Tuesday, June 9, 2015 at 7:30pm
Mike Builds a Shelter

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

Presented by Michael Smith and Paul Slocum

In 1983, Michael Smith premiered his installation Government Approved Home Fallout Shelter Snack Bar, a collaboration with artist and set designer Alan Herman, at Castelli Graphics in New York. Inside the gallery’s 61st Street space, Smith and Herman constructed a full-scale bomb shelter, based on a 1980 Federal Emergency Management Agency pamphlet that instructed citizens on how to modify a basement rec room so it could double as home defense from nuclear attack. Meticulously simulating a typically tasteless Middle-American home, the environment at Castelli included a washer and dryer, a hi-fi with a collection of vinyl records, metal shelving filled with barrels of “survival ration crackers,” and a snack bar with hinged canopy that, according to FEMA, could be filled with concrete blocks to create a shield against radiation. The work also featured Smith’s alter-ego “Mike,” an uber-bland dude, often clad in boxer shorts and sporting a cheesy cockeyed grin, whom Smith had portrayed in performances, videos, and drawings since the late 70s. Produced the same year that Ronald Reagan dubbed the USSR an “Evil Empire” and military posturing brought the two superpowers closer to the brink than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, Fallout Shelter Snack Bar spoke to the same renewed anxieties found in movies of that year like WarGames and The Day After.

The installation also included an element that likely no artist had heretofore attempted: a custom-made, playable video game. Titled Mike Builds a Shelter, it was housed in its own arcade cabinet, complete with functioning joystick and coin-slot. Mike Builds a Shelter was produced with the help of computer graphics designer Dov Jacobson and teenaged programmer Reza Keshavarz, who coded it from scratch using the new Commodore 64 home computer system. In the game, users play an 8-bit version of Smith’s character Mike, who must carry concrete blocks down a set of stairs in order to reinforce his bomb shelter, in between the time of an air-raid siren and the nuking of Manhattan. But no matter how well the game is played, it inevitably ends in total annihilation, set to a synthesized rendition of the theme from Dr. Strangelove.

We can now appreciate the prescience of Mike Builds a Shelter: Smith’s concept arrived decades before some the earliest game-based works by artists like Cory Arcangel or JODI. But at the time, Smith thought of it as just one component of his installation, and it was disassembled like the rest of the work after exhibition. The game disappeared until 2008, when Smith collaborated with artist and programmer Paul Slocum to reconstruct it for a group show in Austin, Texas. Over many months, Slocum painstakingly debugged the program so it could run on remodeled Commodore 64 hardware, and created a new cabinet based on the original.

Tonight, Light Industry presents an evening devoted to this groundbreaking project. The event will feature a screening of Smith’s 1985 video Mike Builds a Shelter, a narrative extension of the original piece shot inside the installation, an illustrated presentation by Slocum, who will describe the technical challenges facing the game’s restoration and how its design fits into the trajectory of computer art, and a discussion between Smith, Jacobson and Keshavarz, who will be reunited for the first time since their initial collaboration. Also on hand will be two playable versions of the game—one projected, one on a monitor—so visitors can make their own futile attempts to save America from mutually assured destruction.

Tickets - $7, available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.