Cory Arcangel’s art used to be fun. From familiar media properties—Super Mario Bros., Seinfeld, Kelly Clarkson—he isolated beautiful fragments and flaws in a nerdy, analytical way. Those early works can induce a tingling sensation: warm, goofy nostalgia and cool aesthetic appreciation, both at once. But nothing close to that feeling arises from “Century 21,” his first solo exhibition at Greene Naftali (and his first in New York in five years). The show’s grim mood could be a sign of artistic maturity. Or maybe it’s just the inevitable outcome of a new media artist working with an increasingly flat and corporatized mediascape, overrun by marketers and bots. Arcangel’s art isn’t getting worse; the world is.
The main attraction of “Century 21” is /roʊˈdeɪoʊ/ Let’s Play: HOLLYWOOD (2017–21), a supercomputer playing Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, a mobile game on which, I regret to say, I spent too many hours (and at least $30 on in-game purchases) in the summer of 2015. At the start of the game, your character gets discovered by Kim while working in retail; the lucky encounter triggers a quest for fame. You zip from one LA neighborhood to another, chatting up publicists, photographers, and bartenders, measuring and leveraging their potential usefulness to your career. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood gamifies social climbing, baring the cold mechanics of the chase for clout. The joke of /roʊˈdeɪoʊ/ is that it should be easy for a computer to master these rules and become a Hollywood himbo, even without understanding who Kim Kardashian is, or what celebrity means. (In an interview with Artforum, Arcangel says he jotted down the idea in 2016: “Deep Blue playing Kim K game.”) And yet this computer is not much of a gamer. I watched it stuck in a loop, trying to chat up a cat. Its machine vision misidentified a palm tree as an umbrella. This all feels quite different from the looped performance of failure in Various Self Playing Bowling Games (2011), where Arcangel hacked software for PlayStation, Nintendo, and other systems to make the bowling avatars roll gutter balls over and over. The repetition within and across the games made for a minimalist composition of suburban dens and doughy athletics. But even at its most pathetic moments, /roʊˈdeɪoʊ/ is a live demonstration of how nebulous behemoths like Google and Hollywood enforce control, through surveillance tools and prescribed behaviors. This is what power looks like: banal and fruitless.
“Century 21” is populated by a few other artificial intelligences of lesser complexity. In a rear gallery, a quartet of flat-screen monitors plays elleusa, equinor, equinox, etrade_financial (2020), recordings of bots liking every tweet from the corporate accounts named in the title. The monitors are ten times bigger than any phone, and at this scale, the blank space of Twitter’s interface and the stock-photo aesthetics of content marketing look revoltingly slippery and relentlessly bleak. As if this didn’t make Twitter look sad enough, the walls are hung with airline barf bags printed with text: “I don’t know who needs to know this” and “Let me be clear,” cliché casings for the platform’s logorrhea.
The final gallery hosts another video documenting the activity of bots: in we deliver / the king checked by the queen (2020), two automated Instagram accounts play chess with each other by announcing their moves in comments on posts from Boingo Wireless, General Electric, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Qatar Petroleum, and other companies. This piece feels more arch and sly than the Twitter one, perhaps because the bots here aren’t boosting corporate content. They’re playing, not working. In the past, Arcangel expressed his fascination with the online presence of brands in works like Freshbuzz (2013), an hour-long video capturing the artist’s screen as he surfed the Subway website, perusing lurid sandwich photography and chirpy FAQs. In that work, the artist himself plumbed the depths of one brand’s content; in “Century 21,” bots skim social media’s vast, washy surface. The movements of Arcangel’s cursor in Freshbuzz are methodical, but you can still see him hesitating, mulling his choices of where to click next. The actions of the bots are confidently rote. He’s delegated his work to them, which makes him more like the corporations than the other users browsing their content. The experience of looking at these new videos is familiar, relatable. The artist’s position isn’t.
Arcangel’s earlier work buzzes with the hacker’s human intelligence and wit, magnifying little oddities in the shiny facades of mass culture. But the new work adopts the automated processes used to amplify standardization and sameness. “Century 21” is a shrewd sci-fi story about the present, where the thrilling doom of Terminator has been displaced by the artificial stupidity of bots. Arcangel’s art has always been an art of feelings: an audience-oriented examination of emotional responses to encounters with media. It is that still, but made with an awareness that now these feelings tend to be edged with a bored, sad stupor.