There is a certain romanticism involved with the notion of mountain climbing, of putting oneself to the seemingly arbitrary and often overtly difficult task of scaling a sheer cliff or towering peak. Culturally approaching the concept brings to mind any number of canonical Romantic works of the historical sublime from Caspar David Friedrich’s mysterious painting Mountaineer in a Misty Landscape (1819) to Percy Shelley’s poetic ode Mont Blanc (1816). Or alternatively, within a more recent timeframe in the spheres of popular culture, one might also recall the snowy ascent of the Misty Mountains from The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Homer’s frigid trek up the Murderhorn in The Simpsons (2001), or even the doomed expedition into the unnamed Antarctic heights of Lovecraft’s The Mountains of Madness (1936). Suffice to say regardless of whichever era you are looking at, the image of the mountain has always been a powerful symbol of awe and potential mastery within cultural expression.
Building on this conceptual weight, in a collection of prints and paintings that he has been working on over the last three years, visual artist Arno Beck utilizes mountainous imagery to play with the assertions of competency and perfection that mountain-climbing is often associated with. In a series of analog prints called Super Mario World (2017-2018), Beck uses what he refers to on his website as “an old-fashioned manual typewriter” to create black and white photographic prints on Japanese printmaking paper. Essentially transposed versions of digital ASCII art, these prints use the contrasting space between various typewritten letters and symbols to form images visually not unlike the dense line work of a traditional etching. Also, in what may or may not be an intentional reference to Cory Arcangel’s video installation Super Mario Clouds (2002), during the process of translating his selected photographs into a typewritten binary, Beck adds the iconic clouds from the original NES Super Mario Bros. (1985) into the skies above his monochrome mountains. On his website, Beck claims that he made these choices in order to humanize technology and make it less perfect, explaining that by combining digital and analog production methods and aesthetics he feels that his is interfering with where “the machine claims its competence”. This intentional aversion to technical perfection works to playfully subvert the urge to conquer that mountain narratives are often associated with. Instead of using a digital print method which would have been the most easy and efficient way of producing his work, Beck actively chooses an extremely slow and laborious technique using a tool notorious for its inability to correct mistakes. In this way Beck has turned his own artistic practice into a kind of peak to climb, except that this is one formed of washi paper and typewriter ink rather than icy snow and rocky crags.
In an interview for yngspc, Beck provides a slightly more comforting or nostalgic reading of his working, replying when asked about what he most enjoys about working using a typewriter in the way he does: “The visual outcome reminds me of an analog Gameboy Printer that I always wanted to have growing up as a kid. It’s a long manufacturing process, but I enjoy the deceleration, and it’s somehow relaxing to sit there and write with this old thing” (Beck and Mothes, 2017). In a paper on remediated memory, Robin J.S. Sloan explores this kind of video game nostalgia, using Baudrillardian theory to tie retro-aesthetics with a search for origins and authenticity, where the search for origins “characterizes a fundamental need to be closer to childhood…and the search for authenticity a desire to locate original craftsmanship (Sloan, 2015). Looking at Beck’s statement regarding his childhood desire for a Gameboy Printer and his current artistic practice heavily steeped in handcrafted, analog printmaking, Sloan’s characterization would appear to ring true. However if we return the common ground of appropriated Mario clouds between Beck and Arcangel, then we can examine the use of older video game technology in more broadly productive manner. In his chapter on Arcangel in Gamescenes: Art in the Age of Videogames, Domenico Quaranta categorizes the attachment to old technologies as one of practical economy rather than sentimental nostalgia, explaining that they are often cheaper and easier to learn when compared with the most up-to-date game engines and hardware (2006). The economy of means and knowledge that Quaranta is highlighting here not only applies to fine artists using video games within the practices, but can also easily be found in the design methods of many successful game designers.
Tracing the thread of mountain mastery through easily accessible retro-aesthetics from fine art practice to artistic game development we come Celeste (2018), an indie platformer designed by Matt Thorson and Noel Berry and published by Matt Makes Games. Like Beck’s prints, Celeste weaves together the process of overcoming difficulty through perseverance with pixelated mountain imagery. Unlike Beck’s prints, when playing Celeste the difficulty is not communicated to audiences most obviously by measuring the labours of its creator, but instead through their own frustrated gameplay experiences progressing through the game and working to ascend the mountain at the heart of its narrative. Just as in the Super Mario games that Beck is referencing within his print, player of Celeste must use a combination of run and jump mechanics to move throughout the game’s geometrically designed levels, all the while avoiding lethal obstacles such as open pits, sharp spikes, and floating spectral enemies. A key difference between Celeste and the Super Mario series is the level of difficulty build into these threat assemblages, with the former of the two requiring far more precise timing and accuracy in order to survive and move forward.
Another notable difference between Celeste and the platforming lineage of Mario is the self-reflexive choice by the creators to include the game’s original PICO-8 prototype as an unlockable Easter egg. In Celeste’s third chapter you come across a computer that when interacted with gives you access to a simplified, minimalist version that was originally created in the span of a single weekend as a proof of concept for the game’s designers. Berry comments on this process in an interview with Nintendo Life: “We wanted our concept to be fairly minimalist (partially due to the time constraints we set on ourselves and the limitations of the tool), but that also had a lot of depth in mechanics. The idea of a character struggling to climb a mountain felt like it fit really well with this” (Berry in Cousins, 2018). So even though the full game would be created through a slower, more traditional development process, the core of Celeste’s production—like the experience that it communicates to its players and the repetitive labour of Beck,—is one of overcoming a self-imposed challenge. Additionally Beck’s prints and the PICO-8 version of Celeste are further united by their deliberate utilization of simple technologies to produce final products that anachronistically blend old and new visual styles.
Although they approach the idea from seemingly opposing contexts—Beck is producing physical works of contemporary fine art, and Celeste is a commercial video game digitally distributed through online networks—they share a playful regard of how mountains are perceived and why one might attempt to overcome one. Through their highlighting of their own production methods, both communicate that is not actually the top of a mountain that is the most important but the processes that are required in its ascent. Obviously the notion of meaning coming not from the destination but the journey itself is not a new idea. Neil Gaiman famously expressed his own version of it in his commencement speech at the University of the Arts in 2012, explaining that he saw his career as a mountain in the distance that he was always advancing upon. Or in an even more well known example, John F. Kennedy asked “Why climb the highest mountain?” during his 1962 speech on space travel to the Moon. And as Kennedy proclaimed, the answer to this question is because it is difficult, and that it is the potentiality of experience contained within this difficulty that will reorganize one’s energies in such a way as to overcome it. In the case of both video games and artistic practice, doing something that is difficult is not only about the feeling of accomplishment felt upon completion, but as Beck explains in regard to his work that the very process of doing so can become relaxing or contemplative in and of itself. Alternately, as Berry describes of the self-imposed design constraints of Celeste’s PICO-8 prototype, difficulty can also be a tool for creativity, forcing you to work and think in ways that might not have had you used a less restrictive method. It is in these ways that mountains, both real and virtual, have the ability even (or perhaps especially) through their seemingly infinite, geologic stillness to shape our thoughts and experiences. The Romantics were aware of this with their paintings and poems depicting the fearful beauty of the sublime, but how does this map onto contemporary experiences within digital and post-digital frameworks? How can artificially constructed mountains be leveraged for the purposes of creative production? As time flows, and cycles of obsolescence inevitably create their own mountains of aging technologies and aesthetics to pick from, artists and designers will have more and more opportunities to make their own difficult journeys, each benefiting from the imperfect reassemblage of energies required to do so.