“Space Invaders”

To who or what does “Space Invaders” appeal? It’s a simple question, yet also completely unanswerable. First, one must ask which space invaders? Are the capitals important? Do I refer to the 1978 arcade box? The individual sprites coming down eternally? The nihilistic fight that is playing a game that cannot be won? Or perhaps it’s one of the related text/objects? Perhaps its the Retro Sabotage flash game that shows this impossibility? Or one of the many web, or portable remakes, perhaps Taito’s 2009 Infinity Gene? Or might I be referring to the street/game artist of the same name who places the pixelated characters in city spaces around the world? In a simple answer to what should be a simple question, I’ll simply say I refer to all at once, because that’s how such intertextuality works. There is an original, but it may not be the important point. They all, after a certain point, refer to each other.

This meandering began when a friend mentioned photographing invaders. As she studies street art the first guess is that she was talking about the artist and said artist’s creations, but when I then went to find some sort of image to confirm this (searching for invaders without effort; catching aliens by picture). I opened an entirely different can of worms, or, to follow what soon will be an unwieldy metaphor, a new wave lining up at the top of the screen. However, at the end of this meandering I realized that it’s all the same interwoven meaning.

Invader’s website has a global listing of invaded cities. They are places where works exist, but San Diego, the city in which I live and my friend was catching aliens, is not there. One answer is that the site has not been updated, but it will be soon. Following this meaning the list becomes a sort of status. Which cities are good enough to be graced by the artist’s work.

People on the Yelp forum discussing the artwork certainly point to this: whether the work is fake or not (another answer to San Diego’s lack of appearance on the list), how San Diego has gained this honor (the street art exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art), and that the city has become “bona fide, betches” (Yelp user). Status is certainly tied up in the meaning of Invader’s space invaders. However, there are other meanings of the work: the game, nostalgia, migration and aliens. All of these are tied in the work and the general resurface and re-imagining of meaning.

Space Invaders holds a special place in the 20-40 year old generations as one of the early cabinet games of the golden age of gaming. Like most golden age games such as Donkey Kong, there are memorable characters, but unlike Donkey Kong‘s Jump Man, who was reborn as Mario, Space Invaders‘ player character is rather unmemorable. While Space Invaders had sequels, they are barely remembered. It’s hard to start a franchise when the plot and player are destined for death. However, Space Invaders did start a genre. Hundreds of shooter games followed with equally unmemorable player characters, but ironically these generally had forgettable enemies as well. What Space Invaders did was create a long chain of names, signifiers (1942, R-Type, Gradius, etc), that all pointed back to the original signified, Space Invaders, and its memorable, invading army.

The game has thus remained in cultural memory, to be sparked with each further generic horse beating, as the eternal good fight against an unnamed (but memorable) enemy. However, the past few years have brought a different resurgence. From genre and allusion back to direct reference. The retro/nostalgic trend of the 2000s has brought with it hosts of remakes and demakes, remixes and repositionings. André the Giant becomes a poster-boy for frat boys, Obama spells hope for the masses, beautifully relaxing Mario Clouds float by on a hacked ROM, and Space Invaders goes contemporary political commentary with its pixellated enemy sprites.

Invader’s invaders work on multiple levels. They refer back to the nostalgia of the 1970s and its memorable characters, but they also tie into fears of global migration/movement (invasion if you will) prevalent at the current moment. The invaders are aliens, the same as the “illegals” in the U.S. news and political media. They come in, attack, kill, take over the planet, and of course steal jobs, but they’re so memorable, bordering on cute. Wait, that didn’t come out right, or did it?

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries human movement over borders has reached an unprecedented high if only because the borders have become more pronounced. An equal amount of movement has always existed, small distances, long distances when borders were less national and less guarded, but not as they are now: pronounced, fenced, and racial/nationalistic. What might have been normal movement has become illegal border crossing, and those who cross become illegals. Aliens. Invaders.

Invader’s work is about merging the current fear of the illegal (in play with the original game, all of the generic follows and almost all games in general – particularly the link to Arabs/aliens in most modern FPS games is troubling and obvious) with the loving nostalgia of the past. People like these invaders, but it goes a step further. As the Yelpers demonstrated, invaders make a city. Where at one point it was a skyscraper, a sports team, or a museum, now it is an invader. A city has made it when it has been invaded.

But am I talking about space invaders or illegals right now? Are they?

  • Invader. Space Invaders. Accessed online June 17, 2010. <http://www.space-invaders.com/>
  • Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Viva la Revolucion: A Dialogue with Urban Landscape. Accessed online June 17, 2010. <http://www.mcasd.org/exhibitions/616/viva-la-revolucion>
  • Retro Sabotage: A Strange Kind of Love. Target: Space Invaders: Invasion. <http://www.retrosabotage.com/spacein/invasion.html>
  • Yelp. “Space Invader San Diego.” Accessed online June 17, 2010. <http://www.yelp.com/topic/san-diego-space-invader>

Castles and/as History for an American

That I’m an American is something I just realized while walking around Edinburgh. Specifically I realized that Disney Castle is a crock and real castles rock.

Slightly more generally I should point out that from the moment I went away to Japan I played with my nationality (just as I’d begun to play with my identity previously). Because of the (then) recent World Trade Center incident I remember reading and being told that Americans abroad should by evasive about their nationality in fear of repercussions against their selves. What this amounted to was a) don’t hang around the US embassy in Tokyo, and b) don’t broadcast that you’re American. For me, it had the added effect that because of my Portland (lack of) accent, being surrounded by an international and Japanese crowd and predominately speaking Japanese I was able to hide my nationality quite well. My accent in Japanese was completely unrecognizable and my English accent was relatively unplaceable, but most guessed somewhere in Europe (also because of my appearance).

So, I have generally thought about nationality and my ‘Americanness’ as something that is easily hide-able, unimportant and generally malleable. Of course, this is a rather obnoxious assumption as my Americanness is, of course, marked in various ways from mannerisms to specific words to those who look, but more importantly, it’s highly related to my understanding of particular terms, concepts and ideas.

I understand theory from a particular cultural perspective. Which is to say that I understand the world as an American. And one of the things that Americans don’t understand is History with a capital H that goes back into the architecture and ground. Sure, some cities on the east coast go back a few hundred years now and places have been around for a hundred plus years, but there certainly aren’t any castles or five hundred year old under layers of the city that have been built over.

So if Baudrillard and every other continental theorist must make the trip to California to see Disneyland and find simulacra, America, late capitalism, or whatnot, perhaps it is just as ‘necessary’ for Americans to go and see castles, cobbled roads, and old skinny streets to understand history and the real.

Everything is relative. This much is known. So maybe the relative understanding of the present depends on your knowledge of the past, real or simulation (or representation), etc.

Such were my thoughts before going to Edinburgh Castle, but having seen it from various vantage points around the city. Having done the castle visit I’m not quite as enlightened as I might have been, but it was interesting for a number of reasons.

Primarily, the castle was interesting because it was a glorified museum. Things were blocked off, things were accessible, people were funneled through the different sections to get pumped up info about topics from the history of Scotland and war (the predominant aspect of the information), the history of the crown jewels, the castle’s renovation as a prison, the rooms where Mary Queen of Scots was born, etc. The strange part to me is that the castle becomes the site of a museum for various things at the same time that it embodies (minimally) history.

However, the building as history did not happen like I somehow thought would be. Part of this is that the process of history entails building over the old things. Placards that announce any give piece of information are new. The books that announce the war dead from years past in one area were from 2008. The cobbled street, which one may guess is rather old is half paved over in some spots and who knows when it was actually cobbled.

There are no placards informing the visitor of when history took place, when it was imagined and altered. Instead, there is simply what ‘happened.’

Second, because the rooms present certain themes they exist outside of their original purpose. Even the birth of the queen of scots etc and the great hall are semi outside of history as it is presented as her birthplace but also some other’s birthplace and they are separated by numerous years. And the great hall seems to host various weapons, but its original purpose is outside of representation. The rooms are a smashup of time. However, the honours are possibly the best example as they are a long, almost Disneylike progression from start to end going through various rooms. The castle goer travels from room to room getting the history of the Honours, the sword, scepter, crown and jewels of Scotland including their making, the hiding for 111 years and finally in the last room one sees the actual objects. Two points of interest are that one sees replicas of the artifacts in almost every room before the final room (perhaps most interesting are the bronze replicas with lots of braille information surrounding them, and a half size sword, right before the final room). The second is that one is walking through rooms of the castle that have been completely reappropriated from whatever their original purpose might have been. You have no idea what the rooms might have been at any given point.

The result of this decontextualization of the space the castle becomes a vantage point to see the city and a place of (military) history, but it is taken out of time.

The ground and place itself, which I immediately thought of as history were turned no more into history than 100 and 200 year old buildings on the east coast of the United States. Which, I guess points to my innocence that there is actually some sort of feeling of time in places that is not history, which is the same whether it’s a day, a decade, a century or a millennia old.