Cory Arcangel and New Media One-Liners

New media artist Nick Briz has defined a “new media one-liner” this way:

The new media one-liner is a sub-genre of new media art. Enthusiasts and practitioners of the new media one-liner are drawn to the practice by its “reference-pleasure.” Reference-pleasure refers to the satisfaction one receives from experiencing a new media one-liner whose “one-line” is a reference to some aspect of either Internet/digital culture or media arts history/critical theory. These are usually puns or humorous “digitizations” of other artworks/practices. This can be a play on words, for example, switching, in a title of a work, the name of the Frankfurt school critical theorist/philosopher “Adorno” with the open-source hardware/software platform “Arduino.” New media one-liners are often these kinds of conceptual jokes which could exist simply as a title or thought but are often executed works of new media art. The new media one-liner can be fully appreciated at surface level in the instant of the encounter but is often the site for extraneous discussions/digressions for artists and critics alike.

I thought of this when I saw that Cory Arcangel had programmed the 1989 comedy Weekend at Bernie’s in conjunction with his exhibition at The Whitney. From the program notes for the event:

Known as one of the classic comedies of the 1980s, Weekend at Bernie’s tells the story of two junior insurance agents who—after discovering fraud at their agency—find themselves in the midst of a mafia murder plot. When they arrive at their boss’s swanky summer home only to discover him dead, they decide to conceal his murder in order to protect themselves. The movie is a classic example of the “high concept” genre of cinema, in which the hook or plot of the movie can be summed up in a sentence, or even the title—a structure mirrored in the work of Cory Arcangel.

Arcangel has become kind of the king of the new media one-liner.

Ed Halter drew this out in a 2008 interview with Arcangel at Rhizome:

Halter: Your event Continuous Partial Awareness is really convenient as a way to think about comedy in your work, because you’ve got all these ideas that can be analyzed together. So here’s my take on how the jokes in your routine work. First, in each case, you isolate a particular body of knowledge or mode of practice — it could be broad like gaming, the Internet, music fandom, or it could be very specific like the Guns N’ Roses fan obsession around Chinese Democracy, or it could be aspects of the art world. So each joke is based around one or maybe two of these very specific bodies of knowledge.

Arcangel: Agreed.

Halter: And then you undercut the seriousness or utility of the practice by introducing some sort of absurd version of the typical way of doing things. And you do this in two ways, which are, interestingly, opposite. You either introduce a ridiculously enormous and therefore pointless amount of work into it, or you reduce the work by using automation, or defaults, or outsourcing. So you either extend the amount of work to an enormous extent that makes it absurd, or you reduce it to nothing, which undercuts its legitimacy.

Arcangel: I think maybe sometimes that doesn’t necessarily have to be opposites. If I’m extending something, it’s also deflating it just as much as not doing any work at all. So they’re both kind of two different ways to get at the same result, sometimes.

But if Arcangel’s primary mode is the one-liner as outlined by Briz and broken down and systematized by Halter, I think part of his success has to do with the way he stretches the boundaries of the format.

For example, his “absurd extensions” (to adapt Halter’s terms) often become winding durational experiences that seem to exist outside, or parallel to, the jokey premise. Dara Birnbaum picked up on this aspect of his work in her 2009 discussion with Arcangel in ArtForum, making an interesting observation about Sweet 16 (2006), which turns the opening to Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” into a self-devouring minimalist composition:

Birnbaum: What I liked about another work of yours, Sweet 16 [2006], was that even though it has a very formal concept behind it—relating to Steve Reich’s compositional strategies, as you’ve said elsewhere—a mesmerizing drone takes over, which releases me to see some very specific aspects of the image. Like how Axl Rose enters the frame, brief moments that reveal his exact position.

Another example would be Arcangel’s video, a couple thousand short films about Glenn Gould (2007), which pieces together “Variation No. 1” from Bach’s Goldberg Variations out of snatches of YouTube videos. Obviously there’s a joke, but at the same time, the separate notes, issuing from different instruments recorded using different devices, create a wonderful polyphony as they combine into “Variation No. 1,” offering a bi-focal listening experience. One moment you can simply compare and contrast the different timbres and compression artifacts, the next you can decide to hear the classical composition hidden underneath. Toggling between these two modes of listening is a central pleasure of work, as central as the punchlininess.

If Arcangel’s elongations offer these kinds of pleasures, his “illegitimating reductions” (again from Halter) expand on the one-liner format in a different way. I think this has to do with Arcangel’s ability to create work that traverses worlds and so can be looked at from multiple angles. For example, Arcangel has talked about his video game hack, Super Mario Clouds (2002), which removes everything from Super Mario Bros. except for the clouds, as functioning one way within the art world (where it plays as a joke on landscape painting) and another way for gamers (where it plays as a joke on arbitrary markers of linear progress typical of a certain era of video games). Works like these resonate because they contain multiple jokes and the keyed-in viewer begins forming relationships between them. The jokes are one note only, but they’re layered, creating chords: vertical, as opposed to horizontal, compositions.