by Manu SharmaJul 20, 2021
A click of my mouse, and a screenshot from a Legend of Zelda game opens up. It is a perfectly mundane, if slightly nostalgic, image in all but one key detail: Link, the protagonist, is possessed of a face that has been mangled by a glitch, with his mouth transformed into a jumble of vertical and horizontal lines, and his eyes completely missing.
This piece of surreal videogame artistry is part of a larger movement called ROM Corruption, and Jordan Bortner, the practitioner responsible for the aforementioned artwork, was among Dawnia Darkstone, Sabato Visconti and Rudy Paganini, as artists engaged with this craft, that I approached for interviews.
To begin with, I was curious as to how each one defined and approached ROM Corruption. I had hitherto understood it to be a collection of techniques used to distort, modify or outright break the data of old videogames, with the prefix serving data copied from a read-only memory chip, as is done to transfer the contents of old videogame cartridges onto PC systems, wherein the surreal magic happens.
As it turns out, my understanding formed a limited base that each artist was happy to build upon and nuance for my benefit. While there was a general adherence to sense of nostalgia as well as a shared surrealist vision among the artists, Jordan Bortner, who I encountered in his glitch artist avatar JPEGSTRIPES, recalled the difficulties in getting old videogame cartridges to work properly. As an adult then, he became interested to find that the graphical errors he encountered during this process as a child were now being pursued as artistic artefacts. Similarly, Dawnia Darkstone, who operates under the name letsglitchit on Instagram and co-administrates Glitch Artists Collective on Facebook, mentions that they first encountered videogame glitches at a young age, when they were able to get a hold of demo copies of various games from an electronics store that their father worked at. To quote the artist, “I didn’t learn of intentional ROM Corruption for the purpose of harvesting glitches until I was in my early 20s though, and being into glitch art, I was immediately hooked”.
Both of them were in general agreement with me as to what the specifics of ROM Corruption were, however Sabato Visconti, originally from Sao Paulo and called sabatobox on Instagram, approached the topic rather differently, initially becoming enthralled with ROM Corruption after he saw the glitches produced by a friend’s faulty flash drive while he was working as a freelance photographer. To him, videogames are a larger realm within which the pursuit of these errors perpetuates critical reinterpretations of specific works or whole franchises. Finally, Rudy Paganini, who goes by forevermidi_com on Instagram and currently develops an open source program called Glitch Saver, while also being involved in research centred around virtual reality, focuses on ROM Corruption as a component of glitch art as a whole, and, with a sense of pragmatism, wishes to develop it to fit within his databending repertoire.
Moving along, I wanted to know whether or not each artist privileged certain franchises within their oeuvres. Bortner did not seem to prefer works from any one franchise, but was instead partial to using older consoles to create analogue glitches, as, in his own words, they “tend to be able to take a beating and chug along without crashing better than new consoles”. Darkstone, on the other hand, pointed out that Nintendo-based systems and franchises have an unmistakable nostalgia-factor, however, they enjoy working with old DOS games more.
For Visconti, it’s about using the consoles and franchises he had access to as a child. Of the games he uses in his work, he is closest to Ecco: The Tides of Time, which follows a time-travelling dolphin that goes back to the past in order to prevent an apocalyptic future from unfolding. He has an ongoing series of work with Ecco, reimagining the dolphin in the Anthropocene. To quote him, “humanity may be extinct, but the devastation wrecked on the oceans still linger, and Ecco wanders through an unstable ecosystem in permanent collapse. Enemy sharks embody reactionary violence, while alien xenomorphs kidnap Ecco to a dark and sterile techno-fascism. This reimagining is told through a series of looping GIFs organised by volumes”. Like Bortner, Paganini doesn’t privilege any one franchise either, but focuses his work around older consoles, specifically the NES and the Super NES, through which he attempts to generate “primitive, abstract patterns”.
Finally, I found myself wondering how this style of art interacts with people outside its niche groups. Bortner, like Darkstone, administrates a group of glitch artists, however, his is on Discord and this is still very much within the niche. Where real outreach is concerned, those on the outside who are looking in can really only consistently access his work on Instagram, wherein he enjoys a growing following. Darkstone has been able to access more mainstream avenues, with their work being exhibited in Croatia, San Francisco, Paris, Minneapolis and even in Vice’s Creator’s Project. Visconti is a member of the same group that Darkstone co-administrates, and has also displayed his work at the 2016 Athens Digital Art Festival, and the 2017 Glitch Art is Dead Exhibition at the Gamut Gallery, Minneapolis. Additionally, his ROM Corruptions have also been featured in Giphy and in the magazine Kill Screen. Visconti is also part of the Imaginary Collective, which is a group of US-based artists devoted to staging art exhibitions in unlikely spaces. Finally, Paganini has kept a comparatively low profile, but has exhibited some of his work at Domenico Barra’s White Page Gallery, which, as he explains, refers to a “decentralised network of artist-run, online galleries”.
So, it would seem that while ROM Corruption as an art form appeals to a limited crowd, specifically those who have engaged with retro gaming systems as children or young adults, this appeal is slowly growing and extending outwards, through avenues such as online publications and gallery exhibitions. I would imagine that the ‘market’ for such art would be very limited, if not largely non-existent, given its inherently niche and entirely digital nature. However, this has by no means stopped the many artists who engage with this art form from continuing to doing so, and, as it seems, their primary driving force remains a unique cocktail of nostalgia mixed with a desire to reframe and reinterpret videogames. As Visconti puts it, “ROM Corruption represents a kind of paradox of the post-digital world: the freedom of obsolescence. As the relentless march of technological progress relegates old systems to oblivion, traces of obsolete tech eventually remerge within new architectures,” and it is these very architectures that ROM Corruption artists are continuously shaping and reshaping in the pursuit of a new, critical vocabulary within the larger ambit of digital art.