I was in the Internet once. Not really the Internet; more like a nondescript building in downtown LA that was a data center for a network of over 3000 servers that pushed over 5 gigabytes a second which in essence was a small hub for the information super highway. As I was being taken on a tour of the facility by my friend who is a supervisor there, three things came to mind: 1) It was absolutely freezing in the joint; 2) The large amounts of intersecting pipes of all sizes and colors made me think that Ted Stevens was right about the internet being a series of tubes; and 3) I had NO idea how the World Wide Web works. I mean, maybe I have a faint clue, but if I had to explain it to someone, the answer would be full of a lot stammering and BS to cover up the fact that I’m pretty much lost on the subject. It’s such a ubiquitous and powerful thing that has permeated every aspect of our culture, but at the same time, a very, very small percentage of the population actually understands the inner workings of it.
With such a powerful tool in our lives, it’s like we’re Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove riding a nuclear missile to our doom. In an essay entitled “Porn,“ Chuck Klosterman broaches the subject of just this. The “acceleration of culture,” as he puts it, leaves a strong sense of anxiety as “we learn to use tools most of us don’t understand. This has always been the case with technology, but never to this extent.” We grasp at things we can understand in this brave new world of non-comprehension; we play video games, we blog, we download porn, we tweet, we do all these things to tread water as the inertia of tech-culture rushes forward. Along this stream of thought is where you find the inflatable raft of artist Cory Arcangel’s work.
Cory Arcangel is a digital/video artist who basks in the glow of the programming and video game world and uses the visuals provided from it as his language. Growing up with the advent of video games as a backdrop, the landscapes of a 16-bit world were his vistas, and the hum of a Nintendo his soundscape.
Classically trained as a musician, Cory quickly abandoned his first calling to become a visual artist and the art world took to him as quickly as he took to it. Some of Arcangel’s first works are among his most famous, using Super Nintendo games as his starting point, the artist is able to create a re-envisioned tableau. Hacking in to the NES cartridge, he re-contextualizes the graphics by removing all the elements except the clouds in “Super Mario Bros.” and turns you in to a viewer of a digital world passing you by, or using “F1 Racer,” everything is obliterated but the horizon line. In doing so, in a sense he has removed the technology as the antagonist and created a world that is relatable, and created windows to a pop-art world without a koopa troopa to mar the view.
His work ranges from the more subversive, as with the NES pieces to the more benign, but always with an eye to how technology is changing our culture, but not humans, or at least not all of us. In his “Photoshop CS” painting series, he both challenges what art is, and asks the question, “Is technology still technology if no one is using it?” The series, in essence, is a number of large prints that show a variety of standard color gradations, a basic function of the software. The rudimentary use of the tool is in no way a reflection of the programming power under the hood of Photoshop, nor what can be; but that’s the point. With so much around us, the majority of the population remains woefully ignorant (by choice) of how to harness powers of the tools given to us. It’s a digital Pollock — a piece that everyone will look at and say they can do, and its simplicity is its complexity, a parable of playing solitaire on your computer. There are other variations he has done on this idea; A YouTube collage of a 16-minute video arrangement of Schoenberg’s op. 11-1 composed by editing together single notes of cats playing on pianos and sequencing them frame by frame. The re-appropriating of the simplified ubiquity of technology we surround ourselves with being utilized in a more sincere manner gives it more gravity… even if it is tongue-in-cheek. Traversing the tips of these icebergs gives us a safety net we can hold on to while the monolith of the internet and technology looms below us
This May, Arcangel has a show at the Whitney Museum in New York, opening with the centerpiece: a large installation of projections simultaneously playing, on a number of screens, all the bowling video games made for different gaming platforms, creating not only a lineage of gaming history, but also a visual evolutionary ladder of technology. In our lifetime, the inertia of tech has been so strong and swift we are hardly able to keep up, unless we are confronted with how it has been able to make our lives easier by giving us a more profound way to knock down bowling pins from the comfort of our own homes. So straddle a Playstation 3, and enjoy the ride as we blog about Skynet becoming aware and declaring war on us.