Beat the Champ by Cory Arcangel at The Curve, Barbican

We were bowled over by the latest large scale installation from the Brooklyn digital artist Cory Arcangel.

Written by Eleanor Whalley

Cory Arcangel 2011-Beat the Champ. Photography by Amelia Gregory
Cory Arcangel’s Beat the Champ. Photography by Amelia Gregory.

For us Londoners it can be tough sometimes. If you find yourself shoulder barging your way down Oxford Street just to try and get to work, you can be forgiven for wondering why you bother. If you’re spending maybe two thirds of your pay cheque on rent in a tiny, leaky flat above a shop. If you’re looking for breakfast on a Sunday morning and skipping over pools of vomit on your trendy street. But then just when you’re about ready to pack up, belongings in a handkerchief on a stick and all, the city reels you back. One of the reasons I just can’t leave London is there are places like the Barbican. I’m sure that clued up Amelia’s Magazine reading folks are familiar with the Barbican, but just for any of you wondering what this respite from London’s horribleness could possibly be, here are the basics.

Cory Arcangel 2011-Beat the Champ. Photography by Amelia Gregory

The Barbican Estate, built up in the 60s and 70s, is an imposing, Brutalist style complex comprising the Barbican Centre – an arts, drama and business centre with about a hundred different interesting things always seemingly happening at any given time; a YMCA; the Museum of London and a residential estate. Yes, that’s right, people actually live there. How cool is that? As for the events at the Centre itself, they’re amazingly varied and always concertedly cutting edge… Occasionally to the point of pretentious but well, I’d rather have pretension than no new art, hands down. With that in mind, I was interested and a little wary when I read the press release for Cory Arcangel’s Beat the Champ in The Curve – An area of the centre used to showcase new innovative artists.

Cory Arcangel 2011-Beat the Champ. Photography by Amelia Gregory

A digital artist from Brooklyn, New York (alarm bells), Arcangel has rigged up a whole bank of games consoles, ranging from a 1970s Atari to a current (as far as I’m aware) Playstation Three, each fitted with a bowling simulator game. The clever part is that he’s rejigged the games so that the bowler will always strike out. The controllers attached to each console have been physically rewired so that nobody can ever win.

It’s a surprisingly arresting installation. I’m tempted to say I was bowled over but that’s just cheap, you readers are better than that. For such a seemingly simple idea I had a number of reactions. I was immediately impressed, in the most literal sense, by the scale of the projections. Floor to ceiling along one side of the space. The larger than life bowling alley of the present day game meant I almost felt as though I was in place of the player. It’s also realy cool to see just how much video game technology has changed over such a short time.

Cory Arcangel 2011-Beat the Champ. Photography by Amelia Gregory

The first bowling game in the group is a pixilated figure, all white on a bue background and barely discernable as man-shaped, who slowly rolls a ball to a bleeping 8-bit soundtrack. Compared to the games we’re used to now it’s hard to imagine how this could ever hold anyone’s attention for more than five minutes. Then there are the hilarious 90s efforts, all thumbs up, shades and backwards baseball caps like that episode of the Simpsons when Itchy & Scratchy introduce Poochy the skateboarding dog.

Cory Arcangel 2011-Beat the Champ. Photography by Amelia Gregory

The modern day game is as life like as can be, the player is a pudgy middle aged bowler and he bewails his constant gutter balls with his head in his hands. There is, undoubtedly, an interesting emotional response to seeing these virtual bowlers perpetually losing out. In interviews Arcangel has described himself as “glass half empty kind of person” and his past work has included a hack of a Super Mario Brothers game whereby everything was removed except the pixelated clouds rolling past. The rolling Mario clouds and the pins that never get knocked down both seem so naïve but suggest a sort of post modern existentialism which I really like. The title of the installation is interesting, perhaps driving home the idea of futility, the bowlers are never going to Beat the Champ. They’re never ever going to roll anything other than a gutter ball and I guess, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, the idea might be that that’s what we’re all afraid of doing with our lives.

Cory Arcangel 2011-Beat the Champ. Photography by Amelia Gregory

Beat the Champ is in The Curve at the Barbican until May 22nd 2011 and admittance is FREE. Find out more in our listing here.

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