflect on the process by which both art and technology are produced, and the means through which we ascribe value to artistic and technological objects. The pieces in the show most interested in the concept of technical failure are Arcangel's two video game modifications. In Self Playing Bowling Games (aka Beat the Champ) (2011) Arcangel has modified six generations of game consoles with original microcontrollers that can record and play back the artist's button input. Running a series of bowling simulations, each console is set up to "play itself" on one of six massive projectors, giving the appearance of a virtual bowling alley. The games are displayed in chronological order, and function as a kind of natural teleology in which pixels become polygons and 8-bit bowlers steadily approach three dimensional realism. Yet the progress narrative implied by this evolutionary chain is belied by the avatars themselves. Each game has been set up to bowl only gutter balls, thwarting the desire for technical mastery and successful play.

In Masters (2011), this disappointment is even more affective, as patrons are asked to play a golf simulation that, regardless of skill or performance, has been reprogrammed to always miss the hole. Both of these pieces expose our expectation that technical objects function in accordance with our needs and desires, and suggest that while the narrative of technology is one of success and achievement, more often than not technical objects fail, break down, become obsolete, and are forgotten.

The show's title, Pro Tools, is a reference to the popular audio production software used to compose, record, edit, and mix digital audio. Developed in the mid-1980s and gaining popularity in the recording industry throughout the 1990s, Pro Tools is widely viewed as the technology responsible for the standardization of audio effects in recorded music in that it digitized error correction and introduced audio manipulation practices such as pitch-correction into the process of post-production. Unlike more recent production software such as Apple's Garage Band, Pro Tools did not lead to the so-called democratization of audio production through consumer-grade technology – it is an extremely complex and expensive piece of software used primarily by industry professionals. What Pro Tools did change was the ability to achieve professional recording effects without the kind of skill and investment that might have previously been required. As a technology, Pro Tools automates the hard work of musical production and in doing so creates a particular style of "professional" and "polished" music.

Cory Arcangel (b. 1978), Photoshop CS: 84 by 66 inches, 300 DPI,RGB, square pixels, default gradient “Spectrum”, mousedown y=22100 x=14050, mouseup y=19700 x=1800, 2010, from the series Photoshop Gradient Demonstrations, 2008– . Chromogenic print, 84 × 66 in. (213.4 × 167.6 cm).

While none of Arcangel's pieces use the Pro Tools software, this kind of aesthetic automation is found throughout the show, the most visible example of which is his Photoshop Gradient Demonstrations series. This series of photographically printed images consists of dramatic color gradient effects printed at a very high quality and at a very large scale. In many ways the pieces in the series resemble mid-century color field paintings, yet while the images are aesthetically striking and beautifully arranged they were produced with the bare minimum of effort on behalf of the artist. The title of each piece is particularly literal, and describes the exact "one click" settings that Arcangel used to produce the gradient effect using the popular Photoshop software from Adobe's Creative Suite. When viewed in their native context on a computer screen the images are rather unimpressive, but when recontextualized in the museum setting and displayed as massive high gloss laser prints they seem to implicitly critique the way in which access to the "professional tools" of art making grants a certain legitimacy to the most effortless of images.

This show marks a huge moment for the world of art and technology. Regardless of your opinion of Arcangel's work, this kind of institutional recognition is a promising shift for many contemporary artists. That said there is a lot of familiar work here, and those who are critical of Arcangel's artistic one-liners will no doubt have the same critiques of Pro Tools. While much of Arcangel's practice involves hacking proprietary technology and the production of free and open source software, this "hacker ethic" and the politics it implies does not seem to motivate his work. Similarly while the effect of his practice is an analysis of technological obsolescence and the failure of technical objects, it often seems motivated by a kind of uncritical nostalgia. Nonetheless the show is beautifully composed and contextualized to offer an ironically contemporary critique of the world of art and technology.