Lauren Cornell has watched with a keen eye the journey of internet art from obscurity to popular acceptance, first as the executive director of Rhizome (an organization dedicated to digital art), and now as the curator (along with artist Ryan Trecartin, whom she was an early champion of) of the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial. Here Cornell trades thoughts with post-conceptual artist Cory Arcangel, himself the subject of previous shows at The Whitney, MoMA, and The New Museum, on curating pre-social media, art startups, and self-help books.
Cory Arcangel—So, lets start at the beginning. We first worked together in college when you screened some of my videos in a film screening you organized for the campus film club. But of course we were friends. you were the director of IFS which was like a student experimental film club. LOL! Any idea when you decided to screen weird videos in college, that you would be doing it 20 years later? Were you like, “this is it! I love this?” Anyway, put another way, like, how did you end up being a curator? I ended up an artist kinda as an accident, does this have any relation to your experience?
Lauren Cornell—I sort of fell into curating by seeking out work and sharing it with people. In college, as you said, I organized screenings, also music shows and little exhibitions, all before I’d heard the term curator. I was just doing it because I was a film and video art nerd. Imagine if you’re 18 and you get your hands on a VHS copy of Jeff Krulik’s Heavy Metal Parking Lot, this incredible sociological take on fans at a Judas Priest show, or Sadie Benning’s diaristic PixelVision video Jollies that she made when she was a teenager?
Cory—I don’t have to imagine! Seeing Heavy Metal Parking Lot back then is half the reason I am an artist today.
Lauren—These works blew my mind. I wanted to show them to people and talk about them. Essentially the same impulse still motivates me. Also, pre-social media, you couldn’t share links when you were excited about something, you had to organize events in real-time. I organized a lot of events, which eventually, years later, lead me to one of my first jobs—directing a cinema space.
“I am constantly dogged by hopes for innovation—people wanting gadgets to save us from ourselves and each other, or to make a clear decisive turn in art history. If that expectation is put on art, people will always be disappointed.” —Lauren Cornell
Cory—Yeah, we should remind people, this was when videos were still traded on VHS!
Lauren—Yes, we were in college, shortly after Miranda July initiated Big Miss Moviola, a video chain letter of movies by girls. She would compile the “letter” in her basement, a laborious process, involving orchestrating the receipt of VHS tapes from her peers all over the country and tape-to-tape editing them. Now, we have YouTube playlists.
Cory—Which gets me to another thing, we haven’t been in the game long, but long enough to see a few generations float by, as well as a couple movements. Is there anything that has surprised you that you wouldn’t have been able to guess 15 years ago?
Lauren—I’m surprised by how cool it is to be an internet artist now!
Cory—OMG, I know! LOL. I hear you. What a mind trip.
Lauren—In 2005, when I starting running Rhizome.org, I spent a lot of time explaining to people that internet art existed and that it was just as valid, as say, sculpture or painting. You and I were fortunate to experience an intimate art community develop around that time—younger artists working in the legacy of the trailblazing original artists who worked with the web in the 90s. No one was paying attention which created a real community spirit. This field has made leaps and bounds today. I think it took the broader realization that “the internet” wasn’t in “cyberspace” but something that was changing culture and our relationships, fundamentally, similarly to how film and photography reorganized society, our sense of time, the way we receive information, etc.
Cory—Yeah, the internet had to change culture first, and then kids in art school had to soak that all up, and now we are kinda seeing the first generation of those late aughts art school students assert themselves in the industry. When we were in school, an art student wouldn’t be caught dead working with technology — it was so uncool! Hahahaha. But, I agree, we were very lucky to participate in a very small tight knit community. Even today, many of my best friends are from this aughts and pre-aughts net.art world.
Lauren—What about you—what surprises you?
Cory—Maybe this has more to do with aging, but I always kinda assumed that people knew what they were doing. Like, I thought other people working with art knew something I didn’t, or whatever. But, of course, I now realize no ones knows anything, and everyone is making things up as they go! Uuuuuugh, what a relief to know this! Anyway, I hope this isn’t corny, what would you tell your younger self? For example, I would say, “go make a ton of money in Silicon Valley, you can always be an artist later!” You?
Cory—Well, since the cycle from startup to $ can be like three years, I often daydream about what my life would be like if I did what some of my friends did, and went that route. But I guess you’re right to say, “really” cause my startup ideas were always too weird! Of course, it turned out they were art. LOL. But it’s a lovely daydream.
Lauren—You do more self-reflection than I do. In fact, you’re the only person who leant me a self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People. (Wait, is that self-help?).
Cory—Yes, definitely self-help!
Lauren—I don’t have anything to say to my younger self. I think all the mistakes I made were good for me. But maybe I should read more self-help books. What’s your number one?
Cory—Wow, so zen. For me, oh definitely, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, also by Dale Carnegie. That book helped me alot, OMG! I used to worry about everything #Facepalm. This is my big question lately: what are you working on? And I don’t mean like, this or that show, I mean like really working on? Life stuff. For me, I am still trying to get a grip on my anxiety (see above reading). Sorry, to start this off so heavy! You?
Lauren—Frankly, right now, I’m working super hard and I’m just trying to stay healthy, sharp, and supportive of the 51 artists in the Triennial. After the show, I’ll go inwards 🙂
Cory—51 artists! Yikes, that’s like dealing with 51 cats who are all insane! I know, cause I am one. Oh, if I had a quarter for all the ridiculous conversations I’ve had with curators trying to explain some nondescript intuitive feeling I’ve had. Hahahahaha. Bless them all (the curators)!
Lauren—What are you working on right now?
Cory—Well, I had a couple years of “inwards.” I wasn’t doing shows of new work in 2012 and 2013, and I made a ton of really solid stuff during those years in the studio, and now and touring all that work, doing both institutional and gallery shows either just showing the new stuff, or combing it with the old stuff—In a way, I found I work better like a band; spend a year or two making a record, then spend a year or two touring the record. I can’t make work when I am on a plane every two weeks.
Lauren—I find the best thinking I do is on the road, or outside of my cubicle. I was traveling for two years constantly for the Triennial—my longest trip was through Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand over a month. This is when I could really focus on research, on charting connections between artists in the show, on writing. I always envy the residencies artists have available to them. Research for the Triennial provided me that incredible time to think. When and where do you do your best thinking?
Cory—Definitely when I am in Norway. I spend a lot of my time in Stavanger where my wife runs Kunsthall Stavanger. When I’m there, I turn off my phone, and don’t know anyone, so I just kinda like chill out and have crazy amounts of unstructured time. It’s where all my ideas come from! When I’m in NYC, I just basically have meetings these days. Speaking of, when you were travelling, what kinda connections did you find between the artists? Are there any global trends these days? If so, are any of these demonstrated in the Triennial?
Lauren—It seems really obvious but a striking global trend is that artists can see each other so much more now. Artists around the world are looking at the same websites—like Contemporary Art Daily or Mousse—and have similar references. This struck me when I arrived in Auckland, New Zealand. It takes a really long time to get to Auckland from New York. You have to go all the way to Australia and then take another long flight. When there, I went to a small artist-run space and it struck me how much the work looked like work that was being made in Bushwick. In fact, the artists had just sent pictures to Contemporary Art Daily for consideration. The critic Michael Sanchez wrote an article, Art and Transmission, about the homogenizing effect of this global viewership of art’s documentation, which has truth to it.
Cory—I have noticed all galleries are lit so brightly now cause everyone wants those “hard white” fashion style installation shots (sans people)! Browns are out!, silver and mirrors are in! I’m, of course, not immune to these industry trends as well. I love that Oliver Laric and Alexandra Domanovic are in the show, as their contemporary art blog VVORK was kinda the frontrunner in this globalization trend. Maybe it’s good art finally caught up to other global industries?
Lauren—True, at the same time, the art world is huge—trying to stitch together themes across contexts as diverse as Myanmar, Johannesburg and Taipei is really hard. I think this is what biennials and triennials such impossible projects. Ryan and I started out with certain lines of inquiry and we tracked them through my research. We wanted to explore the not only the ways technology was affecting culture and opening up new forms of art, but also effecting our bodies, sense of self and identity. Many of the works in the show are exuberant and surreal, and others exude a real sense of anxiety or disorientation around embodiment.
“In 2005, when I starting running Rhizome.org, I spent a lot of time explaining to people that internet art existed and that it was just as valid, as say, sculpture or painting. You and I were fortunate to experience an intimate art community develop around that time—younger artists working in the legacy of the trailblazing original artists who worked with the web in the 90s.” —Lauren Cornell
Cory—Last question, is there anything you hope people are going to take a away from the Triennial?
Lauren—As a curator who has worked a lot with media and technology, I am constantly dogged by hopes for innovation—people wanting gadgets to save us from ourselves and each other, or to make a clear decisive turn in art history. If that expectation is put on art, people will always be disappointed. This show—in each of the works, and in the conversation between them—evinces a lot of complexity not only about technology but how it intersects with our lives, with politics and nationalism. If there is one constant, I would say the artists are working from a kind of ‘embedded’ perspective—no one considers themselves an outsider, that Gen-X attitude is just untenable now. You know?
Cory—Oh yeah, I just watched the documentary The Year Punk Broke, and it was so crazy seeing the way that generation expressed themselves. It was almost unwatchable! And I LOVE all the people in it—Kurt Cobain, Sonic Youth, etc, etc. It was like that generation was crushed by mass media! I felt bad for them!
Lauren—You’ve felt a ton of pressure and expectation as an artist ‘working with technology.’ How are you negotiating it these days?
Cory—Oh, the last few years have been so chill! I mean, and I know we touched on this a bit, critics and curators used to run from “technology,” so, for me, it’s like a dark cloud has lifted! I just hope that people take the time to study the history, because there so many masterpieces of net.art over the last 20 years.