If you happened to have grown up during the peak period of video game popularity in the ’80s and ’90s, you probably have a connection to the iconography and sounds of these products even if you don’t have an awareness of the variety of subcultures they have since inspired. The shared experience of these two decades may not be enough for the casual viewing audience to understand everything discussed in 8 BIT: A Documentary about Art and Videogames, which premieres Oct. 7 at MoMA, but then again, author Brian Greene urged novice readers of The Elegant Universe, his famous book on string theory, to skip some of the more difficult chapters, and that didn’t seem to adversely affect its popularity.
Unlike The Elegant Universe however, this movie was not designed with the intent to make specialized knowledge palatable to the public; videogame subculture is a response to products of mass culture and is thus generally accessible by its very nature. 8 BIT‘s primary goal is to treat video games as a medium independent from television, video, film, music etc. and situate artist practice within a modern and postmodern discourse. This is quite a lot to bite off given that this not only the first major cinematic attempt to do so, but is also a document of a scene so young that there are almost no artists who have been working in the medium longer than seven years. Yet the scene has become so large that the film selectively features more than 10 artists’ music as well as interviews with over 20 key players in the field, from the famous crossover musician and gallery and Net artist Cory Arcangel to Game Boy musicians like Bubblyfish (and those who use even older gear like Treewave and Bodenstandig) to artists like John Klima who use recent game aesthetics to make their art to new media critics Mary Flanagan, Ed Halter and Tom Moody.
Incredibly, while young, the movement boasts enough practicing artists that omissions — most notably the absence of the collective PaperRad — are quite glaring. None of the members in this group may be programmers, but that is precisely the reason for inclusion: Visual artists without programming skills who are inspired by 8-bit visuals are hardly an insignificant part of the genre. PaperRad in particular speaks to how video game culture — when interwoven with advertising, toys, animation, comic books and other cultural phenomena — are part of the cultural consciousness of their generation.
Like virtually every artist featured in the film, the collective is part of a generation that has never known a time without video games. Perhaps this explains why the scene is made up of individuals who are incredibly intense. You really only need to see one shot of a group of computer nerds heavily concentrating on their portable game systems to get this idea, but if this isn’t enough, you can take your pick of scenes with Moody, Alex Galloway and Nullsleep, who each provide more than enough commentary to convince you. Cultural critic Halter provides the best insight into this kind of consuming interest, describing an old video game from the ’80s that created a huge controversy for its violent and bloody 8-pixel representation of an injury. Of course, the idea of such outrage today is ludicrous, but as Halter wisely points out, the fact that the cultural imagination could find scandal in these images reveals a significant level of investment in the games.
Illuminating clips and observations like these make the movie. The filmmakers work with the awareness that it isn’t enough to simply say that artists grew up playing videogames; rather, they must attempt to illustrate what this means to this group of people. As a common attribute, the blogger and artist Moody tells me, “The DIY (do it yourself), hacker, guerrilla mindset is a constant theme… [T]he topic is bigger than videogames. One thing I like about the film is it casts its net wider than just a small scene.”
And despite the omission I mentioned earlier, Moody is right. As the first movie of its kind to document and situate the 8-bit scene within contemporary art discourse, 8 BIT should be recognized for its potential to become a seminal document of 21st century new media arts.