Game Boys: Cory Arcangel and the Art World’s Delicate Dance with Video Games

arcangel003 Game Boys: Cory Arcangel and the Art World’s Delicate Dance with Video GamesDepending on whom you ask, the cutting-edge of fine art’s collision with video games is either incredibly difficult or very easy to miss. Babycastles is easy to miss, perhaps because it’s difficult to find. The D.I.Y. arcade is nestled in a basement space in Ridgewood, Queens, beneath the indie music venue Silent Barn, which in turn is hidden behind an unmarked metal door. Few in the art world have heard of Babycastles, despite its having shown some of the most prominent game designers recently hailed as artists. On a recent Saturday afternoon, The Observer trekked out to Ridgewood, where Babycastles was hosting an exhibition of work by recent graduates of Parsons School of Design, and found gaming website Kotaku’s characterization of the space as the result of what would happen “if Dadaists opened an arcade” to be apt.

Cigarette smoke and the smell of freshly opened Budweisers wafted around seemingly arbitrarily placed  monitors covered in wires and sometimes newspapers. One installation consisted in a massive, black motorcycle helmet, outfitted with a microphone, and rigged to an antiquated Nintendo motorcycle game. The person under the helmet hummed and giggled; the higher the pitch, the faster the eight-bit motorcyclist would go. Another game had a sign appended to it: “PLAYING WITH YOURSELF IS MASTURBATION.” The game requires two players using different sides of the same controller to draw hearts around enemies, trapping them in their symbolic digital love. All for points, of course. Then there was the punishing iPhone game where you played a child sweatshop worker for whom a misplaced seam meant a beating.

Many of the games at Babycastles don’t fit the traditional definitions of the medium; they veer closer to artistic experimentation than they do to mass-market viability. They are the product of a movement merging aestheticism with a format most commonly utilized for the purposes of crass commercialism. For those who have been paying attention to this development as it has unfolded, the art world’s recent fascination with Cory Arcangel—and the scale of the Whitney Museum’s current exhibition of his work—might come as a surprise.

The hype surrounding Mr. Arcangel, art’s technowunderkind du jour, and his ballyhooed show Pro Tools reached fever pitch before the exhibition opened. New York Times art critic Roberta Smith began her tepid assessment by referencing a “triple crown” of profiles from a breathless press (New York, The New Yorker, and the Times’s own Arts & Leisure section) wowed primarily by Mr. Arcangel’s manipulations of video games.

This was despite the fact that he wasn’t the only one experimenting with them. In 2009, the New Museum’s “Younger Than Jesus” exhibition included Flywrench, a game by the then moderately-obscure programmer Mark Essen. Over a pulsing techno soundtrack and with rudimentary, eight-bit visuals, players piloted a “ship”—nothing more than a line, changing colors—through various shapes. It was frustrating, challenging—and thrilling.

Mr. Essen’s other games—Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist, The Thrill of Combat among them—all exhibit his distinct style: pared-down creations with lo-fi effects, they achieve a level of pulse-pounding emotional engagement that outstrips so much previous digital art, never mind the games’ mass-market retail brethren, which cost upwards of $60 a unit and millions of dollars to produce.

Which is all to say that Mr. Essen’s creations exhibit as much craft as they do purely artistic intent. Long before running its Arcangel profile, New York magazine asked in the headline of an Essen profile pegged to his spot at the New Museum: “Will Video Games Turn Mark Essen Into an Art-World Star?”

At the moment art stardom doesn’t look likely for Mr. Essen or his ilk—especially given the art world’s, or at least the Whitney’s, preference for Mr. Arcangel. For an institution that focuses on traditional art forms, the Whitney show appears progressive. Seen in a certain light, it is anything but. In the long term, museums may regret putting the spotlight on someone marketed as a member of the art world instead of seeking the work of those outside it.

The fact that Mr. Arcangel’s most widely-known pieces are simply manipulations of existing technology—as opposed to outright creations—would seem to underlie this, and yet that point exists as an afterthought in most of the press about him. Pro Tools’ centerpiece is a stripe of technological mischief the 33-year-old Mr. Arcangel is well-known for: Various Self Playing Bowling Games (a.k.a. Beat the Champ), a series of retro games projected on massive screens. Joysticks are jerry-rigged so that the games’ characters roll only gutter balls. In the brochure for the show, Whitney curator Christiane Paul notes that this Sisyphean scenario took a “couple of years to produce.” The intention of subverting the machines’ technology and bringing a kind of aesthetic tension to various generations of video games—we’re supposed to be less comfortable with the characters the more “realistic” they are as approximations of humans, i.e. how fallible they appear—is far from his first like it, or even the only one in the show.

A previous work, Super Mario Clouds v2k3, emptied everything but the clouds from the instantly recognizable Super Mario Bros. Masters is created from a rigged golf game from the late 90’s—there’s a club to pick up, and a ball to hit—that hits the ball in a direction nowhere near where you attempt to putt it, making the act of trying to get the ball in the hole a futile one. During The Observer’s visit to the Whitney, a security guard instructed players: “Yep, you pick it up. Okay, now hit it.” On the screen, The Observer’s ball rolled, as expected, to the side of the hole. “Yep. It’s supposed to do that. It worked. Your turn is over.” In none of these attempts to subvert video games does Mr. Arcangel leave anything to chance. With an outcome so expected, nothing is frustrated, not even the machine, which performs just as the artist has programmed it to.

Mr. Arcangel’s is fixated on what he has described as technology’s dull, awkward moments, but this often seems to manifest itself as a populist resentment against those very moments; this results in work where the process by which it’s created is more compelling than the result.

This doesn’t have to be the case, as Mr. Arcangel himself once proved. His 2002 game I Shot Andy Warhol, a hack of Nintendo’s Hogan’s Alley, replaces the generic robber targets with pop culture icons: Flavor Flav, the Pope. The idea of being rewarded for “shooting”—with Nintendo’s “Light Gun”—targets we’re familiar with is as disturbing as it is comical. And yet it is not visceral work like this, but rather Mr. Arcangel’s more process-oriented creations that are being given his largest platform yet. Why?

There isn’t a definitive answer to that question, but it’s worth keeping in mind that Mr. Arcangel’s video game riggings are objectively more difficult to reproduce than, for example, a line of code in one of Mr. Essen’s games. Flywrench is now available for anyone to download on Mr. Essen’s website in minutes: this disturbs the idea of an “original” “print” of a piece of digital technology. If the art market values anything, it’s limited supply, and that’s a bill Mr. Arcangel can easily fit. This might explain why Mr. Essen’s latest, the award-winning Nidhogg, is traveling the country, and has yet to emerge for download. If Mr. Essen is intent on breaking into the art world, limiting his work’s accessibility might be key, given that his medium is so susceptible to duplication. It is also antithetical to Mr. Essen’s body of work, which enjoys a rabid fanbase thanks to its wide accessibility, and which is mostly free to download. The Whitney, on the other hand, charges $18 for general admission.

The last game The Observer played in Ridge-wood was a golf game that uses the number of Twitter hits for a search term to determine the force with which a player’s ball is hit. “Sudanese Refugees” yielded a delicate putt; “Justin Bieber,” a mighty swing. Across the river, someone else was playing a golf-based video game, one given the higher artistic distinction of being placed in a museum. In that game, however, you’re given only one shot, and you always lose.

fkamer@observer.com