'Cory Arcangel talks bots and YouTube channels gone rogue' - Art Basel Stories
17 May 2023
‘You asked for an avant-garde video? Well, I got some for you right here’
When we chat with Cory Arcangel about his upcoming work for Art Basel Unlimited, he dials in from Stavanger, Norway, where he’s lived and worked since 2015. It’s fitting that Arcangel, who grew up in Buffalo, New York – with the likes of Tony Conrad and other experimental video and sound artists who would appear on local access TV – would settle in a place like Stavanger, which is the onshore epicenter of Norway’s offshore oil industry. Since his first forays into art as a teenager in the 1990s, the artist and composer has sought to highlight the invisible systems that cause things to run the way they do – the programs, code, and protocols that, for most people, remain unseen. But it is at this software-level that most of Arcangel’s works begin. Take, for instance, his 2002 Super Mario Clouds, for which he modified a Nintendo cartridge to omit all of the game’s graphic content, except for the iconic white clouds, which scroll ad infinitum across a blue-sky void; or his 2008 installation Permanent Vacation, in which he condemned the mail clients of two iMacs to an eternal out-of-office email loop.
In June, Arcangel will show a new work in Art Basel’s Unlimited sector that likewise reaches beyond the screen to reprogram how things work. ‘Do you remember Elsagate?,’ Arcangel asks. ‘It was this thing that happened to YouTube six or seven years ago, where people noticed that their kids [after watching some Frozen-themed content] were being served weird videos of like a 3D finger going into 3D marbles. I figured somebody built a system that algorithmically generates these videos based on a feedback loop of what kids want to see.’ With Related to Your Interests (RTYI) (2020–2021), he says, ‘I wanted to get into that Elsagate energy and figure out how to make one of these bot-generated YouTube channels… but to do it in a way where the videos, instead of attracting views, become increasingly worse.’
If you’re wondering how such a channel is made, the answer is with the help of bots. ‘Using the Diffbot API,’ Arcangel explains, ‘we could send the bot to a website, ask it to figure out what content was important, figure out the tags, and even identify key themes. In a way, Diffbot could “understand” a webpage.’ Of course, even intelligent bots are only as good as their source material and Arcangel had a very specific kind of source in mind. ‘We had this list of spammy, gossipy websites from the 2010s – the kind that could have been made by bots or humans. It wasn’t clear.’ Arcangel lays out the process for us: ‘Diffbot would pick two sites from that list at random and then one article from each. From there, it would assign tags – whatever it thought the articles were talking about – and use Google Images to search those terms. We then asked it to combine the content from both sources, using Google Voice to read the new gibberish text and then smash that audio together with a slideshow using the results of its image search, as if weaving the sites together. Finally, it would post the video to YouTube and it did all of this without my…,’ Arcangel trails off. ‘There was no curating. It just happened.’
Read Caroline Busta & Lil Internet's full conversation with Cory Arcangel for Art Basel Stories here.
Cory Arcangel's presentation at Art Basel Unlimited is on view in Basel from 15 – 18 June.
Photo by Tonje Thilesen for Art Basel.