The Apple II and the iconic game The Oregon Trail launched countless computer science careers – and are twin muses for weaver Melissa Barron.
The Chicago artist appreciates the similarities in a line of code and a strand of yarn as she brings analog texture to computer screens, especially the helter-skelter appearance of glitches.
Barron’s work is not limited to textile arts. She paints and screen prints, but a common thread through most of her work is her love of the Apple II and the video games she played as a kid in the 1990s while growing up in South Saint Paul, MN.
But as the subject matter at the center of her work, the Apple II and programs associated with it caught her by surprise as she went through art school.
Melissa Barron was going to be a photographer
“I was planning on taking photography as my initial interest, but it’s just funny how that works out,” Barron told Cult of Mac. “I got sucked back into it.”
The Apple II was Apple’s first big hit and among the first mass-produced microcomputers. Designed mostly by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, it debuted in 1977 with an open platform that allowed curious users to write their own programs. It was phased out by 1993 and Apple II fans say the company killed it in favor of the closed architecture of the Macintosh.
The Apple II and all of its programs continue to operate thanks in part to a worldwide group of users that share resources and gather annually, including at KansasFest in Kansas City Missouri.
Now a regular attendee of KansasFest, Barron had virtually no contact with Apple II or the games she loved then, including Spellevator, Number Munchers and The Oregon Trail, after elementary school. She did not grow up with one in her home, she said.
In 2009, while at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Barron happened to get reacquainted with the old games through an emulator program that brought the 8-bit graphics with blocky type and pixelated, color-fringed images.
As she began to play the games, she opened the disk images in a text editor and wondered what would happen if she changed the characters. Her first project involved The Oregon Trail because it was the first game she played as a kid.
“It was a popular and iconic game for a lot of people my age,” she told the art website Digicult. “Because of this, I didn’t really want to change the storyline all that much but update it for a new generation that never played the original game.
“I enjoy combining the old with the new in order to create something completely different. Changing the text makes it harder to play the game and it almost becomes another game trying to decipher it.”
It took her months to hack the game with new characters. She would collect screen captures of the various glitches, which later inspired some of her weavings.
Barron uses a Jacquard loom, the first computerized loom that she also “glitched” to create interesting images.
Barron finds beauty in the garbled mess that often appears on a screen.
“I go with whatever happens, I don’t plan anything,” she said. “I changed things letter by less so mistakes happened often. I took screenshots of these because I found them interesting.”
The results are transferred into screen prints or weavings. In addition to straight-forward acrylic paintings of Apple II hardware – she now owns a IIc and IIe – she has created five series in different mediums.
“I did a lot of photography and I enjoyed the figure, so this a huge difference in what I used to be doing,” said Barron, who teaches painting and weaving to adults with developmental disabilities. “But once I rediscovered this, I had no hesitation moving forward.”