Due to the pandemic life as we knew it has been temporarily put on hold if not permanently altered. The art world has not been spared. As each industry slowly figures out how to adjust to our suddenly digitized, self-isolated world, many artists have struggled to keep their careers afloat and expose their work to new audiences while maintaining social distancing protocols.
UK-based artist and illustrator Stephanie Unger creates playful, cartoonish imagery of animals and everyday objects from blocky, brightly-colored shapes, working with clients such as Puma, Instagram, T-Mobile, and Grinder. Dutch draftsman Timo Kuilder creates graphics for high-profile media firms like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Vogue, and Twitter. His work can be identified by its clean lines, limited palette, and emotive figures. Both illustrators saw most of their gigs get postponed or canceled once quarantine measures went into effect.
But instead of letting this sudden breakdown in cash flow send them into a panic, these artists began looking for new outlets to express their creativity. Enter Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Nintendo’s life simulation video game that has become a popular escape valve during self-isolation. The game for the Nintendo Switch system made its worldwide debut on March 20, just as most of Europe and the United States went into lockdown. The fifth title in the Animal Crossing franchise allows players to create a customized avatar and build the island of their dreams. Users can buy, sell, and design goods as well as explore other islands to interact with other players, all while building up a community of anthropomorphic animals.
What started out for Unger as a way to connect with friends quickly turned into a quest to see how much of her life she could replicate in the game, down to a virtual version of her studio. The artist set up a painter’s table in the corner of her house and offered to create simplified versions of her illustrations on commission, accepting Nook Miles or Bells (the two currencies in the game) as payment. After posting a screen grab of her animated workspace on Instagram, Unger received hugely positive feedback from her followers, which got her thinking about how she could further enhance her online experiment.
Kuilder similarly started off playing the game simply to pass the time in isolation, but quickly discovered he could create original designs and decorate his home in the game world with them. This gave him the idea to turn his single-room house into a gallery. He painted the walls white, splattered some paint and scattered brushes on the ground, and purchased a “cartoonist set,” comprising a drafting board, ink well, fountain pen, and eraser, from Timmy & Tommy’s shop (a general store found in most towns in the game) to make the space look even more like his actual studio. He shared a screenshot of his “first solo exhibition” on Instagram, receiving a hugely enthusiastic response, but in an interview he clarified it was only meant to be a joke, not an actual art show.
Both illustrators used the Animal Crossing Pattern Tool website developed by programmers Jaron Viëtor, Viet Tran, and Myumi A. Kalinowski to make art in the game. The tool provides a 32-by-32 pixel editor that allows users to draw directly on the canvas or upload images and tweak them afterward. This latter capability has led to many well-known works of contemporary art being uploaded to the game and then used to decorate players’ islands and homes. These replicas range from Andy Warhol’s cow prints and Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkins to a Bob Ross painting and various internet memes. Installation artist Shing Yin Khor even turned her island into a museum, recreating pieces like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Chris Burden’s Urban Light, and Marina Abramović’s performance The Artist Is Present.
The tool’s limited square grid forced both Unger and Kuilder to radically simplify their style, ditching detailed designs for fills and basic pixelated shapes. Both say they enjoyed being forced to adapt to these novel constraints, although Kuilder notes that he wishes there were an easier way to share artwork in the game, as right now you can do so only with a QR code or by uploading your design to Able Sisters, a shop that sells mostly clothing. He’d love to be able to turn his art into objects that can be stored in player’s “pockets,” so the pieces can be dropped off on other people’s islands or sent to them by mail.
In late March Unger posted a second screen grab of her expanded studio space, inviting her 21,000 Instagram followers to a show on her island. She lined the walls of one room in her home with both new works made for Animal Crossing and replicas of her older pieces, and set up a stereo system in the corner next to a table full of coconut juice refreshments. While she initially doubted anyone would come, there was a substantial turnout. Unger quickly realized that no more than eight people could visit the show at a time. Guests had to line up outside and wait their turn to enter, just like at a real-life blockbuster exhibition.
Not only did Unger receive compliments from people who were thrilled to attend a virtual social event during these self-isolated times, but she also gained new fans from all over the world, including someone currently diagnosed with COVID-19, who appreciated the chance to socialize. And while Kuilder never took his “solo show” as far as Unger took hers, he says he received equally enthusiastic responses to the screen grab of his imaginary exhibition. Players even left him messages on the bulletin board next to the game’s Town Hall, urging him to host an event.
For both Unger and Kuilder, Animal Crossing offers a solution to a temporary problem; a means to express themselves and pass the time until work picks up again. But it’s not just artists who are seeing this game as a short-term fix. Museums are getting in on the act, too. The Getty Center has created an Animal Crossing Art Generator, allowing players to easily turn any piece in its collection into a pattern that can be used in the game on shirts, walls, and floors, or to make paintings to display on an easel. Similarly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s digital department has generated QR codes for its entire collection of more than 406,000 open-access images, so the works can be easily transported into the game to decorate islands and homes.
As more of our daily existence transpires online, pandemic or no, it seems that this video game may offer more than a whimsical escape from reality. What started as a lark has now given artists and museums alike access to audiences that they might not have otherwise reached. Players are getting a crash course in fine art. For all its limitations, Animal Crossing is a new virtual realm of artistic possibility.