Cory Arcangel and the battle of 'high' and 'low' culture

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BY WHITNEY POW
Daily Arts Writer
Published January 20, 2010

The “Guitar Hero” clone sitting in the University of Michigan Museum of Art Project Gallery doesn't play “Through the Fire and Flames” or “Sweet Child O’ Mine” or anything even moderately close to rock or heavy metal.

In the gray-carpeted, sterile museum space, there is only one song available to play on the console. The player is given just two notes, which are strummed once and then held over the span of several minutes. The buttons’ sound-trails float ethereally down the screen. A rugged, distorted electric guitar twang resonates in the exhibit space.

The noise becomes increasingly mocking as the player sits, fingers unmoving on the fret board. The game, “Frets on Fire,” racks up points over-enthusiastically: 2,000 then 3,000 and climbing. In this game, any player with fingers and a lick of patience will be guaranteed to end the song with thousands of points and the title of Rock God.

This song, as produced on “Frets on Fire,” is a work titled Composition #7 by Cory Arcangel, whose exhibit, “Cory Arcangel: Creative Pursuits,” is on display at the UMMA Project Gallery through April 11.

Arcangel himself is an artist at the forefront of the contemporary digital and media-based art scene, producing works that use and examine mediums both culturally familiar and unfamiliar: Photoshop, Guitar Hero-type games, the Sony PlayStation, viral videos, Maxell cassette tapes and kinetic sculpture à la ’90s store displays. His works have been lauded by, as well as displayed in, institutions like The Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City .

Like Composition #7, the rest of Arcangel’s body of work currently on display at UMMA analyzes the expanses between concepts commonly seen as disparate — the gray area between high and low culture, the virtuosic and the amateur, the popular and the obscure.

In these in-between spaces, Arcangel finds a way of twisting and playing with conceptions of what art is and how it breaks down. What kind of art “belongs” in a museum and what kind would you find in a working-class living room? Does “Guitar Hero” belong in an art gallery? Does Philip Glass belong in the living room? Are the two groups mutually exclusive?

“(The exhibit) is more of a focus on how expression happens in a particular medium … so all the works you see are pivoted off of traditional ways that these things are traditionally used,” Arcangel said. “I’ll look at the ways people are using things and then look at the medium and then try to find a way in or out of it.”

While it's assumed that “Guitar Hero” is an outlet reserved for popular guitar music, Arcangel’s Composition #7 undermines this concept — Arcangel’s two-note song on "Frets on Fire" is not a haphazard creation, but an actual musical piece titled “Composition 1960 #7,” which was created by renowned composer La Monte Young in the 1960s.

The work itself is composed of only B and F# notes, together creating a perfect fifth. In performance, these notes were, according to Young’s instructions for the piece, to be “held for a long time.”

Using the lens of something as approachable and culturally omnipresent as “Guitar Hero,” Arcangel plays with the audience’s field of interest by mixing the familiar with culturally obscure concept art.

“The pieces present a mix of high and low fashion,” said Jacob Proctor, associate curator of modern and ontemporary art at the UMMA, who also curated Arcangel’s exhibit.

“That kind of mash-up goes back to some of the first steps I’ve ever seen in (Arcangel’s) Beach Boys vs. Geto Boys mash-up,” Proctor said, referring to a 2004 piece in which Arcangel mixed two culturally separate songs.

In that piece, the Beach Boys' sunny rock was not positioned to rile up the aggressive rap of the Geto Boys. Instead, the two groups were integrated with one another into a single track, displaying consistencies beyond the second word in both of the groups’ names.

These mash-ups created by Arcangel also include his performance of “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” (which can be found on YouTube), a song written by anti-war protester Ed McCurdy in 1950 and covered by artists including Simon and Garfunkel and Joan Baez.

In Arcangel’s recording, he accompanies repetitive acoustic guitar strums with his own auto-tuned vocals, presenting a strange intermingling of sincere lines like “I dreamed the world had all agreed / to put an end to war” with the superficially polished club sound of the past decade.

The work brings together two genres that would seem to butt heads — if not completely contradict each other — in a way that's not only coherent but oddly palpable in the piece as well.

FROM YOUTUBE TO THE GALLERY

Arcangel’s focus on music-oriented pieces stems from his Bachelor of Music degree from Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. He uses his experience with music to explore different ways in which cultures can be combined.

“Art was learning about music. And when I started to make art, I realized I just made the artwork based off of things I made in music,” Arcangel said. “Because modern music — it’s conceptual art.”

Also on display in the Project Gallery is Arcangel’s work, titled Drei Klavierstuke, Op. 11, which was made by editing and splicing various home videos of cats playing pianos. He put the video together so that each of the notes hit by a cat in the final video is in exact alignment with a note played in Drei Klavierstuke, Op. 11, a 20th-century musical piece by composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Schoenberg’s composition eschews traditional Western harmonies in favor of atonality, creating a piece that sounds erratic and tuneless in comparison to contemporary pop music.

“Atonal music sounds like cats walking on pianos. It’s an elaborate punch line, the whole piece,” Arcangel said.

Schoenberg’s entire piece does sound like the random plunkings of paws on piano keys. However, when played alongside Arcangel’s cat remix, the exactness of Arcangel’s viral video recapitulation of the piece is strikingly precise and formulated.

“I knew people loved cats enough that I could do what is considered one of the most difficult pieces in music ever,” Arcangel said. “And I knew the cats were powerful enough — I knew people love cats enough — to provide (the video) with a real mechanism for its own dispersion into culture.”

Upon the initial release of Arcangel's Drei Klavierstuke, Op. 11 on the Internet, the entirety of the composition, contained in three videos, was linked by a wide range of interest websites, from novelty blogs to museum websites to cat and animal lovers’ sites, including CuteOverload.com. The videos on YouTube currently have more than 88,000 hits collectively.

“Cats are a magnet, really. Everyone likes to see cats on video. Especially on pianos,” Arcangel said.

This odd “human short-circuit,” according to Arcangel, where an unsettling majority of people enjoy cats on film (the artist even mentioned that one of Edison’s first-ever films from the late 1800s depicts two cats boxing), allows for a considerable bridge between so-called pop culture and art culture.

“The Internet opens up audiences for everything. Now everything has an audience so people don’t think (the split between genres) is so black and white,” Arcangel said.

The idea of opening up spaces — especially within museums, where galleries are traditionally separated from one another — and provoking interactions between disparate areas of interest is a concept Arcangel’s works seem to invite.

“Going to (Arcangel’s) gallery openings is much different than going to other gallery openings,” Proctor said.

“It’s double the audience — you have all the art world people and then you have all the Internet and computer world people.”

Proctor, who since graduate school has been following Arcangel’s work, said that it is Arcangel’s focus on different mediums, ideas and cultural spaces as well as his desire to play between them that pushes the limits of contemporary digital art itself.

“There are a lot of people working with technology and working with the Internet and working with digital media and it feels to me like sometimes it doesn’t feel particularly relevant or it’s part of a very, very small conversation,” Proctor said. “I’ve always felt that Cory is part of that conversation and also a part of a larger conversation about art. Especially since within the 20th century a lot of the most interesting work has come out of moments where visual artists and dancers and musicians and filmmakers and all these people were talking to each other.”

“(With) these moments of real innovation and experimentation … (they) were able to do new things,” he said. “And I feel like that’s something that’s going on here as well.”

DESTROYING WALLS AND CAGES AT THE 'U'

Arcangel is on the stage of UMMA’s Helmut Stern Auditorium in collaboration with the University’s Digital Music Ensemble. He is holding a large Conan the Barbarian sword that's almost as tall as he is. Holding the sword’s handle in his two hands, he runs a couple of feet to smash the blade of the sword against a metal cage that has been strung with piano wire and connected to a guitar amplifier.

The resulting sound is gigantic and distorted. Noises fill the auditorium: The crash of metal against metal and the distorted twang of piano wires emitted by the amplifier. The sound is reminiscent of a plugged-in guitar that has been thrown down a stairwell.

Arcangel steps back to wind up again. He hits the cage once more with the sword, and a booming sound rises from the speakers and the stage. The cage bends ever so slightly and buckles under the force of the hit.

When Arcangel stops for a breath, the audience begins to clap, assuming the finale has passed — instead, the artist throws out a hand and explains, quite placidly, “Oh we’re not done yet. I have about 30 years of sitting in front of a computer, not letting out any aggression.”

The cage Arcangel had been destroying is an instrument constructed by a student in the University’s Digital Music Ensemble, a group composed of students at the University who take a class on digital and performance art. The Ensemble is led by Stephen Rush, professor of dance and music technology in the school of Music, Theatre & Dance.

Last week, Arcangel was invited to perform with the Ensemble in an event titled “Cory Arcangel and the Digital Musical Ensemble: Master Class in Reverse,” in which he played students’ instruments on stage with a catch: He wasn’t supposed to know how any of the instruments worked beforehand. The result involved a great deal of improvisation, painful noise feedback and a few broken instruments, but ultimately ended in a thought-provoking performance.

“Students from a number of disciplines take the course. … Now there’s a grad student in poetry and a grad student from art, a bunch of people who are doing video work and people studying sound recording,” Rush said.

Taking this array of students, the mediums they work with and their perspectives on art, then bringing these things together allows students to, according to the Digital Music Ensemble website, “realize their artistic goals by often utilizing unconventional means.” This is, in a way, what Arcangel does at the forefront of his artistic interests.

In short, Arcangel’s art is about doing the unthinkable: mixing kittens and avant-garde music into a palatable video, the consumerism of auto-tune and the anti-establishment attitude of radical folk into a song and the non-expertise of Guitar Heroes with the virtuosic compositions of 20th-century composers.

It is Arcangel’s willingness to delve into spaces that haven't been clearly defined that makes his artwork not only cutting edge but also accessible, re-thinking ideas that were once seen as contradictory or incomprehensible. Arcangel’s work seeks to do just that — de-art-ify art and strip down its conceptions, distilling them in ways that are far-reaching so that art can be lived with — found in living rooms and viral videos — rather than found untouched on the highest shelf of a museum, just out of reach.