Working out of Brooklyn, Cory Arcangel first earned critical props for artwork such as 2002's Super Mario Clouds, a modded Nintendo cartridge that played nothing but a constant stream of pixilated nebulousness. (Check below for a video.) And ever since, he's made it his mission to retool and subvert the basic functionalities of consumer technologies -- Photoshop, Dancing Stands, YouTube, etc. -- in the name of post-postmodern art.
On top of being a totally famous artist, though, Cory Arcangel is also a stand-up comic. And this Saturday at 2 p.m., he'll bring some of that shtick to the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami as part of his solo art show "The Sharper Image." They're calling it an art talk, but Cory says -- and we're paraphrasing -- you should come ready to laugh until you cry so hard you shit your pants.
On that note, here's a long, serious conversation with Arcangel about cheesy typefaces, Guns N' Roses, videogames, art theory, and other stuff.
New Times: It's almost too perfect... Is Cory Arcangel your birth name?
Cory Arcangel: Yep. It's my birth name. It works because it's the beginning of the alphabet. You're always the first on lists.
I don't know if it's that easy. I'm interested in what people can read into something like Comic Sans. I'm interested in its common uses, like homepages. It doesn't happen as much anymore in the kind of MySpace and Facebook era. But I always admired personal homepages that used Comic Sans. Or even you'll still see a copy shop or something that might use it on signs. So I like Comic Sans, you know.
A screen shot of Arcangel's MOCA website takeover.
Comic Sans has sort of been banned from the web.
Yeah. It's been shunned by the technology companies that currently allow people to publish easiest. In terms of Comic Sans, it was more prevalent back when the web was more Wild West. And that's an era, like in '93 or '94, that has a special place in my heart, because that's when I first got on the web.
Have you ever staged this kind of website takeover before? Or was MOCA the first?
No. I've never taken over somebody's website. Of course, I've spent a lot of thought on my own website. I like to think of my current site as a kind of local business circa 2003, like some kind of realtor or something. But I did this one project in collaboration with a group of artists named Dexter Sinister. They were invited to participate in the last Whitney Biennial. And as part of their project, they had other artists collaborate with them on making alternative press releases for the Whitney. For that, I took the press release for the Biennial and put it into Comic Sans and then had Dexter Sinister release it to the Whitney press list electronically. That was kind of the predecessor.
Are there any other universally loathed cultural artifacts you'd like to reclaim or rehabilitate?
Well, there are those Dancing Stands I have in my Miami show. I'm not sure if those are universally loathed. They don't inspire as much aggression, but they're a similar cultural entity that radiates a down-market tackiness. Like they cannot possibly ever attain any kind of sophistication.
I've seen those things in stores but never in somebody's home. That's the weird thing. It's a Fireplace in a Box situation.
I don't know. To be honest, I never even considered that they would be for the home. But it's quite possible. Growing up, I remember going over to somebody's house and they had a lot of the Sharper Image stuff, like all those toys that were for successful, late-'80s businessmen. I suppose my interest in this stuff is somehow related to that. Right now, I have a couple Dancing Stands in my apartment. And I will tell you they are kind of fun.
Do many of the things that make it into your art shows just start out as stuff that's hanging around your place?
Well, it's more complicated because I have my studio in my apartment. So there is a kind of two-way street... For example, I recently needed to buy a new stereo and I just went online and bought some Bose thing. It wasn't very expensive. Then I got it and I set it up and I said, "Oh, wow. This looks really awesome." And the next thing I know I turned it into a sculpture. So now, there's a chance I might put it in a show and I'll have to get another new stereo.
And then sometimes it's the reverse. You know, I have these bowling games in the MOCA show that automatically play over and over again. When I first made that, I knew it was going to be an art project. But I put it on my TV for a couple weeks because it's kind of fun. Especially when you have people over. It's kind of a good conversation piece. They're like, "Is that videogame just playing itself?"
Sweet 16, a Guns N' Roses video by Cory Arcangel
Photo by Steven Brooke
A lot of your pieces deal with pop culture icons -- Guns N' Roses, Nintendo and PlayStation, Dazed & Confused -- that are long-standing subjects of teenage fascination. Were you a fan of these things as a 16-year-old and they just stuck with you? Or did you come back to it all as an adult?
Both. Like Guns N' Roses was definitely something I was obsessed with when I was a teenager. And then, of course, I revisited it as an adult. But Nintendo... I never had a Nintendo NES. So that was something that I was introduced to later. And I'm not a cat person, but I made that video with all those cats.
So you were only ever interested in Nintendo for the purposes of cracking and hacking?
I still don't like to play videogames. I'd always made animations my whole life. So when I learned you could reanimate things on Nintendo cartridges, it was more just an interest in using it as a source material.
That's weird. I would have assumed you'd be a big gaming head.
I mean, I did play a little bit. Like I played SimCity. That was definitely a game that I lost a summer to when I was 12 or something. And I did have a phase when I went through a game called The Bard's Tale, which was for the Apple IIGS. It was kind of like a Dungeons & Dragons thing. But those were the only two games that I got into a little bit. I just don't have the patience for it.
A lot of the pop culture subjects you use are pretty old at this point. Are you interested in nostalgia at all?
There is a kind of cultural American nostalgia that people often read into the work, which is like '60s, '70s, and '80s. And I always think it's funny because anything before that is no longer read as nostalgia. For example, the Schoenberg cat piece is using an absolutely new phenomenon, which is this proliferation of cats on pianos on the internet, and it's tying that together with a musical movement that happened 100 years earlier, which is atonal music from Vienna. I guess my view of history goes back farther than the '60s.
Sure. You even toy with almost new cultural reference points like Photoshop.
Yeah. And I think those Dancing Stands represent the '90s in a weird way. You know, pre-iPod technology design. When people think about technology now, they think about the iPod or the iPad now. It's really the kind of product of our time, right on the cutting edge. It's rounded and it's sleek. But I feel like the technology design that came right before that time was more silver, more hard-edged, and more tied into the modernist design of the '50s. It's what the show was named for, you know, The Sharper Image.
It's true. The iPod or iPad seems to be doing its best to be immaterial, to disappear into the ether of the Internet. Those older things are the opposite. It's a total object. Sorta futuristic but, like, just there.
It's like the '90s version of the '70s version of the '50s version of the future.
|Sweet 16, a Guns N' Roses video by Cory Arcangel|
At the MOCA show, I couldn't help but focus on the structural elements of your pieces. I'm thinking specifically about the Dancing Stands and the Guns N' Roses video installation... They're pairs set to a loop that's sort of out of phase. So even thought the recognizability of the subject matter drew me in, it's really the structural elements that serve as the underpinning and real focus of the work.
Definitely. I would agree with you. In fact, I kind of consider those two pieces to be almost the same piece. They're made out of different materials, but they're the same concept. And the concept is not my concept. Phasing was a really important concept in '60s composition.
So, yeah, I would say structural concerns are where a disproportionately large amount of my thought goes to when I'm making a piece. I would say those Photoshop gradients are simply hard structural pieces. They are literally patterns built into Photoshop, printed out in a specific way. Even in the show, there are three literally fake Structural films. And I mean that in the art historical way. You know, like Structural films from the '60s, which are just films about their own materiality.
With the looping in your pieces, I kept waiting for things to sync up. Basically, there's this sense of anticipation that keeps being frustrated. Is that a conscious, planned effect?
It's definitely a kind of intuitive, unconscious thing. It's something that I'm not necessarily thinking about, but something that always tends to happen. And the show in Miami is the most of my things that were ever put together in one room. So, even for me, it was like odd to see that maybe that's what was going on. 'Cause when you're making stuff over years, you don't really pay attention to what your overall tone or overall thing is. You're too much in it to realize any of that stuff is happening.
Super Mario Clouds, a hacked Nintendo cartridge by Cory Arcangel
Photo by Steven Brooke
You mentioned the MOCA show is the largest single showing of your work ever. Are you comfortable with your stuff being exhibited on such a large scale? Did it make you nervous or apprehensive or something?
Certainly, before the show, I was nervous. Not necessarily about the show, but more about my work. You know, you have all of these feelings, like "Is it good enough?" And I don't know ... I think I got lucky with MOCA because they had such a good install team. I think the show ended up looking better than I could have ever imagined it looking. Somehow all my fears got washed away.
If I were in your place, the thing that would worry me the most is that all these things were conceived as single units. So, you know, how are they all going to interact in the gallery space?
Well, to be honest, we spent so much time going back and forth about what would be in the show, what would be next to each other, and even more importantly how to show the work. A lot of the work in this show is shown in ways that hasn't been before in order to accommodate the other things.
For example, the clouds piece is on a media cart and I'd never shown it that way. Usually I'll show it as a huge installation with projections and TV screens. It's a kind of variable size. I might have four projections of the clouds on different walls in different sizes, then I might have a couple TV screens lying around. In each space, it gets a different treatment. The MOCA treatment was one monitor on a media cart beside another piece in a similar vein.
Anyway, there was a lot of unknown reworking of the way we installed the pieces in order to make the show feel like a whole. There was a lot of recooking, in a way.
|Super Mario Clouds, a hacked Nintendo cartridge by Cory Arcangel|
OK. Looking over your website, I noticed you do standup. How does a Cory Arcangel comedy show work?
I've only done it a couple times. Sometimes I'll even do the same routines in galleries that I do in standup clubs 'cause I think it's funny to see how they play in each space. I made a record a couple of years ago called The Bruce Springsteen Born to Run Glockenspiel Addendum. That was a kind of composition I wrote that added glockenspiel lines to Bruce's Born to Run album. In live performance, I would play Bruce Springsteen's record and add my glockenspiel, playing along. The last time I did standup comedy I did that and it was kind of a thinly veiled reference to Andy Kaufman's Mighty Mouse routine. I also have this lecture about Simon and Garfunkel where I watch one of their performances and I just comment on their relationship. So what I do in standup is actually the exact same thing I do for my art. It just happens to be the funnier projects.
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Should we expect comedy at the art talk?
My artist talks are like just me joking around for an hour. They're pretty fun. Of course, if I say they're fun, people won't think they're fun.
An Art Talk with Cory Arcangel. Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, 770 NE 125th St., North Miami. The lecture is free for MOCA members, North Miami residents, and city employees. Otherwise, admission costs $5 for adults, or $3 for students and seniors. Call 305-893-6211 or visit mocanomi.org.