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Art Snob: Iam8bit Entertainment System (A Chat With Jon M. Gibson)

by on June 12, 2013

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Growing up, I was not a fan of “art”, unless you count Calvin and Hobbes (which I do). Countless mandatory school trips spent wandering the vast galleries of New York’s museums did little to change my negative view on the world of fine art. I was unmoved by paintings, unimpressed by statuary, and would rather have had my face buried in my Game Boy (Pokemon Blue FTW!) then in a Renaissance painting. Sure, there were some exceptions over the years, but for the most part, I was not a connoisseur.

That all changed in a big, big way.

In the last ten years or so, my generation has thrown their No Fear hats into the ring, and have pretty much changed the face of popular art as we know it. A world which once seemed out of touch and exclusionary suddenly became the go-to art form for grown-up kids like me to express themselves. From the vinyl toy craze to “Geek Galleries” popping up all over the country, the nerdy had finally stepped up and made art their own, and I love it. In the past, art never spoke to me; this new movement is not only is shouting in my ear, but it’s singing all my favorite Saturday morning cartoon theme songs. I went from someone who didn’t own a single piece of art to someone who has to keep pieces in storage because he’s got so many (Look… If someone makes a Gremlins painting, I’m buying it. Regardless of wall-space or better judgment).

It’s with all this, that I am proud to debut a new column (thanks to the fine folks at Nerdist), dedicated to the only art I’ve ever really cared about:

Geek art. Nerd art. Our art.

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I got the chance to check out the opening night of Iam8bit’s Entertaiment System, the Los Angeles gallery’s flagship show dedicated to all things retro gaming and featuring work by over 80 of the hottest, hippest and best artsits working today. I checked out the art for sale (and even snagged a couple Earthbound prints), took a swim in the DuckTales Remastered money bin, enjoyed a libation or two, saw some good friends, and got to sit down with Iam8bit co-owner and co-founder Jon M. Gibson for a quick chat about the show and Iam8bit in general.

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Iam8bit founders Jon M. Gibson and Amanda White

Matt Cohen: For people who may not be lucky enough to be familiar with yourself or the company, how would you describe Iam8bit?

Jon M. Gibson: Iam8bit is part gallery, part production company. Myself and my co-owner — the illustrious Amanda White — work behind the scenes on a lot of games and movies doing marketing campaigns and productions, but then we have this public space, this experiential space as we call it, where we throw wacky events like Iam8bit Entertainment System and many other things.

MC: You’ve done some other video-game related shows in the past. What sets this year’s version of Iam8bit apart from some of the other shows you’ve done?

JG: We keep evolving the formula, I guess you could say. This is the sixth iteration of iam8bit, and it’s always had different names: the last one was Super Iam8bit, this one is Iam8bit Entertainment System. For us, it’s about doing them every couple of years now, never really wearing people thin and always exposing them to something new and awesome. Something more tactile than just art on the walls.

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The opening night crowd, perusing the art.

MC: Speaking of things other than art on the walls, I couldn’t help notice you’ve got your own (awesome) custom MAME system for people to play. How did that come about?

JG: This mad genius named Travis Chen, a local L.A. artist, just tinkers. He’s a tinkerer. We got into a conversation one day, and he was, like, “I’m thinking about building an Iam8bit entertaiment system. You named the show Iam8bit Entertainment System — What do you think about that?” We said, “Ummm, yeah. That’s awesome! Why would we NOT support that?” But, ultimately, what it is, is it’s those ugly ass HUGE MAME cabinets, in a luxurious, sexy set top box that’s like an Xbox or a Playstation, but it plays MAME. Its a PC inside a box that’s laser wood cut, really elegantly designed and handmade. It’s meant to be a sexy piece of art that lives in your living room, but is also a functional machine that plays any game you want it to play, as long as you get them on your own. Not only do we have the system for gallery visitors to check out, but we’re actually selling them as well.

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The Iam8bit Entertainment System, designed by Travis Chen

MC: So you’ve got tons of cool art, the fanciest MAME system the world has ever seen, and what may be the highlight of the show for most visitors, a Ducktales Remastered Money Bin, complete with foam coins and jewels. How did this “ultimate geek dream” come into existence? 

JG: This is part of what iam8bit has become, the experiential element. We give someone something unexpected, so whenever they come here they will always be surprised. For this one, it was Scrooge’s money bin, for Ducktails Remastered, the new game coming out in the summer. We wanted to give people fantasy fulfillment; It’s all about nostalgia for the show and the art on the walls, so why not give them something they’ve always wanted to do as a kid, but never quite could? Because swimming amongst gold coins, letting alone finding the gold coins to swim in, isn’t the most comfortable or realistic thing to do. So we made a pool that’s 10 feet by 10 feet wide, it has a bunch of Spandex gold coins and jewels, and it lets you exist as a duck in Duckburg, just hanging out amongst the money.

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A lucky duck about to take a swim in some gold.

MC: The art: First off… wow. There are over 80 artists represented, with even more retro video game themed pieces than that. How does the selection process go for a show like this?

JG: It’s all invitation based, so we go after artists we enjoy, we admire, we found on a random 2 AM Facebook search of a friend of a friend of a friend’s profile. It’s not unlike finding pictures of pretty people and stalking them, but in this case its artists who make art. We invite them, we give them a slight coaching, and tell them this is not a normal art show; It’s about passion, it’s about exposing and wearing your emotions on your sleeve. Give us something that’s a little denser than just a character redesign. We want to see stuff that has an emotional weight to it, so we really push artists to go into that turf.

MC: Obviously all the art is worth checking out, but are there any standout pieces in the show that really represent what Iam8bit is all about?

JG: Jose Emroca Flores did a piece called “Kingdom of Crash”; It’s more of an installation then it is one individual painting. Its over a dozen paintings, large and small, all choreographed very beautifully on the wall, embodying the chaos that is Mario Kart when you’re playing with friends. Each individual painting is a character from Mario Kart; together, they form a gauntlet of insanity, and it takes up pretty much the whole wall. It’s incredibly beautiful.

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“Kingdom of Crash” by Jose Emroca Flores

MC: For folks who couldn’t make it out to the opening, how long does the show run for?

JG: The show runs until June 30th, so it’s a good 3 and a half weeks which is plenty of time to read this article and then get your ass out to the show. We have extended hours during E3 so anyone in town looking to have some fun that isn’t a party downtown, we’re like 2 miles outside of downtown; its pretty convenient.

MC: What about people who don’t have the (mis)fortune of living in L.A.? How can they get a piece of the show and Iam8bit? 

JG: Go to Iam8bit.com. We ship internationally. It’s not just about L.A, its about the world. That’s why we release books every couple of years. To tour a show like this is very expensive, we can’t afford to go to Europe and spend $300,000 shipping art on a big freighter. So we try to do our best. We like to share it with everybody.

The opening night crowd chowin' on some Umami Burger.

The opening night crowd chowin’ on some Umami Burger.

MC: I have to ask, what’s your personal favorite retro game?

JG: 100%, without flinching, Burger Time. One of the coolest, weirdest, must fucked up games ever made. And so hard. So punishing. So ridiculous.

MC: Do you own any Burger Time art?

JG: I own a Burger Time arcade cabinet.

MC: Fair enough. 

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“Super Burger Time” by Paul Robertson

And now, a look at some of the art/opening night festivities:

"You are alive in my heart" by 326

“You are alive in my heart” by 326

"Onett: Night" by Timothy J Reynolds

“Onett: Night” by Timothy J Reynolds

"Ski" by Olly Moss

“Ski” by Olly Moss

"Blue Koopa" by Darick Maasen

“Blue Koopa” by Darick Maasen

"Alien Ant Farm" by Noah Lane

“Alien Ant Farm” by Noah Lane

"Octopus vs. Squid" by Hine Mizushima

“Octopus vs. Squid” by Hine Mizushima

"Luigi" by Michelle Valigura

“Luigi” by Michelle Valigura

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The opening night crowd loves Mario Frogs.

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Some MAME-rs get their game on with Matt Bennett, host of the upcoming Nerdist channel show Nerdy Jobs

Some friends and I, ending our evening with a swim. (I'm the one dressed as the Fonz, for some reason)

Some friends and I, ending our evening with a swim. (I’m the one dressed as the Fonz, for some reason)

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Sadly, that’s all for this edition; but stay tuned for the next installment of Art Snob, where I sit down with vinyl toy legend, Kidrobot artist, and all-around cool guy Frank Kozik for a chat about the state of the toy industry.

Are you a fellow art snob? Want to talk about an artist you think is doing great stuff? A gallery that should be showcased? Maybe you’ve got your own awesome geek art you want to share with the world? Leave a Quemment, email me, or hit me up on the Twitter Machine.