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Nostalgia, Norwegian money and the unlikely resurgence of pixel art

Snøhetta Design’s submission for Norway’s 1,000-kroner note. A version of the top design will be on the back of the note beginning as early as 2017. (Norges Bank)

Pixel art seems to be everywhere these days. It features heavily in some of Kickstarter’s most popular video games. GIFs of the stuff overrun Tumblr. There are more than 4,000 pixel-art crafts in the Etsy store. And now, starting in 2017, it will adorn the backs of Norway’s banknotes — not too shabby for an art form that basically began as a concession to bad image processing.

But 40-plus years have passed since the early days of pixel art, and now the genre has come to represent something else: artistic independence, nostalgia — and a sort of minimalistic, counter-cultural aesthetic, one that counters reigning commercial trends.

“It’s punk-money,” Norwegian designer Matthias Frodlund told the Creators Project. “[It’s] avant garde in a way, and that will always be appreciated by the masses.”

How a series of dots on a screen came to represent the “avant garde” is not a terribly long story — although it is a long-running one. Pixel art is essentially any work made with a limited color palette on a grid of square-shaped pixels; while it’s deceptively tricky to make, it’s pretty easy for computers to render. That means the genre saw a lot of action in classic early video games like Mario and Zelda. In fact, if you’ve ever played an early Nintendo GameBoy or Sega Master System, you’ve encountered pixel art in its purest form.

By the early ’90s, however, that type of 2D gaming was already on its way out. Sony and Nintendo were releasing consoles that could process way more information than earlier computers could; game designers could work with millions of colors, versus, in some cases, fewer than a dozen. In terms of market appeal, the new 3D art was more advanced, more technologically impressive, and way, way sexier. In a span of years, pixel art was something of a fringe pursuit: the realm of nostalgic geeks, perhaps, and of art collectives like eBoy, but certainly far outside the commercial and artistic mainstreams.

… So why in the world is this stuff cool again now?

Like many seemingly random and less-than-intuitive trends, pixel art owes its renaissance to a confluence of factors. The largest may very well be economic: Video gaming — the industry that fostered pixel art, to begin with — has undergone a massive change in funding models over the past five years.

Most commercial games, of course, are still massive corporate operations, not unlike Hollywood movies. But Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms have empowered independent artists to make their own games outside of the system, according not to commercial pressures — but to the whims and aesthetics of a passionate few. (When “you remove video games from the publisher model and start treating it like any other art form,” Robert Brockway gushed in Cracked in 2012, “… your desperate, fevered fan dreams [become] reality.”)

Fans dreamt, in many cases, of throwback pixel art like the ones they saw as kids: At least three dozen Kickstarter-funded games have featured it prominently. The 2D game-maker Nick Wozniak, whose Shovel Knight raised $311,000 on the site in 2013, even went to far as to credit crowdfunding for the genre’s resurgence.

But Kickstarter wasn’t, needless to say, the only site responsible. The emergence of niche online art communities in the early and mid-aughts — think DeviantArt (2000), PixelJoint (2004) and r/pixelart (2006) — solidified disparate fans into an actual community, fomenting an interest in this antiquated art form even after it faded from the mainstream. And the resurgence of the animated GIF, itself an antiquated arm form, allowed fans to easily capture and share old 2D art anew: The GIF, according to fan site 2D Will Never Die is the reason pixel-art stayed “cool.”

Mix all those things together and plop them in front of the early Millenial and late Gen X gamers who grew up playing early Nintendo and are are just now coming of age … and you end up with a perfect storm of nostalgia, community and capital. The world has never been more ready for pixel art on dollar bills — or, apparently, anywhere else.

Alas, the designer Frodlund doesn’t quite see it that way: In an interview with the Creators Project, he pleaded ignorance on the current state of pixel art and said his firm’s designs had as much in common with video games as they did with ancient Mesopotamian mosaics.

That may seem to undersell the current movement … but it also makes a good point. There is something universally, timelessly appealing about the pixel, despite its modern connotations: it’s in the starkness, the simplicity, the play of a muted palette and pared-down geometric shapes. Whether in cross stitch, Chasm or on the kroner, that will always be pretty cool.