Cory Arcangel makes a lot of work that looks at first like a goofy joke, and then if you think about it for too long, like a complicated comment on themes like obsolescence and the art game. Formerly a guitar major at Oberlin, he went on to form a ‘programming ensemble’ for artist-hackers in 2000, and is probably best known now for the series of modified bowling video games that formed the centrepiece of a solo show at the Whitney in 2011. He’s also made supercuts of cats on pianos mashed up so they’re playing Shoenberg, and hung “paintings” in galleries that were made with a single click on Photoshop.
Now he’s gearing up to launch a clothing line, “Arcangel Surfware,” at a one-day pop-up in a Holiday Inn conference room, where new art will also be on display for the first time since the Whitney show. The only promotion has been a tweet from Cory’s account linking to a bland press release on a comically dated-looking web page, explaining that the products “consist of everything one needs to ‘chill’ in bed all day and surf the Internet in comfort.” The rainbow-coloured logo is a yinyang between a smiley and a picture of a laptop, with the brand name in Comic Sans.
It’s looks more like a prank than a genuine product launch, but when I went to the artist’s Gowanus studio, an assistant was sketching up the layout for the show on a computer, and Cory appeared to be totally earnest about the merch line and its weird mid-90s aesthetic. Piled on a table were samples of everything that will be on sale (except bed linens, which are still being made): white branded tracksuits, gadget covers printed with work from his Photoshop Gradient series, zines full of source code, and vinyl albums of original Moog compositions written in the style of classic house breakdowns.
Cory finished eating a sandwich, and showed me around.
I wasn’t sure if this was really happening
I think a lot of people thought it was a joke. It’s not a joke.It’s a little bit so off the wall that a lot of people didn’t really register that it’s a real thing, which is totally fine. I think they thought I was just playing a prank on everybody. But everything in the press release is true. That was a Universal Music-approved press release that started off here and wound its way through the press department, which is why it had that really great tone.
But you wrote it, right?
I sketched it and then it went through their press department, and they mashed it all up. It’s a real press release. I would never describe myself as a groundbreaking artist. But when they sent it back to me I was like, well, all right, this is the language of press releases, let’s just flow with it; it’s kind of funny.
I thought you’d intentionally given it that strange corporate tone.
Happened totally naturally, but I was absolutely 100% down with it. It was part of the whole idea of the project, which was that if you’re going to work with these systems you can’t push against it, it’s more fun to just flow along with it.
How many of the clothes are you having made?
Everything that I’ve made will be in the pop-up shop. I don’t know how I’m going to display them yet – as art work? I haven’t wrapped my head around it yet. I haven’t gotten that far.
But is it going to be super limited edition or more like when a band makes merch t-shirts and there’s a ton?
Band. I think there might be one or two limited-edition items.
It seems like the whole thing is one big art project. Even the website and the promotional interviews – it’s almost like a performance.
Yeah, maybe. We’ve been working on it for years. Bravado’s never worked with an artist and I’ve never worked with a company like Bravado, so it took a long time to figure out, what was the right tone, how to conceptualise it all, and what did I want to do. But yeah, it’s like a complete idea.
There’s obviously an early 90s theme running through everything, including your email interviews that are printed in Comic Sans.
Yeah, Comic Sans is the font on the logo. It’s a shout-out to the web of the 90s. That’s the inspiration.
Will the art in the show be stuff that’s never been seen before?
Definitely never seen before in New York. I haven’t had a show here in three years, ever since my Whitney show. It’s technically my follow-up to the Whitney, so it’s exciting that it’s really, like, on the other end of the scale. It’s more DIY.
Is it also about deflating this idea of importance that might be attached to you as an artist?
It’s hard for me to explain, it just seems like there’s energy here. I guess a lot of it is just intuitive, it just feels like, ‘Oh of course I need to be doing shows in Holiday Inns right now’. And each is good for a different thing. Doing shows in institutions are really great because you can really get away with showing some pretty intense stuff, because the institution will force itself on the work, and give the work a kind of weightiness, which you can really play with. And I don’t know, maybe this is just a way for me to play with the other end of the spectrum, show in a space that doesn’t have any institutional weight or something. I don’t know. I have no idea. And also I’m just doing what the other Bravado artists do. You find a strange space and you do a show for two days, like that’s the vernacular for pop-up shops, you know?
It’s at this blurry edge of what counts as art.
I came to art backwards in a weird way. The idea of being an artist to me was a kind of practical decision. I was someone who just liked to do interesting projects, and then I just called myself an artist because it was the path of least resistance. But I don’t necessarily have any internal hierarchy over distribution channels, you know. You can do something cool, it doesn’t have to end up in a gallery. Although obviously I like doing the gallery stuff again because it has its own dynamics.
The profiles of you that I’ve read all explain how you studied guitar at college and got into electronic music and coding, but the bit I don’t understand is how you went from doing these hacker-type projects to these big museum shows
Yeah I’m not sure if I understand that either. You’re asking the wrong person.
Did you have a career plan?
No, definitely not. People just kept asking, and I kept saying yes. It’s really the easiest way to explain it. I just follow the intuition of what interesting things are, and that’s all I’ve ever done really, and this is hopefully the same kind of vibe. I was like, I want to start my own… I don’t even know what to call it. Clothing line? Merch line? And it’s important to me to work with a company like Bravado, because I wanted to understand what it meant to really do that. I would read all these interviews with hip hop artists, and I never understood what they were talking about, starting clothing lines and stuff. It was interesting to me to be like, what does that even mean? So now I know and it’s much more complicated than I ever imagined.
In what way?
Just, a different language, factories, deadlines, shipping, licensing, all these things. Art is actually pretty Mom and Pop. I make something in my studio and I ship it to a museum. This is all these moving parts, it’s pretty fascinating. Mad props to all those people who have their own clothing companies. It took me years to get this together.
Did the promo web page confuse people?
I don’t know, I haven’t really talked to anybody, you know how you put things out and it just disappears into a void? And in a way it’s something I’m kind of comfortable with because that’s what art is. Art is like you put something out and seven years later someone will be like, oh that was really cool. I’m kind of used to working on an existential time scale for projects.
The more I thought about the project, the more it seemed to be about these outdated aesthetics and ways of expressing ourselves. At the time they signify one thing, but their meaning shifts and then looking back they seem bizarre…
It’s a weird world we live in.
So… were you thinking about anything related to that when you were coming up with this?
It’s always hard to say what I’m thinking about. What was I thinking about? I was thinking about Lil Wayne. I was thinking about TrukFit, I was thinking about Run DMC. I was thinking about, like, JC Penney’s when I was a kid. Ocean Pacific.
But even the logo – it seems to be all the parts of 90s culture that people would rather forget, all the ugly stuff.
It’s like the saxophone of the 80s. People brought back electro but they didn’t bring back the sax.
People have revived wearing flannel and listening to Jesus and Mary Chain or whatever but not yinyangs
When I was a kid, surfing was popular in the suburbs of America as a kind of – when you were 12 and you’d go to JC Penny’s and you would buy Ocean Pacific clothes. And I had all these stickers on my guitar that were like yin and yang from these surfwear companies and I had no connection to them at all, and that’s what was in my mind. I wanted the yin and yang, because it’s about the spiritual side of surfing – and I’m laughing because I know it’s ridiculous – and the computer and the smiley. So it didn’t even have any thought, I just knew I wanted those three items. And in terms of how it looks, it’s just how I like things to look. I can’t explain it any more than that. This is the height of my design sense. This is the best I can do.
Sorry for saying it was ugly.
No, I’m totally happy.
I guess any explanation for what’s behind an artwork fall shorts of the experience of just engaging with the art.
For me when I make stuff – and I only realise this now since it’s been like fifteen years or whatever since I was in school and it’s so funny – what I thought I was making when I was making a lot of stuff from like ten years ago, it turns out, like it’s not even close to what it was doing. Does that make sense? Literally I was not even remotely close to having any understanding of what I was doing at the time.
At a talk at the Met you quoted Duchamp as saying that one part of being an artist is making the art, and the other part is engineering its entry into the world. That seems relevant to this project
Right. I haven’t figured out how to talk about it yet, actually. So that second part is in progress right now. I haven’t really figured out what it is yet so I’m kind of flying on the seat of my pants. And you know, Duchamp has this work that’s kind of a rotary, it spins and when it spins it makes an optical illusion, and it was very famous, and he wanted to sell it as an invention, so he debuted it in a kind of art trade show for inventions and he was positive it was going to be this convention hit, and it was this complete failure. So we could think of Duchamp in this way, but we could just hear tumbleweeds when we open the pop-up shop.
If it was a failure it would also be kind of great too, as an art work
Ahhh let’s not even talk that way. I’m really trying for it to somehow happen because I want to keep working with the company. So I’m doing everything I can to do it like if I were Lil Wayne. When he does a company he’s going to try and make it a real company and I’m going to try and make it a real company. I want to also kind of appropriate the business end of this structure as well, to the best I can. So we’re going to try for a success.
Is it going to be distributed to other shops?
It’ll be available at the pop-up shop, and that day also the website goes live, and you’ll be able to buy all of it on the web, and also I’m going to see if some shops will take it, but it’s not going to be like global in any way. Maybe a few tiny little art shops will carry it. Whoever will take it, I will gladly give it to them. But probably, mainly people will get it on the web.
Do you have any big aspirations you haven’t fulfilled yet – maybe things outside of art?
I just want to keep trying new things I guess. I know that sounds so boring. The thing is that there’s always so much cool stuff happening. The way that things change so quick now it’s always throwing up these opportunities. Like, I want to do webisodes. There’s always this new amazing stuff that you could do. But in terms of concrete stuff, definitely I’ll probably be doing more composition in the future and more sculpture. That’s probably the most concrete answer I can give you. The work will shift a little bit I suppose. Like I think those zines kind of represent the end of my computer time, once I get them all together, that’s like, ok that was my computer work, now they’re printed on paper, and if my hard drive blows up it doesn’t matter, and now I am done. Time for something else. That’s my vague ideas of what’s happening. It could change though. And more pop-up stores.
So you’re going to keep doing this?
Oh yeah definitely. They’re my official merch company, so the idea is that I will continue to work with them. This is just the first line. I want to keep making zines, keep making records, and hopefully come out with another batch of stuff. We’ve just got to get this one out first.