The expression “consumer culture” is quite old. As a criticism, it is meaningless. It is now barely echoed by the very people it once criticized. You can not consume something that is not part of culture. You can not engage in culture without in some way consuming it. Criticism is culture, but the act of criticism is also an act of consuming. You take in a bit of culture, some stays with you, some is rejected, and some crumbs simply fall off the table.
What are these crumbs of consumed culture? Imagine the setting from Level 01 of the iconic Super Mario Bros on NES. Take away Mario, the Goombas, the obstacles, and most importantly, the goal of the game. What’s left? Crumbs. Cory Arcangel’s piece Super Mario Clouds (2002) is the on screen display of just that: 8-bit clouds ever-so-slowly moving in a video skyscape (seen above). Take his piece Sweet 16 (2006), which loops two slightly divergent tracks of Slash’s intro riff of “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” or his Photoshop CS series (2013), large high-resolution printouts based on a random mouse gesture and Adobe’s default algorithm to create color gradient transitions[*]. Each of these works isolates just a small aspect of a larger cultural artifact: a single video game image, a musical sample on endless loop, and a software’s automatic feature. It turns these background, or cut-out aspects into the central bit of content. At first recognizable because of their association with pop culture, but inevitably uncanny. These are the bits that were never meant to be looked at too carefully, nor for too long.
Re-framed as art-content, they become drained of their original meaning, or rather, separated from their non-essential meaninglessness. They are cut off from their original use-function as insignificant support of a larger goal-orientated work. Playing Super Mario Bros without the goal of winning is all too easily comparable to Waiting For Godot or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (literally Hamlet without Hamlet) if one wants to get smart about it. But a better comparison might be to Second Life or Minecraft, video game settings without video game rules or goals.
But meaninglessness doesn’t preclude something’s ability to effect us, and this is the uncanny feeling. It is something to which we never wanted to attribute a meaning because of its original perceived insignificance, now enlarged and repeated until its begging us to do so. Try staring at the same GIF for a long time or listening to the same audio loop, and its sense will break down, often after passing through several stages of perception: funny, absurd, annoying, disturbing, until one finally feels resignation. Could this replace the five stages of grief? the five stages of GIF?
This is something very different than earlier appropriation art which recontextualized significant cultural symbols in a subversive way. Art with Ronald McDonald or Joe Camel took these massively consumed products/symbols and tried to alter the way we’d think about them as we were consuming them. The subversive aspect was to make these things silly or gross, finally, un-digestible. But Arcangel’s work, as an example of what is called net.art, is less about sticking it to the man and more about having a laugh with, and at everyone else. This is because net.artists don’t need to be experts with the tools of digital arts like painters are with their tools. They use the same content in the same way as everyone else. Websites like YTMND, where people upload funny and senseless pop culture GIFs, and Everything Is Terrible!, which popularized playing massively truncated versions of VHS action classics, are some common playgrounds between fun internet jokes and net.art. There are no elite and exclusive websites, and there requires no heavily practiced skill. Even older digital art and hacker art required expertise in expensive software and complicated programming code. net.art is anti-effort, because effort ends in FAIL, and is doomed to be a punch line. Like the language used on the streets and not academic literature, net.art is vernacular art[†].
So is this a contradiction? On one hand, net.art uses the bits of consumed cultural artifacts that the average person doesn’t notice. On the other hand, they use the same tools and (digital) language as the average person. And maybe this is where we return to the original metaphor of consumer culture and its unconsumed crumbs. Play a video game, watch a movie, etc. Consumption is easiest when the content has an easily-perceivable meaning in a goal or narrative. What tends to be forgotten becomes the raw material in net.art, material originally made by average people, dismissed and discarded. But there might always be someone like Arcangel to pick it up and force-feed it back to us.
[†] Some (like the collective UBERMORGEN) are already claiming to move beyond the traditional net.art paradigm, claiming that there is still too much emphasis on hacking and therefore the “sophisticated breaking of technology.” Default art, as a replacement for hacking art, emphasizes the “semi-naïve, regular use of technology.”