In the gutter

It is very boring to explain a joke. Conceptual art often functions much like a joke or an advert; set up and punch line. Wit has been described as a joke that isn’t funny. Perhaps conceptual art could be described as a witless joke that isn’t funny.

So anyway, Cory Arcangel. Known for using videogames in his work, his latest piece is a group projection of bowling videogames called Various Self Playing Bowling Games. In a long dark corridor, games running on consoles from an Atari to an N64 are screened side by side and every player in every game shoots a gutter ball. Over and over.

Get it? No, of course not. There’s nothing to ‘get’ in the way you get a joke. But we can say the work is ‘about’ something, that it ‘deals with issues of’ something, it ‘negotiates’ whatever. Ennui, human extinction, everyday futility, artificial intelligence, virtual reality. It does do all this and these things are interesting of course, but Various Self Playing Bowling Games just sort of states them in that blank, Warhol way – which we’re also supposed to see as a wry comment on the whole thing – without any critical thinking or action.

It is truly art as depression.

But it’s not like I hate conceptual art by default or even Arcangel’s work itself. Many gamers have been irritated by Arcangel’s most famous work, Super Mario Clouds, and even though many of the complaints I have with Bowling Games could be levelled at that piece just as easily, I can’t bring myself to hate it. In fact I still really quite like it. Both works are blank and depressed, but Super Mario Clouds is so in a way that seems almost blissful.

But maybe the real reason I like the older work is that it is from 2002. In 2011 this sort of resigned ennui seems not only irrelevant, but outright reactionary.