Christy Matson and Melissa Barron are two artists that combines digital videogames with weaving. In there art they explores the borders between virtual images and real images, but also the close relationship between the early computer history and the tradition of handicraft.
In the beginning of 1800 the french manufacturer Joseph Jaquard invented a mechanical loom that could weave complex patterns with help of punch cards. The idea with punch cards was later adapted and used to program computers, so you could say that thanks to the wish to mechanize handicraft products the computer technology was developed. Both Matson and Barron are using the Jaquard loom in there art to weave patterns found in the digital realm. Matson has created landscapes from the videogame Loom and Barron has created weaving from different crack screens found in Apple II games.
The term “Craft Hackers” is an appropriate description of Matson’s and Barron’s art. The term Craft Hackers was used at a panel discussion held at the New Museum in december 2008 about “artists who use crafting techniques to explore high-tech culture and the relationship between needlework and computer programming.” Beside Christy Matson, artists as Ben Fino-Radin, who translate the World Wide Web into needlepoint sculptures of yarn and plastic; Cody Trepte, who embroidery reminds of retired computer punch cards and Cat Mazza, who knit moving images i yarn, were represented in the panel.
In this issue DigiMag takes a deeper look at Craft Hacking and asks Christy Matson and Melissa Barron (who recently joined the panel (he)artbreaking to the core at ISEA 2011 Istanbul) about the combination of videogames, art and craft.
Mathias Jansson: Christy what is your relationship to videogames?
Christy Matson: I don’t play videogames, so I have almost no relationship at all to them. When I was a child, we had an Atari and I remember playing Pac Man on it. I think my brother broke it after a couple of months though. I was in elementary school when the first Nintendos came out and I recall being the only kid in my class whose parent’s wouldn’t buy them one. I played games like Super Mario Bros often when I would go to other kid’s houses. We had computer games as a child though, I would spend hours playing games like Oregon Trail, Where in the World in Carmen San Diego and King’s Quest. King Quest is probably most similar to LOOM in the structure of the game and how you progress through it.
A former student turned me onto the game LOOM after hearing me lecture about my work. I learned to play to game just so that I could capture all of the screen shots out of it. The game is from the early 90’s so in many ways it is reminiscent of the style of games that I would play as a child in the 80’s.
Mathias Jansson: And you Melissa when did your passion for old Apple games woke?
Melissa Barron: My first experience with the Apple 2 computer was in elementary school in the mid 90s. I played a lot of the MECC games such as Number Munchers, Spellevator, Odell Lake, and The Oregon Trail. I didn’t have a computer at home, so I only played the games that were available at school. I remember being intrigued by the Apple 2 at that age, but I was never allowed to do anything more with it besides play games. It would have been fun to learn how to program and make my own games, but we were never given the option.
At that time I didn’t even know that the Commodore 64 and Atari systems existed. After I left elementary school I forgot about the Apple 2 and it wasn’t until recently (2009) that I realized that emulators existed and rediscovered a lot of the old games I used to play. I’ve since acquired actual hardware and now try to do a lot of things I never was able to do when I was younger, such as programming.
Mathias Jansson: Christy your experience with the adventure game Loom, published by Lucasfilms Games in 1990, resulted in the project Loomscape. Can you tell me why you choosed the game Loom?
Christy Matson: I knew I wanted to use the game Loom as source material for a project. I had been combining sound and hand-weaving for a number of years so this game was right up my alley. Up to this point, I had mainly been using the Jacquard loom to weave abstract imagery, but this felt like the perfect opportunity to combine weaving and representational imagery. I liked that while referencing landscapes, the images are fantastical, surreal and invented. I used the horizontal format for the weavings because it referenced both the tradition of narrative storytelling via tapestry weaving (Bayeux Tapestry for example) as well as the format for how the game is laid out (i.e. when the protagonist, Bobbin Threadbare walks off the screen to the left, the entire landscape changes frame by frame.)
The Jacquard seemed a great output method for these piece too because of its historical connections to the early computing technology. In fact, in the game LOOM, there is a “great loom” that more or less reigns over what’s left of the planet (the game takes place in the future, in a post-apocalyptic environment. the Earth has been destroyed by technology and the only survivors are crafts-people: Weavers, Blacksmiths, and Shepherds.) The landscapes are actually beautiful when woven. I used a cotton yarn together with a stainless steel yarn. The pieces were washed after I made them and the cotton shrank in way that the stainless steel did not. The surface of the pieces is actually quite dimensional and tactile. Although the pieces are presented flat and stretched, they had a 3D surface quality to them that I think contrasts nicely with the flat quality of the screen in the game.
Mathias Jansson: Melissa you have also work with the Jacquard Loom. In the Apple 2 crack screens woven on a tc-1 jacquard loom project you used crack screens, i.e the intro crackers made to show the world who had cracked the copyright protection of the game?
Melissa Barron: The connection between the Jacquard loom and the first computer was the main reason why I started working on the loom. I wanted to see what I could do with the machine and definitely wanted to try and glitch it. What I found exciting about the loom was that fact that the machine wasn’t completely computerized, it still required the user to stand at the loom and pass the shuttle (the device that holds the thread) back and forth. This added another chance of possible mistakes/errors that I would unintentionally make myself, which I often did.
Mathias Jansson: Melissa you mention you tried to “glitch” the Loom. What kind of glitches are you looking for in your art?
Melissa Barron: When I’m working with the Apple 2 emulator, most of the time I’ll just open a disk image in a text editor and then take out or add various bits in different places. I’ve noticed patterns in disk images where I know it will create something interesting and then try to avoid the places I know would just break the disk entirely. I’ll then usually transfer it to a floppy disk to see it work on the hardware. When I want to work on the actual hardware, I’ll usually open the software in a sector editor and play around with that. It’s more difficult that way, but I’ve never been afraid of doing things the hard way. I don’t really look for any particular type of glitch, I mainly just work until I find something beautiful.
Although, I do like being able to see fragments of the original source. With the weavings, I didn’t just want to weave screen captures of glitches. I wanted to weave images that I could glitch while utilizing different functions of the loom and various weave structures. I wanted the loom to create the glitches. The outcome was a bit more unexpected and it created pieces that are incredibly fragile that continue to deteriorate as they are handled more.
Mathias Jansson: Christy you have returned to the game Loom in one of you later work Future Positive In this case its a more a loose relationships between the virtual game world and the real installation?
Christy Matson: In Future Positive we (also a collaboration with Jon and Sarah) were only referencing the videogame very, very loosely. We weren’t really interested in making super direct or overt relationships between the game and the work in the show but it was used as a starting point for building the narrative around each of the three vignettes in the show.
We decided to use the structure of the video game to create three tiered “levels” (environments / kits / etc) with the idea that the three installations would be in order with the first one being plant based, the second one with conductive sheep, and the third inspired by a lightning storm.
At this point there is no direct correlation between the actual game and the 3 different pieces in the show but we do feel there are numerous relationships between materials (cloth, rocks, metal wires, paper), representational imagery (shoes, rugs, sheep and flower sculptures) and phenomenology (lighting, sound, implied narratives from the titles, etc) which are rich with possibilities such that the entire show might lay bare an elemental vocabulary through which viewers might reconstruct any number of narratives.
One of the pieces on display, Twin Flowers + Magnetize Money Spell Kit, is a floor-to-ceiling walk-through environment with electro-acoustic solar-powered flora hanging over a ball-point-pen-plotted rendering of Jeff the “Dude” Lebowski‘s famous “soiled” carpet. A second piece titled 6 Minutes to Diamond Consciousness has two sculptural sheep that conduct six volts of electric power as they engage in psychic warfare with a large-scale two-dimensional rendering.
The third piece Star Doves Smoky Mountain Light Is comprised primarily of an animal form immersed in flashes of projected and reflected light of questionable intent. So while the game functioned as a starting point, the working process was much looser and the work became something else all together.
Mathias Jansson: You have both mention the importance of the MECC game Oregon Trail. UAn education game about the 19th century pioneer life on the Oregon Trail. The game was first release in 1971 and have since then been published in new versions. Melissa you have dedicated many hours to translate the game into L337, chatspeak and LOLcats grammar. The final work is called 73H 0r3g0n 7r41L, but why did you choose Oregon Trail?
Melissa Barron:Oregon Trail was a popular and iconic game for a lot of people my age. Because of this I didn’t really want to change the story line all that much but update it for a newer generation that never played the original game. I enjoy combining the old with the new in order to create something completely different. Changing the text also makes it harder to play the game and it almost becomes another game trying to decipher it if you aren’t familiar with the language. Also, considering that it was an educational game it makes it even funnier to me.
Mathias Jansson: So, how did you create73H 0r3g0n 7r41L?
Melissa Barron:The creation of 73H 0r3g0n 7r41L was a simple but long process. I was reminded of the game after hearing about a newer version being released on the iPhone, and after a quick search I found the disk images and an Apple 2 emulator to play the original game that I remembered. I tried opening the disk images in a text editor (TextEdit for Mac) and amongst the mess of ascii characters, I recognized text strings from the game. I then changed a couple of those characters just to see what would happen. It worked and from there I proceeded to change every character in the game. Bit by bit. This was the only way I knew how to do it at that time.
It took months as you can imagine. The hardest part was that I had to preserve the original byte count. If I added one too many characters or left one out, it would break the game. As you can imagine I made a lot of mistakes but sometimes they created really interesting glitches. The video,Error 107 at line #312 (http://vimeo.com/9776379) is a screen capture of my very first glitch. 🙂 The various glitches that occurred during 73H 0r3g0n 7r41Lprocess was the inspiration for some of my later glitch weavings.