Norway-based US artist Cory Arcangel's latest London show currentmood, on at Lisson Gallery, features a range of image and video-based works that are a kind of data dump of his hard drive—and his mind. Ideas that have been floating about his head combine with “old weird images I downloaded off the internet," he says.
The show features a series of framed videos, slideshows, photographs, inkjets, and drawings, along with an audio piece playing in the gallery, and there’s an online element to the show, too. The audio piece consists of noise, the type they use as a production trick in Skrillex-style dubstep as fill-in when the bass rises and drops.
In the exhibition, it works as a kind of fill-in for the space amongst the large rooms and exhibits, fizzing away in the background—at points calming, then grating and aggressive.
On the walls of the space itself are various images that reflect the various types and qualities of visuals we come across online and on our computer screens. "There are works that cross the entire image quality spectrum in the show." Arcangel notes, "There is no hierarchy in terms of image quality or resolution."
At the upper end of this in terms of image quality are some of Arcangel’s Photoshop Gradient Demonstrations, which are pieces he created using Photoshop's built-in color patterns. Simple to make, when they’re shown in a gallery they’re produced as high res 16-bit photographic prints on laser developed photo paper, the high end of what's possible for image-making today. He's been producing them so long that Arcangel says they're now considered Art with a capital "A."
These are contrasted with what are generally considered to be more lowly images: blurry pics of celebrities, gummy bears, stock photos of a wine glass all blown up to sizes they were never meant to be. There's a lo-res picture of Marilyn Manson taken from a clickbait ad, a badly cropped image of Victoria Beckham. And a fuzzy image of Daniel Radcliffe walking his dogs, the type that would be copied and pasted across gossip sites—but with one addition. Much like the magical portraits in Harry Potter, the image comes alive. Reflected at Radcliffe's feet is a glitchy, swirling pool of pixels.
Arcangel has a fascination with the lo-res images that have become a signature of the rehashing and repurposing nature of internet culture. Images that have been compressed and recompressed, stretched and resized so many times that their resolution is terrible. In Arcangel's show they sit on the gallery wall where their degradation is something to be be proud of. Their histories, the uploading, downloading, all that abuse and reproduction, are now part of their appeal, part of their aesthetic.
“You’ll see an image that’s been compressed and recompressed and resized like five times and it’s posted on Instagram and it gets so gnarly,” explains Arcangel. “And for me what's been really lovely to see in the last few years is that the idea of what an image is has changed—and it’s changed in the direction that I like. People have gotten comfortable in seeing really nasty bootleg, terrible-looking images."
The artist likes the idea of them hanging in a place like the Lisson, too, where they play on the institutional space of the gallery.
“You would never see half of these images in an art gallery because they would be deemed too low quality,” he explains, “because in the art industry there is a set of conventions around imagery that often deals with resolution, and especially commercial photography. I’ve put it there to say, this is our world. It’s how I see the world and how I would assume most people would see the world now. Lisson has a very particular history and that weight can bear down pretty heavy in artwork and so in a lot of ways I’m taking these types of imagery and saying maybe we should pay attention to it, because there’s something interesting here.”
It's an old dada conceit: hang it in a gallery and it becomes art. But it’s also a true one: these low-res images are something we come across daily. It’s part of our browsing, it’s a typical and common visual and that makes it important. Recontextualized, in this case, it's a decentering experience.
Cory Arcangel's Super Mario Clouds (2002). From Arcangel's series of video game art
So is another type of image used in the show: screengrabs of Arcangel's desktop operating system. They have various windows open and the desktop wallpaper present in the background. We can see instructions for how to use Mac stickies and Notes or the Dictionary app sat next to windows emulating Cory's old video game art.
These hacks, modified games from his 8-bit series, feature images extracted from NES game MIG-29 Fighter, work from ten years ago now incorporated into a newer piece.
Paralleling these images in the gallery is an online component, which features a couple of images from the show repurposed as online clickbait ads, those sponsored ads you get at the end of articles.
To do this Arcangel took out an ad campaign with Outbrain, the “content discovery platform,” attaching titles to the images mimicking the sort that would appear in these spaces. “27 Signs Your Cat Hates You” is one of them. Throughout the run of the show, Arcangel will be manipulating the campaign, looking at what ads are working and deleting the ones that aren’t. It’s online advertising as performance art.
“It’s true ‘internet art,'” notes Arcangel. “It’s using one space that has become available on the internet in the last couple of years to do a kind of intervention, a performance. The images in the show are quite related to the images you would see on those kinds of space so there’s a nice dialogue between the two.”
So the show, like its title says, functions as a kind of assessment and documentation of the current technological-cultural climate. It trades in the vernacular of internet-saturated life, its modus operandi, and the mundane sights we witness while online or staring; working at our computer screens. It’s work that pays testament to the somewhat forgotten aesthetics of online life.
It also acknowledges the conflicts and paradoxes inherent in these strange cursory spaces and forms. On one hand, we spend so much of our time there, how can they not have importance? On the other hand, it’s all so fleeting, how can they have any meaning? “It’s interesting to me that it’s all so ephemeral, we live it and we think it’s real and it’s such a big part of our life, but it’s like fashion, like bell bottoms or something. It’s so temporary,” notes Arcangel.
The general consensus is that the speed and proliferation of life online and on our screens somehow cheapens things. It makes them not quite as valid as other experiences because they’re so easily replicated and accessible. Arcangel's show stops to pause and look at these transitory virtual forms—after all, they’re still part of our lives—and in turn, archives this throwaway digital culture as art.
Cory Arcangel: currentmood is on now until 2nd July 2016 at Lisson Gallery, 27 Bell Street, London. Visit Cory Arcangel's website here.