Is Cory Arcangel an Asshole?

The artist known as Cory Arcangel first made his name with the installation "Super Mario Clouds v2k3" at the 2004 Whitney Biennial, in which the 8-bit clouds of the original Nintendo Entertainment System classic were projected across a wide open space. The art world ate it up, but did it actually mean anything?

Perhaps damning is Arcangel's stance that he's not a gamer, simply someone who uses the trappings of technology as his medium, using cast-off printers stitched together with primitive code to create installations that titillate the art world by referencing and reinterpreting a lexicon established by three-plus decades of culture created by other artists—the Roy Lichtenstein of video games.

I have to admit, while I've been an occasional fan of a few of Arcangel's pieces, I've largely thought him someone syphoning from a culture that wasn't his in a way that was too derivative, if appropriately playful. I've kind of always thought maybe Arcangel was a typical New York art asshole.

Profiled in this week's New Yorker, Arcangel talks about Super Mario Clouds v2k3 with Andrea K. Scott :

"A figurine of Mario, the classic Nintendo character, sat on a bookshelf. "People have been giving those to me since 'clouds'," he said. He was referring to "Super Mario Clouds v2k3," the video installation that made his name in the art world, when it was shown at the 2004 Whitney Biennial. "I was a kid, but I knew it was a great idea," he said of the work. "When your intuitive sense overwhelms your critical voice, you have to give in." The idea was as simple as silk-screening soup cans: take the code to the classic 1985 Nintendo cartridge and erase everything but the clouds, which typically drift behind the action. At the Whitney, the clouds were projected onto the walls of a room, suggesting a wry reboot of John Constable's cloud paintings. A television monitor, complete with tangled cords, was also placed in the room-a reminder of the image's origins. Though the pixellated clouds triggered memories of rec-room joystick battles, the installation itself was spare and silent, the clouds' progression eerily slow. The project, which bathed the room in a celestial blue glow, made one think less of a boardwalk arcade than of James Turell's skylit Quaker meetinghouse.

"Super Mario Clouds" was a classic before the Whitney installed it. In 2002, Arcangel uploaded a video of clouds to the internet, along with his source code and a tutorial on hacking the game cartridge. Like many programmers, he believes that all coding should be "open source" - transparent to all. He posted a cleaner version of the code in 2003, and again in 2009, when a British graduate student in mathematics alerted him, by e-mail, to a few stray pixels. Arcangel puts the number of bootlegs of "clouds" at roughly "a gazillion," but the video never became a viral meme of mainstream proportions - its YouTube views number in the tens of thousands, not in the millions. Nevertheless, for an underground art project its reach was unprecedented. The high regard for Arcangel in digital circles was confirmed in 2000 when he received an invitation to FOO Camp, an élite tech conference. "FOO" stands for "friends of O'Reilly"; Tim O'Reilly is the author of the books that Arcangel used to teach himself coding.

Although gaming is one of Arcangel's key subjects, he isn't a gamer, any more than Édouard Manet was a matador or George Bellows a boxer. Arcangel says of his family in Buffalo, "We had an Atari early on, but we never had a Nintendo, I'd watch my friends play when I went to their houses, but that's it. I think that's why my pieces are about watching, not interacting." Although his bowlers are icons of absurdist alienation, in real life he doesn't take a dark view of digital culture. One evening, as we walked through Boerum Hill, he suddenly stopped and said, "Take a few steps back and look at that guy!" Framed in a parlor-floor window, an obese man in headphones and an undershirt sat before a screen, absorbed in a game, his back to the warm April night. I found the image depressing. "You're seeing it too superficially," Arcangel said. "It's a hopeful scene. He seems really happy. He's entertaining himself. He probably has a lot of friends in that world."

I'm feeling like Cory Arcangel is not an asshole!