Cory Arcangel and The Cultural Force-Feeding of Digital Crumbology

arcangel-super-mario-clouds

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.


[*] All these works were recently on display at Montreal’s DHC/ART exhibit Cory Arcangel: Power Points, which ran from June 21 to November 24, 2013.

[†] 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.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Comment

Stop Lying To Yourself, You’re A Liar – by David Cohen

It’s one of the seven wonders of the human condition and by far one its greater hypocrisies. It’s the one commandment NO ONE ever stood a chance at not breaking. It’s something that we all have in common and for some reason, it’s still do this day, the most stigmatized of topics. We’re an open society when it comes to sex, violence, infidelity, yet we banish this primal, basic act and cower behind the massive elephant is has turned into. Now tell me, am I lying?

keep-calm-cuz-everybody-lies

I’m sorry to be so blunt but make no mistake about it, you’re a liar. Fear not however, for you’re not alone…not by any stretch. We all lie, most of us on a daily basis. Whether they be white or black, big or small, malicious or with noble intent, EVERYBODY LIES. I will undoubtedly mention that a couple more times because it’s the sole point I care to stress. I’ll make other points, most of them valid but if there is one thing I hope you will all take with you after reading this, please let it be…

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Comment

The Highway Exhibition

Screen Shot 2013-06-20 at 9.53.38 AM

Driving is no longer the performance art it once was. The violent gripping of the sweaty leather gear shift has been deemed chauvinistic and masturbatory. The murderous stomping of the resistant rubber pedals into the oil black floor taps into our memories of fascist conformism. A casual elbow hanging out the window, a cigarette flicked by an uncaring thumb through the crack into the wind, a chair reclined in totalitarian mastery of machine, these and other cultural gestures are now condemned as an insulting parody of the delicacy of life, style, and the false harmonies of technology and urban nature.

Today the Highway Exhibition does not want to take you away from the city into the commoditized countryside. The highway circles around the cities and cuts underground to quicken the transversal from gentrification to slum-themed amusement parks. The highway expands in width at speeds quickly surpassing the limited engine power of naturalistic hybrid eco-friendly movement pods. Crossing these wide concrete oil slides by foot or bicycle is available to all preferred members of the culture museum. VIP members are allowed to bring their camera phone recorders to share their experience with future patrons still too young and dangerous to separate meaning from objects. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Poem

The challenge was to write a simple poem in under fifteen minutes without the use of coffee. Here is the result:

-

Have you ever seen

A circle that’s square

I have one in my mind

So one of a kind

That if I were to share

You’d know not what I mean

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Through A Bottle Darkly

Here’s an article I wrote about Blue Velvet, Sigmund Freud, and Beer, featured in Sight & Sound Magazine.

blue-velvet-beersImage Credit: Simon Cooper / cooperillo.com

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Why The Chair?

Max Lamb Delaware Bluestone Chair No.1

An article I wrote considering a cultural act of creation published online in Metropolis Magazine.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Unemployment Cheeseburger

The unemployment cheeseburger

It’s so good, but trust me, you don’t want it.”

 

For months I had been planning to quit my job. I described my feelings toward work as existing in three dimensions: the general, the specific, and the abstract. Generally, I hated the work I was doing, the office I was doing it in, and the people I worked with. I specifically hated my job on particular bad days, like when a coworker would argue with me, or a client complained, or when my boss would decide it was time for one of his incredibly long-winded and redundant pep talks that went nowhere. I conceived of a plan to start spending much less money and saving up for a responsible time to quit.

 

That never happened. And this increased the abstract hatred my job was cultivating in me. Abstract hatred of your job is the worst, because instead of hating your job and blaming your misery on your work, you turn it against yourself. Because I wasn’t able to cut my spending down and save an extra penny, I began hating myself. I should have made better decisions in college, had more direction in my twenties, found more productive ways to deal with balancing work and recreation that didn’t involve getting wasted (the main reason I wasn’t able to curb my spending). It was all my fault, I was trapped, the longer I stayed in the job the deeper I was digging my own nine to five grave.

 

I want to say I had a revelation, or that I hit rock bottom, but nothing so grand happened. One banal day I realized there would never be a perfect time to quit, I would never be that prepared or that financially secure. So I just did it: the first day back after Christmas break I sat across from my boss and told him I had given it a lot of thought over the holidays (a lie, this was months in the making), and that I needed out.

 

When I tell people I quit my job, and that I don’t have a plan to find a new one right away, there are several reactions I get.

 

  • Good for you.” This encouraging person is either in the exact same boat as me, or wishes they had it in them to do the same. Mostly they are the latter, which is why “good for you” people secretly want you to fail.

 

  • Are you sure that’s such a good idea?” Basically, this person is the more pessimistic version of the “good for you” person, but also more sincere. They might not necessarily want you to outright fail, but they assume you will.

 

This brings me to the last type of person: someone who has already quit their job and has failed in making the most of their liberation, probably by sleeping in, getting stoned alone, and streaming every single premium cable series ever. Their reaction goes something like this:

 

  • It might seem great at first, but trust me, it’s a bad idea, I know.”

 

First of all, anyone who emphasizes that I should “trust” them, and that they “know” immediately drives a wedge in our mutually-shared conversational understanding.

 

Imagine some popular fast food chain advertises a new burger: two quarter ounce patties fried in duck fat, topped with three slices of orange cheese, thick bacon, smoked spicy capicola, a sunny side up egg, jalapenos, deep-fried pickles, sauteed onions, crispy pieces of chicken skin, chipotle mayonnaise, and served up on a deep fried bacon brioche. Sounds amazing right? Sounds disgusting right? It is both, depending on where you are in relation to eating the thing. Before eating, it sounds absolutely delicious, but you could only imagine how you would feel afterwards, nauseatingly gross.

 

So, the “trust me” guy is the guy who tried this cheeseburger, told you how tasty it was, then went on to complain about the physical assault on his stomach afterwards. He did you a favor, actually, in tasting it first and warning you off of it.

 

What bothers me about this person is that they project their failures onto you. I know that being unemployed, with no steady income, and nothing but my own discipline to keep me from turning into a pathetic burnout, will not be easy. And just because the “trust me” person failed to write his million-dollar screenplay or start that cupcake business doesn’t mean I will fail just the same. I know you, to some extant, and I know myself, and excuse me for thinking that I am better, smarter, and more disciplined than you are (and clearly have a higher opinion of myself).

 

I want to taste the unemployment burger, let the grease of freedom drip down my chin. I know what the pains and dangers are. I can stomach it. You didn’t bravely sacrifice your career for my sake. You did it for the same selfish, lazy, or delusional reasons I have. And you loved it, sleeping in, being alone, experiencing freedom. How I digest the experience is up to me.

 

And besides, I just had an idea for bacon cheeseburger cupcakes, so I’ll make a million dollars in no time.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized