Punk Archaeology, Buried Atari, and Disciplinary Anxiety

This weekend, I finished R. Guins’ impressive new book Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Games Afterlife. As people who follow me on the social medias know, I am heading to Alamagordo, New Mexco next week to excavate a deposit of millions (perhaps) of Atari games with a documentary film grew directed by Zak Penn, Prof. Guins himself, and some of the Punk Archaeology Collective (Andrew Reinhard, Richard Rothaus, and K. Lindsay Eaves). I was super excited about this possibility when Andrew Reinhard first brokered our participation, and reading Guins’ book got me more excited.

Guins positioned the study of early ’80s video games in the context of performance (although not explicitly). In six thoughtful chapters, he considered how scholars, players, collectors, conservators, and fans engage video games in a range of contexts from the museum to the arcade and warehouse. Guins himself venerated early games in the Smithsonian collection. Conservators, lovingly restored, fixed, and even scrapped for parts neglected and broken games. The public scoffed, reminisced, and, more importantly, played the games in various arcades, museum exhibits, and conventions occupying the familiar pose in front of the cabinet with legs positioned shoulder width apart. These different postures framed the afterlife of video games through individual actions that articulate their significance. The various performances communicated made clear the differing social meanings for the games. The gaze of a museum visitor at an arcade game set apart in a glass case is different from that of a veteran restorer laborious applying black lacquer or an enthusiast immersed in game play at a meet up of vintage games.

This emphasis on how we engage these relics of a past era grounds the games firmly in the present. The book does very little with the conceptualization, production, and design of video games other than recognize that these stages are also part of the biography of these objects. Guins interviews a famed game packaging artist and a few game designers including those associated with some of the earliest video games, but he does not talk to folks involved with managing the design teams, manufacturing the games, selling them in retail stores, or marketing them to the masses. As a result, the games Guins studied spoke for themselves in the hands of consumers, connoisseurs, and scholars.

Chapter 5 was dedicated to the famed E.T. burial ground in New Mexico where Atari apparently buried millions of overproduced and returned games in 1983 in the city’s landfill. The team of archaeologists is going to this site to supervise the extraction of these games and to observe the context of their deposition and recovery. In a simple way, we are positioning ourselves in relation to these games as archaeologists and by doing so we hope to impart some social significance to these artifacts, their deposition, and their recovery.

In the spirit of punk, our actions will denature the objects. As R. Harrison and J. Schofield have noted,  punks challenged our assumptions of the purpose and function of zipper, safety pins, make-up, and even musical instruments. Feedback was music, zippers served no function, and torn jeans defined their ruined state to create an identity dependent upon questioning the standards of civility in polite society. Punk rockers performed in churches, mental hospitals, and abandoned buildings intentionally calling into question the architectural context for musical performance in the same way that our punk archaeology conference brought academics together in a Fargo bar to give papers on archaeology and music.

Next week, when we participate in excavating 30 year old Atari games from a New Mexico landfill, we’ll be performing another transgressive action by assigning corporate, consumer “junk” archaeological status and figuring out how to extract a sample of the possibly millions of cartridges and related matter from a landfill. More than that, we’re going to do this while a documentary crew looks on, with a limited budget, specific priorities, and a different kind of appreciation of the objects of our excavation. For example, the production company wants to give away some of the excavated objects and apparently have permission to do this.

As the idea of what we’re going to do next week sunk in, I immediately became apprehensive. First off, I’m a Mediterranean archaeologists and despite my dalliances in the archaeology of the contemporary world, I am far more comfortable with the rules of archaeology in Cyprus or Greece than in the U.S. More than that, I am more comfortable with objects and material that are traditionally archaeological in terms of date (i.e. at least 100 years old!), context (within a controlled research setting), and policies (governed by a clear set of cultural property laws and policies). While this is not meant to diminish the cultural significance of more recent objects, it does push me to consider the limits of a formal “archaeological status” – in the narrowest, disciplinary sense.

Is it the buried location of the Atari games that make them archaeological?

Would a million E.T. cartridges in a warehouse attract the same kind of archaeological scrutiny?

Furthermore, an E.T. cartridge in a private collection does not produce the same kind of ethical tension as, say, a well preserved African red slip plate dating to the 6th century A.D. In other words, the nature of a modern cultural object works against my traditional disciplinary expectations of significance. (And for those of you who are regular readers of this blog, this is the same tension that arose when I first started working on my North Dakota Man Camp Project).

On the one hand, the discipline of archaeology becomes centered on process rather than location or object. On the other hand, it is clear that the limits imposed by the location of the games in a landfill (and the toxicity of the site), the limits imposed by our collaboration with a documentary film crew, and the need to use backhoes and other heavy equipment, defy a narrow reading of archaeological process. Our work in Alamogordo will be at the fringes of disciplinary practice at best, and the most useful thing about the exercise will be a chance to reflect on the limits of archaeology as performance. Just as video games enter the realm of “culture” through the performance of curators, conservators, and scholars, the limits of the discipline come through the posture of its practitioners.  

I’m left thinking about a lovely poem by Cris Kirkwood:

Many a hand has scaled the grand old face of the plateau
Some belong to strangers and some to folks you know
Holy ghosts and talk show hosts are planted in the sand
To beautify the foothills and shake the many hands

Nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop
And an illustrated book about birds
You see a lot up there but don’t be scared
Who needs action when you got words

When you’ve finished with the mop then you can stop
And look at what you’ve done
The plateau’s clean, no dirt to be seen
And the work – it was fun

Nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop
And an illustrated book about birds
You see a lot up there but don’t be scared
Who needs action when you got words

Many hands began to scan around for the next plateau
Some said it was Greenland and some say Mexico
Others decided it was nowhere except for where they stood
Those are all just guesses
Wouldn’t help you if they could…

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