Originally appeared in Infinite Regress
In 1983, at the tender age of 8, I had my first real crisis as an artist. It involved a new-media project I was working on for Mrs. Widenbacher’s class that called for a particular interactive element that I knew would really drive home what I was trying to say. The piece was tentatively titled Computer-Sound Experiment #1, and was slated to be a virtual environment that was sure to knock the socks off my entire class as well as the contemporary art world. A lot was riding on this project, and I was counting on my months of Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Coding to allow me to see the project to fruition. I was fairly comfortable with the 4k machine we kept in our classroom and knew enough BASIC to program a scrolling loop of my name up and down the screen (10 PRINT “Matt Butler” 20 GOTO 10). The research came easy and I was still riding high from other successful computer projects, like Lemonade.
I had worked for weeks typing out a lemonade stand simulator from a TRS-80 program I found in some book at the library. Doing that kind of tedious and labor intensive work on the computer taught me a good deal about the nature of electronic media and helped define the limitations I saw in myself as well as the computer. My real live lemonade stands had all been economic flops, so it was satisfying to operate my own virtual stand (without the risk of a lot of up-front capital) in order to predict how a home-based drink business might work under various market conditions. I got really good at that game and quickly learned that it’s a lot more fun to simulate raking in virtual electronic cash than it is to actually stand out in 98-degree heat pushing lukewarm Kool-Aid onto strangers. Not to mention the amount of spendable money you can expect to see from a real stand is about the same as its electronic counterpart. Still, I was really, honestly operating a lemonade stand. Even if I wasn’t dealing with live customers, I was actually making decisions, really doing something. This small gray box was able to efficiently turn thought into reality by merely moving my fingers. Miraculous.
Computer-Sound Experiment # 1 was a genius idea. It came to me in one of those flashes of inspiration all artists schlep through life trying to re-create. It was while I was listening to a Superman book-and-tape set that it occurred to me that the small 1980 Fisher-Price cassette recorder I was using for music playback used the same exact storage medium as the school’s TRS-80 microcomputer: an ordinary cassette tape. Had no one thought of this? I never heard one word at school about a computer/cassette recorder convergence. I had to do it. If I didn’t do it now, next month everyone was going to be loading their audiocassettes onto computers. This was mine. The revolution starts here.
My great idea instantly solved everything. The computer program I was going to make from the Superman tape would make Lemonade look as interesting as a pocket calculator. The plan was simple. Sneak the Superman tape into school the next day and while everyone else is at recess, load the Superman tape onto the TRS-80. I had no idea what to expect from doing this, I just knew it would be good.
My statement would be a critique of popular culture’s obsession with the youth-consumer role by appropriating imagery from the very propaganda they use to maintain this role. In this case, I would be using a Superman program of my design to actually take control of Superman and make him do funny things that you’d never see in the books or movies. By controlling Superman I could become Superman. It would be a triumph in the reclamation of identity. It was done. I brought the tape to school the next day.
Once the other kids hit the blacktop for the day’s first recess, I took my place at the Tandy workstation. I removed the well-used Superman audiotape out of my backpack and set it on the table by the computer. Calmly zipping up my bag, I reminded myself that I’d have to work quickly and accurately if I was going to pull this off. There would be little room for error if I expected to have a customized Superman video game up and running before the kids got back in 14 minutes. I did allow myself a short minute to rehearse a speech for the congratulations I’d most certainly receive. I decided I’d play it modest. It would only heighten the other kids’ sense of awe.
The tape slid into the computer’s cassette deck just as it should have.
“God, this is going to be easier than I thought.” I chuckled to myself.
My fingers were a blur against the battleship gray keyboard as I typed out the only logical command that could bring my baby into this world.
Searching… searching… searching… nothing.
“Hmm. That’s not a good sign.” I thought.
LOAD SUPERMAN PROGRAM. Nothing.
LOAD PROGRAM. Nope.
Always thinking, I checked the fine print on the tape.
LOAD DC COMICS. Nothing.
Wait. Maybe it’s on the other side of the tape. I flipped it over and started rewinding. I was beginning to get a little worried. Why wouldn’t this work? I felt I had a pretty good handle on my hacking skills after toiling to get Lemonade to run, but I was starting to realize that this new project was going to take everything I had plus a good deal of luck to get going. All in 8 minutes.
The tape clunked to a stop and I immediately tried everything.
LOAD SUPERMAN. No.
LOAD SUPERMAN PROGRAM. No.
LOAD PROGRAM. No.
LOAD DC COMICS. No.
My presentation was in less than 10 minutes and I had absolutely nothing! I could feel a hot wave of humiliation and anger wash over me right before I nearly passed out.
I don’t really remember the rest of that recess, other than hovering above my own nervous system watching it blindly type out nonsense words in a vain attempt at somehow converting spoken word into executable computer code. Little did I know how those nonsense words were actually very powerful commands in a vastly complex programming language that would only be fully revealed to me at a later time. For the briefest of moments I saw a connection. How it worked. What it meant. Not just in some spooky cosmic quasi-religious way, but like I was writing off of the page onto the table. And my pen suddenly turned into a wood-burning tool as I permanently wrote directly into the DNA of every tree that ever ended up a table. My dead grandfather and I collected buckeye nuts from the tree. He tried to explain things to me. How a buckeye nut was magical information. How to work real magick by altering probability-fields. Information removes uncertainty, it’s that which changes us. Buckeye nuts can bring you a lot of money very quickly and help you have better sex.
He knew exactly how holograms work too. He used to wear a hat that said, “It’s trite to be Light” and tell us that our ear is a womb for an invisible unborn baby. Every acupuncturist knows that. The Small is a fuzzier version of the Large. Inside are the instructions for another one. There was a Chinese puzzle box that he kept in the living room. It had secret panels that you wouldn’t even know were there unless someone told you. The combination lock for the box was the box. Inside of it he kept a photo of a Chinese man getting his head cut off by a Japanese soldier.
The recess bell rang.
Next to the computer was a fortune cookie. I opened the cookie, ate it, and read the dot matrix printed fortune inside.
“1000 artists just became more rich and famous than you”