A Look Back at Dissections: Cory Arcangel

Date and time
Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Look Back at Dissections: Cory Arcangel

Depending on the tools one uses, cuts are not always clean. But this is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when you are dealing with the work of Cory Arcangel. Last week’s Dissections event came closer yet to the kind of critical discussion we hope to foster. Erandy Vergara, independent curator and scholar, Artie Vierkant, artist and writer brought up from Brooklyn and Jon Rafman a Montreal artist now showing internationally all presented various takes on Cory’s work. The burning question turned over and over and still leaving its mark on me is the question of politics, message and intention. The overarching discourse that formed as the evening unfolded seemed to be that culture produces culture and that Cory’s work is an outcome of what he witnessed and experienced, growing up in Buffalo during the 90s, influenced by pop culture, technology and history-making affairs of the time. Is it necessary therefore that his work be more transparent about any social/political remarks? A recent article entitled “Cory Arcangel and the Problem of the Depressive Internet Art Bro” by Joseph Henry and published on Blouin Artinfo last September speaks to this query.  To get a full sense of his proposal, the link to the article can be found below. However, in order to pique your curiosity, I offer the following sharpened lines from his text, that underscores a more critical view of the works in Arcangel’s proposal.

Perhaps Arcangel aims for a sort of tragicomic transcendence in work such as “Sweet 16” and “Permanent Vacation,” where the affective depths of his modifications tail off into peaks of rapture, where the repetition of “Sweet 16” turns into a mantra. Yet vacuity and sublimity, the only poles Arcangel understands in the place of subtlety, share a point of commonality — the dissolution of agency, action, emotion, and often, politics.

The question of politics and agency is especially interesting to me in works such as Colors and Untitled Translation Exercise. Both DHC/ART’s Education department and I found the latter particularly difficult to unpack. During the Dissections event I asked Erandy Vergera to offer her reading of this works as a scholar of critical race theory and post-colonial theory. As my terrible notes were not up to the task of properly summarizing her response, she very graciously put together some of her ideas in a recent email.

I like this work, though I think it is somehow more “literal” than other works by Arcangel. This is not a problem; on the contrary, I think it actually works to bring forth a series of key associations with globalization. For example, the movie is from 1993 and therefore a cult movie for men and women born around the same year as Cory. It is deemed for an American audience who most likely knows the film and therefore has an immediate association between the film’s images and the culture of that generation. Cory’s intervention into the film — the act of including a different soundtrack— reminds us that not only does the image not match the audio, but that the dialogue does not match the actors’ bodies (nor the practices performed by them).  The elements that Cory combines do not match at another level, which is the level at which Indian culture and bodies play a key role in globalization in terms of cheap labour exemplified by “call centers” (where Cory hired his remix actors). The accent of these “actors” suddenly brings these guys “home”. These same guys that call our homes to sell products and services are the same voices we might hear when trying to call some customer service department at a multinational company. In Cory’s work, suddenly these voices take up a ‘foreign’ place. And we know this is not only because of the depiction of white, middle class America in the movie, but because of the economy that makes certain things, like Hollywood movies, circulate in certain directions while preventing some classes, sexualities and bodies from circulating in equal or opposite directions. This of course is not to universalize all non-white bodies, but rather to try to reflect on the core dynamics that makes Cory’s exercise, translate in a way, into a bitter or bad joke.

For me, an interesting paradox forms, as the 90s were also a particularly hot time for the discussions of identity politics and the importance of context both inside and outside of contemporary art. It would seem that these debates would not be lost on Arcangel, and that perhaps, cheekily, he does not make overt declarations about advanced globalization and ‘race’ relations in order to further problematize these questions. Perhaps his seeming indifference is a way to encourage my own investigation. This strategy is consistent with his performance work, which can also (intentionally) incite frustration and confusion on the part of the audience. His ‘band’, Title TK for example, consists of three members (himself, Howie Chen and Alan Licht) who get up on stage in music venues, donning really bitchin’ guitars, and with beers in hand, simply talk and never play a note.  What to make of that? What am I supposed to do? How are my expectations thwarted in a way that makes me actually think about what’s going on? In a similar way, his recent concert in Montreal, presented as part of the POP Montreal festival was billed as ‘Cory Arcangel and D’Eon present an evening of music for keyboard’. Most people expected him to perform but instead it was D’Eon who performed Cory’s compositions. Cory’s intervention was to reluctantly get on stage at the end for a few bows. Personally, I thought this was totally fine and reminded me of a choreographer watching his own show, or a fashion designer furtively jumping onto a runway. In any case, perhaps cloaking himself in the slacker ‘bro’ persona is more subversive than meets the eye. We will probably never really know… and I think it’s better that way. But what do you think?


Cheryl Sim
Associate Curator at DHC/ART

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