These Artists Are Making Tiny ROMs That Will Probably Outlive Us All


In 2017, on a 10-meter-long sailboat off the coast of French Polynesia, Canadian artists Devine Lu Linvega and Rekka Bellum — also known as the studio/collective for two Hundred Rabbits — realized something had to be done. change in the way they worked. Devine is a software developer who also makes music under the name Aliceffekt, and Rek is an illustrator and writer. While trying to download the latest Apple Xcode update, the pair had to place their iPhone in a bag and hoist it up the mast; the OS was around 10GB, but their SIM cards only held 5GB of data, and it took several tries to get the job done. “At that point, we started to feel like the modern development stack was totally incompatible with our lives,” the couple explain over email.

It was the start of something small but profound: the Uxn, a virtual ecosystem for creating experimental tools and games that exists outside the revolving door of always-online technology anchored in subscriptions, updates unnecessarily complicated levels and increasingly problematic forms of digital ownership. It is basically an emulator, to translate the actions of one computer to another, which can extend the life of digital data related to aging hardware and software. In keeping with rabbits’ love of storytelling, Rek even brought the Uxn to life as a tiny ox-like creature (often accompanied by the humanoid Varvara, who represents a portable computer system built on top of Uxn).

In 2016, Devine and Rek chose a life at sea after being inspired by liveaboard videos. They bought Pino, a 1982 Yamaha sailboat, and set about learning how to maintain their new boat. As their adventures grew and they adapted to living off solar panels, limited batteries, and donations of second-hand appliances, they learned to cut back on conveniences like food refrigeration. “Our decision to cruise shaped our current use of technology, but at first we naively thought we could continue to use the same convenient products we already knew,” they say.

Pino, the Hundred Rabbits’ Yamaha sailboat from 1982.
Image: Hundred Rabbits

Today, the Hundred Rabbits website has become a living repository for a wealth of maritime knowledge, a solarpunk-driven ethos, and a window into their work – esoteric offline software that emphasizes sustainability and values. permacomputing, a term coined by the Finnish. artist and writer Ville-Matias ‘Viznut’ Heikkilä. It’s a compelling perspective that goes against the hype that surrounds us today and, on another level, the need for everything to be constantly connected or linked to blockchain technology in the name of democratization The right to repair movement and long-term approaches to computing are seen as more impactful and enduring factors in empowering ordinary people to take control of their own software and materials.

Thinking about their previous work, the bunnies realized they needed to work on something small, low-tech, and portable that used common peripherals like mice and keyboards. “The projects that survive the treadmill of ever-changing physical hardware are those designed explicitly for small virtual machines (such as Another World), which are easy to play today due to their targeting of a portable kernel and virtual,” they explain. . Another factor in their approach to creating something new was the use of technology with available documentation – given their long periods of absence from the internet, it was best to use open source technologies that they could troubleshoot themselves.

The solution lay in the eight-button simplicity of the NES, a beloved (and very disconnected) part of many childhoods that went on to shape our emotional relationships with game consoles and the idea of ​​gaming. “For a while we thought we could probably just rebuild our plans for the classic Nintendo, to ensure they survived the influx of modern disposable platforms,” ​​they say. And so, the Uxn was born.

The Uxn can run on small devices like the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, Raspberry Pi Pico and, of course, the desktop. The desktop emulator comes with some of the Bunnies’ own creations, like a dungeon crawler card game, writing and sketching programs, and Devine’s experimental live coding tool, Orca. Its applications work like game ROMs and are written in Uxn’s own assembly language, called uxntal or TAL; the first line of the Uxn code, the bunnies recall, was written a year ago after they made landfall after a seven-week journey from Japan to Victoria, British Columbia.

Since it was released to the public, a small community has grown around the Uxn with other artists and developers playing with everything from spreadsheet applications to experimental game servers. A Uxn game is Cat Cubes, a survival puzzle game inspired by the Game Boy Color. Its creator, puprika, was primarily interested in Uxn for making games, but it has become something more important, especially when it comes to considering the footprint and future of their software. . “Uxn solves many of the problems that kept me away from other video game engines,” they say. “The recent revelations regarding Unity’s military relationship are a good example of how choosing which software to build on can be a complicated issue, even for video games.”

Puprika was particularly interested in how easily and easily they could get involved in the Uxn project. “My understanding is that the limitations of Uxn are driven by the technical difficulty a given feature would pose to someone writing a Uxn emulator…the inner workings are relatively simple to understand,” they explain. When they came up with an idea to improve the Uxn’s ability to play music, they received a warm welcome on the Uxn IRC channel and the Mastodon community.

Developer Noelle Leigh, another Uxn enthusiast, was also inspired by the accessibility of the offline, low-tech nature of the project. “Seeing how modern software and hardware development fails for users with low power and connectivity needs, combined with my awareness of the right to repair movement, has led to a change in perspective on the state of modern computing in our capitalist society,” she says. This view was reinforced by his experience using a complex, high-powered software stack for the job. She thinks Uxn is both an ideal introduction to permacomputing and a starting point for rethinking what modern software development might look like.

The Uxn only became usable (and used) towards the end of 2021, at a time of year when Devine and Rek don’t usually sail much. It was during this downtime – an earthly lull to cultivate a place in line and draw people into its orbit – that they were finally able to let the Uxn fully exist on its own. “Right now, the project is living without us. The language stabilized a few months ago, there are emulators for almost every platform imaginable, a little book has even been written containing everything one could need to write programs for Uxn”, say- they. “We are free to untie the lines again knowing that if there are issues, the community can help themselves.”

While the Rabbits are clear that their lifestyle isn’t replicable for everyone, their offline computing microcosm is an extraordinary fusion of philosophy and practice hard to find in a world where convenience is king. “Uxn was created to meet our very specific needs, but what we’d like is for it to inspire the creation of a host of small, well-documented virtual machines capable of running on pre-existing hardware,” they say. they. “Nothing new needs to be produced and no electronic waste needs to be treated.”

As the Rabbits’ lives on Pino unfold and their projects and journeys around the world continue to inspire others, it’s amazing how a small virtual machine project can serve as a conceptual beacon for kindred spirits at the crossroads of art and technology. In an age where constant connection is a default way of life, the rabbits’ offline philosophy is a curious but compelling form of tech radicalism that resembles a more thoughtful and evolved Luddism. Because Uxn is designed to avoid bitrot – the digital breakdown of old information that we can no longer read – its importance to art preservation, creativity and sustainability is more powerful than anything peddled on a blockchain.

Or, as rabbits like to say, “if your new software no longer works on the old hardware, it’s worse than the old software.”


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