No-win ten-pin bowling with Cory Arcangel
Hacked controllers? Nerd chic? Doctored consoles? We are definitely game.
Brooklyn-based Cory Arcangel is a multimedia artist, programmer and musician. Active in the nascent days of online 'net art', Arcangel also works offline: in 2002 he hacked a Nintendo cartridge, removing all but the clouds from a 'Super Mario Bros' game. He's also coded a simple open-source programme that instantaneously orders pizzas to your door. Recently he has begun compiling a blog of infrequently updated blogs called 'Sorry I Haven't Posted' and edited together humorous clips of cats playing the piano from YouTube into a cover version of Arnold Schönberg's atonal masterpiece, 'Die Klavierstücke op 11'. For his latest and biggest project to-date, installed in the Barbican's Curve gallery and entitled 'Beat the Champ', Arcangel has installed 14 consoles playing continuous bowling games, with each controller modified by a microchip that ensures no pins are ever knocked down.
Can you describe your show for us?
'The elevator pitch? Sure, it's 14 bowling videogames which have been hacked to only throw gutter balls and they're shown chronologically, from 1977 to 2001, as projections, one after another down the 90-metre length of the Curve. Most people think that video games just started, but they're a year older than me. The [earliest] 8-bit Atari 2600 has a switch for whether your TV is black-and-white or colour, but the graphics, even in later 3D games, look awkward and embarrassed.'
Are you conserving these obsolete computers or putting the final nail in their coffins? Is this a museum or a mausoleum to gaming?
'In the studio, my working title for “Various Self Playing Bowling Games” was “The Decline of Western Civilization” - I'm very bad at titles - but honestly I didn't think about it in terms of the technology of the Sega Genesis [MegaDrive in the UK] or the PlayStation or even as it being specific to videogaming culture. To me it was about the virtualisation of culture and about identity, about the short circuits in human nature caused by everyone staring at their phones or being on Facebook all the time. I didn't want to use a fantasy game, so bowling seemed to be the best way to express that. Maybe I'll try fishing next.'
Why did you want the games to fail?
'I spent two years developing the chip with an engineer so just to have won the game from beginning to end would have been legitimately cool and so somehow a disappointment. I wanted to reverse it so that my technology made something absolutely redundant. The way these machines grind against themselves is funny too, in a dystopic way. I tend to respond to the systems in my work by undermining the very same mechanisms, so I might make a viral video for the web that plays on what it means to be a viral video.'
Is art less fun than real life?
'No, they just have different goals, which my works often mix up. So if I put art on the internet it gets passed around and read as entertainment. I like to call them invisible art works because they are kind of cloaked.'
Like your cats playing piano, which actually perform a very accurate rendition of a very complex musical composition.
'Yeah, it's very accurate. That piece was a joke on a lot of levels, because very few people would know what a huge virtuoso effort went into that video. Cats and Schönberg are also at the opposite ends of culture - the farthest into high art and trash culture you can get.'
So did you invent the mash-up?
'No, I'll say on the record that I've not invented any of the things I've done! Mash-ups have been around since disco, long before they hit the internet. I think with my first mash-up I apologised on my blog for being a little late. In fact, I haven't updated “Sorry I Haven't Posted” in a while and I'm starting to feel guilty about not posting to my blog about people feeling guilty about not posting to their blogs.'
What are the latest technologies you're interested in?
'That new Microsoft game system that sees you, Kinect, I like that and I'm also into GPS systems and how they often don't work. People have been getting lost driving out into deserts. They can actually put you in a lot of danger.'
Can I ask the inevitable nerd question?
I don't mind being called that because I'm from the last generation of nerds that was into computers and remembers being excited by dialling up. But now you have Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs and they're not nerds, they're heroes, so to me that's an interesting shift.'