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CP 470a

13 May 2016
Nathan Fortmeyer
SIU 850330050
Midterm Paper
Super Mario Clouds by Cory Arcangel

Cory Arcangel's Super Mario Clouds, which is the result of a hacked Nintendo cartridge of the

video game Super Mario Bros., is a piece about interactivity (or the lack thereof), computer art, and a

virtual landscape. Arcangel's piece raises questions about how the computer and digital art can further

representation that dates back to landscape paintings. Arcangel's piece also addresses the idea of

cracking open a closed system, and hacking into a product under copyright, in order to appropriate and

alter the original content.

The subject of the piece are the eponymous clouds. Familiar to even the most causal player of

Super Mario Bros., the clouds which server as the background in the original game become the

foregrounded subject in Super Mario Clouds. In Super Mario Clouds, the viewer's gaze ticks from left

to right (the same direction one moves when playing the unaltered Super Mario Bros.) at a steady,

regulated pace, moving through a blue sky interspersed with puffy, white clouds. Unlike in the original

Super Mario Bros., the viewer of Super Mario Clouds does not directly control the pace of movement.

The viewer does not see Mario, nor the environment of the Mushroom Kingdom, and has no ability to

control the pace of the movement; in Super Mario Bros., although the player cannot backtrack to the

start of the level (once the screen moves to the right, it becomes set and will not return to previously

covered ground), he or she may move Mario at as quick of a pace as possible, running through the

level. The countdown of the time clock encourages speed and economy of movement, and the clouds

play more of a role as background dressing, as well as a way for a player to gauge progress and speed.

However, with Super Mario Clouds, Arcangel repositions the player as a viewer, and the control

of speed vanishes into a regulated tick of progress that, to an experienced player of Super Mario Bros.,

is agonizingly slow. With Super Mario Clouds, Arcangel takes the essential elements of Super Mario
Bros. (control and interactivity), and subverts them. By re-taking control of the user interface (the

player's ability to control Mario, via the Nintendo controller), Arcangel forces the player-turned-viewer

to absorb the clouds, as the view tracks right. The screen, which had originally been a portal into the

game world, becomes a frame for a digital landscape painting; Arcangel appropriates a landscape from

within a pre-existing work of digital art.

Arcangel addresses the viewer by subverting the original experience of Super Mario Bros., and

also by reprogramming the closed cartridge of the Nintendo. Although it was marketed in the United

States as Nintendo, in its original incarnation in Japan, it was known as the Famicom, a portmanteau of

the words 'family' and 'computer'. In this light, Arcangel is not simply a hacker cracking open the

closed, copyrighted software embedded in a Nintendo hardware cartridge, but also a programmer

playfully using the possibilities of a family computer.

With Super Mario Clouds, Arcangel creates not necessarily an illusion of reality, but alters an

electronic equivalent to it. The clouds, and the metronomic pace at which the viewer passes them,

could not be mistaken for photorealistic renderings of clouds. However, for a player familiar with the

world of Super Mario Bros., the clouds do take on a representation of reality. As Sherry Turkle notes in

Video Games and Computer Holding Power, the most important element behind the seduction of video

games is that they are interactive computer micro-worlds (for example, the Mushroom Kingdom of

Super Mario Bros.) that hold an association with infinity. Turkle notes that this infinity, represented in

the programming code, holds all of the secrets of the game world.

Arcangel takes the micro-world of interactive infinity and removes the interactivity. Arcangel

removes the clouds from the context of the controllable game world, and instead re-frames their

infinity. By hacking into and altering the original game cartridge, Arcangel alters a familiar space and a

familiar time into a new digital landscape painting that forces the viewer to focus only on the clouds.

The competition of the game, the race against the clock, Mario's struggle against a world populated by

hostile enemies, and the quest to rescue Princess Toadstool are all removed, leaving only the fluffy,
idyllic clouds. Arcangel takes a closed, consumer product (of the R/O, or read only variety) and

reprograms it as an art piece (of the R/W, or read/write variety) where the background clouds are

repurposed as the main subject, re-aligning Nintendo's hardware with the spirit of Alan Kay's


Arcangel also engages with Manovich's tenets of new media. As Manovich notes in The

Language of New Media, new media objects adhere to the principles of numerical representation,

modularity, automation, variability, and transcoding. With Super Mario Clouds, Arcangel implements

each of these tenets to transform a video game into a digital landscape painting. Arcangel's hack goes to

the root of the numerical representation embedded in the Nintendo cartridge, and repurposes a discrete

packet of information: the code that creates the representation of clouds. The clouds, and the code

representing them, become a modular unit for Arcangel to alter and automate; the player's power to

move Mario becomes an automated pace pushing the viewer past the collection of clouds. Arcangel

changes the original video game into a new piece (variability) and alters this familiar game world in a

way that gives another shade to computer-generated meaning; Arcangel transcodes the familiar

experience of moving past the digital clouds (which, in the context of the player's experience with the

game world, become real clouds in an alternate world which the player navigates via the avatar of

Mario) into the new experience of a digital painting. Now, what was once background window dressing

becomes the focus of the player-turned-viewer's gaze, and the frenetic navigation of a virtual world

becomes a metronomic contemplation of a virtual painting.