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Anthony Michael Sneed’s 8 bit art.

January 25, 2011

Last week I wrote a piece for my blog column at broken pencil magazine (a canadian mag documenting indie culture) about fan based art and pixel art.   And then this morning I found this over at albotas (whom I follow on tumblr). It’s a video profile of up and coming pixel artist Anthony Michael Sneed in NYC.

If you can get past some of the pretentiousness in the interviews, I think it’s worth a view. Sneed’s work is quite interesting and takes a step beyond what would be categorized as typical fan based 8 bit art.

His 9-11 piece was originally made of Lego before he painted it, and before it became an 8 bit animation. If it wasn’t for the WTC burning in the background with the 2nd plane approaching, this would have looked like the recreation of a screen shot from Mike Tyson’s Punchout; the training montage where Joe Mack (the character you play in the game) is jogging a la Rocky, he passes a scene that looks almost identical to the skyline in Sneed’s painting. And that’s what I find so interesting about his work. Using the 8 bit aesthetic as this filter to portray some quite dark themes and topics in his work, really gives the work this carnivalesque perspective, where he’s playing with the notion of spectacle.

I find it rather interesting though that in the video interview he talks about how it was sad that people compared 9-11 to a movie. Mostly because I don’t understand why he thinks that’s “sad”. In his essay Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Slavoj Zizek discusses exactly why this real world event took on the spectacle of a blockbuster movie. (keep in mind it’s been some time since I’ve read this essay, so this will be paraphrasing). The attack was designed to look like like such a spectacle. Because it was something that, if you observe American culture through it’s media (cinema and television), was instantly recognizable to them. The spectacle of the cinematic world crossed over into the “real” that day. And it terrified people, not just in NYC, but everywhere. Many of us saw it all unfold in real-time mediated through our televisions, and it we were shocked, appalled, and terrified by it. Not because it “like a movie”, but because it was both “like a movie” and “real”. I’m digressing here a bit, but I find it interesting that an artist criticizes the spectacle of film, while creating a piece that really is part of the dialogue relating to the spectacle of 9-11. After all, what’s more spectacular that seeing this image as a “video game screen”. It elicits notions that this could be a playable 8 bit video game, where the player need only fly 2 planes into 2 towers to win.

I think had I not heard him discuss the piece (and it’s context) in that video I would have had a different opinion on this. Because I really do think the piece is really playing with that idea of spectacle. Much like other artists who work with “demake culture” (I wrote a 2 part piece on this at Broken Pencil as well, which can be read here and here), the piece reduces the spectacle to it’s based elements, rendered in low-fi 8 bit form. It plays with our feelings of nostalgia for the 8 bit gaming culture of the 80s, while forcing us to remember the events of 9-11. It plays with the ideas of innocence (children playing video games in the 80s) and the end of innocence (that feeling that many have about as America no longer being “safe” from foreign attack).

Sneed’s other work takes on other themes that some would consider “dark” and filters them through the 8 bit/ game lens. Such as his art for games that don’t exist (as in in the above photo). Cocaine abuse, racism, the JFK assassination, sexual abuse. Of course the BrokeBack mountain piece does not fall under the dark category. These are all clever little plays on facets of our cultural landscape. Taking what it out there in culture and giving it an 8 bit twist. I would love to see someone turn these into actual games, much like TIGsource’s Famicase game jam they hosted last year. (read about it here).

I need to address other issues I have with the interviews in that video. When the guy from Christie’s is talking about all the “beautiful young faces” at the opening, what exactly does that have to do with the art itself? It wreaks of that whole “NYC art scenester” sentiment rather than addressing the quality of the art. Nevermind hearing a middle-aged man discuss the work in such a context, it comes off as slightly creepy. I’m not disputing the quality of the work at all. Creating engaging art using Lego and painting and wrapping that up in an 8bit aesthetic is of course going to draw a younger art crowd. Because it’s work that resonates with our generation. But it has nothing to do with the “beautiful young” people in attendance. Topically, aesthetically and thematically its a realm of art that is gaining ground for sure, because so many of us are interested in it, so many of us are already creating such works and sharing it. Let me just note one more issue I have with this video. Near the end of the interview, Sneed states that they are “creating a movement”, the notion of an artist saying so always makes me a bit uncomfortable as generally movements are classified and clarified generally after the fact. But also in this instance, there is already a “movement” in 8bit art, and it’s not something new. It’s been around for years now, through chiptunes, 8bit visualists, fan artists and more. There already exists a global network of artists, designers, musicians, indieDevs and more who have been working in this field for long time, so the comment feels both inaccurate and a bit arrogant truthfully.

Let me also state that I understand that in making a video, that there would have been many other statements, comments, etc that did not make the cut, and indeed perhaps the ones that did show up in the final edit are slightly out of context in relation to material we did not see. While trying to document the work of an artist and have critics etc discuss his work, the video feels slightly off to me, either it should have left out some of these comments all together, or it should have expanded upon them to provide greater context for what was being discussed.

At the end of it all though, Anthony Michael Sneed’s work is quite remarkable; if riffs on themes of spectacle, nostalgia, childhood innocence and more subversive elements of our pop culture landscape, but what he is doing in following a line of artists who’ve been working in this ouvre for quite sometime already. Like most art, he’s building on the culture that came before him, and doing it well.

The exhibit opened at ArtJail in NYC on Jan 13th, for more about Anthony Michael Sneed’s work, you can visit his website.

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