While it feels like I haven’t been blogging about the Console Living Room exhibit I’ve been working on with Zach Whalen and Michael Black, it’s pretty much all I have been posting about for the last month or so. I guess the difference is I’ve been using my Known site because it’s easier to capture and push shorter, media-based posts to various spaces like Twitter, Tumblr, and Flickr. I sometimes wonder why I don’t simply push my Known posts to the bava as well? Maybe because I imagine the bava more long form? Or is it because I’m afraid it will be feed overkill? I guess I should remind myself that no one really reads this blog, and do whatever the hell I want. “Think different,” like Katie Thompson suggests UMW is ALL ABOUT when it comes to campus entertainment 🙂
Lofi #4life! Anyway, the Console Living Room rules, and Alison Thoet from UMW’s student newspaper, the Blue and Gray Press, wrote an excellent article on the interactive exhibit in today’s paper. The pull quote for me is the following descriptive passage of the living room that gives a good sense of the effect we’re going for:
The fourth floor exhibit is a showcase indeed. Enclosed in wooden paneling, the “family couch” is quite “Mad Men”-esque in its yellow-green plaid tweed. The brown wooden console holds an old television, VCR player and games, all across from the coffee table which houses the different, and rather aged game consoles. An old record player, foosball table, comics and other relics give the room an additional relic vibe.
Alison nails the aesthetic in her article, and I must say putting the various exhibit pieces together has been some of the most hands-on, old school fun I’ve had at UMW. Zach Whalen’s overview on the Console Living Room site succinctly frames the vision of the exhibit:
The living room recalls…the domestic convergence of consumer media technology [in the 1980s]. By making these games available in a public space, we are inviting students, guests, and the community to visit and interact with an earlier time.
The coolest part of the exhibit is it’s 24/7 for the next 2 months, totally open and accessible to anyone interested. Rather than treating these various pieces as rarified museum artifacts (which they aren’t), the idea is to set it all up and let it roll. No oversight, no rules, just good, old-fashioned 1985 fun in your parent’s living room. And major kudos to Zach who insisted on this approach; this stuff needs to be experienced to be enjoyed.
A broader impact of the exhibit that you need to experience on the ground is the fact that it is located in a 4th floor corner of a brand new, state-of-the-art Information and Technology Convergence Center. The idea of embedding a time capsule of media convergence from the 1980s in this building makes the whole experience that much more powerful. The whole thing works far better than any of us could have imagined while dreaming it up just two months ago.
It’s worth noting this really wasn’t planned. Zach and I start shooting around the idea in late January. We ran it by various folks to make sure we wouldn’t be stepping on toes, and then we brought on Mike Black and spent the next couple of months building it. It came together fast. No committee, no consensus building, just unadulterated nostalgia peppered with some escapism under the pretext of “that’s educational.”
The actual process of creating the exhibit was equal parts Ebay shopping, scouring the campus for resources, and set design. I’ll conquer them in that order.
Once Zach and I committed to the exhibit in early February, we both went to Ebay and started looking for old gold 80s technology. My first purchase was the 1981 25″ Quasar TV pictured below, thanks to a pro-tip from Michael Branson Smith. It was to be the centerpiece of the exhibit, but alas it blew some kind of convertor (the inside of an 80s TV is a scary thing) a few weeks ago and no longer works. I have become so obsessed with this piece that I brought it back to be fixed. And in the process made a deal for a Betamax player that should be ready next week.
Zach already had a bunch of the gaming consoles like the Atari 2600, NES, Telstar, etc., so after the TV I went searching for a 1980s VCR. Wildly enough, I found the model my family got in 1985, the Panasonic Omnivision—a fine, top-loading piece of Reagan-era machinery. This may be the most viscerally powerful piece in the exhibit for me on a deeply personal level; this is the technology that brought a wide range of films into my living room in ways that were heretofore impossible. An educational tool of the highest order, but oh so informal.
I also hit a local shop here in Fredericksburg and picked up a RCA Select-a-Vision and more than 50 video discs for $70. I’ve written a bit about this doomed technology already, so I’ll just point you there rather than re-hashing.
Once Zach brought the 2600 to my office as we started gearing up for the exhibit, my Ebay habits changed radically. I went on an Atari 2600 cartridge binge for some of my favorite games that we didn’t already have, below are some of them. Venture and Phoenix might be two of the best ports of the actual arcade versions of the games (another good port is Popeye, and I’m still working on getting that one—Ebay donation anyone?).
Despite what the purists might say, Video Pinball proved back in 1981 that the distinctions between the virtual and the physical are more imagined than real 🙂
Moon Patrol is a shitty port, but I couldn’t resist.
Joust was a brilliant port, the physics on this one are really, really good.
Jungle Hunt is another great port of the arcade version.
I went on yet another mini-spree when Zach brought over his NES system. He has Super Mario Bros, which is probably the most iconic of all video games. Period. But one of my all-time favorites video games was Blades of Steel for the NES—and it holds up beautifully.
I also bought Kung-Fu for the NES, and it just arrived yesterday, need to get a scan of that one and add it to the Console Living Room inventory. More recently I’ve started to start searching out some of the handheld video games.
Coleco’s head-to-head football was one of my all-time favorite handheld games as a kid, and I was surprised how quickly Tommaso picked up on the gameplay. It is stands up fairly well, and he spent a better part of a Saturday morning doing touchdown dances around the living room.
I just won a Tomy “Blip” game which should arrive sometime next week.
Another cool element of the Console Living Room is we invite folks to donate some of their own favorites to the exhibit. For example, UMW History professor and Tumblr extraordinaire Sue Fernsebner was a Yars’ Revenge fan (one of the most trippy, abstract Atari games ever) so she brought it by for all to enjoy. How cool is that?
We’re taking any and all donations. We understand this exhibit is incomplete. What’s more, we fully acknowledge it’s biased towards 11 year old boys, so help us rectify that with your generous donations 🙂
A big insight from this experience is just how many resources universities provide their community. I know this observation seems ridiculously obvious, but despite working at one or another university for over 20 years I still forget that simple fact.
We got 95% of the furniture from UMW’s Storehouse (a warehouse of surplussed furniture and equipment). We got really lucky with all the period appropriate pieces. The pattern love seat is pitch perfect, not to mention the foosball table, coffee table, entertainment center, etc. All furniture waiting to be disposed of that we’re able to repurpose and re-inspire life into. This was particularly sweet because we spent almost all of February buying technology, but had no furniture at all. After one trip to the storehouse in early March, we realized this was actually going to work.
We also put an early call out for tech and furniture from the UMW community, and Becky Bezdan in the Student Affairs office loaned us a gorgeous 1977 19″ Zenith Chromacolor II which has become the corner piece of the exhibit.
Theater Set Design
While most of the exhibit is made up furniture we salvaged and technology we had or found on Ebay, there is one element we truly created: the panel walls! We needed a frame for all the tech and furniture, and the idea of fake walls with wood paneling was the cherry on top. But how to do it? Again, another lesson about how much expertise we have on our campus. The scene prop foreman for UMW’s Theatre department, Kenny Horning, was more than generous with his time and expertise. He came by the area we wanted to build the exhibit and explained what Hollywood flats are and how much material we would need to build the walls. He even drew out plans on a whiteboard:
Armed with this new-found knowledge—and a bitchin’ set of tools thanks to Kenny—we went out and bought the materials.
The backstage of the UMW Theater was bustling with student activity as they were polishing off the set for their new production Lady Windermere’s Fan. It’s a really cool space, and they have all the tools you could ever want. Kenny took us through building a 4′ x 8′ flat, and we used that as the template for the walls we built. Zach and I spent the better part of a Saturday afternoon getting the walls built, with some help from Creative Writing professor Jon Pineda—who rules.
We even had to frame out around a window, which was fun and challenging. I think the building of the walls was the most rewarding part of the exhibit for me. To actually build them, and then see how thoroughly they transformed the living room into a time capsule was really amazing.
Zach came back Sunday and polished off the walls, and we did some final details on Monday morning. In the end, we met the March 30th opening date, and so far the response has been really positive. The wood paneling just showed how #4life we are when it comes to rebuilding 1980s living rooms. The exhibit is evolving, so we will continue to add pieces, accept donations, and effectively watch it grow over the next two months.
Michael Branson Smith will be coming down to UMW on April 13th and 14th and help us actually transmit YouTube videos of TV shows from the era over the analog VHF 77.25MHz (ch. 5) and 175.25 (ch. 7) using a Hilly TVX-50M television transmitter. What’s more, MBS will be doing a Remix workshop for students and faculty centered around the exhibit. So good.
As you probably can tell if you’ve made it this far in this War and Peace length post, the exhibit has been the rabbit hole I fell down this semester. I don’t regret a minute of it. I’ve had a total blast and got a new found respect for the work various folks do around campus, at the same time I was able to indulge my penchant for nostalgia.