Last weekend, the art exhibit xX_CutePixel_Xx by Yixin He, Alyssa Lee, Eileen Lee, Connie Ye, Lexin Yuan, and Lauren Zhang came to the Frame Gallery. Coming from art, computer science, and HCI backgrounds, the artists’ aim was to “explore what it means for digital representations to be ‘cute’ or nostalgic, deconstructing the word as it relates to 2010s digital culture” and “investigate how nostalgia plays into placing humanity back into data-driven, web or creative technological works.”
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to ask the artists some questions about their experiences with the internet and creating the exhibit after the reception.
What was your inspiration for this exhibit?
LZ: For the exhibition theme, we were thinking about what we all had in common, and as artists who all deal with or use technology heavily in our art, it made sense to think about our roots, reexamining our childhood experiences with technology and how they influenced our work today.
AL: I wanted to create this exhibit as homage to all of the websites, games, TV shows, etc. that inspired me to become an artist and computer scientist.
CY: I wanted to make a Frame show that was explicitly “cute”!
What was the inspiration for your specific pieces?
LZ on Untitled Blob Man: Untitled Blob Man kind of unintentionally fit the theme — I made him at a craft/painting hangout my friends had, and when I moved into my apartment, I didn’t have something to hang him on the wall so I just left him on a stand on the floor, and there he remained. I thought he looked like a little internet profile icon, and it was cool that he was sitting in 3D space, not on a wall or computer screen.
LZ on Mii Simulator: I was back home and I found my old Wii controllers and simultaneously thought about my memories of the Mii Channel and how fun it would be to play computer games with the Wii remotes. Up until this point I’d been struggling to think of something that resonated with me that would be relevant to “cute pixel” and digital nostalgia, but I spent a lot of time on my Miis as a kid, so I thought it would be cool to elevate these nuggets of memory to something of a spectacle.
LZ on Clark’s Empire: a website that links to a number of businesses that have the name Clark in their titles. It was very much a “shower thought” moment that came when I was trying to remember the link to a website that had the name Clark in it and found some very interesting, clearly outdated websites.
YH: My main piece was Dress Down Game. I played a ton of dress up games in my childhood, so I wanted to make something fun and surprising based on those games.
AL on Trainer Cards: I made a station where people could assemble their own ID cards because I wanted everyone to be able to take a piece of the show home with them and interact with the work. Part of my inspiration for this was something like a dress up game, where you can piece together an image that reflects your personality. It was fun to make something physical for a change since most of my work is computer based.
AL on @good_egg_bot: @good_egg_bot was inspired by the many Twitter bots that already exist, plus my love for eggs and giving away art. I like the idea of a friendly bot that will do something simple like give away eggs.
AL on Ink Game: Ink Game was made to simulate drawing in first person view of the paint. It is similar to making a big drawing in the snow or sand, but with the added utility of MS Paint-like features (changing colors, line width, and flood filling). The CMYK color scheme is inspired by a printer.
CY: I made the Digital Pet Graveyard, Utopia (face morphing webpage) and the Pixel Art ML studies.
EL: I created the customized cat characters (screenprint on paper). The vaguely-shaped cats all vary from each other in small ways (different eye colors and eyes, clothes, etc). They are lined up in multiple rows, and you can choose one to take home!
Although my work is not usually themed around old internet nostalgia, I grew up with games like Neopets and Club Penguin as a kid, and I miss when the internet had chaotic, ugly websites. (It feels much more intimate and personal visiting a website designed by someone who just wanted to show the world some funny cat pictures.)
I used to spend a long time creating my own characters, changing the body color and adding on ribbons and hats, and this customization was my favorite part of playing a game. I wanted to imitate that experience but alter it a bit so that the characters are more tangible and participants can physically take one home with them (kind of like Build-a-Bear).
How has growing up with the internet impacted you and your work?
LZ: I think the internet has given me a lot of appreciation for self-referential, irreverent, and “stupid” meme humor, like puns. I think there’s a reason memes and other related things on the internet resonate with our generation so much, and I feel like I always end up trying to capture parts of that energy.
YH: The topic of this show weirdly isn’t something that’s too present in my work normally. I haven’t thought about a lot of the games and websites we talked about for years, but I think after this show I’d like to make more.
AL: Neopets was the place where I learned how to create web pages and share my art with others. I think that the internet has impacted my work because there are so many sources of inspiration and learning. I have benefited a lot from free online tutorials.
CY: I’m really inspired by how you can make your work really easily interactive and accessible with the internet! I also think that sometimes we build items that we yearn for, and so I like reminiscing about what was on the internet when I was younger. For example, the longing for connections with others with social networks, the longing for pets with Neopets/Webkinz, longing to experiment with identity and realities through avatars and games, etc.
What was the creative process like working across different disciplines?
LZ: It usually doesn’t feel like I’m working “across disciplines” when I create my work, because it feels like technology is not another discipline but just another medium/tool. Most of us didn’t collaborate on pieces together, but I think the experience of planning the show together was very fun. Everyone brought their own childhood experiences into the space, not just in their work but also in the food and decorations.
AL: The six of us came together because we have similar interests, and we were pretty familiar with each other’s work so it was a good experience to work together. A lot of us are usually working across disciplines so it just feels normal at this point.
EL: It was great to see a variety of work come together to represent our theme of digital nostalgia. Although our work was not too collaborative, I loved seeing how everyone brought the most memorable piece of their experience with the internet to life. It was a pleasant surprise to remember a game that I completely forgot about, or to see icons and imagery that felt nostalgic, but I couldn’t quite place a finger on.
How do you think the internet culture has changed over the years?
LZ: I feel like if the internet has shifted, it’s because I’ve grown older and moved to other parts of the internet, although I’m glad that the cute but “cringey” aspects have been reclaimed by many people our age.
YH: The old aesthetic of saccharinely cute things is gone, and the old games made with the minimal amount of tech and programming are gone. Cute things definitely still exist and are super popular – just look at the hype around the upcoming Animal Crossing game and Animal Crossing Switch. It’s just different.
AL: I think that there are still cute things on the internet but I don’t really use it for that purpose, and even if I did I don’t think it would feel the same. Age is probably a huge factor, since when I was younger I had a lot of curiosity and excitement about the internet. Now that I’m older the technology is a lot less impressive and interesting. For example, I can see that a lot of my favorite games were essentially random number generators, and that makes them lose their magic.
EL: As the internet grew, it shifted a lot in both content and aesthetic. As interface design and website design grows and becomes more of a polished study, the websites and applications we use and visit are built by a team of professionals, hired by companies who aim to sell and keep up a professional image. There are some areas of the internet that are still cute, but it’s hard to find many websites that were as horrid and clunky as websites like “I Can Has Cheezburger?”.
What former internet trends are you most nostalgic about?
LZ: I will always love Homestuck. That is all.
YH: I’m really going to miss a lot of the flash games I played when I was younger since Adobe Flash is being phased out. I hope someone preserves The Impossible Quiz in a non-Flash form.
AL: I really miss Neopets, I spent so much time on that site as a kid and I really feel like it inspired me the most.
CY: I miss Webkinz!
EL: I miss Neopets, “I Can Has Cheezburger?”, The Oatmeal, sending chain emails, flash games (like This Is The Only Level).