I Am 8-Bit started out as an art show about video games, but that doesn’t mean I Am 8-Bit is only an art show. It’s more, far more.
The gallery put I Am 8-Bit on the map, but from the moment it did, the show’s 27-year-old founder, Jon M. Gibson, was intent on exploring every single inch of that map. I Am 8-Bit the art show has become I Am 8-Bit the production company, moving from displaying other people’s art to diving deep into the culture to help market games, put on shows and make commercials.
It was the next “logical step” for the company says Mike Mitchell, an artist who has shown at the 8-Bit exhibition.
“I think ‘I am 8 bit’ is one of the most exciting, popular and most talked about art shows in the world,” says Mitchell. “Why wouldn’t companies want these guys helping them reinvent the way they do marketing, make commercials, videos games, etc?”
That’s exactly what I Am 8-Bit has been doing, reinventing marketing. There cannot be a more boring phrase in the English language than “reinventing marketing”. Blergh! Yet, I Am 8-Bit has been doing it with such gusto that it’s easy to forget that and focus on what Gibson says his goals are: telling stories. Take, the Mega-Man 10 press kit, which goes for over $US1200 on eBay. The press kit disc comes housed in an old Nintendo Entertainment System cartridge. The Mega-Man 10 label might have been faux, but the cartridges were real. I Am 8-Bit purchased old carts and didn’t scrub off all the grim or the written names of the kids who owned them. That reality, that authenticity is part of the cartridge’s history.
“I just want to make cool shit,” Gibson says from his home office in Los Angeles. And that’s exactly what he’s been doing – making very cool shit. Whether it be commercials, blood drives (blood drives!), office murals or even game launch trailers like Mega-Man Universe, I Am 8-Bit is doing everything it can not to be pinned down and pigeonholed.
That iconic “I’m With Coco” image? That was I Am 8-Bit productions and artist Mike Mitchell creating something self-financed and for shits and giggles. Because, really, who wants to make Jay Leno propaganda. “We had to pick a side,” says Gibson, “and we were with Conan.”
The backbone has been gaming. Like many of us, Gibson grew up gaming. When his two older brothers got interested in things like girls, they left behind a treasure trove of 8-bit consoles and games for Gibson to school himself in. And when he wanted some variety, he could always head down into the family basement and play the Galaga arcade cabinet that worked perfected until a rodent feasted on its wiring.
For Gibson, though, gaming isn’t just about gaming. It’s about movies. It’s about comic books. It’s about shitty television. All of them exist in the same zeitgeist. They’re all connected, albeit sometimes tangentially, but they feed upon and inform each other. “Culture,” Gibson says, “is what video games are.”
So when Gibson showed up in LA after dropping out of University of Michigan after a semester, he was rarin’ to cover popular culture – something he would do in print for places like LA Weekly, Vanity Fair, Wired and more. At the ripe old age of 21, he sold his first television pilot to Disney. Dubbed “Stupid Cupid”, it was about a teenage girl who becomes a cupid. The show never made it to broadcast and was fittingly killed on Valentine’s Day. “I am so glad that show didn’t happened,” he says now. Because if it did, there might have never been I Am 8-Bit. Gibson had always been precious, quitting his high school newspaper when he was 15, so he could write for the Metro Times in Detroit. “Whenever I called people on the phone,” he recalls, “I had to use a deeper voice. Sometimes I’d ask my mum to answer the phone as my secretary.”
The Disney pilot might have been canned, but it introduced him to a slew of young artists and creative types. “They were totally into video games,” he says, “and there was no real showcase for this stuff on a wall.” When they weren’t playing video games, they were talking video games. And when they weren’t talking them, they were playing them. Gibson had a feeling that if he could organise an art show, it would be successful. He just didn’t know how successful.
Flashback to 2005, three days before the first I Am 8-Bit show. The RSVP line was getting so many phone calls that Gibson and the 8-Bit team had to unplug the phone. “It was hard to quantify what that meant until opening night when 1500 some people showed up, waiting in line for over four hours to get into the gallery,” he recalls. “To see that kind of stretch along footpaths, weaving in and out of back alleys, leaning into traffic. It was so fucking cool.” The show was a smash – culturally – proving a breeding ground for hip, young artists that Gibson and his team can tap for future projects. A book followed, and it was, likewise, a smash. And Jon M. Gibson was the video game art guy.
“You get pigeonholed by the last thing you did,” says Gibson. “Design a radical t-shirt, and then someone wants to hire you to copy your own design. Throw an awesome event, and people want you to repeat it. That’s pigeonholing, so you gotta break up that perspective. Never copy yourself. Always evolve.”
His ideas have been amazingly silly and amazingly genuine. I Am 8-Bit does art. It also does marketing. Yet, the distinction between them is blurred. Their art seems like marketing and their marketing seems like art. Jon and the 8-Bit have reached a point where they can turn down projects. They can do stuff they’ve never done before, like a short for The King of Kong. According to Kong’s director Seth Gordon, the short that I Am 8-Bit did actually inspired him and his team to put more energy into the extras for The King of Kong DVD. “I Am 8-Bit accomplishes that rare feat of bringing us back to something we love in a wholly original way,” says Gordon. Even for a guy who had spent years making The King of Kong, I Am 8-Bit were able to breath new life into it.
“To put it simply, Jon and the I Am 8-Bit crew just ‘get it’,” says Capcom’s Seth Killian. “I am 8-Bit projects are pitch-perfect and come through as genuine because Jon and 8-Bit are genuine. That’s not something you can just buy, it’s something you have to have lived. Jon lives life as a genuine geek, but he has the connections and artistic know-how to turn his silly ideas into an amazing reality.” That is exactly what I Am 8-Bit is. There’s a fluidity to what they do, a ballsiness. Whether it be an idea Gibson hatches or something the I Am 8-Bit team cooks up, there’s a joy to it and an authenticity.
“Pigeonholing happens all the time. Since we’re born, we’re fed this ideal that you’re supposed to be a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant – to fill some sort of definable role. Everyone asks kids, “What do you wanna be when you grow up?” It’s cute. People like putting titles next to names, so being more than one thing is tough.”
All Jon Gibson and I Am 8-Bit want to do is make cool shit. And they’re doing just that.