The Blip Festival: Where the Geeks Are

Celebrating technologies of yore

When his predecessor first took office, even basic familiarity with a Web browser was considered the exclusive domain of geeks, but Mayor Bloomberg kicked off his 2012 with a tweet resolving to learn programming. Facebook built an empire from thumbs-up clicks, as evidenced by last week's IPO. The march toward the future might be relentless and inescapable, but sometimes it's still easy to overlook the largest strides.

Music is likewise an increasingly technical game, from creation to promotion to distribution. Which brings us to this weekend's Blip Festival, the annual celebration of retro video games and one of New York's geekiest music events. "Chiptune" is a niche within electronic music showcasing instruments built from deliberately outdated sound banks and audio chips sourced from old Nintendo, Sega, and Atari boxes; a sort of "digital vintage," perhaps. And even in this age of Retina displays, the aging graphics processors from those same systems still get equal attention in the form of stunningly elaborate 8-bit stage projections.

The holographic Tupac from Coachella might have been more au courant, but the Blip Festival crowd tends to be closer to the bleeding edge. Although the systems are prehistoric, the work being done with them can still be highly technical; even in 2012, it's not easy to upgrade the audio signal chain inside a game console from the '80s, much less create a custom cartridge for one.

4mat plays at the 2011 Blip Festival.
Courtesy Blip Festival
4mat plays at the 2011 Blip Festival.

As a result, past festivals have been as much science fair as concert—the highlights of last year's merch table were all those copies of Tristan Perich's "1-Bit Symphony," a battery-powered array of circuitry mounted inside a CD jewel case that actually "performs" music every time it connects with a pair of headphones. Along the back wall, you'd have found a table manned by MakerBot Industries, a Brooklyn-based company that sells programmable manufacturing robots. There will come a day when we'll all be able to MakerBot up our guitar picks and capos, and eventually even the instruments themselves. This is no longer strictly science fiction. So if you're not already on board because of simple nostalgia for the games or their 8-bit sounds, this will become the most fascinating aspect of the Blip Festival: It's a simultaneous look into the past and the future.

Consider Connecticut trio Burnkit2600, who employ a battery of other digital instruments alongside the chiptune devices; they'll be leading a workshop on building and programming square wave synthesizers before their set on Sunday. Brett Marshall Lefferts, the band's newest inductee, was first drawn in by Weapons of Past Distractions, which the band (then a duo) released as an Atari cartridge. The system is 35 years old, and the single is bearing down on its 10th anniversary, but Lefferts still sees it all as quite modern: "All of it is futuristic," he says. "It's about using tools to build something anew, and that's always the future—creativity."

Yesterday, technology was a concern for communications and publishing. Now it's on to social interactions and a music festival. This is how it unfolds; culture gets consumed by technology, so both can progress. To recklessly repurpose an old political argument: If the geeks didn't always win, we'd still be living in caves. Whatever comes up next in the queue, Bloomberg's got the right idea here, because one way or another, eventually they're coming back for everything.

The Blip Festival takes place at the Gramercy Theatre on May 25, 26, and 27.

 
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