Right Click Save is pleased to collaborate with Unit London on “The Pixel Generation,” an exhibition celebrating pixel art as a discourse and aesthetic.
Charlotte Kent: How did you come to pixel art and what appealed to you about it as an artistic vocabulary?
Peter Burr: Broadly speaking, I don’t identify my work as “pixel art,” which, in common parlance, evokes an aesthetic wrapper and a style common to video games that points toward nostalgia or retro vibe. Cory Arcangel, Paper Rad, and E*Rock acknowledged this trend 20 years ago and spun it into a commercial enterprise called WYLD FiLE, describing their approach as “Faxel Art” — vector-based pixel art made with the software, Flash. At the time, I thought it was a fun joke and a nice way to highlight logical gaps between music videos for commercial television and installations for fine art museums (the old gap between art and entertainment).
The style WYLD FiLE embraced back in the day was a by-product of an often invisible technology that surrounds many of us every day. Each screen is made of stuff — physical material that acts as a bridge between the fantasy of the virtual image and the reality of the world we can touch and shape with our skin. I am personally interested in the quality of what’s invisible.
I’m curious about what happens when we pay attention to the lattice of crystal cubes that undergirds every image. By highlighting that grid, I hope to tease out something that may surprise me with each digital image I make.
Eboy: My first experience with pixels was in the 1970s on my father’s Apple II. For eBoy as a collective, our commitment to a fully digital workflow led us to pixel art. Working on a screen naturally prompted us to control every aspect, making pixels an ideal medium. We quickly found pixel art enjoyable, particularly at low resolutions. Its constraints and the agility of the creative process proved both liberating and gratifying.
LoVid: The first video instrument we built in 2004 — in collaboration with Douglas Repetto — was an 8-bit synthesizer called Dragon Slayer. This was before we started building analog video tools and a time of cross-pollination within the DIY art scene, where technological art included net art, hardware hacking, and circuit bending.
We had previously worked with a modified toy called My First Sony, which was a video drawing tablet that plugged into a TV. Not only did it produce pretty pixelated low-res images, but it also included an oscillator, which meant that the sound would change pitch, following a drawn line up and down, left or right. That was one of the ways we focused on technology as an extension of the human hand while highlighting the connections between image and sound.
Since our tools were mostly older devices and toys, they were inherently low-tech, low-res, and pixelated. That was an aesthetic of the 2000s that incorporated nostalgia, anti-consumerism, and anti-war sentiment simultaneously.
Qian Qian: Like most people of my generation, the early Nintendo games are engraved in my brain. During my graduate study of media arts in the UK, I first attempted drawing pixel art and animating it. For me, pixel art is Bauhaus meets Impressionism. It has the precision of geometric design as well as the freedom of figurative drawing that together makes images look fresh, yet timeless.
Kristen Roos: I came to work in pixel art through my research into the history of paint software for early personal computers. That has led me to collect a number of computers, and create work with software for the Apple IIe, Atari 800XL, Commodore 64, Macintosh, and Amiga. I use both the hardware, and the emulated versions of all of these computers. My research has led me to discover techniques found in vintage paint software, subsequently using them in my work. I’ve developed a vocabulary that speaks to the history of paint software for personal computers, and how the techniques associated with vintage software are currently undergoing a resurgence through the NFT space.
What appealed to me most about creating with software of that era was the ability to create extremely small files that are technically still images, but appear as if they are animated. I like the idea of working within constraints to create something deceptively complex through the use of limited tools. As an educator, I also like to allow other artists access to use the tools that I have found through my media archaeological process.
Empress Trash: Like most children of the 1980s, I grew up playing 8-bit video games, which remains a secret nerd passion to this day. Then, when I was in high school in the late ’90s, I bought my first computer with Photoshop with money I’d saved up working evenings at Dairy Queen. That was when I first fell in love with digital art, a healthy portion of which was pixel art.
At that time, I would try to share my digital artwork with my high school art teacher, but she just didn’t get it or accept it and kept pushing me to explore more traditional media. I would always go home and work on my own digital practice, sometimes sharing it on DeviantArt, but mostly keeping it to myself.
Fast forward to my late 20s and I went back to school to get my BFA from The University of Iowa. A bunch of us animation and video game nerds came together to make interactive art and push the art school to incorporate animation and gaming into their curriculum, advocating for its legitimacy as an art form. We were successful.
In the late 2000s, the traditional art world was still skeptical and dismissive of digital media. I ended up visiting MoMA with ROBNESS and they had a whole exhibition about video games as art — boy did I have some big feels. I saw how a lot of small actions by many different people can change narratives, even in the course of my lifetime. I felt like a single pixel in a tapestry, legitimizing digital art in the eyes of the institution.
Ina Vare: My love for pixel art started when I was a kid playing video games on my Sega Genesis console. I was fascinated by the 16 x 16 tiles and the limitations of the environment. Later, while studying art in school, I delved deeper into the technology and became even more enamored with it.
Although I don’t consider myself a traditional pixel artist, I’ve found my niche in creating dithered GIF art. Using this technique, I can create patterns that give the illusion of greater color and tone than there actually is. It’s an exciting way to explore the possibilities of digital art within limited data sets.
CK: What are the techniques involved in producing pixel art and what do they demand of you as a creator?
E: Since we started in the ’90s, we have relied on Photoshop’s pen tool as our primary instrument. We developed a modular approach, enabling us to create a database of objects that can be combined, reused, and modified as needed. We view ourselves as builders — every object we make is not only art but also a tool for future projects.
IV: Analog video art is my principal genre, and I enjoy using different analog processes to create my images and videos. My final product is mostly a forever-looping GIF file. However, I don’t simply create the file and call it a day; I dive deep into the settings and variations, experimenting with color schemes and patterns until I achieve the final artwork. For me, the processing of the GIF is an essential creative component that adds extra texture and a nostalgic quality that I find appealing.
Part of my process involves pushing the data and file size down to the lowest level possible. This is something that I’m dedicated to that sets me apart from the endless high-tech art that emphasizes file size and quality. Ultimately, my goal is to create art that captures the essence of the analog era while showcasing the possibilities of new technologies.
ET: While I’ve tended to do more traditional representational pixel art, as I’ve gotten older I have deconstructed the practice. Now I’m interested in pixels in motion, like static on a TV, which has led me to create what I call “pixel glitches,” primarily using PhotoMosh and Adobe After Effects. Before I got into crypto art, there had been a reaction from collectors against PhotoMosh as low effort, which is what originally spurred on the Trash Art movement.
While I had called myself Empress Trash — or sometimes Trash Empress — prior to crypto art, I discovered on entering the crypto art scene that a lot of Trash Artists shared the same ethos. Part of my objective was to “elevate trash,” with me being trailer trash myself. This wasn’t me trying to be elitist in any way, but rather to flip the narrative of trash as low brow.
Outsider artists are some of the most brilliant and underrated artists across all generations.
When I’m creating pixel glitches, I’m letting that child in me come out to play. I know they are complete when I feel a sense of joy and amazement at how they sparkle, a pure and simple childlike awe.
KR: My work features one technique heavily, called color cycling or palette shifting. This technique was originally developed for early paint programs that sought to create an illusion of animation, while using small amounts of memory. In such a way, still images can look as though they are animated by cycling through a specified color palette. It’s a prominent feature of Deluxe Paint, which provided the graphics for numerous video games, and was used extensively throughout the late 1980s and into the ’90s by both artists and video artists. It is now my favorite tool.
I think such tools demand a particular way of working that is really a homage to the pixel, which is front and center in all of my work. The images and structures that I create are all tied to this square, gridded way of interacting with the screen. My tools and medium define the limitations of the art form and aesthetic, as I am forced to create in a very particular way when interacting with them.
QQ: For the most part, I use the Photoshop pencil tool to draw one pixel at a time. Then later I will recreate the bitmap drawing in Adobe Illustrator or Figma to make them vector-based, depending on where they will be used.
Such techniques feel quite natural to me, as I’ve been working as a graphic designer most of my career.
PB: The first tool I ever used to make digital art was a black and white Macintosh computer that ran the software, MacPaint. Back then, I played it like a video game but I think it was secretly training me to be an artist at a time in my life when I was getting tired of drawing with pencil on paper. I abandoned MacPaint long ago — as did Apple; MacPaint has been considered abandonware for a long time — but I returned to it in 2011 as a way to make simpler artwork. Since then I’ve tried to maintain a connection to that earlier voice within more modern software platforms. An affinity for black and white pixels is threaded throughout much of my recent work.
CK: In his book, In the Beginning… was the Command Line (1999), Neil Stephenson wrote: “Interface is very important. Imagine a crossroads where four competing auto dealerships are situated. One of them (Microsoft) is much, much bigger than the others. It started out years ago selling three-speed bicycles (MS-DOS); these were not perfect, but they worked, and when they broke you could easily fix them. There was a competing bicycle dealership next door (Apple) that one day began selling motorized vehicles — expensive but attractively styled cars with their innards hermetically sealed, so that how they worked was something of a mystery.” Do you insist on any criteria among the software you use?
PB: I’m not a bike mechanic. Nowadays, when I get a flat tyre I bring it to the bike shop to help repair it (which wasn’t always the case).
For me, the goal is to make work with whatever I have in front of me. If I have access to a fancy car I make work with that car. If I only have a bike, then I guess I’m making bike art for a while.
L: We prefer to design and produce our own tools based on our artistic and philosophical vision rather than technology developed for mass consumption. Our classic instrument is Sync Armonica, our modular AV synthesizer, which we built at Eyebeam in 2005 and have since used to create most of our visual and audio work. More recently, we designed a Raspberry Pi-based camera, programmed and built by Douglas Repetto. The camera, BikeBox, layers blocks of pixels from sequential temporal images to create collaged panoramic photos in real time.
Our process does include some commercial tools to pull together elements and produce some of our ultimate time-based or still compositions. In the studio, we strive for a balance between authentic, unpredictable materials produced with unique handmade tools and the control and reliability of mass-market software.
IV: I tend to stick with the software and hardware that I’ve learned and still have access to. I don’t actively seek out new tools and software, mostly because I’m short on time. I use a mix of high-tech and low-tech gear, as well as software from big corporations and small open-source apps. What matters most to me is durability. I believe in using things for as long as possible, rather than constantly upgrading to the newest, most hyped version. I’ve used the same laptop for eight years and plan to keep using it until it no longer serves me.
By sticking to what I know and using my tools for as long as possible, I’m able to focus on what’s truly important — my art. While new tools and software can certainly be exciting, I believe that the key to success is mastering what you have and using it to its fullest potential.
ET: To continue the Neil Stephenson analogy, I use Apple for my communication devices but Microsoft for my art creation. When I’m in the safety of my studio, I want my software to break while I’m creating and I push the limits of my systems and software very intentionally. However, when I’m out in the world I want to know my phone isn’t going to give out on me — it’s my tether to others.
I used to use Linux a lot, but I found it too tech-intensive. I also value open-source software, but I’m not above using Adobe products. I have Photoshop and GIMP both installed on my laptop and often bounce between the two. As a visual person, clean UI makes me happy, but I also like being able to look under the hood in order to tinker with it. There is a grit that comes with using software with rudimentary UI that translates into art.
KR: I am particularly interested in the history of paint and animation software for personal computers from the late 1970s into the early ’90s. This could be viewed as my criteria for the software that I use.
QQ: For me, an image can only be called pixel art when it is based precisely on a square pixel grid. The precision of the tool is very important, especially when modern screens are such high resolution. The software has to be able to deliver pixel-perfect images.
E: Humans adapt to the tools we choose to learn, demonstrating flexibility. Although tools can make a significant difference, imagination and drive ultimately matter more.
CK: Do you see pixel art as an operating system? If so, what are the politics of that system? Have they changed over time?
E: We see pixel art as a set of methods that stem from its inherent modularity and its digital nature. At its core, it has not changed. It is defined around the very core of the digital space.
PB: No, I don’t regard “pixel art” as an operating system but as an aesthetic wrapper that reinforces the phantasmagoria of contemporary technology under capitalism. I don’t identify my work as pixel art and I’m not sure what the politics of that system are, but there’s something I sense in my gut when I see that term deployed that makes me feel alienated from those politics.
ET: Everything is a system when examined at a macro level.
Pixel art used to be reserved solely for video games and clip art — it was considered the lowest of low brow. But from a macro perspective, pixels rule everything around us. There is even pixel-flavored Coca-Cola now.
IV: I find the idea of pixel art as an operating system very intriguing. The pixel art community is vast and diverse, and there are many different forms and approaches to creating pixel art. Since the early days of the Internet, many things have changed, and the limitation of data that was once reality is now a choice.
QQ: I see pixel art as an image-creation system. But humans from different cultures have been creating images using a square grid system for thousands of years. From mosaics to bamboo weaving to bead art to LEGO, the fundamentals haven’t really changed — it’s always been about the level of abstraction and color palette. Pixel art as a computer-based art form is just one of the ways to realize an image based on the square grid.
KR: This question makes me think of some of the research I’ve been doing into the history of computer art, which is inherently tied to the history of the pixel. A lot of the early mainframe computer labs (and radiation labs) were supported through military funding, which paved the way for Silicon Valley. You can look at this history in a negative way, because the artists using these tools were being funded by the military. But I’m also grateful that there were people using these tools to create art. Otherwise, the history of the computer would never have involved creativity.
That history is folded into my work, which uses the same hardware and software that was developed for the home market in the late 1970s. That home market was the result of the microcomputer revolution, which lacked the menacing associations of the mainframe era. The politics of vintage computer software is actually very interesting, and was part of a huge boom in paint, draw, design, and animation software in the early 1980s. Many of the Homebrew Computer Club either started companies themselves or were eventually hired by companies to create software. That ultimately led to software becoming more corporate, as the smaller companies were either dismantled or eaten by large corporations.
Today, the paranoia that people once had in the early days of mainframe computers has become a reality, and the idea of pixel art is increasingly part of a kind of fetishized nostalgia.
CK: Contemporary film adopts grain as a way of engineering technostalgia, and pixels can have a similar effect. What are the implications for your work in offering a nostalgic situation for audiences?
KR: Nostalgia is definitely a factor for the audience of my work. But I also want to emphasize that my work isn’t nostalgic for me personally. I didn’t have a computer as a child, and I didn’t own a computer until I was nearly 30. I was born in 1975, so I am definitely of the generation of the vintage software that I use. But I also grew up in a low-income household with a single mother with two children. Owning a computer was not in the picture.
I think it’s interesting to expose the privileged history of computers, and where the authorship lies in the creation of software. In buying the computers that I could not afford as a child — that have been discarded due to obsolescence — I feel like I’m giving them a new life by resuscitating these old discarded beasts. This kind of media archaeological approach, of “zombie media,” acknowledges the current fetishization of early computing while also being critical of the history of technology.
QQ: Thanks to NFTs and crypto culture, pixel art is having a revival right now. In video game culture, pixel art feels nostalgic, as it was a concession to computing limits. But in broader visual culture, pixel art is a timeless and well-established aesthetic. Personally, I hope the audience would see my pixel work as new and fresh.
L: As AI and GPU technology develops, the artist’s “touch” is less and less visible. The visceral effect of pixels, glitches, and rough edits communicates a tangible hands-on interaction and approach to creating visual work.
We realize that this process has a nostalgic feeling to it, and we’re into retrofuturism, but we see pixel aesthetics as more aligned with drip painting, exposed seams, and other formal elements that call attention to craft.
In the mid 2000s the BBC licensed a collection of our early videos to be included in the docuseries, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.” In these films, Adam Curtis used snippets of our early works to represent moments of dysfunction, error, tech bubbles bursting, and disruptions to human-machine relations.
ET: My work is steeped in nostalgia for me. However, I don’t like to live in nostalgia, but rather to recontextualize it through a contemporary visual language.
IV: My work is all about nostalgia. It’s highly personal and often resonates with audiences who appreciate a level of sentimentality. Even in edgier projects of mine like TRASH Erector (2022), which contains more recent cultural references, I seek to imbue a sense of nostalgia.
E: Nostalgia never played a role for us. We want to create on computers, for computers. Pixels are the atoms of our universe, making them a logical choice.
CK: How does the NFT stand to change the profile of pixel art?
IV: I think the rise of NFTs and the crypto art space has had a significant impact on the popularity and growth of pixel art. Previously, pixel art was largely confined to a small community on platforms like Tumblr, but projects like CryptoPunks (2017) have helped to bring it to a wider audience, showcasing the appeal of a simple yet engaging art form.
As a result of this increased exposure, more people are now creating and exploring the potential of pixel art, with artists from different backgrounds showing interest in the medium. The decentralized market for NFTs has also enabled more creators to gain recognition and support for their work, further fueling the growth and innovation of pixel art.
ET: Pixels are crypto art. Blockchain has emancipated the pixel. We finally have a way to buy, sell, trade, and validate our pixels. The long-term implications of this in how it will change art are almost unfathomable at this point in time.
L: Web3 has expanded and diversified our audience and shifted the economic system in which we operate. Rather than reaching our audience with or through institutions, we have more direct connections with our collectors and audience. We have long been interested in ground-up development, simplifying and distilling the elementary particles or indivisible features of any system. We are inspired by discrete time, space, bits, and the loss of analog information when video sync is imposed. Blocks on a chain are another basic unit that resembles pixels.
E: Pixel art’s relevance lies in its origin and existence within the same universe as crypto.
PB: NFTs, if anything, may be able to accelerate the influence of free-market capitalism on artwork like this, unbridling it from the intentions of artists and altering the motivating engine of discourse to one concerned with audience speculation.
My instinct is that the NFT will make digital art look more like casino marketing than conceptual artwork.
QQ: Pixel art is extremely file-size economical, which made it the go-to format for early computer games and graphics, as it is once again for NFT art. It seems that the NFT has made pixel art trendy owing to its new financial value. I just hope this new popularity makes people take pixel art more seriously as an art form at the intersection of art, design, and technology.
Peter Burr is a digital and new media artist based in Brooklyn, New York. His practice often engages with tools of the video game industry in the form of immersive cinematic artworks. These pieces have been presented internationally by various institutions including Documenta 14, Athens; MoMA PS1, New York; and The Barbican, London. Previously he worked under the alias, Hooliganship, and founded the video label Cartune Xprez through which he produced hundreds of live multimedia exhibitions and touring programs showcasing artists at the forefront of experimental animation. He has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Sundance New Frontier Fellowship, and a Creative Capital Grant, among numerous other accolades.
Eboy is an art group based in Los Angeles and Berlin. Founded in 1997 by Kai Vermehr, Steffen Sauerteig, and Svend Smital, it is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of pixel art, often referred to as “The Godfathers of Pixel.” The central idea behind eBoy was to have fun using newly available digital tools and media. The decision to directly work on, and for, the screen led to the use of pixels. A modular-based work system started to evolve and resulted in complex object-based artwork. Their work has been presented in galleries worldwide and they have worked with major clients, including Adidas, Balenciaga, Coca-Cola, Google, Gucci, and The New York Times, amongst many others.
LoVid is an artist duo based in New York. Making use of home-made synthesizers and hand-cranked code, they have worked collaboratively since 2001. Their work has been presented internationally at venues including the Netherland Media Art Institute, Amsterdam; Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; The Jewish Museum and MoMA, New York; and the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Their projects have received support from organizations including The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, UC Santa Barbara, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. In 2022 their collection, Tide Predictor, was selected for an Art Blocks Curated release. Their work is also included in numerous museum collections worldwide, including the Whitney Museum of American Art; Parrish Art Museum; and The Heckscher Museum of Art, New York.
Kristen Roos is an artist and educator based in Vancouver, Canada. With a BFA from Concordia University and an MFA from the University of Victoria, Roos works across a wide range of mediums including electronic and electroacoustic music composition, sound design, animation, printmaking, textiles, and media archaeology. He has completed numerous residencies and received a number of research and production grants through the Canada Council for the Arts and BC Arts Council. His work has been exhibited internationally by Vellum LA, Digital Art Zurich, and Ars Electronica, and has held solo exhibitions at Penticton Art Gallery and BELETAGE Art Space, Zurich.
Qian Qian is an artist and graphic designer based in New York. With 20 years experience working in the field of advertising and design, he has created award-winning work for prestigious brands including Samsung, Nike, Coca-Cola, and Google. He is currently the creative director of Bright Moments gallery and artist of the ongoing generative art collection, CryptoCitizens. His work has been featured by Apple and exhibited at the V&A, London and Lincoln Center, New York.
Empress Trash (Drea Jay) is a visual artist currently residing in Mexico City. A lifelong artist, she earned her BFA in Painting, Drawing, and Animation/Design from The University of Iowa in 2014. Shortly after, she moved to the Bay Area where she worked alongside many other artists, became a member of the Firehouse Art Collective, and was included in a variety of exhibitions including Ai Weiwei’s show on Alcatraz. In 2021, she entered the crypto art scene, exhibiting internationally at Sotheby’s, New York, Art Basel Miami Beach; and SXSW, Texas. As a process-orientated artist, she embraces abstraction, surrealism, trash, glitch, and AI to explore the subconscious connections between various aspects of life.
Ina Vare is a Latvian glitch and analog video artist. She holds a BA and MA in Visual Communication from the Art Academy of Latvia. With a deep understanding of digital, VHS, and circuit-bending tools, she experiments with retro-analog video aesthetics to recreate a nostalgic visual experience which reflects the depths of noise, error, and glitch. Her video art has been featured in international film festivals, including Reykjavik International Film Festival, Shanghai International Film Festival, and Filmfest Dresden. Since joining the crypto art community in 2021, Ina has collaborated with artists and collectives such as Max Capacity, Letsglitchit, and Death Punk and her work has been hugely influential on the #TRASHART movement.
Charlotte Kent is an arts writer and Associate Professor of Visual Culture at Montclair State University, with a particular interest in the intersection of art, digital culture, and the absurd, especially as it troubles static perceptions of contemporary political and ecological practices. She is co-editor with Katherine Guinness of Contemporary Absurdities, Existential Crises, and Visual Art (forthcoming, Intellect Books). She continues to research assorted disciplinary approaches to the absurd — ranging from Aristotelian Logic to Zen Buddhism — as an intersectional feminist method of engaging the complex work of contemporary artists and speculative designers disrupting notions of autonomy, anthropocentrism, techno-capitalism, militarism, and other structures of power. She is also an Editor-at-Large with a monthly column and panel on Art & Technology for The Brooklyn Rail and writes for various magazines and academic journals, as well as contributing essays to catalogs and books.