Hacking Nostalgia: Super Mario Clouds
Cory Arcangel’s reconfiguration of classic video games into video art may at first be considered an Lose Weight Exercise in nostalgia. Indeed, Arcangel is widely noted for his use of obsolete media and retro-style video games as artistic material. As a member of the Nintendo generation, Arcangel often encounters remediated cultural signifiers of his childhood within the ever growing video game community and market. Nostalgia in the video game industry and gaming community is essentially a desire for an unattainable and simulated past and yet one that works actively to construct an alternative genealogy that reflects the personal and cultural memories invested in video games. The desire for authorial control over simulated memories of digital interaction shows that a framework is required to conceive of digital cultural memory and the ways in which it can be considered and contributed to. Arcangel’s video art, especially his video piece Super Mario Clouds, requires a utilization of nostalgia and digital cultural memory to fully interactive with the work. However, his reconfigured classic video game does not instigate nostalgia in viewers, but invigorates a new framework in which to examine temporality and memory in virtual environments. This is achieved through a collective interactivity with the work that re-authors a video game narrative rather than conforms to it and thus exists within a present moment of actualizing the self as co-producer of digital culture. Immersive simulation in video gaming and intricately networked information communities has made existence within the present almost unattainable. Many members of the digital and gaming community have cultural and biographical memories that were created in virtual capacities but there is little understanding as to how to recall them or present them as legitimate. This paper examines digital and nostalgic methods for articulating and documenting digital cultural history through the use of Cory Arcangel. His art is symbolic of the genealogical methods for reconsidering the digital citizen and consumer, but most significantly, providing this culture with an archive that does not simulate its history but reflects it through its need to be made.
“There is no Game Over anymore –
it has long since been hacked out.”
– Raphael Gygax
While playing Mega Man 9 at a friend’s place earlier this year, I complained bitterly to him, “this is hard” as I tossed the Nintendo Wii controller on the couch. His immediate response was, “Good! That’s how games should be.” The 2008 version of the classic 1980’s arcade game Mega Man, Mega Man 9, simulates its old school predecessor through boxy pixilated icons, challenging mazes and repetitive electronic music. According to a recent review, “Mega Man 9 is exactly what hardcore gamers were hoping it would be, as Capcom has come out of the gate with a game that’s full of nostalgia and fan service, but also one that truly does rival the best in the franchise’s 8-bit roots” (Bozon). My friend’s response was emblematic of the Nintendo generation come of age; their definitions and expectations of all game play are predicated upon their 8-bit upbringing. Artist Cory Arcangel, a loyal member of the Nintendo generation, utilizes the nostalgia for simulation, nostalgia for classic game interfaces and characters such as Nintendo’s Mario as an artistic method that promotes an alternative framework for memory recollection and community participation in a digital age. This paper examines the ways in which Arcangel refuses as well as revels in nostalgia through hacking, remediation and 8-bit programming. Through his reconfiguration of video games into video art, specifically his 2003 work Super Mario Clouds, Arcangel encourages his audience to participate in interactivity collectively, exploding the memories many of us cherish of being the sole player in an epic game. This paper will argue that with Super Mario Clouds, Cory Arcangel provides a conceptual tool for examining memories of simulated environments like those manifested in nostalgia for classic video games by crafting a collective moment of interactivity within strategic narrative and aesthetic voids in his art. The restructuring of the game’s narrative voids as an audience, thereby creating a new experience and not a simulated one, is a way in which audiences can reconfigure their position as consumers of media into producers of meaning. Through his art, simulation and illusion is exposed and the audience is made active through their participation in what appears to be a nostalgic Lose Weight Exercise, but is in fact not. Arcangel uses nostalgia, memory and simulation to create a present moment in which memories of video game play, and therefore digital cultural memory, are consciously recollected rather than replayed.
Consuming Nostalgia: “Classic Games”
It is essential to consider the nostalgic characteristics within the video game community, and classic games in particular, in order to fully consider Cory Arcangel’s video game art as a nuanced experience for audiences shaped by their participation within digital culture. The following is a detailed analysis of the cultural significance of nostalgia for gamers, most of whom grew up playing classic video games. The very notion of a “classic” video game is fostered by the social and economic construction of nostalgia within the gaming community. The classic game era is typically remembered as the time in the late 1970’s and 1980’s when game memory was limited and game play was characterized by scrolling two-dimensional graphics, looping soundtracks and the inability to save one’s progress. A game becomes classic because it was available in the initial years of the video game industry and most likely popular in local arcades and later in consumers’ homes. A classic game was probably played with friends, required some degree of skill to play and necessitated a substantial amount of time and energy to master. Nostalgia for this game play by gamers who were born in the 1970’s and 1980’s is a methodological tool for inclusion into an elite community that has grown into a sophisticated consumer market. The gaming industry in the United States is a huge business, with this year’s sales expected to reach 22 billion dollars (Takahashi). The industry’s similarly exponential growth in technological capability, such as advanced video cards and expandable memory, are subsequently reflected in the consumer computer market as well as the movie industry. However, regardless of how sophisticated the video industry becomes, nostalgia for classic video games acts as a signifier of historical knowledge, a symbol of prestige within an elite community of gamers as well as within a digitized society marked by access to and consumption of information.
Nostalgia for classic video games is a historicizing of personal and collective narratives symbiotically encouraged by video gamers as well as marketed to them by the industry. Classic game packages and emulators have always been a major component of the home video game market. Media theorist Arjen Mulder defines emulation as “the translation of hardware into software. Emulation makes it possible to run…every old and yet-to-be-developed PC program onto the average computer…in short, all the hardware of every time and everything it ever was, is and will be capable of doing” (Mulder 201). Emulators are essential to the notion of the classic game because it is through emulation and remediation that these games are most commonly played. Emulators collapse distinct conceptions of present and past because all computerized programs, whether consisting of obsolete graphics and limited memory or sophisticated video cards and expandable memory, are digital. Games can be remediated, meaning games that originally were played through one form of hardware can be played on all subsequent digital machines because digital technology is built using binary code. This binary protocological standard allows for obsolete games and software to have a continued presence in contemporary digital culture (Galloway). Matthew Thomas Payne examines the phenomenon of store-bought emulators, coined “plug n’ play games” (PNP’s), game consoles that can be purchased at a very low price and contain several classic arcade games such as Frogger or Pong. Payne writes,
The continued success of PNP’s is a testament to the lasting power of classic gaming texts, the nostalgic hold of past game play, and the deft ability of entertainment firms to delimit and reconfigure that complex history into small, plastic goods. Despite their size and disposable plastic shells, PNP’s speak volumes about our contested relationship to our larger gaming histories, including the titles we choose to deify, those we forget, and how free gamers are to remember, play and replay the past (65).
Emulators are a key selling point for sophisticated game consoles. The newest Nintendo console, the Nintendo Wii, allows users to download old school arcade games in an effort “to make the old new again-bringing it back in a shiny package-while also preserving most of its ‘classic’ qualities” (Taylor and Whalen 3).
Creating Genealogies: Gamers’ Agency and the Waning of Historicity
The popularity of emulators and the remediation of hardware, such as the Wii’s “classic” controller, a modern redesign of the 1983 Nintendo Entertainment System controller, are emblematic of what Frederic Jameson qualified as postmodernism, “an elaborated system of the waning of our historicity” (21). According to Jameson, the fragmented, decentered, and schizophrenic postmodern subject is unable to refer to the past in the same manner as the modern individual. He writes,
The insensible colonization of the present by the nostalgia mode can be observed in [the word ‘remake’]…we are now, in other words, in ‘intertextuality’ as a deliberate, built-in feature of the aesthetic effect and as the operator of a new connotation of ‘pastness’ and pseudohistorical depth, in which the history of aesthetic styles displaces ‘real’ history (20).
Jameson warned that the remixing and reconfiguring of past and present styles was a result of high capitalism, and that as history and culture become increasingly commodifiable, our conceptions of the past and the future would become indistinguishable and would thus diminish our ability to act politically in a relevant way. Jameson notes, “Temporality, then, is one of postmodernism’s first victims” (63). In game culture however, the past is made distinct from the present through the protocological parameters and nostalgic idealizations of the “classic.” Mega Man 9 is an intertextual game, taking elements from classic arcade games and using those elements as the foundational structure for its current narrative, yet players are aware of its retro-style logic, its nostalgic aesthetics. This conscious utilization of the past in present styles is symptomatic of Jameson’s postmodernism but players construct a unique form of agency by being adamant in making distinct the new, the old, and their intersections. Historicity, for gamers, is not ignored or superficial. In a digital culture most notable for its emphasis on information and information exchange, gamers are at the forefront of encouraging accuracy when considering the history of gaming and its corresponding technology- so much so, that to be incorrect would incite harsh criticism from the knowledge community that is the gaming world. Consider the limited edition packaging for Mega Man 9 [See Appendix 1]. An old school NES cartridge replica acts as the official case for the game CD, making clear that this new product pays homage to a classic style that is now obsolete, but essential to the heritage of gamers.
The video game industry’s self-reflexive recognition of its historical synergy with the childhood biographies of gamers and the video gaming community’s past and future trajectory reflects a dramatic shift in economic and social conceptions of the consumer. Henry Jenkins has argued that digital communities and information sharing has provided a platform for the consumer to become a more active participant in the making of mainstream culture. The marketing of classic gaming nostalgia and gamers’ utilization and consumption of classic game nostalgia is a way in which the gaming community can create a cultural genealogy of their childhood memories of virtual interactivity. In this way, gamers have found a sophisticated avenue in which to preserve their virtual history and thus their personal and collective memories of themselves where few tangible artifacts can be found. Emulators and new versions of “old school” games are actively creating a genealogy for gamers, a cultural history that is unique and distinct from the modernist conception of history as a linear progression of a master narrative.
Nostalgia for Simulacra: The Hyperreal
With the move from the arcade to the living room in the video game industry signaling a private and individual mode of interactivity with the game, a more thorough immersion into the game play was made possible. Classic games found in the local arcade in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s were generally categorized by short bursts of difficult challenges. Game theorist Jesper Juul considers the temporal components of game play with the following; “The economics of publicly available arcade games demanded that arcade game designers create extremely short (real-time) game sessions in order to have more players insert coins. The home game has made possible games of longer duration, save games, slow games…in fact, more varied game time” (139). The shift from the arcade to the “home game,” such as the home versions of Konami’s Frogger or the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) games, allowed gamers to save their progress and interact with the game on an individual level. The private interaction that many gamers had with their home game consoles created a memory of the game itself, rather than a memory of playing the game as one would have while in the arcade, being surrounded by other gamers and onlookers. Nostalgia for the hermetic memory of simulation coincides with Svetlana Boym’s considerations for the future of nostalgia. She writes, “Nostalgia charts space on time and time on space and hinders the distinction between subject and object…to unearth the fragments of nostalgia one needs a dual archaeology of memory and of place” (xviii). The nostalgia for simulation dissolves distinctions between subject and object, where memory of self and childhood becomes immersed in a digital memory made possible by the video game console. The subject is disembodied by an immersive memory of game play. The body is not remembered, nor is the subject remembered as separate from the game. The game itself is remembered as a totalizing vision, and the character in the game perhaps stands in for the player. In this way, the subject becomes fused with the virtual objecthood of the video game. The memory is not one of materiality; the individual memory, the nostalgia for video games is sentimentality for the virtual.
As home game consoles became widespread, the classic game experience became one of immersion – of a simulated hermetic memory. The aesthetics of the classic game then become extraordinarily important when they are re-played. The building block of the classic video game style is the 8-bit graphic. In his step-by-step instructions for hacking into the Nintendo program chip for what has become his most well known artistic endeavor, Super Mario Clouds, Cory Arcangel explains, “Ever wonder why Mario and Zelda were little squares? The Nintendo can only display graphics in 8 pixel by 8 pixel squares, and can only hold 8k of graphics in total” (Arcangel 108). The classic games’ aesthetic, replete with blocky pixilated squares, landscapes scrolling left to right and repetitive electronic soundtracks were less than realistic, and therefore required an increased mental effort to fill in the gaps. Game theorist Sean Fenty describes the participatory nature of old school graphics in his text “Why Old School is ‘Cool’”:
Graphic minimalism goes hand-in-hand with the absorptive, World Unto Itself quality that makes these games special…When we play these games, the sketchy visual detail forces us to fill in the blanks, and in so doing we bind ourselves to the game world. Even more, we participate in its creation, we are a linchpin, a co-creator, crucial to the existence of the game world as it is meant to be experienced (28).
Video games are by their very nature interactive. The player directs the movements of the character and must conform to the logic of the game play. The minimal visual information that is characteristic of classic games compounds this interactivity because one not only plays the game, but participates in the construction and comprehension of its aesthetic as well.
To fully realize the environment created by Cory Arcangel in his video game artwork Super Mario Clouds, this essay has considered the reflexive and unconscious uses of nostalgia in the gaming community. Because Arcangel’s work operates on a collective and individual level, a further investigation into the nature of nostalgia is required. Editors of Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games offered this definition of nostalgia:
Nostalgia is best understood as a process of looking back to an unattainable past and trying to bring that past into the present. This nostalgic turn can be seen as something negative in its desire to dwell in the past rather than to exist in the present. However, nostalgia can also be understood in constructive terms, as the process by which knowledge of the past is brought to bear on the present and the future (Taylor and Whalen 3).
Nostalgia for video games occurs on two levels, on an individual level and on a collective level. Because games are inherently interactive, individual players remember their game play through the repetitious movements and simple but unyielding logic that characterizes a specific video game. Extended game play is possible on an individual level, because a single player does not participate in an external dialogue that may make them aware of their material surroundings. They can play for as long as they wish and become engrossed in their environment, thereby losing sight of the outside temporal framework that structures daily life. Matthew Thomas Payne writes,
…players form lasting memories through the mental and physical act of repeated game play. Mediated game play is a psychosomatic event that bolsters the likelihood that gamers will remember a game’s characters, levels, and rules of play well after it disappears from popular circulation. Hence, the simple and repetitive operations at the core of the classics Frogger, Missile Command, and Galaga are major reasons for their cultural longevity (55).
Most games that the Nintendo generation played were massively produced and marketed games; therefore, most gamers played the same games. Game theorist Zach Whalen muses, “In this way, video games themselves have become quotations of our shared past, referencing their role in a general experience of youth” (6). Collective nostalgia in video gaming communities may also be formed in contradiction to Jameson’s conception of ahistoricity as gamers attempt to construct genealogies that reposition themselves as interactive participants and stewards of their digital cultural memory. Boym argues, “in a globalized culture in which cyberspace disarticulates people in both time and space, there is a countermovement to this process in the form of a collective nostalgia” (Harvey and Reading 170).
Collective nostalgia can be a tool for regaining political agency within the simulated memories that mark the Nintendo generation by constructing a genealogy of the experiences of many who struggle to articulate and document their memories because they are virtual. According to Jean Baudrillard, there is no longer a “real” in the postmodern world, only the hyperreal, that which exists without origins and is cyclically intertextual and referential. In his famed text Simulacra and Simulations, Baudrillard wrote, “When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning” (12). Gamers utilize collective nostalgia in opposition to the hyperreal to regain control over their own origin story. Video game nostalgia is based upon a simulated environment, where no “real” ever existed. It is possible that through video game analysis, hyperreal memories become even more authentic then real memories, because the landscapes and narratives that one remembers can be resurrected, predominately unchanged, through emulation. As simulations, games are in fact more material than our own memories, which cannot be referred to or re-experienced in quite the same way. And yet as simulations, games are immersive and the memories made in these environments are completely dominated by the game’s protocological framework and strategic codes.
Hacking the Game
Nostalgia has shown itself to be a tool for consumer communities, like those who exist primarily in virtual worlds as gamers do, to activate themselves as co-producers in their genealogies. Artist Cory Arcangel is emblematic of the confluence between consumer and producer by using video games to create his video art. Being a part of the Nintendo generation, Arcangel works with materials imbued with nostalgia such as classic games but through an artistic process of creation and revision, produces video game art that reflects transcendence from mere simulation of virtual memory into an actualized, live experience of being. To best explain this phenomenological and cerebral mode of interactivity, we look to the work itself and the process through which it was created (See Appendix 2). In 2002, artist Cory Arcangel hacked into an old school game, the 1985 Nintendo game Super Mario Brothers. He removed the original program chip and rewrote the code to force the original graphics chip, which remained unaltered, to only display two elements of the virtual landscape: the blue sky and fluffy white clouds scrolling across the screen.
Cory Arcangel’s hacking is symbolic of a larger virtualized community pushing the boundaries of the seemingly fixed virtual environments that dot the topography of gamers’ collective and personal memories. The hacker by definition is one who searches for and transgresses perceived and enforced boundaries in cyberspace. The hacker ethos has and continues to be the conviction that all information should be free, that people should educate themselves about the tools they use and fight against the privatization of cultural heritage seen through increasingly strict legislation related to copyright law and the criminalization of file-sharing. Author Steven Levy, in his 1984 book Hackers, described the hacker ethic with the following:
To a hacker a closed door is an insult, and a locked door is an outrage. Just as information should be clearly and elegantly transported within the computer, and just as software should be freely disseminated, hackers believed people should be allowed access to files or tools which might promote the hacker quest to find out and improve the way the world works (91).
Cory Arcangel hacked both the physical hardware of the game and as well as the game’s software. Detailed instructions for making one’s own Super Mario Clouds were posted online and printed as handouts to be disseminated when the project was installed in an art gallery. The tutorial, which goes line by line through the source code, begins with Arcangel’s contact information and the phrases, “you mess with the best, you die like the rest” and “punks jump up to get the beat down” which Arcangel insists were “aimed at media artists who think they can step to my style” (Arcangel, 106). The sharing of information, a mainstay of the old school hacker ethic of the 1960’s and 70’s, combines with Arcangel’s punk attitude regarding the value of “street” or more accurately net credibility found within hacker communities that developed in the 1990’s.
Hackers exist in the shadows of the net, adopting a disembodied personality that ensures a sphere of secrecy to obscure their actual identity. The hacker’s body and biography are unknown and “through the use of a handle, calls attention to the act of authorship announcing that she or he both is and is not who he or she claims to be…The appearance of the hacker signals the disappearance of the subject” (Thomas 106). Arcangel’s handle is, in fact, his real name. Consequently, he openly exposes himself while revealing his methods and tools, physically embodying the traditionally virtual hacker identity. He manually hacks into the hardware, removing a section from the game’s plastic catridge to fit the newly modified programming chip (See Appendix 3). His detailed instructions are also accompanied by photographs of him soldering the newly coded chip. Arcangel incorporates his body into the hack through the physical removal of material from the Nintendo cartridge. In doing so, he thereby reveals his autobiographical self while in the midst of hacking, paradoxically exposing himself while engrossed in an act that is characterized by its being performed in secrecy. The body is an important element in digital cultural memory as indicated by Arcangel’s artistic process as well as the haptic qualities of video gamers and the inquisitive tinkering that is essential to understanding digital media as a socio-political tool.
Obsolescence and Understanding: Gaining Authorial Control
In a recent interview Arcangel commented, “I feel that we have so little control that the only little gesture that you can do as an individual to combat media is to understand what it is you’ve been given. To study it, to take it apart, to really know it—both on a theoretical level and the level of love. I actually love what I spend time with, what I’ve been given” (Chaffee). Arcangel desires authorial control over his medium, and obsolete hardware, by its very nature of being obsolete, will offer no surprises. However, he also works with obsolete media to enable an intimate relationship between his art audiences with his chosen medium and message.
As technology becomes more sophisticated, users are becoming divorced from an understanding of their tools. For media theorist Marshall McLuhan, the distinction between what would now be considered software and hardware is invaluable to comprehending our cultural tools. In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan writes
Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference. It could be argued that these activities are in some way the ‘content’ electric light, since they could not exist without electric light. This fact merely underlines the point that that ‘the medium is the message’ because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association (9).
It is essential to understand that in McLuhanian terms, electric light does not have intrinsic content. It is purely information, naked of ideology. To insist otherwise is to ignore “the nature of the medium, of any and all media, in the true Narcissus way of one hypnotized by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new technical form” (11). McLuhan urged for the recognition of a medium’s role in shaping the social value that is inscribed upon its content, an urge shared by Arcangel forty years later. As a hacker and an artist, Arcangel recognizes nostalgia’s potential to reconnect his audience to their media. The Nintendo Entertainment System was often erratic in its graphics display due to accumulation of dust and possible rough handling of the console. This unreliability has been remembered ironically, referenced through t-shirts and web avatars emblazoned with the popular Internet meme graphic “blow me” (See Appendix 4). When games refused to boot or the system skewed the graphics card, a simple blow in the cartridge or in the console’s input slot would oftentimes fix the problem. Nintendo users were more apt to physically interact with their hardware because they more thoroughly understood its construction and faults.
By using the cultural codes of a common consumer object such as a Nintendo game cartridge in his art, Arcangel contributes to an active community of gamers like himself who are concerned with exploring the creative possibilities within reconfiguring their virtual pasts through modern methods on the internet and through computing. By excavating the past, the present moment is made clearer and more articulate for future memories. Writer and artist Nick Stillman notes that these future memories may require a nostalgic impetus for larger audiences to conceive of digital cultural history as a source of meaning and actual memories for many within online and gaming communities.
But Arcangel makes an important point when talking about his work’s relationship to nostalgia: computer art of the ’90s and of this decade has been hobbled by an accessibility problem. If audiences and critics don’t understand the process (which Arcangel calls the ‘expressiveness’) of how computer art is made, it’s prone to misunderstanding or, worse, doomed to obsolescence. Arcangel averts this problem by bending an immediately recognizable technological language whose characters, sounds and graphics are eternally lodged in pop culture’s memory (Stillman).
In addition to making the source code and DIY tutorial available on the web, Arcangel continued to provide access to his artwork by also putting a single channel version of the entire Super Mario Clouds on the Internet after much pleading and inquiring from members of the public on his website’s forum and blog where his tutorial was hosted, www.beigerecords.com/cory. The official Super Mario Clouds was sold as an edition of 5, which consisted of the hacked cartridge and the NES console (Art Dia Resource), yet by also hosting the work on the web, Arcangel allowed his audience to further remix and reconfigure it. Arcangel explains his reasoning for sharing his artwork, his methods and his process in such a thorough manner on the web:
A lot of people ended up modifying it…I had one guy take the source code and put it on a Game Boy. So he sent me an image of the clouds on a Game Boy, which I thought was really cool. And another guy took away the clouds; he sent me a QuickTime movie screen capture that was just blue. …That was part of the original idea of putting it on the Internet, so that they could just play with it, interact with it, and send it back to me …So they would just e-mail it to me, and I would post a link to it. And that is something that could never, ever happen in the gallery (Art Dia Resource).
Through information sharing and hacking, Arcangel continues the genealogical tradition of the Nintendo generation, marked by its decentralized conception of values and authenticity. Due to the fact that digital culture is constructed through bits and bytes of binary code, Arcangel’s hacking, sharing and re-coding of software shows that games are never complete. The web-accessed copy of Super Mario Clouds allows users to reconfigure Arcangel’s own reconfiguration, thereby embodying a hyperreal cycle of nostalgia that works to fuel a new culture of remixing and convergence. Nostalgia then becomes a tool for building one’s own present, using the language of the past to articulate a space outside the dominant mode of history. The agency in the hyperreal digital nostalgia for video games encourages users to become co-producers in the making of new meaning. They create their own culture and therefore assume active ownership of their past by literally referring to it and intermixing with it elements of their present lives.
The Turn from Video Game to Video Art
When shown in a gallery, Arcangel’s synthesis of hacking, classic gaming and nostalgia in Super Mario Clouds is realized due to the public nature of the projection, leading visitors to collectively re-author the video games’ narrative. Although the video of course can also be experienced singularly, this essay is interested in the social implications of a collectively interactive implementation of nostalgia to provide a framework for virtual cultural memory. This interactive process of memory reflects similar interactivity and participation in contemporary internet culture. Through Super Mario Clouds, Arcangel builds a foundation for interactivity that lies outside of the protological constructs of virtual worlds and provides audiences a direct line into their own imagined and actual histories. Public audiences first encountered the video installation of Super Mario Clouds in a 2003 group show at the Team Gallery in New York. It was shown as a three-channel installation and later as a two-channel installation at the 2004 Whitney Biennial. The video projection has generally been exhibited as a two-channel installation (See Appendix 5). When installed, this work differs tremendously from its “one channel” iteration on the web. The work is screened as a projection in a darkened gallery space, oftentimes containing other artworks and most importantly, other people.
Video art, like video games, is marked by physical and mental endurance and oftentimes prolonged durations of video feed. In a video game, one invests time in the game play in order to master and ultimately win the game. Video game endurance is required on both a mental and physical level through a mastery of repetitive tasks and the continuous pressing of a combination of keys to play the game successfully. Video art engages audiences in a different type of endurance. Video art historian Margaret Morse explains,
Video installation, however, remains a form that unfolds in time-the time a visitor requires to complete a trajectory inspecting objects and monitors, the time a video track or a poetic juxtaposition of tracks requires to play out, or the time for a track to wander across a field of monitors, and, one might add, the time for reflection in the subject her- or himself, that is, for the experience of a transformation to occur (166).
The space for reflection marks one of the most dramatic shifts from video game to video art. When playing a game, one is not in a mode of reflection, because game play is wrought with an anxiety of losing the present moment. Editors of Playing the Past describe the anxiety that comes from playing a video game, which can fail, the character can be killed in the middle of a difficult level far from a save point or a memory card refuses to boot up. “Despite the presupposition of atemporality, game players in this way develop a kind of nostalgia for the present within that anxiety” (Taylor and Whalen 6). The logic of video games does not allow room for reflection or introspection outside of the gaming experience, because games demand an immersive interaction with the on-screen narrative, a narrative that gamer and game simultaneously control. This is not the case in video art. The video artist structures the temporal experience, the environment in which the video must be seen and they alone author the video’s content either directly through artistic control or indirectly through installation.
In the gallery installation of Super Mario Clouds, the once active participants of the Super Mario Brothers game initially become spectators to Arcangel’s artwork. The audience engages on the level of interface, rather than interactively engaging in the narrative as they did within the game. Pushed outside of the hermetic memory of disembodied game play, the audience realizes themselves as outside the game, in the presence of other “would-be” gamers. Art historian Thomas Zummer’s work on the nature of projections and the construction of spectators in relation to screened images is relevant here. He has written of the cinematic experience of projection, which
forced a recognition of our complicities as passive spectators actively engaged in the construction of a sensory space where our investments of fantasy, belief, and desire take place in spectacle. These dispositions of the spectator are inscribed into projected environments so that even at its most (inter)active an audience is always generalized and potentialized, and an always replaceable conditional element of the cinematic apparatus (80).
Arcangel shifts gamers from participants to spectators, and in so doing, disrupts the definition of gamers as video game players with a distinct and exclusive past. As Zummer suggests, anyone can stand in for the gamer and become a member of Arcangel’s audience. Like in the first phase of remediation already examined through video game emulation and Arcangel’s web version of Super Mario Clouds, the second phase of remediation occurs in the shift from experiencing Super Mario Brothers in the living rooms of childhood to experiencing Super Mario Clouds in a gallery. The remediation of video game to video art is exemplary of a collapse of binaries characteristic of postmodernism, where high and low culture collide. Jameson writes, “The postmodernisms have, in fact, been fascinated precisely by this whole ‘degraded’ landscape of schlock and kitsch, of TV series and Reader’s Digest culture, of advertising and motels, of the late show and the grade-B Hollywood film (2). Temporality, according to Jameson, is marked in postmodernism by a fluxing intersection of nascent and past aesthetics. Jameson’s observations appear to be at play in Arcangel’s nuanced use of nostalgia to create new memories and cultural signifiers through Super Mario Clouds. If the audience actively participates in their collective nostalgia and re-authors a simulated memory in a present moment, the audience achieves a level of mobility that allows for remembering their virtual past without an intermediary medium or simulation. Perhaps in this way, audiences whose pasts are shaped by digital culture and communication can situate themselves as actualized beings living in the present moment. This moment is thus outside the compression of time and space signaled by postmodernism and digital culture. This is the moment where meaningful digital cultural memory can be constructed outside the increasing commoditization of time and information in cyberspace. Through collective re-imagining of childhood nostalgia marked by consumerism and simulation, the resulting narrative enters into a space that is distinct from the immersive virtual environments where more and more cultural exchanges are taking place. Interactivity by way of Super Mario Clouds is symbolic of the digital generation beginning to remember and consider the virtual rather than simulate it.
Duration and Repetition in Art History
Arcangel’s extensive knowledge of art history enables him to create nuanced work conscious of spectacle, nostalgia and interactivity. His hacked version of the 1984 Nintendo arcade game Hogan’s Alley, titled I Shot Andy Warhol, 2002, demonstrates an ironic implementation of art history into his works. Consider Arcangel’s reasoning for coding Andy Warhol’s image into Hogan’s Alley, one of the first games to use a laser gun controller; “Warhol’s work dealt with iconography and pop star status which translates well into Nintendo graphics where all the characters need to be icons” (Thompson). Super Mario Clouds, however nostalgic it may be for the classic days of Nintendo, also has precedents within art history. Arcangel notes, “My minimal works like Super Mario Clouds (2003) are really indebted to works like Reich’s clapping music or Ed Ruscha’s Sunset Strip (1966), where time is stretched” (Chaffee). Ed Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” is a series of photographs taken by Ruscha that document the entire length of the sunset strip in Los Angeles. The photographs were published as an artist book that when unfurled is 27 feet long” (Manhattan Rare Books). The process of documenting every building on the sunset strip, along with the extraordinarily lengthy text that resulted from the endeavor mirrors Arcangel’s interest in lengthening time and experimenting with duration. As the gallery audience struggles to adapt to the edited simulation of their childhood memories in Super Mario Clouds, they experience what game theorist Jesper Juul considers to be “dead time.” Juul writes,
According to the flow framework, the player will only enjoy playing if the challenges match the player’s abilities and thereby lead to a state of flow (the player loseWeight Exercises the sense of objective time-time will fly). If the game is too hard, the player will experience anxiety or frustration. If this game is too easy, repetition or triviality of choice will make time be experienced as unimportant, dead time (time will drag) (139).
Arcangel implements his own brand of “dead time” in Super Mario Clouds, reflecting on the historical precedents of duration through his aforementioned inspirations ranging from experimental composer Steve Reich, artist Ed Ruscha and of course, Andy Warhol. Warhol’s famed cinematic piece Empire, 1964 is an eight-hour film of the Empire State building at night. Traditional suggestions for viewing the work generally advise audiences that it is not particularly instrumental to watch the entire eight hours of Empire to experience its full effect. Even after a few stressful minutes of “dead time,” the building starts to dissolve and flatten into abstraction. A similar circumstance occurs when viewing Super Mario Clouds, where endless repetition erupts into a cathartic state of meditation and material transcendence. However, the work’s scrolling clouds remind the audience that they are having a cinematic experience and some small level of variability is still possible. Having removed the interactive narrative components from the game, Arcangel makes the video’s duration all the more painful because so many members of the audience will have known what it means to have played the game in real time, on their terms. This striking of their former agency then reveals to them the potency of their own nostalgia, the two-dimensionality of both projected and virtual interfaces and the potentiality of their future participation in interactive environments.
As well as having cinematic precedents in art history, Super Mario Clouds can also be examined through its narrative structure, or lack thereof. The streaming topography of Super Mario Brothers scrolls from left to right. Games that utilize this narrative function for traversing the landscape are traditionally dubbed “scroll games.” Media theorist Henry Jenkins thoughtfully points out that this too has an art historical precedent. He writes, “When we refer to such influential early works as Shigeru Miyamoto’s Super Mario Bros. as ‘scroll games,’ we situate them alongside a much older tradition of spatial storytelling: many Japanese scroll paintings map, for example, the passing of the seasons onto an unfolding space” (Jenkins 122). As Jenkins makes clear, spatial storytelling in video games enables a genealogy of space and time that predates digital technology. When Arcangel removes all narrative components from Super Mario Brothers, he illuminates the process of the story, traversing through space much like the Japanese scroll painting shown (See Appendix 6). Without landmarks or save points in the game’s topography, emphasis is laid on passage without a singular goal or motive. In Super Mario Clouds, the game thus loseWeight Exercises its distinction as a game whose primary objective is to win, and becomes one of being in the present moment.
Narrative and Nostalgia
Super Mario Clouds is primarily interactive due to the work’s narrative-free structure. Without a narrative to follow, the video in some ways is made more powerful and convincing then the individual game play that many gamers experience when playing the original version on their NES console. The absence of known landmarks and musical accompaniment initially evokes a strong sense of nostalgia for lost memories of a virtual past, whereas a straightforward projection of Super Mario Brothers would breach fully into the realm of spectacle, having removed any possible avenues for interactivity. The passive reception of cultural signifiers, such as Super Mario Brothers, is a spectacular event in that it was a once lived experience and if projected without any option for interactivity, it then becomes only a representation of that experience. Arcangel offers a pathway through Super Mario Clouds into cultural and personal memory by creating a live experience rather than a simulation that demands energies toward a game strategy that is never within the present moment but always a step towards a future self. This future self is without political agency, simply trying to keep up.
The remediation of nostalgia into a genealogy of interactivity and digital agency when viewing Super Mario Clouds is instigated by an initial moment of nostalgia for the game narrative. Henry Jenkins explicates this conception of loss and nostalgia with the following:
Game designers might study melodrama for a better understanding of how artifacts or spaces can contain affective potential or communicate significant narrative information. Melodrama depends on the external projection of internal states, often through costume design, art direction, or lighting choices. As we enter spaces, we may become overwhelmed with powerful feelings of loss or nostalgia, especially in those instances where the space has been transformed by narrative events (127).
Considering that Arcangel’s hack and remediation of video game into video art removed most of the narrative structure from Super Mario Brothers, Super Mario Clouds thus becomes a narrative event that facilitates collective interactivity. Without Mario upon which to project emotions related to game play strategy and logic, the puffy white clouds and blue sky speak to traditional aesthetics of innocence and peace unspoiled by game competition and perhaps also economic competition. Game theorist Zach Whalen laments for this innocent experience; “In this sense, the nostalgia felt for video games is not nostalgia for a past state before the trauma of the games disrupted us, but a desire to recapture that mind-altering experience of being in a game for the first time. It is a yearning for liminality itself-for the moment of transition” (23). Super Mario Clouds directly reflects this “moment of transition” because the serenity of an uninterrupted clear sky clearly refers to a state of innocence. All extraneous stresses have been removed, and it is contingent upon the collective effort of the audience to rebuild the narrative and actively imagine their personal memories of the once extant past, to collectively code the blank slate of the interface. The presence of other audience members in a gallery installation firmly places the individual’s body as one within a group. This results in an awareness of the body as one viewing a screen, refusing an illusory immersive experience for one that is actively conscious of the body as a participatory vehicle for collective interactivity.
The physical presence of the audience also collectively reconstructs the narrative by continuously developing the game’s soundtrack through ambient sound. Sound in Super Mario Brothers would indicate when danger was approaching, when Mario acquired more life or health, and when Mario was killed either by an enemy or by a player’s mistake. By removing the sound, Arcangel erases the dramatic effects of the game’s narrative. The work of John Cage is easily evoked when considering the removal of sound from a traditionally aural and interactive experience like that of a video game. Historian Thomas Gersic examines Cage’s most seminal work: “The silent composition of 4’33” is a piece utterly devoid of precomposed form, relying instead on the unscripted reactions of the audience to produce content for the piece” (153.) The same reliance holds true for Super Mario Clouds. The soundtrack for the work is created through the collective bodies of the audience. Whether someone laughs, taps their foot or whispers to a friend, all aspects of the aural environment become a part of the soundtrack’s unique composition. This soundtrack is created by chance, which contributes to the cracks in the conception of Super Mario Clouds as a piece of simulated nostalgia. The nostalgic aesthetic of 8-bit art begins to break down as chance and audience participation begins to create a non-simulated, collective construction of memory that in turn creates a new moment, a new memory. In this way, audience members hold greater participatory agency in constructing the narrative than they did in the predetermined logic of the original game because their former agency was simulated through an interface while their current agency is actualized through collective imagination.
The collective construction of narrative, as well as soundtrack, engages the audience as a whole in recreating their unique memories of game play while rebuilding the game’s narrative. A collective consciousness emerges from their recreation, thereby stripping Super Mario Clouds’ simulated environment of nostalgia and developing a newly formed environment with collective interactivity, creating an entirely new memory, one that can only exist within the specific and fluxing variables of the present environment. The communal reconstruction of visual and aural narrative creates an interactive moment that is defined by its site-specificity. It becomes an interaction with a simulated nostalgia that when collectively imagined creates a new framework for digital cultural memory by initiating lived experience of virtual identity and community to promote memories of virtual space rather than a nostalgia for immersion. Depoliticizing the virtual body is detrimental to an increasingly digital culture that is now beginning to consider the ways in which the simulated might be remembered and how memory operates in virtual environments.
Cory Arcangel turns nostalgia for simulation on its head. By delineating a path between spectacle and interactivity, between video game and video art, Arcangel makes an elegant juxtaposition of our nostalgia for two-dimensional interfaces and the potential of our collective imaginations to construct a new way of seeing and experiencing our brief digital past. Through the gallery audiences’ collective consciousness and interactivity, Super Mario Clouds becomes a platform upon which viewers create a present moment that hybridizes time and space and encourages a fully conscious psychic and physical embodiment as necessary for articulating a subjectivity shaped by memories of digital communication, game play and graphical user interfaces. The Nintendo generation and the digital generation are beginning to search for ways in which to remember their histories when more and more time is spent with digital media and less and less of it is considered lived. Through non-simulated interactivity audiences construct their own parameters as digital citizens and produce cultural memories that cannot be marketed to them or repurposed for them because they are outside of the dominant visual protocols of digital media. Arcangel, by oscillating between binaries of high and low culture and high and low-tech art, constructs a space where the collective imagination of the audience reconstructs a narrative, blending the unique characteristics of the variables that continuously change the nature of the work. No collective text of Super Mario Clouds will ever be the same or be replicated. Indeed, even the single channel iteration on the web is open to reconfiguration and remixing. Super Mario Clouds is indicative of a new mode of participatory culture, where playing the game is only the first level.
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