Talking Trash and High Art With Cory Arcangel

One of the leading lights of technology-based art, Cory Arcangel still intrigues and entertains us 15 years after he decided to give up his first obsession, classical guitar. Now he spends his time exposing us to the world of forgotten cultural iconography across the web.
His ability to deconstruct our often ludicrous and bizarre culture often blurs the line between trashy and thoughtful. Most widely known for his cultural re-appropriations of Super Mario (2002) and his cat video Drei Klavierstücke op 11 (2009). Arcangel is always looking to push the envelope.

His art might be seen as whimsical by some but in 2011 he became the youngest artist since Bruce Nauman to be given a full-floor solo show at the Whitney museum in New York and has had his work exhibited across the world. Now he stops at London for a new show called Currentmood at the Lisson Gallery. We caught up with Arcangel at his home in the North of Norway for this off-the-cuff chat.

What happens in Norway?

Well, very organised pragmatic socialism, beautiful nature, good coffee, a lot of technology revolving around the oil industry. It’s just as fascinating as you would think it is to live in Norway. It’s amazing.

You have a show coming up at the Lisson gallery in London. Can you tell us about it?

So it’s called Currentmood and it opens on the 19th in London at the Lisson Gallery. It’s my second show at the gallery and it will simultaneously take place online through They are one of the companies that provides, well, kind of click bait type articles.

Are they those questionable sponsored pieces at the end of articles?

Well now you’re putting words in my mouth [laughs]. I would definitely not call it horrible. They do put advertisements for things at the end of blog posts. It’s called content discovery. So my showcase takes place in the Lisson gallery, in a real space, with works that are hung on the walls. But at the same time the exhibition also takes place through Outbrain. So the show is in real space and virtual space at the same time.

What does the word trash mean to you? Does that have any resonance for you in your work?

Undervalued or ignored culture for me is what I would refer to as trash. I’m not sure that I actually believe in cultural trash, but it’s a convenient word to signify that something is overlooked or discarded or is no longer fashionable. Those are all the kind of things that for whatever reason I keep coming back to.

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Where did this fascination come of exploring your work through cross media platforms come from?

I don’t know. When I started making work after being a student, the first generation of internet artists had just kind of emerged, and I was very attracted to that work and also because of my experiences at work and at home through the browser window. . . that was a big deal. I guess my view of the hierarchy of spaces started from there, on the internet. Then I worked back from the internet into real space and that’s the opposite direction most people were taking at the time.

You had this project last year in Paris, the AUDMCRS. 

Yes, The Underground Dance Music Collection of Recorded Sound.

I love it. I’m so upset I wasn’t there. It looked and sounded amazing. It included an hour long trance DJ set performance right?

It did yeah, we had the records performed in a historical manner on period equipment, as they would have been in the nineties. That was one of my favourite projects so I’m glad you brought it up. There is a website where you can take a look at the collection. And the collection is still touring actually and will be for the next year.

You’ve said, “the music we hear as teenagers is and will always be the most important music for the rest of our lives.”

Absoluetly. I still agree with that. I don’t often agree with what people tell me I’ve said previously, but I absolutely agree with that.

One of the artists that you used for the piece was Kelly Clarkson. There seems to be element of nostalgia or sentimentality in your work. It’s all about re-immersing yourself in a time when you felt vulnerable or confused. Would you agree?

Well I have to agree with your – or anyone’s interpretation of my work. It’s not mine. I cannot say what it does, and a lot of the time I don’t know what it does or will do. What I would say is that for me nostalgia doesn’t play such a big part when making the work. Mostly when I’m making the work the things I’m working with are yet to even become nostalgic. So when I was doing those video game modifications in the early 2000’s Nintendo wasn’t nostalgic yet, it was considered trash. It was to be forgotten. The Kelly Clarkson thing. . . to be completely honest that was just because I like Kelly Clarkson. [Laughs] She was still very much a part of my life when I made that. So moving on from that thought, of course one of the fun things about making this work, which again is out of my control is to see how the work itself ages. People ask us to work in all these different ways and sometimes it’s nostalgia or sometimes it’s as trash culture. Now it’s funny because I’ve been at this for a while, and people are beginning to feel nostalgic for the actual work, not even the things that the work references.

What do you mean?  

Well for example with the Nintendo modification that I made in 2002; the distance between people playing Nintendo and when I made that piece is almost the same as the distance between when I made that piece and now. So there’s this kind of short circuit where people are becoming nostalgic for the actual work. It’s so weird.

I was reading this interview with you from back in 2011 in The New Yorker. I think you really knocked it out of the park when you said your influences are Steve Reich, Tiger Woods and Weekend at Bernie’s.

Well the Tiger Woods thing has become a little bit more complicated since then, but yeah he represented a lot of my experiences through golf. It’s a sport you have to practice every day or you start going backwards. It’s the kind of sport that teaches you to always make adjustments and I think that applies to my work. The interesting thing about golf is that all these golfers are paranoid that they’re going to lose their swing. So they’re always tweeking. Weekend at Bernie’s is a high concept movie and in Hollywood the term ‘high concept’ means a movie you can explain in one sentence. And for me that’s the ideal of my work. If I’m firing on all cylinders the best work of mine is so simple that you could tell someone about it in one sentence.


That’s really interesting. I get the vibe that cultural re-appropriation is meant to be taken seriously but there is also an inherent sense of humor and irony that the audience cannot escape and does enter into your work. Is there an element of it that irritates you?

Definitely humor is a very important reflex. Irony is something that I would actually not see as a part of my work. I think that sometimes people see the work in that way, but my hope is that upon further review the work will balance out as being pretty honest and sincere. I wouldn’t dedicate my life to doing this kind of stuff otherwise.

Would you update those three influences, or shall we leave it as it is?

I might add a forth. Scott Storch.

Is it terrible that I don’t know who that is?

He’s a hip-hop producer who made a lot of hits in the nineties, and had a very rapid rise and fall because of the drugs, money, fame. It’s a very interesting story and he’s a very talented musician. When I’m bored sometimes I see what he’s up to. I think he might be the one addition since 2011.

Lastly, what’s next for you after this show?

After that I’m working on a travelling show with a great artist Olia Lialina and that will be in Vancouver in the fall and will travel to New York in early 2017. And my band Title TK is going to release a book. I also do a merch line, I am doing a lot of stuff.
This will be my last solo show for a long time so I really put a lot of effort into it. 

currentmood runs until the 2nd of July at the Lisson Gallery, London.

All images courtesy of the Lisson Gallery.