[June 1 2016]
In his latest show #currentmood at Lisson Gallery in London, artist Cory Arcangel explores surfing the Web as a productive element of artistic practice. From cat videos to fragmented David Guetta magazine covers, the American artist regurgitates and reifies parts of the flickery, low-res imagery he encounters on his travels online—and even adopts the logic of clickbait ads in the communication of his art. PURPLE met Arcangel to discuss early surfing, the perils of Instagram, and the power of images, right before a planned 2-year hiatus from the art world.
JEPPE UGELVIG — Hi Corey, how are you? Where are you right now?
CORY ARCANGEL — I’m in Norway! I live here, but I don’t know if anyone’s really noticed. My wife, Hanne Mugaas, is a director of an art museum.
JEPPE UGELVIG —You have been quite busy in the past years, exhibiting across the world. How have the last couple of years been?
CORY ARCANGEL — I took a couple of years off until 2013, and since then I’ve been on a run of shows—around 12, I think. That was the first experiment of a particular way of organizing my life where I would either make shows or make new ideas, but never both at the same time. It’s been very busy, with a lot of travel, but I’m very pleased with how the work all came out. This show at Lisson Gallery is the last show in the run. After this, I don’t have any solo shows on the schedule, and I’m going to try to do something similar: try to disappear for a couple of years.
JEPPE UGELVIG — I guess the benefit of disappearing is that you end up finding a new kind of research rhythm. Webs surfing is one of these activities for you. Do you remember, when did you begin surfing?
CORY ARCANGEL — I remember it was in college—it was probably 20 years ago. It was at the computer lab, as I didn’t have a personal computer back then. It was fairly common to have a family computer at home, but to have a personal computer in 1996 was pretty rare. At my school there was a media lab, and there were like 3 or 4 computers, and I think one of them had a CD-ROM burner, which formed the ‘media’ aspect of the room. It was in that room that I started understanding what the Internet was. E-mailing was thrilling in 1996. Our college had an internal chat system, so you could chat with anyone who was online at the school.
That time, it was almost more like being a baby and discovering a whole new world. I didn’t have any understanding of what it was, literally: I didn’t know what I was looking at, that I was looking at files being served off of a server in some other country. I didn’t understand the mechanics of the web. I was also introduced to vernacular homepages, like on Angelfire and Geocities, and realized that the Internet can be used to create beautiful things. I was introduced to the early net artists, like the collective jodi.org.
But that was different from what I would call surfing now. Surfing today is essentially media consumption: it’s a combination of procrastination, meditation and trash media consumption. So I actually would think they’re 2 different ways of using the Web. Net artist Olia Lialina once argued that when search engine launched, the whole way of looking at the Web changed. Before, everything was exploratory because you had to go from link to link to link. Websurfing, which was the term people actually used, was a kind of a requirement in order to even find anything.
JEPPE UGELVIG — A lot of your work recognizes that joy of being behind the computer. How do you feel about other digital devices? With browsing and scrolling, the ceremony of sitting behind a computer is becoming rarer. The Web is increasingly consumed lying down, on your phone.
CORY ARCANGEL — It’s totally different. When I’m in front of a computer I will still browse around, but then it will get to this heavy, insane tab-territory. I’ll have like 40 tabs open. It’s like a concentrated insanity. The phone is so different. Especially with Instagram: I had to delete Instagram recently because it was just too much. I couldn’t stop. It became anti-productive to my life. But Twitter I can handle! I feel like Twitter is just not smooth enough to not take over your life. It’s old-fashioned. Twitter is like opening up a computer from 10 years ago. So in a way, it’s ok.
JEPPE UGELVIG — You often share a lot of your research and Internet behavior on Twitter. Can you describe your journey? Do you start your research on places like Reddit or Tumblr, or does one thing lead to another?
CORY ARCANGEL — Definitely, one thing leads to another. For me, it used to be del.icio.us. That was my jam. That was the golden era of web surfing. And through del.icio.us, I met a whole different group of web surfers, like artist Petra Cortright. Today, it’s more friends who will send me emails. A lot will come from Twitter. A lot will come from just surfing around.
JEPPE UGELVIG — What kind of value does clickbait have, you think? What do you find interesting about it?
CORY ARCANGEL — One is the imagery. Those ads only get like a little square, and there’s particular. There’s a particular type of imagery that people tend to use for clickbait and it’s often just a face, or of a human, or a celebrity, or some kind of body part. It has its own visual language. I find it interesting because this language is very crass and very low-resolution. Degraded, gross-looking jpegs or things that have been compressed wrong has always been an interest of mine. Clickbait is the language that I like at the moment because it’s really aggressive and really low-brow.
JEPPE UGELVIG — But at the same time, it’s very advanced in that it communicates very deep visual desires and anxieties from Internet users.
CORY ARCANGEL — I remember being around when people started to figure this out. The whole idea of clickbait was pioneered by Google ads, in that it shows you real-time feedback on advertisement online. Essentially, they made ads into a weird type of game. So people would put up ads, and then they would see what people are clicking on and which ones are working and not working, delete the ones that were not working: it’s like a self-mutating thing, and the language gets more and more pumped up and alluring. And that has resulted in statements like “8 Celebrities Who You Won’t Believe Are Bankrupt” or “This Trick That Gmail Doesn’t Want You To Know About,” all of these wonderful sentences. My intuition tells me it’s probably similar to how a casino works, or a slot machine; there’s some kind addictive element to it. I’m getting a little bit of pleasure each time.
JEPPE UGELVIG — Are you nostalgic about how the Internet used to be, or are you more interested in how fast it’s changing? I think a lot of net art and post-internet art are mourning that original form of life online.
CORY ARCANGEL — I think a lot of net art and post-internet art are mourning that original form of life online. I wouldn’t say that any era of digital life merits being particularly better than another era. I think there are plusses and minuses of each era. To me, it’s about time, and how these things change over time – and also kind of taking things with one timeline applied to them, and bringing them to another place, where another timeline will be applied to them. A lot of the images in my art would just be floating online as temporary imagery from today and then disappear after a while – but now it’s on the wall of Lisson, and suddenly has a different timeline. Now it’s an artwork, which is about permanence and institutional pressure. So it’s kind of all about mixing these chess pieces around.
JEPPE UGELVIG — What role do you take when you self-produce promotional content and clickbait? Is it a kind of piracy, or?
CORY ARCANGEL — That is playing on it, kind of. Some of the imagery in the show has be taken from clickbait sites and manipulated, and then it appears in Lisson, which is the opposite from clickbait: a space where I try to make an argument, where it does tell us about who we are today. I then take it and feed it back into the Web as a kind of vapor of these campaigns – and there is a power in that. There is a power of an image existing in two places the same time; one dispersed around the net in these slots, and the other at the wall of Lisson.
JEPPE UGELVIG — And is there a way to track this clickbait you’re putting out? What do you hope to gather?
CORY ARCANGEL — The campaign just started a week ago, and I need to now go look what ads are working and which ads are not. And I have to then put up more ads that are in the direction of the ones that are working. So the ones that I know that are working are the one with the kitten and one about “how your cat hates you”. So now I have to go and make some more in that vain. I’m thinking a picture of a kitten with the caption, “Is Your Cat on Drugs?”. So that’s project is going to last the whole show, constantly tweaking it so people will click on it more. So it’s an ongoing performance. And then the documentation will hopefully work as exhibition views. It’s important to me that this kind of work would be documented in the same way that a work in the show would be documented. So it’s kind of even. There’s no hierarchy.
JEPPE UGELVIG — What’s after this? Will you be turning on your computer, and then we see you in 2 years?
CORY ARCANGEL — [laughs]. I need to do a lot of internal archival work. I need to go back to the office and have some space and start working on new ideas. I will be doing a lot of web projects and collaborations. In fact one is a show with Olia Lialina. But as for my solo work, I just need space to see what happens.
On view until July 2nd, 2016 at Lisson Gallery, 27 Bell Street, London.
Text Jeppe Ugelvig and photo Flo Kohl