- Against Critique: Fluxus and the Hacker Aesthetic
Imagine a gallery with four works on display. On one side of the room, a television, turned on its side, sits on a plinth. From the outside, it looks like an ordinary TV, but its internal components have been transformed and its wires manipulated so that, when plugged into an active electrical socket, all that it produces is a single, vertical white line down the middle of the screen (see figure 1). Near the TV, on a second, wider plinth, rests a set of three ping-pong paddles. Each one has been modified in a different way: one has been fitted with a can of water, another with a split sphere of white Styrofoam, and the third has had its center cut out, leaving only the outer rim of the paddle with which to strike the ball (see figure 2).
On the other side of the room, a digital projector displays on the wall a slow-moving animation of Elvis Presley in his white rhinestone-studded suit as his body—twisting and twitching— tumbles through a thick pink field. Other Elvises, some dressed in blue, others in red, float into and out of the space (see figure 3). Like the TV on its side, this projected image was produced by electronic manipulation. It was made by modifying a violent and bloody video game, Unreal. Elvis’s motions have been produced by the code that drives the real-time physics system which, in the original game, is used to generate the agonized spasms of the player’s avatar at the moment it dies. Not far from this digital projection is the fourth object on display. Resting on the floor is a small square mat of green carpet, on one corner of which is a TV monitor attached to a game console (see figure 4). The monitor displays a digitally animated image of a golfer standing on the putting green next to his ball. On the other corner of the carpet, [End Page 787] attached by a cable to the same game console, is a real golf ball that when struck directs the movement of the virtual ball on the monitor. Viewers are invited to choose one of the two supplied putters and try to strike the ball so that its digital representation on the monitor will roll toward the hole and drop in. But the game cartridge has been rigged so that no matter how one strikes it, the ball will always careen wildly off mark. Like the three paddles on the other side of the room, the equipment on offer makes it impossible to play the game as it was originally intended to be played.
The video and the golf game are recent works. The former, KarmaPhysics < Elvis, was developed by Brody Condon in 2004, and the latter, Masters, by Cory Arcangel, was first exhibited at the Whitney Museum of Art in 2011, on the occasion of the artist’s first major museum exhibition. Regarding the gaming elements he uses to make works such as KarmaPhysics < Elvis, Condon claims to be motivated by “the pure aesthetic joy of watching progression from one graphics generation to another,” and by “forming an intuitive relationship with those images, and now having the ability to crack them open, rearrange, and play with those aesthetics and structures at this point through emulators, PC game modding, and console hacking.”1 Arcangel has described his interests in similar terms. In a 2006 lecture, he referred to his work as “hacks” designed in the spirit of the computer geek. In explaining the construction and operation of his Pizza Party hack (2004), a program designed to enable one to order a pizza using command line code, Arcangel described it as “for nerds only.”2
The “hacks” on the other side of the room, although similar in key respects to those by Arcangel and Condon, are of an altogether different vintage. The TV on its side was first exhibited by Nam June Paik in 1963 alongside a dozen other modified TVs (Paik referred to them not as hacked but rather prepared, a term John Cage had coined to describe his...