Pages from Working On My Novel. Photo: Penguin
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Artful procrastination: Cory Arcangel and Jonah Peretti on a book of tweets about writing books

What do you do if you have a novel to write? Go to Twitter, and tweet about the work you're not doing, of course. Artist Cory Arcangel's new book is a compilation of those who couldn't resist tweeting the words "working on my novel".

Cory Arcangel is a Brooklyn-based artist whose work combines film, music, video games, the internet and performance art. Originally a student of classical guitar, Arcangel moved into studying the technology of music, and his work since the turn of the millenium has sought inspiration from the machines that fill our lives.

He has hacked a Super Mario Bros. cartridge to remove all of the game’s graphics except for its fluffy white clouds; he’s produced a glockenspiel accompaniment for Bruce Springsteen’s album Born to Run; and very recently he helped recover lost works that Andy Warhol had produced using an Amiga 1000 in the mid-80s. He now has a book out, called Working On My Novel. It’s a compilation of tweets, found on twitter by searching for the phrase “working on my novel”, and retweeted by Arcangel’s account of the same name. From such a simple premise comes an amusing and sincere collection of procrastinations and distractions - especially familiar to those of us who know the power of Twitter all too well.

I spoke via Skype to both Arcangel and his friend Jonah Peretti, the founder of the viral website Buzzfeed - himself no stranger to the idea of compiling the tweets of strangers for comic effect. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity.

I’m told that you two are friends, which means I have to start this by asking Cory - why didn’t you publish this on Buzzfeed, as a listicle?
Cory Arcangel: Oh, that is a great first question. Because, actually the first time that I published anything related to this idea… I mean, basically, when I thought of this idea I was working as a Buzzfeed editor, right Jonah?

Jonah Peretti: Yeah.

CA: And I, as one of my posts, I posted just a link which was to a URL which was a live search on Twitter for the phrase “working on my novel”. So actually it was published first on Buzzfeed. But this was very early Buzzfeed, so maybe - Jonah, correct me if I’m wrong - it was before Buzzfeed was the Buzzfeed as we know it.

JP: Yeah, it was a period of Buzzfeed where we were in a little office in Chinatown in New York, and we had maybe a dozen people, and it was really a lab. And the reason Cory was in the office was that I’d find interesting friends and say “hey, do you want to come one day a week and publish on Buzzfeed?” Cory was one of the friends who took me up on it.

CA: Yeah. And the thing I remember the most is you had some kind of coffee there. I hadn’t started drinking coffee yet, and you all had some kind of crazy... remember there was some thing about somebody getting a certain brand of coffee they’d bring? And I’d have two cups of it and I’d just, like, I was on the roof the whole time. And this idea came out of one of these coffee frenzies.

And why specifically “working on my novel”? Were you working, distracted, on a novel at the time?
CA: Well…

Or it’s fun to laugh at people distract themselves on Twitter.
CA: It was 2009, so it wasn’t brand new, but it was newish in culture. And I was just trying to wrap my head around it. And Jonah, am I right, that was still the era of the blog, I think?

JP: Yeah, blogging was still big. Facebook was still a simple social network, it didn’t have content on it, it was just a way to connect with your friends. Twitter was a lot smaller. In terms of watching Cory over the years, he often plays with things and gets an idea and then does something many years later with the idea. If the idea sticks with him for five years then it’s probably a good idea, and he should do something. I think this is another example of that with this book, which wasn’t like he thought of it and did it the next week and, “oh, this is an easy idea, I’ll just round up a bunch of tweets and have a book”. This is something he’d been thinking of for many years.

CA: Yeah, five years, from beginning to end. It went from, as Jonah was saying, all of a sudden we had micro. People were tweeting sentences, and that was a new thing, and I was trying to figure out what... I mean, it’s hard to remember, it’s hard to think about now, but what does it mean that it’s new, and that, of course, it seems perfectly obvious to contrast it to the novel. That was the first thing that came to my head.

It seems like a funny rejoinder to the discussion about the idea of using things like Twitter for 21st-century fiction. The novelist David Mitchell, for instance, is tweeting out, bit by bit, bits of his new new novel.
CA: I don’t know if it’s a response to that, but I definitely think of it as a novel. A novel novel. And it’s fiction - we decided it was fiction - because we had a long conversation and we purposely made it in the Penguin default novel template. So it really feels like a novel, smells like a novel. But, you know, I do really think of it as a real book.

When you had that long conversation about why it’s a novel, do you think it has a narrative for instance?
CA: The long conversation at Penguin was whether it was fiction or non-fiction. We could have gone either way, but fiction to me seemed more poetic. But yeah, there is a narrative, and if you have the book there are these tea kettle drawings [that] serve as the chapter markers between different sections. So there’s a kind of "chill" section, there’s a culture section where people are talking about the kind of culture that they surround themselves with while writing the novel, there’s a kind of punchline section, that just says “working on my novel” page after page. There is a desperation section, where people are getting really stressed out, and then there’s the triumph section, where the books ends up. The book kind of ends on a high note, a kind of creative triumph.

JP: What I would say is that the book itself is a triumph. A literary triumph.

CA: [laughs]

JP: Another thing I find so interesting is that so many of the interesting things that have come out of the web have come out of procrastination. I think it’s probably true in art as well, but my whole career is based on procrastination - writing my master’s thesis and discovering, accidentally, the viral web, and I think the relationship between procrastination and doing meaningful work is pretty interesting right now, and it’s sometimes the things that people dismiss the most that are the most valuable generative activities.

CA: Yeah, it’s funny Jonah you say that, you know, there’s a really great artist in New York named David Hammons, and he has this great line where - I can’t remember it exactly - but it’s something like he makes his best stuff while he’s on his way from one end of the studio, like… I’m ruining this story, but the idea is that he’s in his studio going from point A to point B, to complete a task, it’s what he does on the way, by wasting time, is where all his good ideas come from. So I think there’s something about procrastination, or when you turn off your mind, it’s kind of like when you relax.

There are a lot of great artists who talk about walking being conducive to creativity, and I guess that’s a kind of procrastination as well. And this is just going for a walk along the internet, in a way.
CA: Yeah, forced procrastination.

JP: It also reminds me of your line of surfwear, which is - I don’t know if you know about this project - but it’s clothes and apparel for when you’re lying in bed surfing the internet. Which is, essentially, lifestyle products created by Cory to improve the art of procrastination.

CA: [laughs] Yeah, to make it more comfortable.

A promotional shot of models in Arcangel Surfware clothing on a bed with Arcangel Surfware sheets. Photo: Cory Arcangel

I think I’ve seen these. These are the Photoshop colour swatches.
CA: Yeah, the Arcangel surfwear, yeah.

I saw, and briefly coveted, the duvet cover.
CA: Yeah, that was the piece de resistance, the bedsheets, which actually was a lot harder than I ever imagined.

Really? I’m interested to hear how hard it is to create a duvet cover.
CA: Well there aren’t so many factories that make that kind of thing. Most of them are in China, and while some are made in the United States, there’s not, like, a factory in New York that makes them. And there isn’t like a Zazzle [a site where users can upload images to be printed on t-shirts] for them or whatever, you know.

So in the course of trying of trying to create a line of products that celebrate procrastination, you actually had to do a lot of work.
CA: That’s the thing actually, and I’m sure Jonah knows about this, for this book I had to write a spider that actually recorded Twitter, the “working on my novel” mentions for two years, because Twitter doesn’t - or at least at the time - didn’t have an archive. And then I had to write a content management system to administer the permissions, and keep track of whether people wanted to be in the novel or not, so actually the book took quite a bit of work, and it actually took quite a bit of software. And staring at Excel spreadsheets. It’s often things that look easy sometimes aren’t so easy, but often some things that are easy are also very easy.

And also, a compilation of things like this is also resulting in a book tour, for instance, so from a very simple procrastination idea you’ve created a lot of work for yourself.
CA: Yeah, that’s the story of my life.

In the news recently there were these recovered Andy Warhol artworks, which were produced on an Amiga 1000 PC in the mid-80s. I found this a really interesting story, of recovering works on a dead format and bringing them to life again. I was wondering if you’d mind talking about that for a bit.
CA: That was another long-term project that I’d done over the last couple of years. That was in collaboration with several organisations - one was the Carnegie Museum, one was the Carnegie Studio for Creative Inquiry, and also the Andy Warhol Museum, and also the Carnegie Mellon Computer Club, so a lot of people were involved, and I was just kind of the email writer, basically. And making sure I cc’d everbody. And the short story is, yeah, Andy Warhol had an Amiga. The Warhol Museum had his archive of all his Amiga disks, and his computers, because Andy Warhol was a totally crazy horder.

I can believe that.
CA:I don’t know if you know, but he never threw anything out his whole life, basically. So the Warhol Museum has his archive, but it’s like half a million objects or something. They’re still going through it, and thus they had never done his disks, you know, they had never looked at them. So I kind of arranged with this great computer hacking club at Carnege Mellon called the Carnegie Mellon Computer Club to look at his disks and see if there’s anything on them, and it turns out yeah, there’s a bunch of drawings by him.

JP: And the other thing I think is amazing is that it turned out those were the greatest works Andy Warhol ever did.

CA: [laughs] I wouldn’t say they’re the greatest, but they’re masterpieces, do you know what I mean? Especially this one he did of Marilyn Monroe, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, he scribbles all around it. They’re really amazing, they’re much better than my computer stuff.

I saw that fascinating video that was discovered of him doing it on TV, in the 80s, and he was drawing Debbie Harry live on TV. That was a really interesting relic, I guess.
CA: Yeah, that’s why he had an Amiga, because Amiga hired him to be the spokesman for the launch. And they basically shoved the Amiga onto him with an engineer and sat him down for, I think, a couple of months preceding that launch, and taught him how to draw. And that resulted in the video, and we think - but nobody really knows - the files were basically him practicing for the launch. It’s super fascinating, and it was a really amazing project, especially with this computer club. I don’t know if you have a chance to look into their work, but it’s really brilliant.

And those artworks are now going on tour?
CA: Not that I know of. In terms of my involvement in the project, the end state was they were published. They don’t actually exist, they’re just digital files. So I don’t know how they would go on tour, though I’m sure somebody could figure it out. I mean, in a way, when they were published online they went on tour around the world in five seconds.

CA: In fact, Jonah, you know what I did the other day? I was looking for the original Buzzfeed post of Working On My Novel, and I found it on

JP: Really?

CA: Yeah, I’ll send it to both of you. It’s kind of amazing, on the whole website loads as it did, the post looks exactly like it did in 2009.

JP: Yeah, they don’t capture everything, but it’s a pretty amazing service.

CA: I think they definitely don’t capture everything, so I was really surprised that somehow they got it. I think as sites get more dynamic, it gets harder to capture stuff.

It does, especially social media and forums and so on where it’s kind of impossible to grasp the flow of conversation in those mediums.
CA: Yeah, totally.

Going back to the idea of Working On My Novel having a narrative, it’s just occurred to me, do you consider Buzzfeed to have a narrative, and be a work of fiction, as a whole?
CA: Oh I love it Jonah, go for it.

JP: Well, Buzzfeed is more things than people realise. We do news content, which is definitely not fiction. We have two reporters in the Ukraine right now, we did our first reporting from inside Baghdad recently, we have an investigative journalism team that’s covering all kinds of things, a breaking news team, so a whole bunch of news which is relatively new to us as a company. We weren’t doing that when Cory was hanging out with us in those early day. And then we’re an entertainment company that makes lists and quizzes, and that, I think, is fiction in the broadest sense, of fun, entertaining content, and there’s a lot of storytelling to it. And then we also do a lot of life content, or lifestyle content, things like DIY and food and things that are focussed on improving peoples’ lives, which is more service oriented content. So I’d say those are the three broad categories. And then our video operation in Los Angeles - we’re on a three acre studio lot, we’ve been building that out, and we’re doing a lot of work on the future of fiction and where will storytelling go, and that’s led by Ze Frank, who’s another very interesting guy who was doing a lot of great early stuff on the internet.

I remember loving a lot of his work. But this makes me wonder, Cory, does this mean that you could print off the fiction bit of Buzzfeed and remix that, or repurpose that?
CA: Oh you know, it’s so funny, it was so much work to do the book, I can’t even… [laughs]

A lot of work to document this procrastination.
CA: I’m sure in a couple of years, after the dust clears. But right now I can go in the other direction, the thing that’s fun about a book is it’s really locked down. And I live, and I’m sure Jonah also, you know, you really live in this digital world which is basically a temporary performance. Everything is so ephemeral. It’s so fun to lock something down onto a piece of paper, because it’s so different from what I’m used to have been doing for the last 20 years.

Like actually, I realise. It’s like your own personal
CA: As a piece of archival technology, a book is really unbeatable.

The battery never dies.
CA: Yeah, yeah, totally.

JP: Gotta be careful of fires.

CA: Yeah, was just going to say. Like the Alexandria Library or something, the one Achilles heel of a book, it’s fire.

So let’s hope there are no fires. Or EMPs either, because the entire ephemerality of the internet will disappear as well.
C: What is EMP?

Electro-magnetic pulse.
C: Is that a real thing?

It is. It’s a side effect of nuclear explosions, which is obviously a cheery topic. But yeah, you’ll be laughing when you have a book and everyone’s complaining that their tablets are dead.
C: Actually, the book is available on Kindle, which I have to take a look at. That sounds cool to me.

J: It’ll be great in the post-nuclear, post-apocalyptic world that we’ll be able to read about people procrastinating on their novels. Civilisation has survived!

This piece forms part of our Social Media Week. Click here to read the introduction, and here to see the other pieces in the series.


Now listen to an edited extract of Ian, Cory and Jonah's conversation on the NS podcast:

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to:

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle