Automatic Update

The Yoshiko and Akiomorita Media Gallery

June 27-September 10 2007

Automatic Update

Profile: Cory Arcangel

Interview by Cathleen Chaffee. First published in Contemporary Magazine
no. 84, 2006

CATHLEEN CHAFFEE: I hear that you're committing "Friendster suicide" in a performance at P.S.1. Is this like killing yourself on EverQuest?

CORY ARCANGEL: It's exactly like killing myself in an online game. I haven't decided yet if I'm just going to get onstage and hit delete and then sit back down—play it totally low key, like if people were blinking they would miss the performance. Or, I might get up there and make fun of my profile, for being on Friendster in the first place and then delete myself. Probably it will be the latter. I would love to straight face it, but it's definitely not my nature. (1)

CC: We were talking recently about Erik Satie's 1893 composition Vexations, which consists of the same piece repeated 840 times. Is that related to the kind of calculated boredom in Super Slow Tetris (2004), your piece that is essentially a radically slowed down video game? It's maddening to watch.

CA: As a media artist who is totally frustrated with media art and the utopian idea that interactivity will save the world, I do like to frustrate people. Super Slow Tetris was designed to be an endurance piece. It was a kind of homage to Tony Conrad, who did these performances when I was growing up in Buffalo where he would rake a bow across a huge string for nine hours. I thought Super Slow Tetris would be great in terms of cinema time and narrative. Everyone knows what's going to happen, and what's nice about stealing a game as opposed to slowing down a movie is that a game is so simple. There isn't going to be anything beautiful that crops up. Also, that piece was a really clever hack. That's something I get obsessed with—I only changed a few ones and zeros. The problem of working with computers is that people don't understand what the hell you're doing anyway, so even if it's a really elegant gesture technically, people gloss over it.

CC: Why do you love the endurance part of it?

CA: I guess it just seems so beyond punk. I'm a nervous jittery person, so I think I enjoy how endurance has this great antagonism.

CC: This reminds me of a performance where you showed a DVD of a Simon and Garfunkel concert in Central Park, and you fixated on the crazed fans in the audience, slowing them down and analyzing their behavior for the audience.

CA: I called that The Ecstasy of Simon and Garfunkel.

CC: Yes. What does fan culture do for you?

CA: Obsessive compulsive disorder fan websites are my favorite, favorite, favorite thing. Internet fan culture is the inspiration in terms of process for almost everything that I do. The Simon and Garfunkel stuff wasn't intentional, but I'd watched the video so many times that I know what the fans look like in the pan out shots. I'm actually discussed on the Art Garfunkel discussion board. That's where that artwork fits in. They're discussing things like, 'what do you think is in Art Garfunkel's back pocket during the Central Park performance?' I'm reading this discussion, and I'm thinking, 'I have also contemplated that question'.

CC: It sounds like you think we're at the mercy of media.

CA: Yes. I'm not an activist about it, but personally I feel that we have so little control that the only little gesture that you can do as an individual to combat media is to understand what it is you've been given. To study it, to take it apart, to really know it—both on a theoretical level and the level of love. I actually love what I spend time with, what I've been given.

CC: In the catalogue from your Migros exhibition, the curator seemed to suggest—I think because of the piece where you've programmed a Nintendo cartridge to filter an iPod through video game sound—that you are mimicking minimalist music, composers like La Monte Young, Philip Glass, or Steve Reich.

CA: I think it's too easy a comparison. I'm heavily indebted to all of the minimalist composers, but I don't even consider the iPod piece music. To me, what I always thought was cool about Minimalism was the drone. When there is a performance and you are in the act of making the drone then there is no composer.

CC: What's exciting these days about killing off the composer?

CA: Personally I'm unimpressed by expression. I think maybe it's because I'm really a frustrated pop musician. When I was in the conservatory I spent almost two and a half years exclusively trying to make pop songs. I studied Buddy Holly, and I wrote this computer program to try to write pop songs for me, and they still sucked. If I could write a song like Dee Dee Ramone's I'd be in my fantasy. But I just can't, so in a way, I don't want to make any decisions. When I graduated I was in the Guns 'n' Roses video when Axl Rose gets off the bus in Indiana. I got off in New York and I was a failed pop musician. The death of the composer to me is just this golden diamond of an idea. My minimal works like Super Mario Clouds (2003) are really indebted to works like Reich's clapping music or Ed Ruscha's Sunset Strip (1966), where time is stretched.

CC: I don't think many people know that you trained in a musical conservatory.

CA: I studied electronic music composition, but before that studied classical guitar at Oberlin, embarrassingly enough because I listened to so much of the heavy metal you're exposed to in the suburbs—like Metallica and Megadeath—and then I started playing guitar. For me it's also because I played this one video game called The Bard's Tale, which had a lute in it. I played that game so much that I got really down with Baroque music. That's a secret.

CC: Is that when you became interested in John Cage?

CA: I don't know what it's like in art school, but seriously, if I had to sit through one more prepared piano piece, I would have flipped out. I remember going to class and kids were rolling dice in the hallways. He was that prevalent. The way I look at it is that anything you do, you're indebted to Cage. It's not necessarily like love. It's kind of like, you get up in the morning and you brush your teeth. It's just there.

CC: Your media is distinctly retro: lo-resolution video, early Nintendo game sound. You said once that what appealed to you about using old computers was that they never changed, but obsolescence in art that uses technology is inevitable. Something on a cutting edge platform is like high fashion, stunningly dated six months later.

CA: This is what keeps me up at night. I use nostalgic media because in the process of creating work for the computer the tools literally become obsolete as you're working with them. So I wanted to work with machines that were fixed in time, like a fixed architecture. Originally I was kind of being a punk: 'I'm going to make stuff that's already obsolete. I'm gonna, like, make a CD-ROM.' But it also grew out of these serious concerns about my craft. I was seeing art that the artists didn't realise was obsolete already. My video Sans Simon (2004) was one of the first works where I thought, how do I tackle this problem using the medium of video? I put a camera in front of my television and used my hands to try to block out Paul Simon's face whenever he came on screen. It's obviously the essence of classic camcorder video: lo-fi, poor sound, and not edited. I literally time stamped it, and so it's going to be okay in forty years because these were conscious decisions.

CC: It sounds like a safety mechanism.

CA: Of course. It has to be air tight. The Nintendo stuff is a perfect example. I know it's cheap, but it's never gonna change, because it's already obsolete. Nostalgia was the solution to a problem. Unfortunately, nostalgia has so many negative effects. People get infuriated.

CC: Well, they think you're trying to use it to get an emotional response.

CA: Exactly. Or they don't know I'm using it to cover my bases as an artist working with media, using it as a solution to this terrible, terrible problem. When working with newer media it's more difficult to understand what it's going to look like in the future. I think the successful media artist lets you know that they're aware of everything, every step of the process. I can see a video now and know what video software it was edited on. If the software shines through and you don't think the artist did that intentionally, then that's a failure. There are two solutions to this problem. One is working with nostalgia or really knowing how each thing you do is going to be perceived. The other way, which also is equally as fun, is just to go crazy. Open up some new software that you've never used and make something that is time stamped, totally date yourself in order to deal with these issues of obsolescence. That's what I try to do.


(1) This performance was realised live at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York as part of a programme co-presented by The Believer. Cory Arcangel is no longer on Friendster…