Cory Arcangel transforms the Barbican's Curve Gallery into dazzling media art bowling arcade

By Mark Sheerin | 10 February 2011
Photo of an installation with games consoles on a table with onscreen action projected on wall beyond
Cory Arcangel, Various Self Playing Bowling Games (installation view) (2011)© Eliot Wyman. Courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery
Exhibition: Cory Arcangel - Beat the Champ, The Curve, Barbican Art Gallery, London, until May 22 2011

Conceptual art is not often big on technique, but you could never make this complaint about Cory Arcangel’s work. The Brooklyn-based artist is a top notch computer hacker.

Past projects have included hacks of games such as Mario Brothers, Hogan’s Alley and, for this latest piece, 14 different bowling games on 14 different consoles, each one fitted with a chip allowing the system to play itself.

The results are projected along one wall of the Barbican’s challenging curved gallery space. To walk from one end to the other is to travel through time from a 1977 Atari model to the Gamecube from 2001.

While the programmers and technicians have clearly made immense progress, the player in Arcangel’s work fails to. The pins stay up as time after time he sends his ball into the gutter and then reacts with disappointment to varying degrees of realism.

Screenshot from a computer bowling game
Cory Arcangel, Various Self Playing Bowling Games (detail) (2011). Courtesy the artist, Lisson Gallery, Team Gallery and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac© Cory Arcangel
This automated loop of failure is at odds with the excitement of first stepping into the vista of virtual bowling alleys and competing synthetic soundtracks. The visitor finds themselves dwarfed by the on-screen action and unable to intervene for the sake of a better outcome.

At times the spectacle is humorous. It is a gallery of serial losers, of characters under a curse never to succeed. And many gamers will relate to the pleasures of sometimes playing to lose, or achieve a non-prescribed result.

But the overwhelming feeling is one of monotony. Watching someone else play video games is not much fun; watching a computer play itself is even less. This boredom is no doubt "programmed" into the experience by Arcangel, but with so much visual and aural stimulation on offer, you might expect the piece to fire the imagination more.

The fact remains, this is a major installation by a leading artist in an exciting new form, deserving of a wide audience from art lovers and game fans alike. Of course, if you happen to be both, there may be nothing better.

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