From the DS Archives: The Art of Hacking and Success of Failure

This Sunday, From the DS Archives features artist Cory Arcangel. The artist has several exhibitions on view this month, notably Here Comes Everybody on view at the Hamburger Banhofin Berlin and Pro Tools at the Whitney Museum in New York City. The archive pick was written on March 7, 2011 by Michelle Schultz during our previous week-long series Force of Failure, in which 7 artists wrote on the strategies of failure in contemporary art.

Cory Arcangel, Various Self Playing Bowling Games (detail), 2011. Courtesy of the artist, Lisson Gallery, Team Gallery and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. Photo credit: © Eliot Wyman. Courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery.

Filled with electronic blips, beeps and bloops there is one sound conspicuously missing from the Barbican Art Gallery – the sound of a pin-dropping.

Cory Arcangel’s installation in The Curve gallery of the Barbican is comprised of a series of bowling video games in constant auto play, projected along the long corridor that itself very much resembles a bowling hall. But not a single pin falls, the satisfying sound of the crash is absent, the balls hit the gutter, again and again and again…

With the installation’s title, Beat the Champ, multimedia artist Arcangel tauntingly dangles the idea of winning, impossible to achieve – like the fixed carnival games with the ball slightly too big for the basket, doomed to lose, time and time again.

The virtual characters on the big screen are programmed to be transfixed in purposeless repetition – Sisyphean meaningless work – condemned to re-perform their own failings for us in this crescent shaped theater of the absurd.

Cory Arcangel, Various Self Playing Bowling Games (detail), 2011. Courtesy of the artist, Lisson Gallery, Team Gallery and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. Photo credit: © Eliot Wyman. Courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery.

Not simply a looped video of a single miscalculated moment of a game, the video game consoles themselves are active and functioning – but in a forced state of hijacked programming. Their games are played out in a perpetual state of failure, hacked by tiny green chips that bear Arcangel’s name, forcing the game to loop in a continual state of defeat. The virtual characters are driven by a code devised by the artist, rather than human interaction.

Witnessing the progression in graphics and design – from the old Atari system that greets you in the beginning, through the original Nintendo, Sega Genesis and Sony Playstation, to more recent PS2 and Game Cube versions – is itself a testament to defeat. With technology becoming obsolescent at ever-increasing speeds, these systems are doomed to fail – already antiquated as they reach the consumer floor. They are systems designed to self-destruct, and give way to their successors at breakneck rates.

Cory Arcangel, Various Self Playing Bowling Games (detail), 2011. Courtesy of the artist, Lisson Gallery, Team Gallery and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. Photo credit: © Eliot Wyman. Courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery.

And as the systems here progress, defeat becomes increasingly pronounced. In the old Atari, the bowling ball instantaneously bounces back and attempts again, however as the avatars become more realistic, their resilience begins to wane. Emphasis is placed on their defeat. Disappointment, annoyance and anger grow, as they throw their virtual hands up in the air, shake their computer-programmed head and have full on temper tantrums. Read as a decreasing optimism and increasing frustration in technological advances, there is an underlying current, a realisation that technology might not save us after all.

Cory Arcangel, Various Self Playing Bowling Games (detail), 2011. Courtesy of the artist, Lisson Gallery, Team Gallery and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. Photo credit: © Eliot Wyman. Courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery.

Hacking into the system, Arcangel satirises the failures and frustrations of contemporary society. The lighthearted game of bowling becomes a metaphor for the complex and dangerous relationship between man and machine. Arcangel sees it as the ‘short circuits in human nature caused by everyone staring at their phones or being on Facebook all the time’. While they may short-circuit they are controlled by the artist, the virtual characters are puppets of a pre-programmed code. The act of hacking is just as much a failure of the system – an affirmation of man over machine. We may not be able to beat the game or tear ourselves away from Facebook, but as Arcangel has shown, it is possible to alter the outcome and bend it to our will – In this perpetual failure there is hope.

Various Self-Playing Bowling Games, was co-commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art and will be shown there as part of the artist’s forthcoming exhibition in May 2011.

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