Cory Arcangel combines technology and art

“Beat the Champ,” an installation featuring bowling video games, was on display at The Curve in the Barbican Art Gallery in London. Cory Arcangel hacked the games to continually loop rounds where the bowler fails to score. (credit: Courtesy of nicksarebi via Flickr) “Beat the Champ,” an installation featuring bowling video games, was on display at The Curve in the Barbican Art Gallery in London. Cory Arcangel hacked the games to continually loop rounds where the bowler fails to score. (credit: Courtesy of nicksarebi via Flickr)

It’s no secret that art is a product of both the artist’s expression and the tools and materials used. A song played on a guitar will be different from the same song played on a piano, and a pencil will encourage different types of art than a brush will. The question is: How exactly do these tools affect the art, and how or why does an artist use a particular tool? Today, as technology tools — including Photoshop, Tumblr, and C++ — are being introduced, updated, and distributed very rapidly, these questions become more relevant than ever, particularly at a school like Carnegie Mellon where the line between technology and art is often blurred.

These types of questions piqued the interest of artist Cory Arcangel in New York, and much of his art explores the relationship between the tools, the artist, and sometimes even the viewers. Arcangel has been called one of today’s hottest art stars, and he is the youngest person ever to have a one-man show at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In a phone interview, The Tartan learned a little bit more about his creative process.

The Tartan: I understand that you were initially a music major at Oberlin. Can you tell me about that experience?

Cory Arcangel: I went to the conservatory there to get a degree in classical guitar, and I ended up switching my degree a couple years in to a degree in technology in music and the related arts. A conservatory is a very special experience. It’s almost like class-based. You take music history, you take music theory, you take listening skills. I remember it being very challenging and quite difficult. But at the same time, I learned a lot.

TT: A lot of your music training has influenced your art. I really enjoyed your “Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 11” piece played by cats.

CA: That’s a perfect example of me coming back around to a lot of stuff I was taught in the conservatory and re-evaluating it and working with it. That piece is basically an accurate realization of the score. With the cats, I had found a way to approach that music with my current interests while still respecting the original composer.

TT: Are you interested in cats or Web memes?

CA: I’m interested in cats and cat videos, but I’m more interested [in] what are the types of videos that a media system like the Internet encourages. When you get something like YouTube that allows hundreds of millions of people to upload videos, what videos come to the forefront? I’m interested in all types of videos that fit under that inquiry, but especially cats, since cats have been around in media for a long time. One of Edison’s first films was of two cats boxing.

And there’s also the joke in the piece that a cat walking across a piano sounds like modern music. In several of the YouTube comments for videos of cats walking across pianos, you will see people joking about how it sounds like modern music. There are many different kinds of jokes in that piece.

TT: Most people use old technologies to create something new, but in this, your [“Paganini’s Fifth Caprice”], and [your interpretation of the] Bach Goldberg Variations, you’re using new technologies to create something old.

CA: In specific to those three pieces, [the video] is a legitimate expression of the score. Those pieces are still being played, and it’s just that this type of way of doing it was not available hundreds of years ago. I’m still not doing anything against the grain of what the score is.

But I do like applying technology to older stuff, and especially with Schoenberg, I wondered if I had the cats playing Schoenberg, would the cuteness help draw people into music which is for most people inaccessible. It’s very difficult music for most people to hear, because they are used to listening to music on the radio or modern pop music.

TT: Why do you think you tend to gravitate towards older and obsolete technologies?

CA: Actually, I feel like earlier on in my work, I gravitated towards older stuff, but now I play 50–50. I either will use something very old or something very new. So for example, in the Whitney show, there are these huge Photoshop gradients. These are huge kind of C-print photographs, but the imagery isn’t from a camera. It’s from default gradient patterns built into the program Photoshop, and those pictures are printed absolutely as hi-tech as possible. The work gathers its strength from the fact that it’s the most technologically advanced [application] available to photographers today.

But at the same time, I will just find some old computer or whatever and make something out of it. It’s just an interest of mine, the kind of cycle of fashion and obsolescence tied to technology and culture. I can’t explain it, but it’s interesting to me to see things go in and out of fashion or in and out of youth.

TT: In another interview, you talked about how the aesthetics of software could affect the relationship between the user and the tools. Do you think that interactive design software like Autodesk or the Unity game engine skew the art people create with that software?

CA: Well, I don’t have any experience with Autodesk or the Unity gaming engine, so I can’t speak toward those particular software packages, but I think I have two interests in software. The main interest is how people use software or technology, and web design is a great example. I’ve had a long-standing interest in folk web design and folk web design elements, like animated gifs and stuff that came out of the early Web because the tools were [used] a specific way.

The other interest is how artists use those tools, but I’m not sure my work, or at least anymore, is such a conscious comment on how artists are using tools, but more a comment on how these tools are used by people in everyday life, and how this can be reflected by fine art. Each tool has its own properties and its own plusses and minuses. That situation is of interest to me. All these new tools are coming along, and people are responding to them, and that’s the type of thing that I love.

TT: You have this sort of ephemeral view on technology, so what motivated you to teach yourself how to program?

CA: I think it was a true fascination with technology. It wasn’t for fine art or to make some grand point. When I was a junior in college and the dot-com boom was happening, all these new amazing websites were coming up. I was just so fascinated by it that I had to learn how to program for it. I remember FTPing for the first time, and just the idea that you could put a file on another computer somewhere else and make it publicly available was fascinating. After that I wanted to learn “When you pull down a webform, how does that work?” and “When you hit the submit button, where does the information go?” I was just so fascinated by it all that I had to learn it.

TT: What got you into sculpture, such as “Dancing Stands”?

CA: I wanted to do a show where I didn’t turn off the lights. My shows up until a year or two ago were all video based, and when you do a video show, you have to negotiate with the gallery about whether they can cover up the windows and whether the light is dark enough. I thought I would love to do a show where I don’t need to do a drastic architectural rethinking of the space.

TT: How have you changed over the years?

CA: You change by trying things and getting bored of things. I’ve learned not to say anything ever concretely. Like, this is the way you should or that is the way you should do it. I’ve learned that everything is malleable, and that fashions and trends change. There is no right or wrong, really.