Art Attack: The History Of Iam8bit

by Matt Helgeson on Sep 16, 2011 at 10:28 AM

It began as a weekly game night among friends. It turned into one of the most popular ongoing art gallery shows in the Los Angeles art world and spawned a successful media and marketing company. This is the story of iam8bit, which is bringing back its highly praised exhibition of original, video game-inspired art after a three-year hiatus.

While the endless debate about whether video games can be considered art continues to rage, a flourishing underground of artists are creating art based on the familiar icons of video game history. Effectively turning the debate on its head, these mavericks not only believe that games are art, their work argues that gaming can be a rich source material for fine art itself. For more than half a decade, this subculture has centered around iam8bit, a recurring gallery show in Los Angeles that showcases the best and brightest artists from around the world specializing in video game-inspired art.

Iam8bit is the brainchild of Jon Gibson, a former game journalist who now serves as the head of the company he founded. Though best known for the art exhibit that bears its name, iam8bit is a multimedia marketing and promotion firm working with clients like Disney, MTV, Insomniac Games, and Nintendo. Back in 2004, iam8bit was nothing more than an idea.

“I was getting sick of pitching culture-related stories to video game magazines. No magazines were buying stories like that,” Gibson recalls. “There was this burgeoning market of really young, 20-something kids who were showing their paintings in these really bizarre art shows. It would be one night only, with 50 artists showing original art for $50 a pop. They were trying to get money for weed. Crowds were coming out and really talented people were contributing. At that time, I discovered this gallery in L.A. and walked in. The gallery was next to this video game store that got busted a year later for pirating and modding Xboxes and selling illegal games. But there was a video game store next to an art gallery. That visual gave me the genesis of the idea.”

As Gibson’s ideas about a possible intersection between the worlds of art and video games percolated, the notion of an art show that would showcase game-inspired art evolved out of a standing weekly game night between Gibson and some friends.

“A bunch of my friends would meet up and play each week,” Gibson recalled. “The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords was a big game for us. Most of the group was artists. There was this untapped reservoir of talent that no one had seen. A lot of the artists in the first show came from behind the scenes at your favorite animated shows, movies, or concept artists.”

Gibson began seeking out artists that were already working in games as concept artists or doing game-related work in their spare time. Spending hours sifting through pictures and links on websites like Myspace and deviantART, he slowly recruited a roster of talent for inclusion on what would be the first iam8bit gallery show.

“It was a rag-tag group; none of the guys in the original show were really involved in the gallery scene,” Gibson remembers. “Everyone was up and coming or established in other industries and had never had their stuff hanging on a wall in a gallery. For most people, it was just about paying homage to this [hobby] they loved, not building a career in the gallery scene.”

After nine months of work, Gibson opened the first iam8bit gallery show, which he staged at Gallery 1988 in Hollywood in April 2005. Though he felt confident about both the quality of art on display and the close tie with video game culture, his ambitions for the first show were modest. “We thought a couple hundred kids would show up and fill the gallery,” Gibson says. “We’d sell some art and it would be great.”

If that’s what Gibson expected, what he got was something far bigger – and for the inexperienced curator, a bit scary. Invitations for the opening party, which were posted around the L.A. area, contained an RSVP call back number. Within a few days, the voicemail box was full, and it was clear that the idea of having an RSVP list was a fool’s errand. The night of the opening, a line stretched almost completely around the block, with show-goers experiencing two- and three-hour waits to get in the building. Original paintings, prints, and other iam8bit memorabilia sold rapidly. Clearly, the show had touched a nerve in L.A. art and video game communities.

Building on the success of the first show, Gibson quickly turned iam8bit into a cottage industry of sorts. The next three years saw annual iam8bit gallery shows, which proved so popular that it was moved to a larger space for the 2008 exhibition. While Gibson still displayed work largely drawn from a growing pool of American and international artists, the games industry began to take note of what was happening. For the 2006 show, developer Harmonix created a special version of Guitar Hero which allowed attendees to play versions of classic game music from titles like Mega Man and Ikari Warriors. For those not able to attend the shows in Los Angeles, Gibson published i am 8-bit: Art inspired by Classic Videogames of the ‘80s, a book featuring photos of some of the exhibition’s best pieces as well as a forward by noted music and pop culture writer Chuck Klosterman (Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs). The book has nearly sold out its initial print run, becoming one of the best-selling video game-related books of all time.

While the show’s range is broad – encompassing everything from paint on canvas to interactive art installations – Gibson has stood firm on one restriction: All the art in the show must be inspired by games and characters from the 8- and 16-bit eras of gaming.

“The games are incredibly archaic. The characters are a few pixels tall. There’s no facial detail,” Gibson comments. “It looks like they are shooting a bullet out of their arm, but they are supposed to have a gun because that’s what the box art told you. Ultimately, it’s artists interpreting something that allowed for a multitude of interpretations, because the source material is so empty. The limitations of the time didn’t allow for anything beyond a few pixels to be put to screen.”

Nick Ahrens (a former Game Informer editor who recently joined iam8bit), elaborates, “It’s the artists filling in the gaps with their imagination. Twenty years later, they look back at things they played as kids, and they take their memories and put it down on canvas as art. It comes out completely different and beautiful.”

Along the way iam8bit proved to be a boon for a group of talented artists that had been overlooked or generally avoided the traditional art world. Jose Emorca Flores (his piece
MK Kalamari, is pictured above), who has contributed to every iam8bit show, is typical of many of the artists involved. Though he studied fine art at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, he’s rarely been embraced by the established art world. However, he’s far from a starving artist, having staked out a successful career as a video game concept artist for companies like EA and Activision. His most recent work was for High Moon’s Transformers: War for Cybertron.

“I can’t believe how much it’s grown,” Flores says. “I thought it was a cool idea, but I didn’t know how huge it was going to be. When I did my first piece, I just thought of it as a portfolio piece and didn’t really think it would sell. But it got so big; I sell prints online now. That first Mario painting is the biggest seller. I’m happy to have been part of it from the first one.”

Like most of the artists involved in the show, Flores takes pride in putting a unique and personal spin on classic game iconography. In an upcoming piece (on page 18), he depicts a dark, compelling scene of Mario and Princess Peach in the aftermath of the events of Super Mario Bros.

“I wanted to show more of a connection between him and [Princess Peach],” he says. “I wanted to show what their relationship is like after the whole story has gone down. Bowser is defeated; they need to eat. It’s how they live day by day. I tried to add a little drama with the expression on Mario’s face. He’s looking up. Maybe there’s another monster to fight. It gives the viewer something to play with and add to the painting. They can finish the story in their own mind.”

As iam8bit finished its biggest event to date – the 2008 exhibit at the World of Wonder Storefront Gallery in L.A. – Gibson made the surprising move of putting the show on hiatus. While this seemed odd from a commercial standpoint, he felt it was in the best interests of maintaining the brand.

“Honestly, [it was] partly boredom. It needed a break. The economy was s---, people weren’t really going to art shows and buying art,” Gibson says. “There was a threshold for exhausting the artists’ community of their awesome ideas for ‘80s video game art.”

Gibson also needed more time to concentrate on iam8bit’s other business interests. The company was staffing up, transforming from an organization focused entirely on the art exhibit to a broad-ranging marketing and promotions firm. “As a company, we were evolving as a production outfit and doing events and marketing,” Gibson remarks. “We were quietly developing all this other stuff, and trying to find a home like we have now.”

This new home, a large gallery and work space in the hip Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles simply called “8” serves as the new home for both iam8bit the company and Super iam8bit, the reborn video game art exhibition.

“We wanted to find a space that allowed us to do our day to day production work but also function almost like going to the zoo,” Gibson says. “You walk in, there’s a gallery that’s traditional, but at the same time it’s a functional work space where you can see where we work. It’s like a playground. It’s room to do whatever we want.”

The upcoming show attempts to further expand iam8bit’s artistic palette. While there will be still be plenty of game-inspired paintings (and a new work by Flores), iam8bit is also placing an emphasis on sculpture and other forms of more interactive art. While he wouldn’t give details, Gibson revealed that a member of Tim Shafer’s DoubleFine Productions is hard at work on an installation that will engage the crowd through the use of hacked Kinect units. “We have a couple thousand people running through on opening night, we want them to experience something a little more progressive with this experience than just looking at art on a wall,” he says.

The new show promises to be the biggest ever, with over 100 artists being displayed in the new gallery. BLIK, the designer decal company, is going to transform the 8 space into “an ‘80s gaming wonderland.” In honor of the 30th anniversary of Galaga, what is claimed to be the world’s largest arcade cabinet will be in attendance. To go along with the new show, the company is also readying another art book, SUPER iam8bit, which will show off works from previous shows as well as entries from the new exhibit.

In many ways, iam8bit is a classic entrepreneurial tale. What started as a labor of love has evolved into a highly successful institution in the gaming and art worlds, spawning a full-blown business along the way. Back in 2004, Gibson’s idea for merging the worlds of gaming and art may have felt like a long shot. It now seems prescient – both in the merging of gaming and other media and the small industry that’s sprung up trafficking in ‘80s and early ‘90s game nostalgia. However, despite the record crowds, book deals, and strong sales, one thing has still eluded iam8bit: acknowledgement from the arts establishment.

“The traditional arts press has more or less ignored us,” Gibson remarks. “There have been mentions here and there but no one has really embraced us. It’s weird and I think that it’s related to the fact that it’s video games and not Campbell’s Soup. But is there really any difference? Warhol was painting derivatives of Mickey Mouse in different colors, whereas artists in iam8bit are painting Mega Man and Mario and Zelda. Who’s to say that Mario is any less significant than Mickey Mouse in our generation? I don’t think the traditional arts press views video games as something of artistic merit in any real way.”

Flores agrees, but doesn’t seem overly concerned with getting a pat on the head by the arts establishment. “The traditionalists probably think it’s below them, but the people I know respect and love it. I don’t really hang out with the elitists. [Laughs]”

For Gibson’s part, he seems content that he took a small gallery show in L.A. far beyond any of his expectations. “No one could have predicted it,” he reflects. In addition to the thriving marketing, event, and promotion business he built on the back of the exhibition, he has a lifetime of memories. When asked to recall his favorite moment, he offers, “There was giant Atari 2600 controller. It was six feet tall and weighed a couple of hundred pounds. It was amazing to see Nolan Bushnell touch it. The founder of Atari standing next to this massive contraption that actually functioned like the controller he made in the ‘70s. There are moments like that that make you realize how far the industry has evolved. But everyone that did these things is still alive and still doing things.”