2.21 / Review

From New York: Cory Arcangel: Pro Tools

By Brady Welch July 12, 2011

For a solo exhibition so heavily centered upon the creative interventions of the human hand, Cory Arcangel's Pro Tools, currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, feels remarkably bereft. And yet maybe this is the point. Arcangel is a thirty-two-year-old artist whose primary toolbox consists of skills like hacking programing code, plugging away on the keyboard, and clicking a mouse. The software does the heavy lifting here. The artist may be the man in the machine, but the work of the machine is what we see, and that, of course, can be an oddly emotionless interaction.

The much-hyped centerpiece of the exhibition is also its most successful work. Various Self Playing Bowling Games (aka Beat the Champ) (2011), a co-commission of the Whitney and London's Barbican Gallery, consists of six very large screens individually aligned with gaming systems of several vintages. From Atari (1977) to Nintendo GameCube (2001), each hacked console plays simulations of bowling games that mysteriously consign players to lobbing nothing but gutter balls. It's both funny and pathetic—bowlers throw up their hands, hang their heads in shame, forever doomed to a score of zilch—but it’s also technically impressive. To make the piece, Arcangel played and recorded each simulation, coding the scenarios into the controllers, and ultimately executing the very act that his piece skewers, which is to say forcing real people to direct fake people to throw fake bowling balls. This is also the entire notion of video games, basically. Various Self Playing Bowling Games exposes not only the essential pathos of gaming, but society's larger coziness with technology. After all, once the machines stop working for us, they're only mechanical, and oddly self-reflexive. 

Pro Tools also illuminates Arcangel's signature zeal for cutting and pasting. In Paganini Caprice No. 5 (2011), the artist recreates violinist Niccolo Paginini's nineteenth-century exercise in speed and virtuosity by reassembling the composition note-for-note from YouTube clips of home-schooled heavy metal guitarists likewise exercising speed and virtuosity. Arcangel had to create an entirely new software program just to make editing at that speed possible, and again, his distinct technical wizardry is in full effect. Beyond showcasing his skill, however, the artist’s ambition for the piece is not quite clear. It's funny to see a bunch of longhairs sincerely shredding away, but chopped and decidedly unscrewed as Arcangel renders the music, he also makes his version fairly obnoxious. Each of the clips is loud and lasts only fragments of a second. Under the deluge, I witnessed the docent in the room actually wince.

There's Always One at Every Party (2010) employs a similar predilection for slicing and dicing society's pop-cultural detritus. Remember all those episodes in Seinfeld when

Cory Arcangel Various Self Playing Bowling Games aka Beat the Champ

Various Self Playing Bowling Games (aka Beat the Champ), 2011 (detail); various modified video game controllers, game consoles, cartridges, disks, and multi-channel video projection; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and Team Gallery, New York; Lisson Gallery, London; and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg and Paris.

Cory Arcangel Hello World

Hello World #1, 2010; CNC bent stainless steel with electro-polish finish, artist software; 32 x 7.5 x 5 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Team Gallery, New York.

Kramer keeps on about his idea to create a coffee table book about coffee tables? Arcangel mines every single episode for those scenes and edits them together. Funny stuff, for sure. But what else?

Pro Tools curator Christiane Paul tries her best to anchor Arcangel's entertaining and whiz-bang work in the larger scheme of art history. But the exhibition's wall text and accompanying curatorial essay seem an overwrought justification of the Whitney’s decision to turn over an entire floor to one of the youngest artist in forty years to be given the privilege.1 Although the show does not make mention of it specifically, I think it's important to note that Arcangel does not come from contemporary art's standard MFA mold; he studied classical guitar and the technology of music at Oberlin Conservatory of Music. A large part of the deserved excitement surrounding his work is due to this unorthodox palette and pedigree. Arcangel, along with similarly circuit-bent souls like those in the Paper Rad collective, grew up playing two-bit video games, making mix tapes dubbed off the radio, watching MTV at it's worst, and going to DIY concerts. There's definitely a history at work here, but it's not the same history that Ivy League–educated art historians supped on conceptualism and continental philosophy would like to believe in. Formalist misfires like Volume Management (2011), a stilted riff on Warhol's Brillo boxes, and Research in Motion (Kinetic Sculpture #6) (2011), a sort of hula-hooping structure that Paul notes as referencing Sol LeWitt’s work, only serve to illustrate this disconnect.

Just as the forms of contemporary art are being knocked over, mashed up, and rendered moot, so are the very barriers of access to art itself. And the life and work of Cory Arcangel is perhaps the most wonderful case in point—a case that the Whitney should be making. While his work can sometimes be a bit cool to the touch, its goofy dynamism can also feel incredibly alive. If Pro Tools feels a bit arid then, the fault lies not with the artist, but with the cobwebs and mothballs of art history's dusty attic. The Whitney is a museum, after all, a place where Joseph Kosuth once noted, “Actual works of art are little more than historical curiosities.”2 To present such a vibrant young artist in the same manner as they would, say, the founding collection—conservative and preservative—is a disservice to both the institution and the exhibiting artist.



Cory Arcangel: Pro Tools is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, through September 11, 2011.



1. http://whitney.org/file_columns/0002/5626/arcangel_brochure.pdf

2. Joseph Kosuth, Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings 1966-1990, ed. Gabriele Guercio (Boston: MIT Press, 1991).

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