In conversation with... Antonio Roberts and Sam Wray
µChip is an annual event which brings together chiptune music, hacking, digital art, hardware modding, and much more. For its third year, µChip3 comes to Birmingham and is created by Antonio Roberts (aka Hellocatfood) and Sam Wray (aka 2xAA). We caught up with Antonio and Sam in advance of the event taking place later this week.
Please introduce μChip - its history, successes, audience, and your involvement to date.
SW: µChip (Microchip) started back in August, 2014 as µCollective’s Chiptune night in London. The first one didn’t have the greatest turnout, but our second one in September the same year drew a much larger audience, so Antonio and I teamed up to make µChip larger.
AR: I was part of the uCollective online community since sometime after my performance at SuperByte 2013. I had heard about the µChip events but, living 100 miles away in Birmingham, I was unable to attend. Me and Sam (µColllective/µChip founder) met up again at ElectromagneticField Camp and decided to do a chiptune event in Birmingham. Many months later this idea morphed into µChip 3.
What is your own story in terms of 8-bit computing and the scene which, in recent years, has built up around it?
SW: I’ve had an interest in 8-bit computers for music and the Chiptune music scene since around 2008, but was never active in it until 2009 when I started creating music under the alias 2xAA, a reference to the Game Boy Color’s battery requirements. I became active on the now defunct 8bitcollective forums and landed myself an admin position. After its death over three years ago now, I created µCollective, a new community website to fill the large void left by 8bc.
AR: Some of my earliest memories are of being in hospital playing Mario Bros on the NES. If I wasn’t playing that I was waiting patiently for Commodore 64 tape games to load and then trying to navigate the obscure controls. My adventures in 8-bit computing ended around the time Pokemon came around. Not for any reason other than I was becoming an adult and had other interests (drinking!). Soon, though, I revisited 8-bit and 16-bit computing through emulators. My greatest success is finally completing Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past!
I took an interest in pixel art, and can even be occasionally found still taking pictures with my Game Boy Camera. I’ve only really been heavily involved with the chiptune scene since performing visuals at SuperByte 2012 (and 2013).
Do you think that there is, generally, an under-appreciation of our computing heritage - that it’s just “technology” which has built-in obsolescence and has no residual value?
SW: I think so, yes. There are a lot of people trying to keep out computing heritage alive by opening museums, such as Ben Nunney with The Time Machine. People usually just throw their tech away, after all it is mass produced, but I think it’s important to preserve or let people reuse this old tech for new purposes. It’s not obsolete, just not fit for its original purpose anymore.
AR: I think there needs to be work done to keep retro computers from being objects just to be looked at. We learn, build and explore best when we can take something apart and examine its inner workings. Whilst I admire the work of Archive.org, who have ported many retro games to the browser, this removes the need to know anything about the hardware originally used to play it on. If we’re not careful history will just become emulated.
Does the chiptune / 8-bit scene change our definition of the term “retro” - ie digital technology which might otherwise be seen as retro is now contemporary because we’re re-contextualising it?
SW: It definitely does redefine the ‘retro’ tie. I think a lot of people will still see the old consoles and computers as retro, but the way that the Chipmusic scene are using them is completely new.
AR: It's retro only in terms of when it was originally made. There's nothing old about 8-bit music, pixel art or repurposing old hardware. Even though technology can allow for hiqh quality #hyperrealistic graphics and sound, these artists, many of whom were born long after the consoles were made/made obsolete, are making contemporary art that is very relevant to today's culture.
With tongue firmly in cheek, is it a contemporary version of the renaissance?
SW: Ha ha! I’ve not heard it put like that before. Sort of, I guess. I think people are just interested in creating new things with the technology either because it’s new to them or they remember it from their childhood. It has a large nostalgic tie to it, but that’s not true for everyone.
AR: lolwut no
Artistic use of retro computing hardware and software is a fairly recent phenomenon, whereas the technology itself clearly isn’t. Are we seeing art “catching up” with technology, rather than the other way around? After all, the technology was available 30 years ago.
SW: I think this has always been the case, though art wasn’t easy to produce on the computers 30 years ago. It’s only until we built more powerful machines that people started to push their older machines faster and harder to keep up with the more modern tech. It’s fun to see how much power you can squeeze out of older technology and a sort of side effect of this is the 8-bit arts scene and the Demoscene which are very closely linked.
AR: I don't think it's a recent phenomenon. People like John Whitney were using computers creatively since the 1970s. Then, the demo scene was pushing the limits of old hardware to create interactive visuals in the 1990s. There's so much history I've missed out, but hopefully my point comes across.
Catalog, John Whitney, 1961
What I think has happened/is happening is people outside of these circles - galleries, the media, institutions, the public at large - are coming to realise that creative computing is important to our cultural heritage and future.
Is μChip symbolic of a more general “mashing up” of culture - ie taking stylistic cues from a massive, wide range of sources and re-appropriating them, irrespective of whether we lived through that period or not?
SW: Almost, but not quite. It’s more of it’s own culture I think as most of the artists I’ve seen within the 8-bit arts scene use the technology as tools to create the artwork, it’s not really a throwback to what we had, like in mashup culture where there is most always a reference to something else.
AR: I think that μChip 3 is representing what’s happening in digital arts right now. Rather than just using the latest, greatest and fastest hardware and software, artists of all generations are modifying old things, building their own tools and throwing in whatever else they want to into the mix.