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CORY ARCANGEL: PRO TOOLS

by Daniel Rothbart

Stepping out of the Whitney’s oversized stainless steel elevator onto the fourth floor, my senses were subjected to video parlor cacophony of blips, rings and horns.  Running the span of the gallery wall ahead was the towering installation Various Self Playing Bowling Games.  This confrontational spectacle was my initiation to Cory Arcangel’s “Pro Tools”, an ambitious though uneven grand tour of consumer video games and other technology-generated or centered works of art.

The bowlers range from highly pixilated Pac-Man types to more realistic, Second Life-style characters. They owe their different appearances to vintages ranging from the 80’s through the 90’s.  None of the avatars is capable of bowling anything more than a gutter ball.  The unseen hand of Cory Arcangel, has hacked and reprogrammed the games, determining their Sisyphean task of bowling strike after strike.

The most powerful work in the exhibition, Various Self Playing Bowling Games speaks to the dark side of electronic entertainment with its isolation from human contact and lack of physical exercise.  In this circumstance, there is no possibility for self-improvement because each player is destined to fail in continuation.  We’re used to viewing these games on small screens but now they assume gigantic proportions, just like the compulsive behavior they condition, insidiously gaining control of unwitting people in the end.

To the left of these virtual bowling alleys is a cluster of animated chrome merchandise stands.  These are the kind of novelty items that are animated at their joints to move and draw attention to a shop window.  Arcangel has arranged a cluster of seven stands, of differing heights, that bow and sway in unison, creating a macabre herd of chrome fixtures that seem to move of their own volition.

Photoshop Gradient Demonstrations hang with the solemnity of Rothko paintings in the adjacent gallery.  Unlike Rothkos, however, these paintings had no spiritual or mystical aspirations.  Rather they were created from preset gradations that ship with Adobe Photoshop and can effectively be created by any museum-goer.  We no longer require messy paints or the unwieldy linen sail Rothko employed to diffuse light in his studio.

Surrounded by these gradients is what appears to be a Playstation golf game.  Under the watchful eye of a security guard I pick up the golf club and strike a golf ball hanging from six inches of string in front of a monitor.  Presumably, based on the direction from which I strike the ball and velocity, the computer will generate a simulation of the drive in virtual reality.  Once again, Cory Arcangel has hacked the program and my drive bears no resemblance whatsoever to the movement of my avatar on the computer.  He orchestrates a dysfunctional relationship between human and device that belies the premise of  Pro Tools and our often misguided belief that technology can uplift us and bring joy to our lives.

I continue on to the next gallery where the Steinfeld episode in which Kramer discusses his new coffee table book about coffee tables on the Regis and Kathie Lee show is playing on a television monitor.  By showcasing this episode, Arcangel drags the “self-referential object” of Minimalism into the arena of pop culture.  The serial imagery is developed further in a bank of packaged flat-screen televisions that could be a Donald Judd were they less adorned by the package designer.  On the opposing wall is a bank music CDs that have been framed, locking away the music but establishing a visual prelude to the next gallery.

YouTube guitar solos fill the adjacent room.  Young guitarists showcase their lead electric guitar riffs on YouTube.  Arcangel appropriates these video vignettes and edits them together with long cross dissolves and layers of sound over sound.  The result is a frenetic montage and series of superimpositions and dissolves which, together with distorted electric guitar riffs, hailing from different sources, is thoroughly jarring and intriguing.

The last gallery, which showcases computer-generated drawings and sculpture is, by contrast, subdued.  The geometric drawing produced by a pen/pencil plotter seems outwardly akin to a minimalist work by Mel Bochner (calling to mind the monkey who painted in the style of Pollock).  Similarly tame three-dimensional files were sent to a factory, which produced simple bent-wire chrome-plated sculpture. 

It feels like Cory Arcangel struggled at times to fill the floor and Pro Tools could have benefited from greater focus and selective rigor.  The work is certainly timely and raises important questions about technology and it’s impact on contemporary culture and creativity.  The exhibition remains insensitive, however, to the complexity and nuance of artist’s use of and relationship to these new tools.  Art in the age of digital reproduction is in flux, evolving across a spectrum of disciplines and encompassing both light and shadow.

Cory Arcangel: Pro Tools is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through September 11, 2011, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, New York, NY, tel. 212-570-3600, info@whitney.org

© 2011 Daniel Rothbart. All rights reserved. First published in September 2011 in MUSE Artery.