Surfware creator and artist Cory Arcangel in his studio.
Cory Arcangel makes a lot of work that seems at first like a goofy joke. But then—once you think about it for too long—it starts to look like a complicated comment on themes like obsolescence and the art game.
At 33, Arcangel was one of the youngest artists to ever be afforded an entire floor in the Whitney Museum. Formerly a guitar major at Oberlin, he went on to form a "programming ensemble" for artist-hackers, and is probably best known for the series of modified video games that formed the centerpiece of the 2011 Whitney show. He’s also made supercuts of cats on pianos mashed up so they’re playing Shoenberg, worked out how to order pizzas from Domino's with a single line of code, and hung “paintings” in galleries that were made with a single click on Photoshop.
Now, Arcangel is gearing up to launch a clothing line, Arcangel Surfware, at a one-day pop-up in a New York Holiday Inn conference room, where new art of his will also be on display in the city for the first time since the Whitney show.
The only promotion has been a tweet from Cory’s account linking to a bland press release on a comically dated website, explaining that the products “consist of everything one needs to ‘chill’ in bed all day and surf the internet in comfort.” The rainbow-colored logo features a yin-yang, an emoticon, a picture of a laptop, and the brand name in Comic Sans.
It all looks more like a prank than a genuine product launch. But when I went to the artist’s Gowanus studio, an assistant was sketching up the layout for the show on a computer, and Arcangel appeared to be totally earnest about the merch line and its weird, mid-90s aesthetic. Piled on a table were samples of everything that will be on sale (except bed linens, which are still being made). There were white track suits, gadget covers printed with work from Arcangel's Photoshop Gradient series, zines full of source code, and vinyl albums of original Moog compositions written in the style of classic house breakdowns.
Archangel finished eating a sandwich and started to show me around.
Photos of Arcangel Surfware courtesy of Cory Arcangel
VICE: I wasn’t sure whether this was really happening.
Cory Arcangel: I think a lot of people thought it was a joke. It’s not a joke. It’s so off the wall that a lot of people didn’t really register that it’s a real thing, which is totally fine. I think they thought I was just playing a prank on everybody. But everything in the press release is true.
I sketched it, and then it went through their press department, and they mashed it all up. It’s a real press release. I would never describe myself as a groundbreaking artist. But when they sent it back to me I was like, Well, all right, this is the language of press releases. Let’s just flow with it—it’s kind of funny.
I thought you’d intentionally given it that strange, corporate tone.
It happened totally naturally, but I was 100 percent down with it. It was part of the whole idea of the project—if you’re going to work with these systems you can’t push against it. It’s more fun to just flow along with it.
How many of the clothes are you having made?
Everything that I’ve made will be in the pop-up shop. I don’t know how I’m going to display them yet. As artwork? I haven’t wrapped my head around it yet. I haven’t gotten that far.
But is it going to be super limited edition, or more like when a band makes a ton of merch T-shirts?
Band. I think there might be one or two limited-edition items.
It seems like the whole thing is one big art project. Even the website and the promotional interviews—it’s almost like a performance.
Yeah, maybe. We’ve been working on it for years. It took a long time to figure out the right tone, how to conceptualize it all, and what I wanted to do. But yeah, it’s a complete idea.
There’s obviously an early 90s theme running through everything, including your email interviews that are printed in Comic Sans.
Yeah, Comic Sans is the font on the logo. It’s a shout-out to the web of the 90s. That’s the inspiration.
Will the art in the show be stuff that’s never been seen before?
I haven’t had a show here in three years, ever since my Whitney show. It’s technically my follow-up to the Whitney, so it’s exciting that this is more DIY.
Is your foray into fashion about deflating this idea of importance that might be attached to you as an artist?
It’s hard for me to explain—it just seems like there’s energy here. I guess a lot of it is just intuitive. I feel like Oh, of course I need to be doing shows in Holiday Inns right now.
Doing shows in institutions are really great because you can really get away with showing some pretty intense stuff, because the institution will force itself on the work and give the work a kind of weightiness, which you can really play with. Maybe this is just a way for me to play with the other end of the spectrum—show in a space that doesn’t have any institutional weight or something. I don’t know. I have no idea.
A polar bear wearing an Arcangel Surfware hat
It’s at this blurry edge of what constitutes art.
I came to art backwards in a weird way. The idea of being an artist was a practical decision to me. I was someone who just liked to do interesting projects, and then I just called myself an "artist" because it was the path of least resistance. But I don’t necessarily have any internal hierarchy over distribution channels. You can do something cool—it doesn’t have to end up in a gallery. Although, obviously, I like doing the gallery stuff because it has its own dynamics.
The profiles of you that I’ve read all explain how you studied guitar at college and got into electronic music and coding, but the bit I don’t understand is how you went from doing these hacker-type projects to these big museum shows.
I’m not sure if I understand that either. You’re asking the wrong person.
Did you have a career plan?
No, definitely not. People just kept asking, and I kept saying yes. That's the easiest way to explain it. I just follow the intuition of what interesting things are, and that’s all I’ve ever done really, and this is hopefully the same kind of vibe. I was like, I want to start my own… I don’t even know what to call it. Clothing line? Merch line? I would read all these interviews with hip-hop artists, and I never understood what they were talking about—starting clothing lines and stuff. Now I know, and it’s much more complicated than I ever imagined.
In what way?
Different languages, factories, deadlines, shipping, licensing, all these things. Art is actually pretty Mom and Pop. I make something in my studio, and I ship it to a museum. This has all these moving parts; it’s pretty fascinating. Mad props to all those people who have their own clothing companies. It took me years to get this together.
Did the promo web page confuse people?
I don’t know. I haven’t really talked to anybody—you know how you put things out and it just disappears into a void? In a way, it’s something I’m kind of comfortable with because that’s what art is. Art is something you put out and seven years later someone will say, "Oh, that was really cool." I’m kind of used to working on an existential time scale for projects.
The more I thought about the project, the more it seemed to be about these ugly outdated aesthetics, like the yin-yang logo.
When I was a kid, surfing was popular in the suburbs of America. When you were 12 and you’d go to JC Penney, you would buy Ocean Pacific clothes. I had all these stickers on my guitar that were yin-yang from these surfwear companies and I had no connection to them at all, and that’s what was in my mind.
I wanted the yin-yang, because it’s about the spiritual side of surfing—I know it’s ridiculous—and the computer and the smiley. I just knew I wanted those three items. In terms of how it looks, it’s just how I like things to look. I can’t explain it any more than that. This is the height of my design sense. This is the best I can do.
Sorry for saying it was ugly.
No, I’m totally happy.
Inside Arcangel's studio
I guess any explanation for what’s behind an artwork fall short of the experience of just engaging with the it.
What I thought I was making when I made art ten years ago, it turns out, wasn't even close to what it was doing. Does that make sense? I was not even remotely close to having any understanding of what I was doing at the time.
At a talk at the Met, you quoted Duchamp as saying that one part of being an artist is making the art, and the other part is engineering its entry into the world. That seems relevant to this project.
Right. I haven’t figured out how to talk about it yet, actually. That second part is in progress right now. I haven’t figured out what it is yet, so I’m kind of flying on the seat of my pants.
Duchamp has this work that’s kind of a rotary—it spins, and when it spins it makes an optical illusion. It was very famous, and he wanted to sell it as an invention, so he debuted it in a kind of art trade show for inventions and he was positive it was going to be this convention hit. It was this complete failure. We could just hear tumbleweeds when we open the pop-up shop.
If it was a failure, it would also be kind of great too—as an art work.
Let’s not even talk that way. I’m really trying for it to somehow happen because I want to keep working with clothing. I’m doing everything I can to do it like if I were Lil Wayne. When he does a company, he’s going to try and make it a real company. I’m going to try and make it a real company. I want to also kind of appropriate the business end of this structure as well, to the best I can. So we’re going to try for a success.
Is it going to be distributed to other shops?
It’ll be available at the pop-up shop, and that day also the website goes live, and you’ll be able to buy all of it on the web, and also I’m going to see if some shops will take it, but it’s not going to be like global in any way. Maybe a few tiny little art shops will carry it. Whoever will take it, I will gladly give it to them. But probably, mainly people will get it on the web.
Do you have any big aspirations you haven’t fulfilled yet? Maybe things outside of art?
I just want to keep trying new things, I guess. I know that sounds boring. The thing is, there’s always so much cool stuff happening. The way that things change so quickly now, it’s always throwing up these opportunities. I want to do webisodes. There’s always this new amazing stuff that you could do.
But in terms of concrete stuff, I’ll probably be doing more composition in the future, and more sculpture. That’s probably the most concrete answer I can give you. The work will shift a little bit, I suppose. Like I think those zines kind of represent the end of my computer time—once I get them all together, it's like, OK that was my computer work, now they’re printed on paper, and if my hard drive blows up it doesn’t matter, and now I am done. Time for something else. That’s my vague ideas of what’s happening. It could change though. And more pop-up stores.
So you’re going to keep doing this?
Oh yeah definitely. This is just the first line. I want to keep making zines, keep making records, and hopefully come out with another batch of stuff. We’ve just got to get this one out first.
Arcangel Surfware will debut Ma 17 online at a one-day pop-up at the New York Holiday Inn Soho and online. Learn more here.