My first experience with 8-bit art was, appropriately enough, rudimentary: drawing Pac-Man on graph paper. I was illustrating what I believed the port of the insanely popular arcade title would look like on my Atari 2600 home console: crude and blocky, even by 1982 standards.
I’d like to believe it was something similarly geeky that inspired artists to make 8-bit art: pixelated shapes and images with a friendly minimalist aesthetic that, for those of us who grew up in the 1970s, 1980s, and into the early 1990s, is warmly familiar.
8-bit’s denotation is a technical reference to the early microprocessors used in arcade machines, home consoles, and computers. To most of us, though, the term is a broad reference to a time in gaming history when now-archaic graphics and minimal memory meant that video-game images were constructed pixel block by pixel block. An 8-bit hallmark is the fact that non-horizontal lines appear jagged, like a circle constructed of Lego bricks.
8-bit architecture foisted work-around ingenuity and pixel creativity on early game programmers since photo-realistic graphics were a distant dream, thus 8-Bit-era games like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Super Mario Bros. typically have a cartoonish quality to them.
However, some artists — Cory Arcangel, for example — have been inspired by these limitations and have appropriated the classic-gaming spirit to create intriguing, curious, and ambitious video pieces, works, and even music — all rooted in 8-bit. This movement has gained enough traction to merit dedicated galleries, including Bit Forms in New York and I Am 8Bit in Los Angeles.
“Artists are often at the intersection of where popular culture and ‘high culture’ and some sort of avant-garde thinking live,” said Amy Gilman, associate director and curator of contemporary art at the Toledo Museum of Art, which is bringing the touring exhibit The Art of Video Games from the Smithsonian American Art Museum to Toledo next year. “Also ... some people are looking back at those video games, and whether it’s because of their own childhood or that they like the aesthetics of it, a whole generation of artists are now using gaming technology as it exists today to create game works.”
While I share a passion for all things 8-bit, my artistic aspirations are considerably less lofty; it’s more of a nerdy hobby, or dork for dork’s sake.
I’ve been taking photos of video-game characters in their pixelated glory for a few years now. More recently, I’ve discovered the fun of crafting 8-bit images online. Make8bitart.com is a great place to start. I used the site to create my cartoony mug shot you see in this column as well as an ongoing series of 8-bit recreations of famous works of art. I’ve already ported Edvard Munch’s The Scream (my new Facebook avatar) and Picasso’s The Three Musicians to beautiful and blocky 8-bit form.
This intersection of low tech and high concept isn’t just 8-bit, either; consider Instagram and other photo filters that alter high-resolution images into retro-looking 1970s prints. This is all part of our cultural embrace of new technologies to help us celebrate old technologies. And it’s legitimate art.
“Artists are going to use tools in a particular way, they are going to create things that are going to be different than you and I use them,” Gilman said. “But that doesn’t mean the way you’re using them or they’re using them is less legitimate. It’s just another tool in the toolbox.”
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.