cory arcangel’s '#currentmood' — kittens, kanye, and instant nostalgia
As the post-internet, post-conceptualist’s new exhibition opens at The Lisson, he talks memes, clickbait, and whether anyone will find his work in 50 years.
Photography Tim Barber
Cory Arcangel is stuck in time; stuck in the paradoxically differing speeds of "art history time" and "technology time." His work — technological excavations of the present — has constantly utilized the disconnect between those two chronologies to make some wider, often funny, sometimes tragic, observations about futility, oddity, and surreal beauty of the world we live in.
The works that first got him noticed back in the early 00s teased up the inherent-nostalgia in retro game technologies and reworked them with a dose of bleak, post-modern, existential humor. Super Mario Clouds pulled Mario out of the game, leaving a gently scrolling landscape of clouds to float past. Beat The Champ saw Cory reconfigure old bowling games so that each time a bowler stepped up to take a go, he bowled a gutter ball. I Shot Andy Warhol turned Hogan's Alley — a video game where you had to shoot cardboard cut outs of gangsters and avoid innocent civilians — into a game where you had to (yes) shoot Andy. The innocent civilians were recrafted to resemble Public Enemy's Flavor Flav, KFC's Colonel Sanders, and Catholicism's The Pope.
These works turned a (relatively) new element of consumer cultural detritus into an electric new form of art, mangling the video games of the artist's youth into a statement on Where We Are As Society in a similar to manner to all those other great pop experiments made from the consumer cultural detritus of the 60s.
This, of course, isn't to say that Cory's work is merely limited to toying with the sensibilities aesthetics and codes of video games; he's crafted a series of ready mades out of Photoshop gradients, with each work's title being an instruction on how you could also make it at home. He's made covers of classical compositions from found YouTube clips of cats hitting piano keys, and released text-based works, the most famous of which, Working On My Novel, was published by Penguin. It archived tweets featuring the phrase "working on my novel" (Sample: "I guess not working on my novel for a few days works for me cuz once I begin again I dominate!") He's added glockenspiel parts to Bruce Springsteen's "Born To Run." He's released "merch" featuring phrases like "Fuck Negativity" on pool sliders and created tracksuit bottoms with his name in rainbow colors.
The newest show, #currentmood, has just opened at the Lisson Gallery in London. It's the last, he explains, in a run of shows he's been working on, before taking some time off. "If I was a musician," he jokes (he is, of course, also a musician), "you could consider this the last concert for the current album. With that in mind, the show is a kind of survey. It's kind of a summary of a lot of the different ideas and series of works that I've been working with the past five or six years, and so there's a ton of work in the show. There's some videos, some photographs, some gradient works, some drawings, some sound pieces, but everything is going to be presented next to each other at the exact same size. I just raided my harddrive for weird and strange images and pulled it all together. It's a fun, chaotic, messy show."
Some of these works hanging in the Lisson, then: a gif of Daniel Radcliffe walking a thousand dogs and smoking a cigarette. A selection of gradient works. A corrupted and pixellated image of Victoria Beckham. A still image of a Mac desktop featuring a gif of those Super Mario clouds. Kanye getting out of a car. An image of David Guetta advertising a concert. A kitten with big, cute, emotive eyes. A photograph of the stripes of an adidas tracksuit. A zoomed in deeply pixelated image, almost unrecognizable, of Leonardo DiCaprio holding hands with a girlfriend walking across a beach. It resembles Michaelango's Sistine Chapel Adam and God as much it does intrusive celeb pap portraiture. #currentmood, it seems, is dipping its toe in and taking the temperature through a constellation of images that make up the image-dense world we live in. It's meme-heavy in the way the world feels meme-heavy. It's funny in the way memes are funny, and also, profound, in the way that memes also have a way of saying something unexpectedly profound about the human condition.
"I remember in the late 90s and early 00s when there was this kind of excitement about the idea that there could be something that was a meme, but people hadn't quite wrapped their heads around what they were yet. It was so fun to try to listen to people try to theorize about what these things could be. I found it really interesting that these things were self-replicating and self-distributing when I was starting to make art. I was never able to make a real meme, you know, that's like writing a number one hit single. But the internet was really starting to happen then, and I was trying to participate in it. I was attempting to make work iconic enough that it could become kind of like a meme, and spread itself. I think that's stayed with my work; the concepts are very simple, they are very easy to communicate."
"One idea about this show was that it would be fun to place these Photoshop gradient works next to weird, random things that I'd downloaded off the internet. Originally the Photoshop series was a kind of ready made, almost a joke in a way. Now I think, seven or eight years on, they are seen totally differently, they're seen as kind of like, artworks, with the capital A, and so for me it's fun to kind of take them back down, or at least try to and pair them next to imagery that doesn't have that same kind of lustre."
The effect in the gallery is oddly dazzling — this collision between kittens and gradients and Kanye — and overwhelming, like having a thousand browser windows open all at once. But the exhibition will be bleeding back out the gallery and onto the web, as Cory is utilizing Outbrain to launch the pieces as web adverts you can discover via browsing, releasing the art work back into the wilds of the world wide web.
More than most artists of his generation, Cory has transcended the novelty of his initial approach to art. If he's stuck somewhere between the paradoxically differing speeds of "art history time" and "technology time," his work has managed to continually function as a barometer of now as it's been pulled in different directions by the slowly changing landscapes of the art world and the rapidly reinventing world of technology. His work works because it's funny, partly, (who doesn't like seeing a picture of a kitten on the hallowed walls of the Lisson) and partly because it feels honest and genuine and never really ironic or detached from the subject. He's not an outsider poking his nose into web niches, but an insider recrafting those niches he loves into art.
Those gradients, which he started as a kind of "dare" or "taunt" are now transformed and turned into serious pieces of work. "It seems crazy to see the way that the perception of the work changed," he explains, "and I would say it has changed in ways that I couldn't have predicted, and in ways I barely understand a lot of the time. The stuff I made in the early 00s, like it's so funny because people are nostalgic for that work now, whereas originally they might have been nostalgic for the medium. And in another 50 years maybe it will have another totally different reading. It probably, to be honest, won't be funny. You know people don't find those Photoshop works funny anymore? They couldn't be further from funny. People don't find my Nintendo clouds thing funny anymore, I mean when I first did that people thought that was a joke. Weirdly enough there will be a chance that people won't find any of this funny in 50 years," he laughs.
And personally I find that quite funny, that in 50 years, no one will find any of this funny. That in 50 years they'll be doing a big retrospective at the Tate Modern and the viewers will be traipsing through the galleries, watching bowlers bowl gutterballs, and clouds from ancient video games float past whilst they stroke their chins and look at long-ago downloaded images of long-dead celebrities and contemplate work that was by dragging a mouse around on Photoshop.
Text Felix Petty
Portrait Tim Barber