Dispatches: Ones and Zeroes

For a while now, sculpture and painting’s preeminence among the plastic arts has seemed a little anachronistic.  Painters such as Richter or Freud who stick to using paint to do two-dimensional figurations, or sculptors like Serra who stick to ‘raw’ materials like steel over the found objects that decorate so much installation art, feel classic or even old-fashioned.  After Pop art, art and photography that mix media became much more common: Gilbert and George, Lee Bontecou, landscape art, Bruce Nauman.  More recently, the materials of plastic art keep getting more worldly.  Witness the Young British Artists:  Rachel Whiteread (plaster casts of negative space), Chris Offili (dung), Marc Quinn (blood), the Chapmans (figurines), Tracy Emin (household materials and furniture).

While the world has been intruding into art’s materials, and art has been escaping the gallery (as with street art), I’ve been thinking about another development lately, one which leaves plasticity behind altogether: the use of computers, not just to create art, but as the subject of art as well.  For two or three years this field has been gathering momentum, and it feels like a generational shift.  There’s now a group of people approaching thirty who have grown up in an entirely novel social condition, that of having used computers all their lives, and for whom navigating the programmed landscapes of operating systems and icons is as natural as Wordsworth rambling the Lake District.  This is neither a good nor bad development, it’s history.  Anyway, I don’t believe in being too technologically determinist about kinds of art, but looking at the work of this group is incredibly exciting because the kinds of inquiries they make denaturalize and probe their environment, which in their case happens to be the space of computing.  They add computing to the world, and add the world to computing.

Let’s start with the celebrated Cory Arcangel.  Cory’s work usually uses obsolete game systems, computers, file formats, and other computing detritus as the basis for experiments and invasions.  His most famous work is “Super Mario Clouds,” in which he hacked a Super Mario Brothers cartridge to display only the blue sky and floating clouds, a work shown at the Whitney Biennial.  Other stuff includes a shooting game hacked to make Andy Warhol the target, with Flavor Flav and Col. Sanders the decoys;  matching Kurt Cobain’s suicide letter with ads from Google AdSense; rearranging the DVD chapter markers on ‘Simon and Garfunkel Live at Central Park’ to notate all the moments where they look like they hate each other; and so on.  Are you thinking this stuff is juvenile?  You’d be wrong, but in a way, you’d be right: Cory conserves the open-source ethos of young hackers, to the point of supplying instructions for how to replicate his most famous works. 

Cory’s instructions to “Super Mario Clouds” are a very strange and very fascinating kind of aesthetic document.  (They’re also funny.)  As it turns out, his manic methods are refreshingly low-tech, born of a taste for the ground floor of computing.  He writes a new set of instructions that uses the game’s existing graphics, compiles it (translates it into 1’s and 0’s, or assembly language), and burns it onto to the same chip that the original Nintendo uses (he has a chip burner used by Nissan hotrodders who use it to hack their engines).  Then things get even more basic: he takes the game cartridge, desolders and removes the program chip, and solders in his newly burned chip, cutting a hole in the plastic casing to fit it.  The result is a slightly haunting image of a glowing blue sky and those iconic Super Mario Clouds, floating right out of the collective imaginary.

You might wonder why Arcangel doesn’t just make the image on Photoshop; it would be a heckuva lot easier.   Here are his own learned and excitable words:

“A typical NES Cartridge has two chips. One is a graphics chip, and the other is a program chip. Basically the program chip tells the graphics chip where to put the graphics, and thus if you do this in a interesting manner, you have a video game. When making a “Super Mario Clouds” cartridge, I only modify the program chip, and I leave the graphic chip from the original game intact. Therefore since I do not touch the graphics from the original cartridge, the clouds you see are the actual factory soldered clouds that come on the Mario cartridge. There is no generation loss, and no “copying” because I did not even have to make a copy. Wasss up.”

See, these are the real “factory soldered” clouds, chief.  Surely one of the more bizarre yet convincing determinations of authenticity I’ve seen in a while, Cory expresses perfectly the thrill of using the actual relevant materials to create an artwork.  Simply Photoshopping the image would be fake, clearly, yet it’s hard to explain exactly why, a mark of art that applies itself to present conundrums.  Maybe the physical Nintendo cartridge matters because it’s the real physical object that inflected our world, and it’s important to use it, understand it, and work with it.

The first Palm Pilot was exciting to lots of computer geeks because its tiny memory meant ingenious little games were invented and shared, as they were in the initial stages of personal computing.  (I remember writing simple BASIC programs for my Atari 400 and saving them on cassette tapes, which I excitedly played to hear the “sound” of my code, not that I was ever a dork or anything.)  Arcangel returns to the obsolete technologies of his childhood, not as nostalgic fixations (he claims never to have liked playing Mario), but as an aesthetic embrace of the real.  Surrounded by these things, he developed an entirely artistic fixation with changing them, interfering with them, transforming them.  His work, over time, keeps getting simpler, showing how little it takes to get into the cracks of things that appear seamless, like hardware and operating systems.  He takes on challenges for the sake of curiousity: he recently calculated where the exact Manhattan center of Starbucks gravity is, and explained how.  What’s implicit is how just paying the right kind of attention keeps the world interesting, fully alive and of the moment.

The official art world has already begun to sanction this type of work, as the Whitney Biennial makes pretty clear, as well as a recent show at the slightly old-school Pace Wildenstein gallery, curated by Patricia Hughes and featuring Arcangel, Brody Condon, the collective Paper Rad, and others.  Another feature they seem to share is an eclecticism with respect to materials and genres: many of them make music as well as art, and all seem to be feeding off of the whole range of waste-products of consumer obsolescence, rotting eighties junk that begs to be categorized and indexed.  Underneath a lot of this work is a desire for mastery, for lost comprehension, that’s so hard to satisfy in the present condition of unprecedented epistemological overload and confusion.  Cory again:

“We [BEIGE, Cory’s art/music collective] started using fixed architecture machines, computers which are no longer being developed, at this time because it is impossible to keep up with commercial software and hardware. Imagine trying to play Bach on the piano if they switched keys around every few years … and charged you for it! Plus the limited capabilities of these computers allows us to understand every aspect of the machine.”

Hence the attraction to precisely the limitations of older systems.  To take another recent example, have a look at this short animation from Michael Bell-Smith, entitled “Keep On Moving (Don’t Stop).”  The use of the squarish graphical template of early role-playing games has a similarly aesthetic, as opposed to nostalgic, motivation to that of Arcangel’s work.  It’s got the immersion in music too: yellow is color of sunrays.  The cheery quest followed by the recursive, fractal surprise at the end – trapped! – suggests the computer game as a new locale of the culture industry, appropriating all attempts to escape.  Adorno would have liked to have predicted it, but here the feeling isn’t as dour, it’s more pragmatic: we’re stuck with this world, so let’s transform it.  This topos isn’t chosen because of fondness, this is part of the air, part of the world and how we represent ourselves now.  And because computer avatarship is inescapable, it’s all the more important to subject computing to an aesthetic investigation.  I’ve seen works by the macro-photographer Andreas Gursky and the miniaturist painter Shazia Sikander that use computer animation, but this current group goes further.  They make art, not just using computers as a engineering tool, but out of and delving into computing as a cultural form.

See some more Dispatches.