Cory Arcangel photo by Bennett Williamson
Cory Arcangel is a computer programmer, composer, and artist who manages—again and again—to make work that is both funny and thoughtful. The native New Yorker is one of those rare artists who manages to mess with pop culture without being stupid and to screw with high culture without being boring. If you've seen him re-create atonal modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg’s Drei Klavierstücke using YouTube videos of piano-playing cats, you'll know what I mean.
His latest project is a book, Working on My Novel, based on his Twitter profile of the same name. He created it using a web crawler that recorded every time someone used the phrase “working on my novel” on Twitter. It’s a rich mine of laughter and sadness. Some of the tweets seem like they come from sincere, wannabe authors—others less so. My favorites include:
"I'm going to spend the next week diligently working on my novel and reevaluating some of my most fundamental beliefs"
"THAT'S WHY I'M WORKING ON MY NOVEL SO I WON'T FEEL SO PATHETIC ANYMORE"
"Currently working on my novel and listen to really nice music. Yeah I'm a writer deal with it."
“// - Working on my novel and watching Family Guy. Oh yeah!!”
“Now that I have a great domain name I can start working on my novel”
I caught up with Cory to have a chat about his book and the internet in general.
VICE: An issue that surrounds this book is the internet as a seductive enabler of procrastination. How do you feel about that?
Cory Arcangel: One thing that’s really fun about doing what I do is that I get to float apart from culture, in a way. I'm interested in things that are happening. As things change, opportunities to pivot or manipulate are thrown up. I like any kind of change. Since the internet has radically changed, even in the last five years, to me it’s only great because I’m always thinking, Oh, that’s cool.
Also, I feel like the word “procrastination” is too strong. Just because you’re on Twitter saying stuff, it doesn’t really mean you’re procrastinating. The status update has become such a fluid part of culture.
Just because someone’s tweeting, it doesn’t mean they aren’t doing something.
Yeah! I don’t think it’s a yes-or-no proposition any more; it’s just a thing now… When I was a teenager, I’d go to the mall, and the big thing then was what T-shirt you wore. Usually it was a band, and it was designed to advertise what you wanted people to think you were associated with. For me, that was Metallica, and there were all these social things attached to that. When I’d see kids in a Megadeth T-shirt, those kids would scare me because Megadeth was a whole different level. And then, if those kids saw kids in Slayer T-shirts, they’d probably be scared of them.
I feel like stuff online now is part of the same thing. When you’re tweeting, even if you’re tweeting about watching TV, you’re saying, “This is part of who I am.” A lot of this stuff is about what it means to be alive today—to participate in and create culture.
A selection from Working on My Novel
How did you approach everyone featured in the book?
Doing this novel was mostly writing and conceptualizing software that would enable this process to be administered. I wrote a Twitter crawler to record every instance of the phrase “working on my novel.” That crawler ran for almost two years and put it into an Excel spreadsheet. There were a couple of thousand tweets, and I went through all of them and rated them. Then, I had to write a software content management system that would invite them and allow them to agree to be in the book. I wrote a couple of personal messages per day, so no one thought I was a spambot.
Did you ever imagine what the novels they were working on might be?
I have to say, not really… I was more imagining the scene of the writing. People listening to new age techno or having the chillest moment of their life, or tearing their hair out. It wasn’t the novel they were working on but the emotional state they were in at the time that interested me.
There’s a kindness and sympathy that runs through the book but a lot of the enjoyment comes from how ridiculous most of these people are, like the guy who’s watching Family Guy at the same time, or the guy who says, “I’m a writer, deal with it!”
Those are two good examples. When I was a kid, I could only do homework watching TV. I still can’t concentrate unless my headphones are on. I don’t think the Family Guy tweet shows some inherent flaw; that’s like my life.
Are you just saying this because you don’t want to get sued? Come on, man…
Haha! No! I mean, I’m an artist and my whole life is trying to understand what it means to make stuff. Being an artist is weird because there are no rules. One day I can make a book; the next day I could write an essay or do a show. And to me, that is really frightening and hard to grasp sometimes. I spend a lot of my time thinking about what that means and these people, with their tweets, are voluntarily putting themselves in the same position.
“I’m a writer, deal with it!”
I’m totally down with that! Plus, “Deal with It” was that really great meme.
Do you think anyone featured in your book would go on to write a good novel?
Yeah, I’m sure a couple of them. I feel like some of these people might have big followings. I remember when I was doing it, I did notice that some of the people had plenty of followers or had a publisher on their bio.
I think I enjoyed the book in a few ways, but I was definitely laughing at these guys quite a lot… like the guy who talked about looking like a hipster in a James Dean shirt.
Yeah, that was in the culture section of the novel. It’s divided into sections, which are marked by teapots and broken up by theme and tone. The culture section leaned heavily on contemporary culture, so you have a mention of Bagel Bites and Barnes & Noble.
And there’s a section that’s troubling and has the tweet, “THAT'S WHY I'M WORKING ON MY NOVEL SO I WON'T FEEL SO PATHETIC ANYMORE" in it…
Basically the way the book goes is that it starts off chill, it goes to culture, there’s another section, and then it goes to just “Working on My Novel”, which is a punchline section. Then it gets really dark, and there’s a lot of creative struggle. And then it goes to triumph. It’s designed a bit like a rollercoaster.
A selection from Cory's "Sorry I Haven't Posted" project
I connect this with your “Sorry I Haven’t Posted” project [a collection of people apologizing for not posting on the internet].
Yeah, that was the very early, similar project.
And I suppose it’s about whether the internet makes self-expression more of a struggle or it’s just another dimension of it?
My intuition tells me it’s just another dimension. Instead of fretting about what T-shirt you’re going to wear to the mall, you have a hundred small anxieties about what you’re doing every seven minutes… If you talk about red wine, or Arctic Monkeys, you’re basically saying, “I am associated with this.”
The teenage analogy is apt here because you project an image until eventually you become it. Walter Pater said, “The way to perfection is through a series of disgusts.” Finally, after a lot of trial and error, you get to something you find acceptable…
It’s interesting. I like to think of the same thing as, if you throw 100 darts one of them is going to hit the bull's-eye.
Yours is a neater and less pompous analogy.
In my career as a fine artist, it’s just about throwing as many darts as possible. But I never thought about that analogy in terms of social media. That the more you tweet, the more you’re refining. You’re always testing who you are or who you want to be. Or what’s more likely, is a new social media site comes out and you have to do it all again. I’m not on Instagram because I just don’t know if I can do it again. Twitter was my social network.
It was your Paris.
The one I really loved.
Do you think at some point, the term “digital artist” will drop away?
Yeah, I mean, we’re talking about a book. I think it’s happened. I was a computer nerd at a time when it was a little more rare, so people use that as an angle on my work but I think with a younger generation it’s such a fluid part of what they do that they don’t even bring it up, which I think is pretty cool. The art students at my school hated computers. I think it’s great that it’s different now.
How do you think some well-known novelists of the past would fit into Working on My Novel? Like Proust.
I don’t know about Proust, but Thoreau would be one of these guys writing, “Life’s good #onthepond.” With like a tweet location for Walden Pond.
Haha. But of course, he found even mid-19th century America too much in terms of stimulation.
He’d be on LiveJournal still.
I’d like to see a follow-up to Working on My Novel where we get to see what’s happened to the novels. A kind of “Where are they now?” type thing.
Yeah! And it’s a book, so it won’t disappear, like a lot of the technology it might have been based on.
Good point. Thanks, Cory.
Cory Arcangel's Working on My Novel is out now through Penguin. Get it here.
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