Paul Built a Commodore: A hardware-based restoration of the 'first art videogame'

The original Mike Builds a Shelter (1983) for "GOVERNMENT APPROVED HOME FALLOUT SHELTER AND SNACK BAR" at Castelli Graphics

"Hardware-based restoration—that's nasty business."

Unsurprisingly, this is not an uncommon remark from my colleague Dragan Espenschied, who has staked a path for Rhizome in emulation-based restoration instead. And yet there the two of us were on Tuesday, June 9, at Light Industry, excited to see some impressively nasty hardware courtesy artist/curator/programmer/musician Paul Slocum.

At the front of the packed screening room sat two hardware-based versions of Mike Builds a Shelter, a 1983 videogame by artist Mike Smith, computer graphics designer Dov Jacobson, and programmer Reza Keshavarz. One was a touched-up original Commodore 64 (C64) plugged into a small CRT TV and connected to a coin door and a joystick. The other was Slocum's most current homebrew re-make—a small box which contained a C64 on a chip, modified for stability and other improvements such as the ability to output to a flat-screen like the one attached, with a modern power brick that can take international voltages, connected to a coin door and a joystick. Both versions fed into cherry red KRK speakers, and both required a quarter to run, which Light Industry generously provided. (The coin slot was unboxed, so the single coin just fell out, ready to be reused! #freeculture)

Courtesy Dragan Espenschied's Twitter, two versions of Mike Builds a Shelter. L: Slocum's homebrew. R: Original retouched 

The three had developed Mike Builds a Shelter as part of an installation for a 1983 exhibition by Smith at Castelli Graphics, NYC, GOVERNMENT APPROVED HOME FALLOUT SHELTER AND SNACK BAR; this comprised a build-out of the titular shelter, and the videogame in a custom, upright arcade cabinet. In the game, air sirens blast, and a pixel version of Smith's recurring dopey, tv-dadish "Mike" is charged with moving three blocks from the 1st floor of a suburban house to its basement to create a fallout shelter before the bomb hits (spoiler: it's impossible to win).

The installation "GOVERNMENT APPROVED HOME FALLOUT SHELTER AND SNACK BAR" at Castelli Graphics in which Mike Builds a Shelter was originally shown

In 1983, images from the game would be translated into a short Spectacolor lightboard composition for the Public Art Fund's long-running "Messages to the Public" program in Times Square. Clips of it would also feed into a later video work, also called Mike Builds a Shelter (1985), which features "Mike" hosting a variety of lifestyle tv shows in his government approved home fallout shelter—and then maybe dying of radiation poisoning. (Documentation of the lightboard and the entire video were screened at Light Industry.)

At the event, Slocum explained how he became interested in Mike Builds a Shelter when researching "Reset/Play," a show about artist-made videogames that he co-curated with Marcin Ramocki for Arthouse, Austin in 2008. In the intervening years between its original exhibition and Slocum's planning, Smith had tossed the cabinet and much of the gaming system, saving only crucial components. Working with the C64 community, Slocum was able to reassemble what Smith had, and then have the cabinet remade based on archival images, presenting Mike Builds a Shelter in the exhibition and, later, at the 2014 Frieze Art Fair in London.

Slocum's restored Mike Builds a Shelter for Dan Gunn, Berlin, at the 2014 Frieze Art Fair in London

From the evening's conversations, it became clear that the videogame Mike Builds a Shelter was at once characteristic of its time and noticeably divergent. As an artwork it related to many of its peers, and not just in its aesthetic—pop artificiality rended by mass culture abjection and absurdity (think Kelley, McCarthy, and Leavitt). From the vantage of 2015, it's easy to downplay the specter of nuclear annihilation in the early 1980s, and the intensity of the resulting anti-war, anti-nuclear, and anti-Regan sentiment and solidarity, especially among the downtown NYC scene of which Smith was a part.

Mike Builds a Shelter, and its host installation, may have been wry reflections of patriotic paranoia against the "Evil Empire," but they were no less political for their tone. In fact, the entire installation would tour, after Castelli, with seemingly dissonant, particularly blunt works by Nancy Spero, Bruce Fichter, and others in a New Museum exhibition called "The End of the World: Contemporary Visions of the Apocalypse." (The diversity of anti-war art in the early 80s remains a reminder of how unfairly caricatured this type of "message work" can be.)

As a videogame, Mike Builds a Shelter suggested new horizons for the form as much as it reflected technological limits and emerging trends in the gaming field. In his lecture, Slocum presented a number of slides which put the work in context:

Smith, Jacobson, and Keshavarz had made a typical arcade game in the input (the joystick and form-factor), the narrative itself (a character completing a simple, motion-based task against a static background), and the backdrop (broadly, the cold war). Yet a 1983 game player would immediately recognize something was wrong with Mike Builds a Shelter. Even then, they would sense it was deliberately difficult to control; that gameplay was excruciatingly slow and the input inexact. They would have felt the game was illogical—at one point a fire breaks out, and though you can stamp it out, it doesn't hurt you or anything—oddly boring (you're a guy walking up steps, not some kind of superhero), and, after a few rounds, that it was obviously impossible to "win."

The excruciatingly slow gameplay of Mike Builds a Shelter

Though it may look like 8-bit banality to contemporary eyes, to a player in 1983 would have looked noticeably different, too. Due to technical limitations and arcade tropes, a player might have expected a black background, a space-like futurity and nothingness. Instead, Mike Builds a Shelter is set in a colorful and notably domestic space. (In his research, Slocum had found only one contemporaneous game set in a home—the unfortunately titled Sneak'n Peek for the Atari 2600, a hide-and-go-seek simulator. :-| ) And while there existed other arty and weird games in 1983, none married their experimental gameplay to popular gaming aesthetics (and their nascent ideologies). In his 2008 exhibition and at Light Industry, Slocum was confident in calling Mike Builds a Shelter the first art videogame, with all that identification entails.

"Mike" in the 1985 video Mike Builds a Shelter

"Mike" in the 1983 videogame Mike Builds a Shelter (from Slocum's website)

Between the game, the video, Slocum's talk, and a closing conversation with Smith and Jacobson, it was evident that not only was Mike Builds a Shelter a seminal art videogame, but that it remains a piercing and sophisticated art videogame. In form-factor, gameplay, and affect, this work for C64 adapts Smith's "Mike" perfectly. Here he is—not just in image, but in action. Here he is—stumbling slowly up and down steps at a pace that will never suffice. Here's "Mike"—all plodding, all bourgeois fussiness, all white-collar ineptitude, making a mockery of all our general vulnerability and defenselessness at the will of brutality, violence, and the state.

Nasty business, indeed.