Street Art and the 8-Bit Cool

“The right angle is lawful, it is part of our determinism, it is obligatory.” – Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier—that lovable Utopic genius, he of the inhuman furniture and unrealized plans to modernize Paris—would have loved Space Invaders. The 8-bit aesthetic was never more idealized: you control a ship akin to a flattened Chrysler Building, launching vertical dashes at rows of synchronized aliens composed entirely of right angles and negative space. The background is a flat black. The pace is plodding. The sound is sparse. Not a pixel of humanity is evident, yet only a human could have made something so relentlessly symmetrical.

Invader’s decals are neither fresh nor bold. 

Which brings us to the French street artist Invader. Invader’s tiled decals replicate the eponymous aliens along with their more advanced spawn—Mega Man, the protagonist from Kung Fu Master, the Pac-Man ghosts—and his “invasions” (as he calls them) hit the cities most likely to recognize and report his work. There’s more than a little Banksy here; Invader protects his identity with hyper-clichéd Guy Fawkes mask and claims his work represents…well, whatever. Do we care what his work represents? Invader’s decals are neither fresh nor bold. They simply reinforce what we gamers always knew: design is king, elevated by that rarest of alchemical surprises, when form and function agree.

But artists of middling talent are often last to get the memo, evident in Shepard Fairey’s attempt to explain Invader’s work:

“Invader’s pop art may seem shallow, but by taking the risk of illegally re-contextualizing video game characters in an urban environment that provides more chaotic social interaction than a gamer’s bedroom, he makes a statement about the desensitizing nature of video games and consumer culture.”

Bullshit. Invader’s pop art is shallow. He mimics the 8-bit aesthetic because the 8-bit aesthetic is cool; how can anyone call Space Invaders desensitizing? It had the opposite effect. It sensitized the public to interactive art, or what modern gamers sometimes call “immersion.” Yet the two terms aren’t synonymous—games like Uncharted 3 may be immersive but are not an exercise in interactive art. There isn’t enough time. Modern games move too quickly. Yes, we admire the realistic water effects and the flaring explosions, but if a modern game is beautiful it’s beautiful in the way that Thomas Kinkade’s bucolic twaddle is beautiful.

Art in any medium must do three things if we’re to consider it worthy of analysis: it must heave, manifest, and last. Unlike the original Space Invaders, Invader’s work does not heave or manifest, and as street art it cannot last (barring a Pompeian catastrophe).  But like the original Space Invaders, it’s cool—all those right angles, all that dark space—distilled into bite-sized sprites, which themselves have become a visual synecdoche for an entire aesthetic: the 8-bit image.

Bullshit. Invader’s pop art is shallow. 

A faster way of saying all that: No self-respecting artist would attach a decal of Nathan Drake to a building in Hong Kong and call it art. And if they did, no self-respecting viewer would embrace it as such.

Photo credits: kurtxio – Flickr, Erokism – Flickr