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Bringing the 1990s internet back

INTERVIEW. NY-based artist Cory Arcangel wants to preserve the disappearing artefacts of the early internet. He brings his nostalgic brand of net-influenced art to Galerie Max Hetzler for their group show Open Source, opening Mar 12.

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NY-based artist Cory Arcangel wants to preserve the disappearing artefacts of the early internet. He brings his nostalgic brand of net-influenced art to Galerie Max Hetzler for their group show Open Source.

Probably best known for his surreal adaptations of Nintendo classics, the Brooklyn-based artist also works in a wide range of other unexpected media: Photoshop, tweets, found images and Youtube videos are just a few examples. Time is a pervasive theme in Arcangel’s work, which often has a nostalgic feel (think 1990s internet). At age 33, Arcangel was the youngest artist to ever have a whole floor to himself in the Whitney Museum, for his 2011 show Pro Tools. Starting March 12, he’s showing work at Galerie Max Hetzler’s future-themed Open Source exhibition, which also opens at Max Hetzler’s Paris gallery on March 13. 

Could you describe the work you’ll be showing in Open Source?

The new series of works I’ve been making, they’re called Lakes. Basically, videos playing on flat screens that have been turned on their sides. And the way that these videos have been generated is – I have taken an image, which are mostly found images, but not exclusively, and applied a once-very-ubiquitous image effect called the lake effect, which was a kind of Java applet which was popular on the Internet in the late 1990s, which would make a still image look like it was reflecting in a lake.

For me, my interest in doing the works was a kind of preservation. At this point, I’m an artist and I have a bit of a track record, so people assume something that I do and put in a gallery is art, or at least they would give it a good chance. And so I’m starting to experiment by putting things in galleries almost just to use the gallery as a structure to preserve different bits of computer culture that I admired that are now disappearing. So for me, doing the lakes is a way for people to remember that this existed, and maybe in the future, in 100 years, that will be the only way people remember that these things existed, through the work.

How did you get inspired to make art with digital media?

Pre-internet, video art was like, my jam. And growing up in Buffalo, I had a real leg up, because that’s a real video art kind of city. Then when I went to college in the late 1990s the internet happened. And almost immediately I was really lucky to see works by the first generation of internet artists. Which was exactly how I knew that it was possible to make art, because I experienced artworks by these great artists. Definitely Olia Lialina, and Jodi.org, these artists are still a part of my life.

It seems like net art is more mainstream now. How have you noticed the scene change over time?

The biggest difference is that it’s cool to be a net artist now. If you would have told me 20 years ago that that was once going be the case, I would have never believed you. I mean, it was always cool to be a net artist, but now it’s kind of… It’s not underground anymore.

The other thing I would say is, there were so many amazing masterpieces made over the last 20 years, and I think now people have the language to really understand what some of those artists were doing. And so I think it’s a win-win for everybody, TBH.

Are there any artists you’d specifically recommend as an introduction to early net art?

Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied. They’re collaborating on a project now, called One Terabyte in a Kilobyte Age, which is a kind of preservation and sociological study of the Geocities.com archive. Geocities was a famous free web host in the 1990s. And it was taken offline, and Dragan and Olia are working on preserving that. I think that Geocities project is really the best and most interesting project that anybody’s doing right now.

Looking at something like that, the websites seem so ancient…

Yeah, definitely technological time moves a lot quicker than general cultural time. And compare that against art history time, which is very slow. So something like Geocities just seems like the Stone Age. But art from the late 1990s seems super fresh, right? These different things, they all travel at different speeds.

My work often gets called super nostalgic. But actually the stuff that I’m working with is quite new. But it’s always read against – which I think is a compliment in a way – against Internet time and computer time, so it seems very old to people.

Is it weird to think that online work can disappear in a way that physical work can’t?

Everything online is a temporary performance. It’s not, I don’t think, helpful to think of things online as being permanent. They are actually performances that happen in real-time through your computer. And they should be treated accordingly as ephemeral and one-time events.

I was using the term “net art”, but is there another term that you would use to define your work?

Yeah, I think that term is always a little bit in dispute. I use it all the time wrongly – but I think it’s supposed to be only like, the few years in the late 1990s, “net.art”, you know. I like the phrase “artist and entrepreneur”. That’s what I like. [Laughs] For a while people called me a computer artist, which I think sounds kind of cool. Terms just keep changing.

You have a clothing line, Arcangel Surfware. How did you branch out into designing clothes – was that a natural extension of your other work?

Well, a couple different ways. One is, I used to sell posters and stuff off my website, like 10 years ago. In fact, it’s how I made a living for a little while. So I always wanted to start doing merch again. And the other thing is, I was just approached by this company called Bravado, and they’re a global merchandising company. When they approached me, I was trying to figure out what I was going to do, and I was kind of inspired by Lil Wayne.


Yeah, ‘cause they do Lil Wayne’s clothing line, Trukfit, his skater wear brand. So I was like, if Lil Wayne can have his own lifestyle line for skateboarding, I want them to do my lifestyle line. So then I thought, well, it’d be cool to have a lifestyle line around just being on your computer all the time. That was just kind of how the idea came, as a kind of experiment in trying to be a bit more like Lil Wayne.

You’ve worked in so many different mediums – is there anything else you would want to explore?

I’d want to keep going more horizontal. I want it to become extremely unfocused. And spread out. That’s kind of the general direction I’d like to head. Super spread out. Like, things are going to show up in places that you’d never expect artworks to show up, and sometimes people might not even know that they’re artworks. You know, my clothes on some teenager in Japan, or my book in some bookstore in Australia, or some video on Youtube that people think is just like a normal fan-made music video. Just pushing these things into all these different places and letting them have a kind of resonance.

Open Source: Art at the Eclipse of Capitalism, Mar 12-Apr 18 | Galerie Max Hetzler, Bleibtreustraße 45 and Goethestraße 2-3, Charlottenburg, S-Bhf Savignyplatz, Tues-Sat 11-18:00