Super Mario Clouds, 2002
Technologies: ART EEPROM burner, DASM 6502 BSD, data projectors, NBASIC BSD, Nintendo Entertainment System, RockNES, Super Mario Brothers Nintendo cartridge, video distributor
Keywords: animation, appropriation, game, nostalgia
"The first time I took a class in 'computer science' was at a summer school when I was 8 or 9 years old and I remember crying and switching to the "storytelling" class."
According to Cory Arcangel, "hobbyists are the true heroes of contemporary computer art." He is referring to a thriving sub-culture of self-taught programmers who make music and art with obsolete consumer technologies like video game cartridges and dot matrix printers. To make Super Mario Clouds, Arcangel hacked Super Mario Brothers, a classic video game that made its debut in 1985. He replaced the program chip from an old Nintendo Entertainment System game cartridge with a new chip that he programmed himself (by borrowing code he found on computer hobby scene Web sites) to erase everything in the original game except the clouds.
Arcangel has exhibited the resulting animation as large-scale digital projections in which the pixellated clouds, rendered in white and gray, scroll across a bright blue sky. He also made an edition of silk-screened prints of the clouds, which he sold on his Web site. Arcangel's empyreal imagery suggests art historical references, from John Constable's nineteenth-century cloud studies in oil on canvas to conceptual artist Vik Muniz's Clouds (2001), in which the artist hired a skywriting airplane to draw cartoony nimbuses in the sky above Manhattan.
Arcangel's process of visual subtraction evokes Robert Rauschenberg's Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), in which the artist famously erased a composition by Willem de Kooning to create a new work of art. Super Mario Clouds suggests a similar sensibility, simultaneously conveying a stripped-down aesthetic and a rebellious, bad-boy attitude that challenges conventional notions of artistic integrity and authenticity.
Although hacking video games could be seen as a fundamentally subversive act, suggesting an anti-corporate attitude on the part of the artist, this work is more playful than critical. Arcangel seems to take appropriation almost for granted, as if sampling the intellectual property of game companies and other computer programmers were the default mode of authorship. He works with Beige Records, an "electronic music recording company and computer programming ensemble," publishes his source code online (complete with humorous and informative comments), and gives performative how-to lectures.
While many new media artists fetishize emerging technologies, Arcangel eschews the graphic realism of contemporary game titles like Grand Theft Auto, celebrating instead the crude "dirt style" imagery of early video games. Super Mario Clouds was created at a moment in contemporary art when nostalgia for childhood and adolescence was a prevalent theme, from Sue de Beer's videos of suburban teenagers, to Yoshitomo Nara's paintings that resemble storybook pages filled with cute renditions of puppies and baby-faced imps. Super Mario Clouds also evokes the nerdy culture of Arcangel's own teen-age years, exemplified in such 1980s movies as Weird Science and Revenge of the Nerds, in which awkward young men created outlandish machines to fulfill their fantasies or to empower themselves and gain respect from their peers.