Raised by Clones (Part 1)
by Merlina Rañi
This text was produced in the framework of the virtual exhibition Raised by Clones by Estelle Flores, Heaven Computer, Mateo Amaral, Martín Bruce, Nana Schlez, and Pedro Juanna, curated by Merlina Rañi and produced by M○C△. For more information on the works, please see the interview with the artists in the second article produced for the exhibition (coming soon).
It was 1992, in the early hours of a wet Tuesday morning in a Taiwanese port. There was a transoceanic freighter waiting for the bureaucratic details to be done to start its voyage beyond the sea. It had around four thousand containers and twenty robust men in charge of operations on board. It looked like a dull maritime Transformer; the vessel was a monster of the deterritorialized industry and recent multilateral treaties.
Inside each container, there were lots of trinkets. Above all, there was globalized Asia: serialized products, cheap labor, and plastic exotism for the world (and a lot of dead batteries).
Among the different kinds of globally desired objects, thousands of cloned consoles were discreetly traveling inside these pirate containers; Japanese DNA devices capable of reproducing a furious and irresistible cultural phenomenon. After their (hidden?) journey, these consoles entered outraged customs offices and were traded in a distracted market as ones of their kind; to arrive in Latin American homes and be adopted as the most beloved family member. Thus, these clones began the sensitive and creative tutelage of a host of human creatures.
At that time, the NES didn’t have a presence in the third-world market because it was unaffordable to most of its population. To the many people who did not even know of its existence, these clones were presented as original products, it didn’t matter from whom or where. In many cases, this population — forgotten both by the state and by the market — found in this new form of entertainment (cloned and precious), an exodus to a technological outside¹ that extended infinitely towards fantasy.
Original or cloned, the fetish was the same. And this outright act of piracy gave access to a highly stimulating cultural phenomenon for a sector of the world’s population that far outnumbered the one with access to the original consoles. Inside homes, Famiclones, Polystations, Terminators, and Phantom Systems (among others) played out graphics and sounds that touched the sense of aesthetics of an entire generation, just because of the fresh, emotional, and high-level artistic content inside them.
Artists and designers (mainly Japanese, and less famous than they should be) made such beautiful artworks with scarce resources, transforming these limitations into an aesthetic new wave. A lot of kids and teenagers saw digital art and listened to electronic music for the first time in these video games; it is easy to imagine the impact this may have had on their artistic sensibility. Within those video game aesthetics, there was a pictorial trend in the representation techniques, sticky melodies with romantic cadences, and epic novelistic stories: art history until this moment was contained in video games, even though it was synthesized and full of glitches.
Plus, the novelty of interaction and the playful features certainly made this device addictive, while this technology also brought another way of knowing and experiencing, that today is almost installed as a new epistemology. And at that time, it was installed on the emotional level as a future object of nostalgia.
The less information these devices carried, the more work it implied for the imagination and, therefore, for the formal strategies of representation. From 8 to 16, 32, 64, 128, and 256 bits, these strategies changed, becoming more immersive, hyperreal, optimal, and perfect; resources that tend to disguise the mediated nature of image and sound, symbolically melting virtual and real. Maybe this sign of nostalgia appears because of the need to bring back fantasy as a foreign space of the real world. A necessary escape to supply the totalizing imprint of current technologies.
Above this (somewhat speculative) observation, these video games — ancient for today’s temporal paradigms — were essential for digital art in all its expressions, in the same way that the prehistoric mosquito preserved in resin was for the creation of Jurassic Park: the video game is a founding genetic sign, without which digital culture, as we know it today, wouldn’t be possible. On the same level, piracy is fundamental to the Latin American creative scene (including digital artworks) and creates particular conditions that influence both aesthetics and creative processes². Ultimately, this informal media economy is what allowed the aesthetic value of video games to escalate to the popular, creating a global phenomenon.
Although global doesn’t mean universal. There are localisms that are registered both by the particular cultural background and by the material instances in which this technology was introduced. These clones that raised a part of humankind, had a different mood from their original referents. A lot of times they were low-quality technology, which made them prone to failures, generally reflected in image and sound as spectacular glitches. Furthermore, in their clonic nature, these consoles accepted both original and counterfeit games, so more games were available for those of their kind. There were very similar games, variations, and mutations of the most famous ones, and even games that were so distorted that it may be said they only existed in the informal market.
To confirm that this situation has influenced the Latin American cultural scene (or even the third-world scene, in terms of consumption) it is necessary to study each case separately. Even so, there is a tendency to see error as a character trait of these beloved consoles, which made them less serial, endowed them with a baroque imprint, and a narrative full of displacements, like the tradition of oral transmission. In a way, the defect attempts against standardization, which can result in an aesthetic and political discursive tool.
Far from seeking to romanticize poverty or technology, this idea of cloned tutors who introduce a distant Japanese poetic (emotional, corny, fantastic, and ingenious) to a large diversity of the human population includes a lot of coordinates whose intersections result in the now: an immersive and ubiquitous metaverse exhibition, a technological outside where one can go to see art; a group of artworks that recovers a representation distanced from reality, and that deals with the maritime expansion of video games (on boats or cables) towards other continents of meaning and affection.
¹(This concept was previously coined by the plastic artist Gabriel Acevedo Velarde, for the treatment of the first uninterrupted transmission of Peruvian television, in his installation Aspirational Spatiality. http://relievecontemporaneo.com/espacialidad-aspiracional/)
²“(…) piracy involves not only consumption but also production and transformation.” Víctor Goldgel-Carballo and Juan Poblete. (2020) Piracy and Intellectual Property in Latin America. Routledge.