<-- Back to the Nexus

NOTE: This essay originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Unwinnable Monthly magazine. As usual, I've added a wealth of extra links and a sprinkling of minor revisions, as well as a short extra note on pixel art. And as usual, I highly recommend you visit Unwinnable's site and give their magazine a read. Both are in a class all their own.

Digital Phantasmagoria: On the Art of DataErase, Glitch Witch, Anime Porn Historian and DIP Switch Devil

What does it look like when a computer cries? When it bleeds, when it screams and shudders in pain? When it is compromised, when it is asked to do unspeakable things? If it could reflect upon the uses to which it had been put, how wretched would we find its look of despairing disdain, how contorted its face? How long would we find the trails running down its cheeks, what color its tears?

The picture described thoroughly below.
Kumiko (DataErase, 2013.) Click for source.

Picture if you will the moment the tears flow forth, a kernel panic attack. The subject: Hentai Adventure #8801. VRAM is melting; Kumiko's body is glitched to pieces, flipped, chopped, inverted, pulled apart at the seams, buzzed-out fragments scattered across a misaligned grid. Soft legs languidly spread, naked, straddling a chipped messagebox, her skin a checkered grain of pixels, yellows and reds and pinks zoomed in too close to blend as their pointillist creator intended. Text vomit and datagore, garish, coarse, shredded by scanlines and dusted with black noise, the song of the siren from dot matrix hell.

I first heard this song several years ago, on Tumblr in the early-mid '10s. During my long nightly walks from blog to blog, there was a certain kind of stark, vaguely intimidating "aesthetic" blog I loved stumbling onto at 3 in the morning, the cyborges-es, contacs and postmodernCorruptions that had become one of its calling cards. DataErase was among them. DataErase, full name Maddison "Maddi" Morgenstern. The image described at length above was one of hers, among the first she ever posted. I never saw it then; if I did, I don't remember it. These blogs all blended together to me, DataErase to ms-dos5 to fmtownsmarty and so on and so forth, not because they were unremarkable or interchangeable—far from it!—but because my tastes were still developing, and because I lacked the context that would make them click. It was only later, much later, when I could tell an FM Towns Marty from an FMV and knew what the 5 in "ms-dos5" stood for, that I could return to them with a new understanding and a new appreciation. DataErase, rediscovered and reappraised, transformed before my eyes.

(By this time she had also transformed in another sense: from "DataErase," an anonymous, disembodied voice in the shadow of a Berkeley socket, to "Maddi," the violet-haired "glitch witch" most who follow her will recognize today, looking very much like she'd stepped out of a PC-98 game herself.)

She recently curated two collections of her glitch art, Imperfection End (2012-13) and Nightmare Disk/I Will Destroy Your Mind (2014-15). Inside the former is a folder containing her earliest compositions, and for a while I'd set my wallpaper to a slideshow of those "First 14." Eventually I'd seen them so many times that I could name each of them on sight: the bursting, blazing viscera of the "Dissection"; the dark earth-tones of "Secret" and its secret garden; the pastel pinks and violets of the "Magical Girl Transformation"; the tilemapped Frankenstein of flesh and text that composed the menacing "DIP Switch Deity". The red, the flooding red, the drowning-in-red, the overwhelming, overbearing, unbearable, oppressive red: "I Wish I Was the Prey and I Wish They Would Kill Me." And of course, Kumiko, who headlines two pictures ("Kumiko," "Kumiko @ the Racetrack") and is hidden in several others; finding her was a game.

Though later images are simply numbered, all are unique. Far from random, the words, faces, bodies and body parts (be they disrobed or merely dismembered) that emerge from the murky sea of twisted pixels, like a memory from a mist, express by suggestion, inviting you to construct a narrative around them, daring you to read between the lines and use your imagination to fill in the blanks, as good pixel art tends to do.

An Aside on Pixel Art*

A glittering pixelated bubble.

What is pixel art? Art made with pixels.

But what does *that* mean?

Pixel art is tied to the methods computer screens use to display images, and computers are generally involved in their production. But what of the resulting images?

Pixel art has been compared to Impressionism, even by me (a long time ago.) But this misleading. For one thing, the kind of mind-eye trickery that makes either of them work is often employed in the former for non-impressionistic purposes; we've long understood how a collection of appropriately colored dots, when placed far away, seem indistinguishable from a known painting or object to the naked eye, even if the same image looks like a smudgy mass of haphazardly arranged colors close up. This knowledge underlies scaling algorithms, and a similar understanding of how colors blend together at a distance informs anti-aliasing.

But even when unchained to pure representation, the pixel grid is distinct. Unlike the soft, puffy swipes that made up the Impressionist frame, the edges of the pixel give the entire image a coarse texture, a graininess more easily comparable to photo or film grain. Furthermore, pixel art is usually displayed through media that emit light rather than reflect it; bright or sharply contrasted colors (think neon on black) seem to glow on the screen, an effect that is especially prominent on the CRT screens early pixel art was designed for. The most talented of the early pixel artists knew by heart how these devices bent light, and bent that knowledge to their advantage. Combined with the aforementioned coarseness, objects with bright highlights can seem to glitter in the dark, taking on a crystalline appearance.

A huge-eyed, blue-eyed, glitter-eyed '90s anime girl in 4-bit color.
Crystal eyes crystalize. From Metal Slader Glory (Yoshimiru Hoshi, 1991.)

Where pixel art and Impressionism intersect is in their use of color, of groupings of color to approximate things. Although palettes were limited on early computing hardware, pixel art today can sweep the full range of the chromatic spectrum in a single image, though even the freest of pixel artists may chose a particular family of hues or shades based on the mood or subject of a piece, and many pixel artists impose limits emulating those set by the machines of yesteryear. Often this is rooted in nostalgia or familiarity, but the stark variations in color can also compliment the coarseness of the grid (a feature at its starkest in the work of hermippe.)

Dithering owes itself to the uniform space between pixels, and sits somewhere between the trickery that allows colors to blend at a distance and the retained sharpness that comes from aliasing. It's reminiscent of the visible dots of color seen in early comic books, and has a similar stylistic appeal. And there are many subtleties to pixel art even beyond this.

*Excerpted from notes taken on Thursday, December 12th, 2019, at 6:14 AM EST. Big, sparkling eyes are, coincidentally, one of the stylistic hallmarks of Japanese pop culture in Western pop consciousness and, perhaps less coincidentally, a recurring motif in Maddi's work, the image at the top of this page a prime example.

A man with his head twisted off and laid between his legs, pupils constricted, in a pool of his own blood. The image is displayed in the PC-88's limited color palette, in shades of stark red and blue.
Jean-Jacques Gibson (or rather, what remains of him) in Snatcher (Hideo Kojima, 1988)

The public image of pixel art is defined by the triple-I indies of the Darlingzone, whose single-minded pursuit of nicecore nostalgia is instantly recognizable in a Shovel Knight or a Celeste (and I say this as someone who very much enjoys Celeste.) For them and for many others, "pixel art" conjures up images of childhood afternoons spent in front of an old Nintendo console, awash in a wave of innocent good feeling. But pixel art is in fact much more than that. The glowing pixel in its coarse grid is a visual medium rich with possibilities, and can express horror, sinking dread, alienation, righteous rage, grit and grime just as well as joy, as it has from Splatterhouse and Sweet Home to Yume Nikki, from Jean-Jacques Gibson's beady-eyed blue severed head to the monsters of sacrament iv or FAITH. Many and multiplying are the artists and players exploring the depths of its depths, to whom this need not be said.

Yet it does need to be said, as the nightmare collages of DataErase are the last thing you'd expect to see at the yearly Pixel Art Park expo in Chiyoda, Japan (if it is being held at all this year.) She employs a variety of techniques, cutting and pasting screencaps, bending and breaking games, using both standard tools like Photoshop and obscure ones like Andi McClure and Michael Brough's BECOME A GREAT ARTIST IN 10 SECONDS. She draws inspiration from Ero Guro artists, outsider artists, Surrealists and body horror specialists, among them Shintaro Kago, Maruo Suehiro, Hans Bellmer with his dolls. And the games she takes under her knife are, to dramatically understate it, worth noting.

"Kumiko" is not an invention of the artist. It's the canonical name of the character, who stars in the game Makenshi Kumiko, an erotic adventure game released by System House Oh! For a handful of Japanese PCs in 1988, including NEC's PC-98 and PC-88 families. It was one of a handful of games (including Cosmic Psycho, Last Armageddon and Branmarker) that Maddi was playing at the time. In the readme for Imperfection End, she says: "I think I initially envisioned DataErase as a pc98 screencap archive of stuff i was playing at the time (mostly screencaps of Cosmic Psycho), but at some point i started making these collage images with glitchy elements/aesthetics and thats how the first 14 images happened" (sic). Kumiko is an interesting case in herself, as I'd learn from Maddi in an email leading up to this piece: "I think the image of the girl in Kumiko is so generic & archetypal to me as like that 80s moe look, it struck a chord and i wanted to work with it."

Some context should be established. The PC-98 line began in the early 1980s and eventually rose to a level of ubiquity comparable to that of the IBM-Compatible in North America (before being muscled out by those same IBM-Compatibles at the close of the '90s,) in part due to their native and robust support for Japanese kanji at a time when Western competitors were stuck with ASCII and Unicode hadn't even been conceived. Naturally, its software library was massive, and includes many names that are well-known today, such as Touhou, YU-NO, Corpse Party, RPG Maker, and Hideo Kojima's Snatcher and Policenauts. (NOTE: for the rest of this piece, I'll be using the term "PC-98" to refer to both the PC-98 and PC-88 product lines to save words, unless otherwise specified. Snatcher was a PC-88 game, for instance, though its later MSX2 and Sega CD ports are better-known by English-speaking players today.)

But those are the exceptions. The PC-98 was a Japan-only machine, and most of its games were never discovered by the world outside due to the language barrier. What little we do know is thanks to decades of effort by fan translators worldwide, from groups like 46 OkuMen to individuals like Nana and Slowbeef.

A pc-98 running a command-line interface, with a pixel art pinup in the background: a blonde nude at a pc-98 of her own, her backside covered in floppy disks.
The PC-98 in action. (Source: "YAHDI" for PC-98.)

As a result, the platform has built up a mysterious cache among a small but fiercely loyal group of enthusiasts (myself included) dating all the way back to specialty sites like Tokugawa Corporate Labs (whose forums are still going strong today.) Part of its appeal is the way the Japanese PC dev scene evolved in isolation, developing more regional quirks than an Australian marsupial. The art of the PC-98 (and other Japanese PCs popular in its day) is marked by an immaculate slickness, painstakingly dithered hues and ornate borders, cityscapes that glittered and glowed like the crystal eyes of a 16-color catgirl on a CRT screen, beat-heavy FM synth slam-jams and fantastic stories typed in FULLWIDTH TEXT. In the pantheon of Japanese games, the PC-98 is the epitome of polish. To its fans, it is the epitome of aesthetic.

...And with all this out of the way, I am now obligated to talk about the porn.

It's incredible, really, seeing so much of it in one place. The PC-98 gets called a "hentai machine" from time to time, though the moniker should be taken with a grain of salt. It's no surprise, after all, that the extreme should stick out of its library like a sore nipple; a picture of a woman lying naked on her back with legs raised to her shoulders and a Pepsi can shoved up her vagina needs no translation (please don't ask.) It's a gross exaggeration to say that this is all it had to offer, given the sheer wealth of software developed over its lifespan. Including games for all ages like Melpool Land and Sengoku Turb, educational and business applications, and even a couple versions of Windows.

That said, it was there, and it was prominent, and an inclination towards the erotic, from suggestively short skirts to out-and-out smut, certainly does appear to have held a special place in the PC-98's otaku-driven hobbyist dev culture. Some of it is harmless and funny, some of it fascinating, some of it legitimately hot, but a lot of it ranges from suspicious to contentious to downright creepy, from the rape fetish-fueled 177 to the frankly self-explanatory Final Lolita. This tendency paradoxically pervades even its most brilliant work. To take two examples already mentioned, Kojima's detective games are both considered classics of cyberpunk sci-fi, but one has you sniffing the panties of a 14-year-old girl and the other has you groping breasts left and right. Meanwhile, YU-NO, a deliciously atmospheric time-travel mystery and one of the platform's definitive adventure games, closes out on a one-two punch of cannibalism and parental incest (and that's the short version.) The flipside of this, on the other hand, is that PC-98 porn, an area where one might naively expect cheaply cut corners and lazy execution is, on average, shockingly well-rendered and well-scored, overflowing with dedication in all its forms, for better or for worse. Yes, even Patty McPepsisnatch is beautifully drawn. (Source: Valkyrie.)

What's more, the neotenous charms of moé were a recurring theme in PC-98 games both work-safe and not, in forms work-safe and not. It gives me pause; here the tightrope is at its most slippery. There's a strange tension underlying the big eyes, the blushing cheeks, the frills and precocious curves. Cute things are cute, and I'm far from immune to the joys of the cloyingly adorable (I'm quite partial to Adeleine, kid artist from Kirby 64,) but the burning longing associated with these characters, with the projection of that longing, that love, those hopes and fears onto these proxies pixelated and hand-drawn alike has been ground zero for a menagerie of maladaptive tendencies, from 2d love and merchandise mania to predilections more pointedly sinister (there is graphic porn of Adeleine, kid artist from Kirby 64. (On that note! Please let me never have to type the phrase "precocious curves" ever again.))

A screenshot from a bishoujo game with the colors janked up. The girl is a menacing silhouette; only her eyes can be seen, gazing directly at the viewer.
PC-98 glitched (Screenshot by the author. Source: Tenshitachi no Gogo Collection 2.)

This phenomenon, this shadow, has been analyzed to death, in voices alternately academic and popular, alternately patronizing and lenient to a fault, from Tamaki to Murakami, from Daicon III and IV to Database Animals to Moe Manifesto, from Genshiken to Giffany, from the triumphalism of Otaku no Video to the bleakness of Me!Me!Me! Oh, how the ink has been spilled! And who can blame them? I love the PC-98, but there is a latent horror to it, an unavoidable unignorable horror to it and to the subculture surrounding it and supporting it, to the bone-chilling current of loneliness, of alienation, of obsession and fixation and all-consuming consumption that surges just below the surface of it all. Again the tension.

A PC-98 H-scene in inverted colors
DATAFUCK (Screenshot by the author. Source: Night Slave.)

Again the tension. What looks like purity reads like a sexuality made winkingly conspicuous by its absence. What sounds like safety and comfort reads like a muffled scream. It's as plain on the PC-98 as it would be on the platforms of the present. It doesn't touch every game, of course, but it's always there, ambiently there, naggingly there, hanging over the proceedings, thick enough thick to cut with a knife. It's a messy legacy, and I don't mean that euphemistically. Engaging critically with it, celebrating the good without trivializing the bad, steering clear of outright dismissal on one end and outright romanticism on the other, takes patience and care.

A ribbon-wearing AI girl has switched into Yandere mode (ring -1).
From the DataErase Tumblr blog. Click for source.

All the shadows and all the dark corners, and the shell of Superflat gloss that envelops it all. It's a veneer that practically begs to be taken apart, to be hacked to pieces. I think of this when I see "Roses are Red Red Red," or "Kumiko," or any of the other images where the shadows seem to boil over the surface and tear the entire frame inside out in an explosion of blood and pixels, horror and despair. The glitch is the failure of a system of illusion to maintain its facade. Everything comes out all at once, and it won't stop, it won't stop, it won't stop.

Trauma, then, is the word. DataErase says in Imperfection End: "These were made during a particularly bad time in my life as i was still processing a lot of trauma and i think thats reflected here a lot" (sic). Just as telling are the places she went for comfort, which likewise inform her work:

"I grew up partly with a lot of the general anime stuff people of my generation were into but i also explored a lot of doujin webrings and circles before all of those places got lost to the transition to Web 2.0 (where i believe a lot of that is just people's pixiv or twitter accounts coupled with a blog now?). So I think my work is also informed by this relationship that a lot of that early 90s and late 80s otaku culture imprinted onto me as a lonely alienated kid. Those spaces were a sorta safespace away from everything weighing on me, it was always a place of comfort? Misplaced nostalgia i guess? The PC98 and jp retro computer stuff is interesting precisely because it's kind of a window back to that stuff for me?"

She mentions, in both the readme and our correspondence, spending a lot of time with Kisekae Set System (KiSS) dolls, a type of drag-and-drop digital paper doll that has appeared on various platforms over the years, from Java (where she first found them) to Flash (as Kisekae2) to, fittingly enough, the PC-98 (on which it got its start.) Dolls are a common thread in her work, by her own admission. I mentioned earlier that DataErase drew inspiration for her collages from, among other things, the dollwork of Hans Bellmer, and it's easy to see in his anatomically splintered and twisted ball-joint creations the ghost of Kumikos yet to come. Bellmer is commonly said to have built his dolls in opposition to the "cult of the perfect body" that had taken hold of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s, countering the perfect with the perfectly grotesque; Likewise DataErase's deconstructed, lacerated Licca-chan dolls give the lie to the silver-slick flawlessness of their originals.

EDIT (2017.17.09.2020): Maddi has just pointed me in the direction of the World KISS Project website.
Click their button to check it out ^_^

Yet they are also unmistakably an act of love, a love letter, to the PC-98 and to Japanese retrocomputing as a whole, warts and all. It's obvious when you consider that she can list sources for all the pictures she scrambles, that you'd have to be several layers deep into the fandom you were using as a canvas to do so much so well so easily (at the peak of her productivity she was pushing out a new picture every day.) She's no detached Pop artist; she even mentioned in a recent tweet that she wants to be an "anime porn historian." In jest, perhaps, but I'm holding her to it. And yes, I am going to send her a picture of this article's title.

Most importantly, she was (and is) hardly alone in her relationship to the wave of Japanese media arriving with a splash on Western shores in the late '80s and early '90s, that shadowy era of videotaped fansubs, Usenet threads, doujin webrings and bishoujo webshrines. On DataErase's website, she says that one of the themes explored in her work is "the west's relationship with Japanese pop culture."

But all this is just the tip of the iceberg. Although the fan culture of late-20th century Japan was once seen as incomprehensibly exotic to outsiders, and as uniquely Japanese to commentators on either side of the Pacific, its contours become more familiar every year as fandom-building, fanservice and parasocial engagement gradually become the primary drivers of the Western entertainment industry. In time, it begins to look more prophetic than foreign. And as this happens, we find ourselves having to engage with the iconography of the magical girl and the dating sim as if they were fragments of our own culture, because they are now.

A royally pissed anime girl, emerging from her well of ultraviolet visual noise, to shame mankind.
From Nightmare Disk

We draw on the vocabulary of this past to articulate our present. Vaporwave was one form of this. Glitch-witchery is another. We do this, and then we turn in the other direction, assembling these bits and pieces, these still-ticking doll arms and twintailed ciphers and pastel-pink shards of love and fear and innocence and bitterness and hope, into a lens through which to peer into our collective memory.

And is the memory that emerges from our murky sea nostalgia or trauma? Sometimes the line is unclear. Sometimes it can't be drawn at all. Kumiko lives in the space between.

Superflat never died. It just became our reality.

All the glitch art thus described is from several years ago. DataErase would step away from the format of Imperfection End and Nightmare Disk after 2014. In the readme for the latter, she says: "I think the emotional + psychological space i would be creating stuff in would be very different onward from here. Although general traits of my work would stay the same." She'd go on to experiment with 3d graphics, as well as put together a short game called RX77R for the locusjam game jam in 2016.

Cast as a wanderer amid a field of noise-textured "space ruins," RX77R's PS1-inspired aesthetic and intimidating architecture straddle the line between 2D and 3D thanks to scripts running on the RPG Maker XP runtime package to push it beyond its intended, strictly flat functionality; there's a whole community dedicated to experimenting with it in this and other ways. You might imagine yourself wandering through the ruins of the now thoroughly broken engine. After discussing the game, she added, "I think I'd like to explore making a kind of Yume Nikki clone in that engine some day? I think it could be neat!" (NOTE: The script used in the game, "H-Mode7", can be found in this thread.)

The author's party fighting a one-eyed cuboid daemon in LabyrinthOS.
LabyrinthOS (DataErase, TBA)

More recently, DataErase has been busy developing LabyrinthOS, a "3D cyber dungeon crawler about deleting the universe and fighting god" which sends you and a team of stylish dungeoneers—including the Technomancer, the Psychic Detective and the Bondage Paladin—into a digital underworld where programs are your magic, files are your armor, malware bites (please let me have this one,) and pyramid-headed AI mannequins double as living elevators. Though the game is far from finished, a short, promising demo is available on her site. Glimpses of the final game through her twitter show a medley of other sights, like dusty mazes of junk and a library framed by golden statues of Takashi Murakami's Miss Ko2.

A tweet promoting the game opens with "Hey! Do you like smt and persona but hate how fucking stupid atlus is constantly?" Asking her about it later, she had this to say:

"I generally just find some of Atlus's writing choices to leave a bad taste in my mouth. Recent poor handling of a trans character in Catherine come to mind and the entire mishandling they did with talking about gender & sexuality with a number of characters in Persona 4 is uncomfortable? Especially since earlier persona games seem to have a better grip on this stuff (although obviously still not perfect). I don't want to make Labyrinth.os to be a game that prizes itself on it's like un-problematicness or whatever but i'd at least want to make a game that speaks to me and speaks to people i care about? SMT's design choices always feel like they're gesturing towards it's queerness but never really engaging with it? Sort of wearing it as a costume? Which is complicated for people playing those games who exist outside gender & sexuality norms".

Fitting that the influence of Megami Tensei rings clear in this game and in her art. When I think MegaTen, I think of the scene in the Digital Devil Story OVA where troubled student Akemi Nakajima summons a demon onto the mortal plane using a FORTRAN program, a computer seance that twists signal into sigil, ceremonially hexbent, scrambled by black magic and networked across the chasm between life, death, and the horrors human and inhuman that lie beyond the reach of both. The power of the glitch, and of glitch art, is that it bridges the gap between synthetic purity and organic decay. It opens the computer to the possibility of mystery, as death is mystery. It connects the computer, the "perfect, immortal machine," to rotting things, stinking things, dying things, to things that return to the earth.

To us.

What does it look like when a computer cries? Closing out our correspondence, I asked DataErase this very question. Her response?

The Apple Macintosh's crash screen, featuring a computer with exes in its eyes.

It is now safe to turn off your computer.