Nov 17, 2008

Cory Arcangel at New Museum

Here's the blurb:

According to the artist: “This performance is going to be about ‘Continuous Partial Awareness’—a phrase that was first described to me as meaning ‘you know, like, when you have three IM windows open, two e-mail in boxes dinging away, are texting five different people, and also have five tabs open on your browser, each with updated content.’ It is about paying attention to everything all the time, but not really concentrating on anything. It is different from multitasking, because with multitasking, one actually is expected to concentrate on tasks at some point, even if in small doses. ‘Continuous Partial Awareness’ is the eroded degenerate modern version of multitasking. I still don’t know how this performance will take shape, it might be a lecture, a music show, a broadcast, a chess game, etc., but what I do know is that the feeling of ‘non-concentration’ that has seeped into today’s life through our flat-screen displays and Wi-Fi will be its starting point." -- New Museum website

And here's what happened:

Cory gave a fast-paced lecture, fifty PowerPoint slides in 40 minutes. Each slide presented an idea. Most slides had pictures, many also contained video or audio snippets to explain the idea. Some ideas were things Cory had done, others he was thinking about. As he flicked through the slides quickly, he gave a running commentary, including jokes and stories.

Some sample ideas:

  • Make a music video that sets U2 to video images of the Berlin wall coming down
  • Create an art audio tour using time scaling so the narration goes really slowly
  • Give an lecture with a laptop whose battery is about to run out
  • Give an artists lecture using a voice box effect
  • Auto-tune a song so that it shifts pitch ever so slightly
  • Make a blog that collects posts with "sorry I haven't posted in a while" in 'em
  • Create a fake structuralist film
  • Create some pretentious CMYK prints
  • Make two computers email each other "Out of office" emails all day long

The last three are included in his current show at Team Gallery. (Cory said he would post the 50 ideas, I haven't found that link yet)

If my description sounds cavalier, I doubt Cory minds. His attitude these days is all shoot-from-the-hip. From his press release:

Arcangel states: "Imagine me buying some video equipment off of eBay, turning it on, pressing some random buttons, and then calling whatever comes out my 'work.' This mind-set is the spirit of "Adult Contemporary". In contrast to some of my older work, which exercised a somewhat subversive use of modern digital tools, the pieces in this show are inspired by the idea of using technology exactly as it was designed, although in a manner best described as "non-expert." What if the possibility of using a system poorly in an uneducated manner were celebrated? What if I, as an artist, attached my name to the aesthetics of different eras of technology without really bothering to do my homework or even reading the manual (so to speak)?"

I have no gripes with this. I enjoyed the talk immensely. Cory is an excellent presenter with a good sense of comic timing. Towards the end, Cory noted that the first question he usually gets is "How do I get away with this." When an audience member dutifully asked "how do you get away with this?" Cory replied "Look in the mirror, you are the ones letting me get away with this, you tell me."

Cory's humor, jokes and self-deprecation are a strength, a way to avoid falling into the trap of over-intellectualizing the work.

One thing puzzles me, however. When Cory talks about his art, it is all very lighthearted, jokes and puns and fun. But when you see the work at the Team Gallery show (see here for more images), the objects themselves are sincere, even austere.

Cory Arcangel, courtesy Team Gallery.

The two computers emailing each other "Out of office" emails are two Apple computers on separate desks, running Microsoft Entourage. The CMYK prints are serious looking prints in frames. The films are abstract and provoke a certain distance.

In other words, although Cory's presentations rely on affect and pop entertainment, his art objects do the opposite. They appear cool and conceptual. Where's the fun gone? The "wink wink" is not in the art, it happens outside.

Looking at his structuralist film, for example, Cory stated his intention was to make a fake structuralist film, almost as a joke. But did he end up making a structuralist film? The only way a viewer could know the difference is if she knew how it was made, if she had inside knowledge about the fact that the piece used digital technology to simulate a film effect.

So, my questions are - does it matter if the way an art practice is talked about and the way it appears are so different? And is it an effective strategy to create works that appear Modernist or Structuralist, but that differ only in intention?

One final observation. Cory relies heavily on pop culture in his work, which appeals because it is accessible to all. Yet understanding Cory's work requires a lot of arcane inside (often technical) knowledge about how the work is made and how that is significant - an elitist tactic. I think there is something in this clash between populism and elitism, I just haven't figured out what yet.

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