Remember Oakley M-Frame sunglasses? They’re supposed to look like the future, with gradient lenses in a variety of neon colors and knotted frames that bear a resemblance to tensed muscle and ligaments. What they actually look like is a future imagined from the 1980s, in which some mixture of cyberpunk fashion, steroidal athlete aesthetic and Gatorade-style visual punch is totally au courant. New media prankster Cory Arcangel has turned these glasses into monuments, casting them in bronze and immortalizing them in a series of readymades (the glasses retain their natural lenses) called “Sports Products” (2011). Are you ready for 80s nostalgia? You better be, because it’s ready for you.
Cory Arcangel’s fourth floor solo exhibition at the Whitney (which features “Sports Products”), called Cory Arcangel: Pro Tools, is the first time such a young artist has taken over an entire floor of the museum since Bruce Nauman in 1973. The pre-show hype for the show was so intense that the artist was featured in Italian Vogue as a model, a nerdy culture-hacker icon turned into fashion fodder. Not that the show and the excitement aren’t deserved — Pro Tools is a victory lap for Arcangel, whose work has been upheld as a super-hip, super-relevant pillar of new media practice for as long as the medium has had any formal definition. Ask anyone about digital art, and you’ll probably get Arcangel’s name as the genre’s most visible figure.
But strangely enough, this exhibition of recent work (most created in the past year) isn’t particularly digital. If viewers are arriving to the cavernous gallery spaces expecting rehashes of Arcangel’s early “Super Mario Clouds” (2002), then they’re going to be disappointed. The Whitney is filled with sculptures, analog creations that continue Arcangel’s practice of appropriation but this time, use physical objects instead of zeroes and ones. Rather than tweaking a Nintendo Super Mario cartridge, the artist remixes HDTV boxes and rotating product stands, not to mention those sunglasses.
The most immediately striking work in Pro Tools is the much buzzed-about “Various Self-Playing Bowling Games (aka Beat the Champ)” (2011). Previously featured at the Barbican in London, the Whitney version shows six bowling video games from Atari to Gamecube projected side by side. The joke is that the players on screen only throw gutterballs, over and over, eternally. These games are live — the footage isn’t pre-recorded or pre-programmed, rather, the moves are dictated by microchipped controllers, as if a ghostly player were constantly throwing stinkers. Commentary about failure strikes me as less relevant than Arcangel’s investigation into the visual aesthetics of these games, choosing only the most gnarly, weirdest, abstracted versions of a familiar game.
It’s this interest in warped aesthetics that carries over into the rest of the show, rather than the conceptual nihilism of never-ending failure. A room full of the artist’s Photoshop gradients, auto-generated by the image-editing software, look eerily like Abstract Expressionist or Color Field canvases, but have more in common with Sol Lewitt’s minimalism, a willingness by the artist to step out of the way of his own process. The works’ programmatic titles are similar to Lewitt’s sentence-instructions, but this time it’s a computer instead of a team of painters. Arcangel’s “Hello World” series of bent steel sculptures, auto-generated by algorithm and auto-manufactured by machine, present a similar strategy.
“Volume Management” (2011) is a monument of 10 Vizio 55-inch LCD HDTVs in their original packaging. The bombastic advertising on the outside of the packages loudly promises “Facebook on your TV! Broadband!” in a repeating pattern, emphasizing the ad surreal aesthetics without providing much in the way of commentary, cynical or not. Likewise, a super cut of Seinfeld television episodes isolates and compiles every time Kramer talks about a project to create a coffee table book of coffee tables. Yeah, the repetition is entertaining, and the project’s resemblance to conceptual art is a funny joke, but the objects Arcangel appropriates for his readymades often don’t transcend their sources. The TV monument is just a bunch of TVs, the bronze sunglasses just a more permanent version of a piece of kitsch.
This isn’t Ezra Pound’s “make it new” or Richard Prince’s “make it again,” this is “make it new again”: recycle old novelty into fresh novelty by tweaking it, pushing the buttons that make us all love shiny things. And I can’t help but like Arcangel’s work; he hits the early digital nostalgia button like few other artists can. The artist has proven a remarkable facility with his chosen materials, creating finicky programs and modifying hardware to his own ends while speaking a slippery visual vocabulary instantly recognizable to a younger audience. But too often this facility leads to facile work.
“Super Mario Clouds” is so iconic because it is one of the first new media works to really engage with the cult of fame that has surrounded early digital artifacts, to speak to the pop side as well as the technical side. The work on view in Pro Tools is doing a similar thing, speaking to an aesthetic language that hasn’t yet been picked dry by artists and critics. But the nth time around, it’s just not as fun. The readymade is now an already-made, an assembly line insta-work of art that will remain fun just as long as people aren’t tired of reminiscing over compact discs, 90s TV shows and badly-rendered video games. How long will that be?
The most interesting and refreshing works in Pro Tools are immaterial ones. Three pieces, all created this year, manage to subvert the gallery space of the Whitney, attempting and succeeding in an institutional critique-style guerrilla operation on the museum’s own territory. “777” is a temporary reversal of the Whitney’s photography policy, allowing viewers to take photos of the work on display. “Real Talk” is made up of T-Mobile, AT&T and Cingular signal repeaters connected to a new antennae on the Whitney’s roof, solving that age-old problem of lack cell phone signal in the legendarily thick-walled museum. “Airport” is an open wi-fi network, accessible by any and all visitors. These works, extending the radical freedoms of the digital into the physical world, seem to provide a way forward rather than a way back around again.
- For full photo documentation of the exhibition and first impression commentary, see my photo essay of Cory Acangel: Pro Tools.
Cory Arcangel: Pro Tools is open at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Ave) through September 11, 2011