So, When Did Planned Obsolescence Become An Artistic Practice?
"Science is truth for life watch religion fall obsolete science will be truth for life technology as nature science truth for life in fortran tongue the answer"
–10000 Maniacs. Planned Obsolescence
"The street finds its own uses for things" is a line from William Gibson’s Burning Chrome, a short story originally published in Omni magazine in 1982. This widely-quoted aphorism for describing how users redefine the uses of discarded and/or discredited technologies1 has often been applied to chip music. The short story goes like this: power-users – hackers with a passion for beats and bits – have resuscitated "dead" gizmos and devices to make music. For instance, by appropriating almost-defunct Game Boys, hackers have proved that consumers can easily become producers, in spite of marketers’ plans. Their practices exemplify Michel de Certeau’s2 claim that everyday life works by a process of "poaching" on the territory of others, recombining the rules and products that already exist in culture in a way that is influenced, but never wholly determined, by those rules and products, rulers and producers. According to the French cultural critic, while institutions and structures of power (such as multimillion dollar corporations) use strategies to achieve their goals (e.g. controlling the masses or selling commodities), individuals can upset the system by adopting disrupting "tactics".
Chip music is a multi-faced phenomenon that lies at the intersection of technology, music, art, and politics. Its raison d’être is antagonistic/oppositional. It consists in a creative boycotting of the most common strategy/business model adopted by manufacturers of consumer electronics: planned obsolescence3. Corporations produce objects that become obsolete after a certain period in ways that are designed by the corporation itself. Thus, an unwritten and yet non-negotiable expiration date forces consumers to purchase a newer model that performs slightly better than the previous one. A paradigmatic example is Nintendo’s portable machine, the Game Boy (1989), which eventually evolved into the DS (2004). The evolution is far from over. As I write this, Japanese engineers are concocting new iterations that will entertain the masses for decades to come and hit their wallets forever. Interestingly, the interval between each new release is getting shorter. In November 2004, Nintendo introduced the successor to its best-selling console, the Nintendo Game Boy. Between 2004 and 2009, the Japanese corporation produced three new models that improved some aspects of the "original" version: the Nintendo DSlite (2006) and the Nintendo DSi (2008). A new iteration, codename Nintendo DSi LL/XL, will be released shortly4. This is planned obsolescence in full force, ladies and gentlemen. This ingenious strategy stimulates demand by encouraging purchasers to buy again sooner if they still want a functioning, up-to-date, state-of-the-art, trendy product. Yet, this strategy is not unique to the game industry. Built-in obsolescence affects the vast majority of consumer goods, from vehicles to light bulbs, from buildings to proprietary software. This strategy was developed in the 1920s and 1930s when mass production had opened every minute aspect of the production process to exacting analysis. Planned obsolescence is the epitome of industrial efficiency. In the post-industrial age, it has become even more pervasive and implacable. In fact, "upgrade or die!" is the mantra of the digital age. Hackers represent the last bastion of resistance against this forceful policy. By transforming an imposed weakness – built-in obsolescence – into a liberating creative force – an artistic style– they remind us that resistance is not futile. Rather, futility represents the very essence of art. By opposing the cult of featurism incessantly promoted by marketers and advertisers, and dutifully propagated by the wisdom of the bloggers, they have created new rules and new aesthetics. Let’s face it: chiptune artists are techno-cultural jammers. Nullsleep and Bitshifter are not that different from BLF and Ron English, who alter billboard advertising to reclaim urban spaces. The former disrupt the strategies adopted by game manufacturers by revealing the untapped potential of discarded hardware. Like District 9’s aliens, chip musicians have found new ways of using technologies trashed by others. One’s landfill is someone else’s treasure island. It could be argued that chip music is a satirical commentary, a playful critique of technological determinism, delivered via the very medium of the Game Boy. To paraphrase McLuhan, chip music is the message. And the message is: 8-bit sounds good. 8-bit music looks cool. Unlike tradition artists’ appropriation, which is mostly done for art’s sake, chip music practices have an implied goal: demonstrating that one’s obsolescence is someone else’s infancy. Retro is always brand new. "It is failure that guides evolution; perfection offers no incentive for improvement", wrote Colson Whitehead5. In this case, one’s failure is someone else’s perfection. Or: It is not out-of-date if I can make people dance. Or: You can keep your high-tech as long as you let me be lo-fi. By transforming the 20 year old Game Boy into a powerful synthesizer, hackers propagate Benjamin Button’s paradox: "What if I told you that instead of gettin’ older, I was gettin’ younger than everybody else?" Chip music is simultaneously old and young. Young, because it is still in a pre-puberty stage. Old, because chip music is a techno-natural evolution of early electronic music – in a sense, Nullsleep is a 21st century Kraftwerk6. If Luigi Russolo and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti were still around, they would definitely add "noises created with rudimentary game devices" to their intonarumori manifesto. Creating music with a Game Boy is a form of techno-exploitation. It turns its apparent limitations and faults into a cultural practice. As Kim Cascone writes7: "It is from the ‘failure’ of digital technology that this new work has emerged: glitches, bugs, application errors, system crashes, clipping, aliasing, distortion, quantization noise, and even the noise of computer sound cards are the raw material composers seek to incorporate into their music".
Now, if chip music was a purely technological practice, its impact would be minimal, if not irrelevant. The true relevance of chip music lies in the social aspect, that is, in the live performance itself. In Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, Philip Auslander8 reminds us that the distinction between "live" events and "mediated" (or "mediatized") events is becoming blurry. And yet, a chiptune event – with its overwhelming flow of sounds and images – requires the co-presence of an artist, a technology, and an audience. Like rave parties of the early 1990s, the relative underground nature of chip music has an aura of uniqueness that YouTube videos cannot recreate, only suggest. When John "BitShifter" Davis mixes his music with two Game Boys at the Barcade in Brooklyn, standing before two giants screens, the effect can be freakily overwhelming. He is a techno-shaman guiding the crowds with a magic wand that runs of AA batteries. He becomes one with the hardware, a lo-tech cyborg generated by Shinya Tsukamoto’s nightmares. Chip music has been around for a couple of decades. The first "official" releases can be traced back to the late 1990s. But before the zeros, it was rarely performed live. As the practitioners went public, a new scene was born. In 1999, Alec Empire released a chiptune album titled We Punk Einheit! entirely made with Game Boy sounds and later performed on stage, using Nanoloop. Events like the Blip festival in New York celebrated a phenomenon that is now both local and global. Local because these artist still perform in small electronic clubs that dare to be different. Global because thanks to the Net – and social networks services like MySpace – their audience has grown significantly. Chip musicians’ legendary performances have inspired legions of teenagers who might become the super-star DJs of tomorrow.
Nonetheless, chip music remains a geek pursuit. Geeks are always trying to solve a riddle, to solve a problem, win a challenge. In this case: making tasty lemonade with lemons. But tasty lemonade is no coca-cola. Many thought that chip music was bound to transcend the boundaries of geek-land. In 2003, Relax Beat released a CD titled Boy Playground, a compilation of Game Boy music that featured some of the best artists on the scene: Johan Kotlinski, Bit Shifter, Covox, Lo-Bat, Mark DeNardo, Tobiah, The Hardliner, Goto80, Nim, Handheld, Bud Melvin, Adlib Sinner Forks, Dilemma, Keichi Hirao, Puss, Teamtendo.
Malcom McLaren9 – who at that time was collaborating with Relax Beat producers Jacques Fantino and Thierry Criscione – wrote an article for Wired magazine suggesting that 8-bit music was the new punk. In fact, chip music shares some of the characteristics of the punk ideology: stripped-down instrumentation, a DIY logic, especially in terms of music recording and distribution, concert promotion, events, posters and flyers. Punk was subsequently co-opted and absorbed by corporations. Chip music is trying to resist its own incorporation into marketable goods for mainstream palates. The introduction of titles such as Korg DS-10 (2008) synthesizer software for the Nintendo DS that emulates the homonymous synthesizer developed by Korg or Beaterator (2009), a music mixer game developed by Rockstar Leeds for the PSP and co-produced by noted music producer Timbaland demonstrates how game producers are trying to capitalize on the rising success of this phenomenon. Chip music, however, will not capitulate. Because, as Bruce Sterling put it, "we live in the Golden Age of Dead Media. What we brightly call ‘multimedia’ provides a whole galaxy of mutant recombinant media, most of them with the working lifespan of a pack of Twinkies"10. If Game Boys are dead, then chip music is the soundtrack for our zombie age. Interestingly, many disagreed with Malcom McLaren’s "manifesto". They accused him of creating unnecessary hype around the 8-bit music phenomenon. In April 2004, Gareth Morris aka gwEm11 wrote an open letter to the former Sex Pistols manager, basically accusing him of trying to hijack the scene. The same year, McLaren arranged a party in Florence that featured, among the others, Game Boy artists Covox and Lo-bat. At any rate, Malcom McLaren was wrong: chip music has not crossed-over into the mainstream in the same way mash-up did (think Danger Mouse, think Girl Talk). And it’s probably a good thing.
Chip music resists commodification. It remains relatively low-key. The Game Boy music scene, in particular, is quite small. This niche, however, is spread around the world, with musicians creating music in a wide range of styles. Take Italy, for instance. While the Italian game industry is almost non-existent, the 8-bit music scene is developing quickly. Local artists include Tonylight, Pablito el Drito, Microman, Mat64 & Pira666, arottenbit, Kenobit, BuskerDroid, SecretLab, J8B!T, Hiki, DJ Scheisse, Nazzilla, just to name a few… 8-bit music has very different styles, but the practice itself is firmly embedded in the open source culture. Jeremiah "Nullsleep" Johnson uses a four-channel tracker, Little Sound DJ (2001), developed by a Swedish programmer called Johan Kotlinski that has an interface designed for use in a live environment and features MIDI synchronization. Others use software like Oliver Wittchow’s Nanoloop, released in 1998. Other use Aleksi "Heatbeat" Eeben’s Carillon Editor (2000) or Chris McCormick’s looper/sequencer for the Game Boy Advance, Live Loops (2001). In 2002, Jester Interactive developed Pocket Music, which was released by software house Rage for the Nintendo Game Boy Advance. Others used Nintendo’s Game Boy Camera (1998), which included a basic sequencer, Trippy-H, masqueraded as a game. That application inspired artists like the German electronic music duo Klangstabil, consisting of Maurizio Blanco and Boris May. In 2000, the band released two albums, Sprite Storage Format, and Gioco Bambino, consisting mainly of Game Boy music made with the Game Boy Camera, with some external effects and filtering. Pixelh8’s software was adopted by the Game Boy scene community. One example is Music Tech (2007) which turns the Game Boy into a real time synthesizer, whereby the user can design the sound and play notes by using the keys. Another is Pro Performer (2008), an upgraded version for the Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo DS. Pixelh8 distributes his software freely on the net. In April 2009, Sony Creative Software released 8-Bit Weapon: A Chiptune Odyssey loop and sample library. The library contains music loops and samples made by the band using various vintage computers and videogame consoles, including the original Game Boy. In short, sharing resources is the key.
Sharing is an artistic practice: the merging of styles and format is manifest in Mark Denardo’s modus operandi. Denardo incorporates chip music into established music genres, like folk, combining traditional instruments (violin, bass, piano) with electronic sequences produced with Game Boys and Sony PSPs. For Denardo, playing a Game Boy is essentially similar to playing a violin. Which begs the ultimate question: Is playing music radically different from playing videogames?
The answer is no. It both cases, it comes down to skill, execution, timing, style…
…And planned obsolescence.
Because, as McLuhan wrote, "obsolescence never meant the end of anything, it’s just the beginning"12.
- 1. For instance, the emergence of machinima, a form of animation created by hacking videogame engines, which transformed an interactive medium into a form of visual storytelling akin to traditional cinema and animation.
- 2. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life; University of California Press, Berkeley, 2002
- 3. Also known as built-in obsolescence. An excellent treatise on this subject is Giles Slade, Made to Break. Technology and Obsolescence in America, Harvard University Press, Cambridge–Massachusetts, 2006
- 4. 21 November 2009 in Japan; 1st Quarter of 2010 in the United States and Europe
- 5. Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist, Anchor Books, New York, 2000
- 6. It comes as no surprise that, in 2007, Astralwerks released an album titled 8-Bit Operators: The Music of Kraftwerks, which features cover versions of the electronic music pioneers remixed by several prominent chiptune artists
- 7. Kim Cascone, “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music”, in Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, Audio Culture. Readings in Modern Music, Continuum, New York, 2006, pp. 392-398
- 8. Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, Routledge, London, 1999
- 9. Malcom McLaren, “8-Bit Punk”, in Wired, November 2003, available online at http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.11/mclaren.html (retrieved: 03/11/2009)
- 10. Ironically, packs of Twinkies are among the few survivors of the apocalypse in Ruben Fleischer’s horror comedy Zombieland (2009)
- 11. gwEm “Open Letter to Malcom McLaren”, micromusic.net, available online at http://micromusic.net/public_letter_gwEm.html (retrieved: 02/11/2009)
- 12. Marshall McLuhan, Corrine McLuhan, Matie Molinaro and William Toye, Letters of Marshall McLuhan, Oxford Univeristy Press, Oxford, 1987, p. 398