Cory Arcangel, Barbican, London

Nobody ever beats the champ in the Barbican's new video-game installation – but the witty result scores highly

Reviewed,Charles Darwent
Sunday 13 February 2011 01:00 GMT

Let's get it over with. I haven't played a video game since 1980, OK? Space Invaders, it was: I was crap.

I'm not even sure that those things people play on consoles these days are still called video games. Who knows? What are The Beatles? Search me.

This is not to celebrate fogey-ness, but to mourn it. We live in a day when images have a popularity that couldn't have been dreamt of 30 years ago. A quick Google search shows that the average under-40 gamer spends 13 hours a week twiddling; it takes 48 hours – two full days – for this habit to rank as "extreme". We live in a time, too, when the lines between hierarchies of image, high art and low, have been blurred. Roland Barthes could write about a car as though it was a Raphael: he would have loved video games. Maybe we all should. Art history can't just be about the beaux arts any more, and neither can art and art criticism.

That said, it is reassuring to find that Cory Arcangel isn't a gamer either. Arcangel is a 32-year-old media artist from Brooklyn, a description designed to make 52-year-old art critics from Vauxhall blench. He has installed 14 bowling games in the Barbican's Curve gallery, blowing them up to something like five metres by five and projecting them side-by-side in a seamless, chronological line. The earliest game is an Atari from 1977, the newest a Gamecube from 2001. Each has been rigged not just to lose but to score zero. Fourteen sequential bowlers pick up their bowling balls, take aim at the pins and miss, again and again and again. "Top score: 220. Average score: 150. Your score: 0," says one, speaking for all. "Let's play!"

Easy enough, you'd say, and you'd be right, but not quite. Arcangel didn't do his own graphics; he found them – "appropriated", in the jargon of art – and put them together. And yet Beat the Champ is the best thing I've seen this short year, complex and funny and moving.

Taken at its most obvious, Arcangel's installation is a highly focused snapshot of a cultural quarter of a century. In 1977, gaming technology stretched to a grey screen with a pixellated black-and-white man bowling a square ball at blobs that were pins. There was no attempt at perspective, or realism. By 2001, computer design had become vastly more sophisticated. The tow-haired hero of Arcangel's last mini-drama creases his brow, puts his head in his hands and, when he lobs his ball straight down the gutter, looks as though he might cry, all against a faux-3D backdrop.

Late 20th-century gaming graphics thus reverse the order of early 20th-century painting, moving from abstraction to representation rather than the other way around. This poses a question. Is the highly evolved bowler of 2001 more compelling to watch than his pixellated forebear of 1977? No, I think, is the answer. In providing us with more visual information, modern graphics take our eye off the ball. Bowling games, like all games, act out some primitive gladiatorial drama that may not be best served by cleverness.

Against this Bayeux Tapestry of bowling, one thing remains constant. For there to be winners, there have to be losers; and Arcangel's various characters are united in failure, each doomed, like some cartoon Sisyphus, to watch his ball roll forever the wrong way. Or her ball. Some time in the 1980s, women are admitted to this legion of the damned. The only character whose failure seems clearly the result of poor technique is a pony-tailed chick who stares blankly down the lanes, then turns and hurls her ball in the opposite direction. Women bowling: silly idea, really. Some defy their fate, like the muscular teen of game five who blows bubblegum in our faces before scoring nul points. Ha! Take that, Bubble Boy! But the same fate befalls the hero of the next game, a regular guy in a blue shirt and unwise bowling shoes; and he, having had a hard day, really needs to win.

Which is to say that all human life is there in Beat the Champ, and it all comes to a single end: defeat. However we evolve, the result is the same. Technological triumph in Arcangel's hands exists merely the better to illustrate failure. Against the amplified fairground noise of the 14 soundtracks and the cheery associations of cartoons and games is something timeless and sad. Beat the Champ reminds me of Martin Creed's Tate Britain sprinters, endlessly turning the heroism of combat to loss. Both works make a lot out of little, and both are rather wonderful.

To 22 May (020-7638 4141)

Next Week:

Charles Darwent dips into Watercolour at Tate Britain

Art Choice

Simon Starling: Recent History brings together previously unseen works by the Turner Prize-winner. Employing video, film, slide projections, photography and sculpture, Starling's work reveals unexpected histories through his forensic, if sometimes elliptical, unravelling of an image, object or event (Tate St Ives to 2 May). London's Tate Britain is home to a lauded retrospective of Susan Hiller's mixed-media work, above; let yourself be haunted by all the ghostly whisperings (to 15 May).

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