Cory Arcangel on losing himself to the Internet

The lowbrow king manifests Miley Cyrus and Kelly Clarkson as his digital and pop cultural obsessions go into overdrive

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Arcangel_Awkward-Smiles-Lakes, 2013
"Awkward Smiles / Lakes", 2013 1920x1080 H.264/MPEG-4 Part 10 looped digital file (from lossless Quicktime Animation master), media player, 70” flatscreen, armature, various cablesPhotography Sacha Maric © Cory Arcangel Courtesy of Lisson Gallery

Cory Arcangel was a self-confessed computer-nerd as a young boy. Fast forward a few decades and not much has changed, as his significant body of work – where the New York-native toys with the digital and pop cultural world in a way that few others do – will show. A firm Dazed favourite and one of the most influential artists of the New Media Generation, his work covers all aspects of the digital – from manipulating Nintendo games in Super Mario Clouds (2002-), to producing artworks from pool noodles in his “Screen-Agers, Tall Boys, and Whales” (2011-2015) series. Investigating the relationships of technology and culture, Arcangel signifies old, lost and forgotten media that he takes out of the real world and gives a valuable platform in the abstract. “One of the great things about being an artist is you’re given the opportunity to take things out of real life and put it into a place where people might consider it in 20 years, otherwise people will forget”, the digital-lover tells us over Skype. 

Having been exhibited in major galleries all around the world, including New York, where Arcangel is from and based, his next showcase will be in Bergamo, marking his first major solo exhibition in Italy. This is all so crazy, everybody seems so famous (yep, Miley Cyrus lyrics) takes place in Italy’s oldest municipal building, contrasting heavily with his ultra-contemporary installations – you’ll understand Cory’s fierce passion for the digital world just by hearing the entire gallery space is going to be covered in a custom-made carpet in a colour-gradient spectrum from the artist’s Photoshop Gradient Demonstration series. All of the combined works from the trans-medial artist in the show will give an almost full biographic of Arcangel’s creative language from the last 15 years. We caught up with Arcangel ahead of him jumping on a plane to Italy.

The title of the exhibition, This is all so crazy, everybody seems so famous, are lyrics from a Miley Cyrus song…

Cory Arcangel: I was a really big fan of that song “Party In The USA” when it came out. It was her first song that came into my consciousness. I’m not necessarily a Miley Cyrus expert but this song is about a country girl going to LA and not fitting in. I love that kind of top 40 music, it’s real sugar, and different aspects of my work have revolved around that stuff for a couple of years.

Have you seen her artwork?

Cory Arcangel: Yeah I’ve seen her assemblage art, with the stuffed animals. I have to say I haven’t kept up with her in her new ‘mega-pop’ phase. I kind of tuned out a little bit because I needed some mental space to wrap myself around EDM.

Are you a fan of EDM?

Cory Arcangel: Yeah. I’m a fan of anything that’s a part of pop or fashion, for me as it shows culture keeps moving and as culture moves it creates opportunities for me.

Which of your notable pieces will be at the show? 

Cory Arcangel: I have a piece in the show called “Since You’ve Been Gone” and it’s a long-standing series of work I’ve been making, named after Kelly Clarkson’s hit. So I have an ongoing collection of songs that are related to that song, and “Party In The USA” is definitely connected. The manifestation of that piece in this show is an iPad tower and it’s only playing Shania Twain’s “The Woman In Me”.

There’s another series of work in the show “Screen-agers, tall boys and whales” – pool noodles that I’ve been dressing up as teenagers adorned with accessories like headphones. I saw a float stood up in a pharmacy once and it looked just like a person, so I took a photograph, and bought some. I like the idea that people just cover themselves with all of this stuff now and the way people always have logos and text on clothes. Now you can’t go anywhere without seeing huge text on people’s clothes.

How do you feel to be exhibiting a solo gallery show in Italy for the first time?

Cory Arcangel: It’s exciting, actually. I’ve always had a bizarre relationship with Italy. Back in the early aughts, Italy was one of those places where it was always very advanced in terms of their understanding of art on the Internet. I don’t know if people know this but there were a couple of places in the world where people were really excited about the idea that you could make art on the Internet. New York, Eastern Europe, and Italy. I think people forgot about that whole era.

To accompany the exhibition there’s a catalogue, almost like a magazine for teenagers?

Cory Arcangel: Yeah it’s designed like a teen magazine that would have One Direction on the cover, but instead of them and pop stars through out; it is pictures of all my work. I had 20 contributors for it who were able to contribute anything they wanted. There’s quizzes, an about me, a trend-report, all stuff that would be in a teen magazine. It’ll be available in stores as well as at the exhibition. 

Why is digital media relevant for you as your medium? 

Cory Arcangel: Well, I was a computer nerd growing up and always felt very comfortable in front of a computer and it’s still true today. Then the Internet happened and I was like, “This is so awesome”, and lost a lot of my life to the Internet. All of a sudden millions of people were expressing themselves through a computer. I feel it’s the most interesting thing to happen in like 20 years. Although my works can end up on walls, and physical, like sculptures, it often comes from me sitting where I like to be – at my computer.

You’ve done a lot of work with old technology – why do you think it’s important to ‘save’ those obsolete items?

Cory Arcangel: It’s just as important to save an old computer than it is to save the fact people wear Justin Bieber sweatpants that say ‘Justin Bieber’ on the leg. It’s just a part of what it means to be human and what it means to live. One of the great things about being an artist is you’re given the opportunity to take things out of real life and put it into a place where people might consider it in 20 years, otherwise people will forget. For me it’s important to say there are certain things that it’s good to not forget about. 

Is that because they helped develop new things, and we should be grateful? 

Cory Arcangel: Yeah, I think we should be grateful for Beats by Dre and Nintendo. Not grateful for the products but for the understanding and relationships they brought us and how we interact with them. But what do I know?

Is there anything in real life you think gets treated like old technology and gets left behind?

Cory Arcangel: Oh, everything. What doesn’t get left behind?

It’s like Hollywood actresses and they hit 40 and that’s it. Do you have any work about Hollywood?

Cory Arcangel: It’s so horrible. It’s tough out there. I think about Hollywood in general all the time. That whole industry and how there’re always new young stars, but what about the old stars? I’ve got a piece on cinema called “Untitled Translation Exercise”, where I took the great movie Dazed and Confused, which is funny, and had Indian actors dub over the voices. So when you watch my piece it looks exactly like the movie but everyone has an Indian accent. It’s about how American culture gets exported around the world.

“Often I think I’m the last person who really knows what the work is doing” – Cory Arcangel

Some of your work talks about consumerism and capitalism, what are your positive and negative aspects of it? 

Cory Arcangel: Oh jeez, this might be out of my pay grade. You could talk so broadly about capitalism! I may have evolved into more of a passive observer, I’m not taking sides with almost anything. If the Apple watch comes, or whatever, it’s interesting, but for me, to see how these things change is my interest – I don’t have a stake really. Mainly because it’s so hard to predict, I mean look at what’s happened in my lifetime, you could never have predicted what is going on today. Even the fact we’re talking on Skype is crazy.

So being an observer in your art, do you just emulate messages that you see or do you create your own?

Cory Arcangel: Again it’s up to you to figure out what my work is doing. Often I think I’m the last person who really knows what the work is doing. I have feelings and I know it’s interesting and it’s all intuitive, but it’s really up to the viewer to decide what the work is about. I keep my eyes open and when I see some things that are interesting I’ll take them out of flow of life and combine them with something else and say it’s artwork and hope people believe me. I’m a little reluctant to even say what I think the stuff is doing at all. 

What kind of artist would you have been 50 years ago, when there was little digital media and no Internet? 

Cory Arcangel: That’s a crazy question but it’s actually a very easy answer. I would’ve been what I was into as a teenager – I was very into video art. I loved making experimental video art. Work dealing with technology didn’t start at the digital; it was just a flip-over from analogue. So would’ve been tinkered with synthesisers, or making weird videos like artists were in the 60s and 70s. I think my interests would have been similar. Artists I like from that era are Andy Warhol, Tony Conrad... There’s a long history of work trying to push the boundaries of what’s happening.

Cory Arcangel’s This is all so crazy, everybody seems so famous exhibition runs from April 1 to June 28, 2015 at the Palazzo della Ragione in Bergamo, for the Galleria d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea of the city

Cory Arcangel: Hot Topics will also be on show from 11 April – 20 May 2015 at Lisson Gallery in Milan

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