On Costumes, Video Games, and the Art of Pretending

Walking around Comic-Con, one can’t help but get sucked in by the feeling that something else, something other than our daily world, is real. That feeling, if you really try to follow its swirl and pat it down to make sense of it, comes from the fact that there are dozens of people walking around in costumes. Some are silly, some are scary, and some are so intricate and well-crafted that looking at them isn’t enough. They demand more than your attention; they demand your whole attitude.

I am not, at least not on the outside, one of those people easily excited about (generally) anything. Moreover, I’m slightly afraid of spectacle. I get painfully embarrassed by it. So I was surprised to find that by the second day at Comic-Con I really got into it. Walking along the halls and corridors of the San Diego Convention Center are hundreds and hundreds of people dressed in jeans and T-shirts, and right in stride with them are walking characters that have somehow stepped out of the two-dimensional image worlds they inhabit. The juxtaposition is jarring. No doubt that we know these are just regular people dressed in costume, but seeing a well-crafted costume makes one forget that the character it depicts is not as real as the person making it come to life.

The escapism is in the details. As with any other work of art, the detail woven into a costume draws the viewer in. Even a work of art that is minimalist and sparse, the details draw the viewer into their game; their placement in the composition, their symbolic significance. The proportions on one of the Avatar costumes, the blue Na’vi alien creatures, was so convincing, that for a minute or so I shut out the vacuous convention center and could think only of what it would be like to live in that movie, or to know a living, breathing, blue alien creature.

As a kid, I used to watch Saturday morning cartoons. I would get my cereal and my milk and sit there in bed watching cartoons. The X-Men was my favorite. And then Batman. I couldn’t tell you any geeky facts about either. (I don’t remember names very well, and besides, details for me are temporary impressions, they don’t remain in my memory as details for long.) But I can tell you that for the half hour either of the two superhero cartoons were on, I completely forgot that I was a kid, in my bedroom, eating cereal. When the X-Men closing credits began to roll, I would snap out of my trance, and regret the reality that I did not have super powers. That was some escape.

It’s an escape we constantly search for well into adulthood. We find it when we get lost in details. They appeal to that part of us that was so childish, so selfish, that part that could forget about the whole world around them and accord all the attention to the world they wanted. The more I stared at the yellow dots around the Na’vi’s blue face, the more lost I got in Avatar and in my own memory of that world.

On a sort of diagonal slant, related but not immediately, is the topic of nostalgic video games. An art gallery in my neighborhood, SUPER IAM8BIT, recently re-opened its doors with a group show sampling works inspired by early video games. The founders of the gallery have worked extensively in media, marketing, and entertainment, especially in the video game field, and their show, SUPER IAM8BIT is the result of years of accumulated acquaintances with video game artists and regular artists who (I’m guessing), enjoy video games.

Like walking through the convention center at Comic-Con got me to silently slip into that world of Saturday Morning where I lived with the X-Men, walking through the show at SUPER IAM8BIT got me to forget that I haven’t played video games in at least 15 years. The difference between this art show and a regular art show is that this art one invites you into a world that you already know. The characters are all there, from Super Mario Bros., Link, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, etc. Even if you’re not old enough to know the Space Invaders or Pac Man gams, their images are such a part of the collective cultural consciousness that you will recognize them.

Sky Burchard, Unrequited Love Object #5 (Whistle); enamel on foam with plexi glass, 74x20x20 inches. At IAM8BIT gallery.

Renditions of 8-bit superheroes, super-villains, and the trinkets the former use to fight the latter, range from the very abstract to the playfully referential to the outright practical. Sky Burchard’s Unrequited Love Object series is comprised of three-dimensional sculptures, constructed out of colored squares (three-dimensional pixels) encased in Plexiglas that seem to float around much like the video game entities do that inspired them. Paper Prophet’s Ave-Mari-o, an extravagant, cartoonish interpretation of the Ave Maria, complete with Mario wielding a flaming sacred heart, is an example of how we can imbibe one well-known tradition with a newer one.

The gallery has a storefront where visitors can buy books and other objects related to the show. There’s a box by the register with vintage video game trading cards. The packets are a little oily and stuck together from being packed in boxes since the late ’80s. I’m not so susceptible to objects of nostalgia, but my attention was drawn to the two shelves by the entrance where nicely made-up Styrofoam busts modeled crocheted hats inspired by various video game characters. One in particular was instantly recognizable. I remembered it from Super Mario Brothers. The details in the hat were unmistakable.

Crocheted hats at IAM8BIT storefront

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