Parts of the Process — How illustrator Stephanie Unger created a virtual art exhibition on Nintendo game, Animal Crossing

Posted 01 April 2020 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

It’s a testing time for countless creatives – many have lost work, but in amongst the growing anxiety, there shines a gem of pure positivity. When illustrator Stephanie Unger found herself at home with most of her projects cancelled, she took to Nintendo game, Animal Crossing. What initially started as a light-hearted attempt to replicate her own life in the game, soon turned into a hugely popular virtual art exhibition. At a time when most galleries are shut, and social distancing is keeping us from seeing friends or meeting new people, the exhibition was welcomed and embraced by Nintendo players across the world. Here, we talk to Steph about the process of creating artwork to fill a virtual space, getting a DM from actress Brie Larson, and the power of online community.

Project Background

Like many other people, the coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on my job – pretty much all of my jobs have fallen through. At the start of 2020 I had some really cool job opportunities, ones I really loved working on and was very excited to share. These unfortunately have now had to be cancelled. Right now I’m doing well, but it means staying home as much as possible and trying to see the positives during this crazy situation.

Animal Crossing came out on 20 March, so I haven’t been on it long at all. In case you don’t know it, it’s a life simulation game on the Nintendo Switch. You begin by moving to a deserted island and living in a tent with some basics; the more you play the game, the more freedom you have to build up and personalise your character, house and island. I think people have really taken to it because it is the ultimate form of escapism during this time.

“People have really taken to [Animal Crossing] because it is the ultimate form of escapism during this time.”

I started posting about taking commissions on Animal Crossing, but honestly I was joking. I found it hilarious how closely I could replicate my actual life in the game. I didn’t expect for people to take it seriously or actually show any interest. I even had [actress] Brie Larson slide into my DM’s asking to commission me! (This didn’t work out though). I think putting an idea out there and not being able to follow up on it made me feel bad, so I started thinking of different ways I could get my work to people on Animal Crossing. That’s when I came up with the idea of a public exhibition.

Creating and Curating the Exhibition

The freedom of customisation is insane. There’s a section in the game called ‘custom designs’ where you are limited to a 32 X 32 pixel grid to create designs to use on clothing, objects, wallpaper and flooring. You can even turn them into paintings for your walls, which is what I did for the exhibition.

This gave me the freedom to create an art exhibit where I could design every aspect from the floor to the walls and even my whole outfit. The smiley face hat I wore was a really last minute design I threw together just before I opened the exhibition! I actually really loved the limitation of the pixel grid and simplifying my pre-existing work. It was amusing to see it in this totally different format.

“I actually really loved the limitation of the pixel grid and simplifying my pre-existing work.”

Although I had the freedom to curate in whatever way I wanted, I really liked the idea of the main room having a more standard layout of an exhibition, mimicking real life. I even made sure the opening night included loud music and a serving of free shitty wine at the door. I wanted the second room to be more of an experience – similar to something you would get in the Tate Modern. The walls and floor were covered in my designs and I left out bean bags for people to sit and take it in. It was very trippy.

The 32 X 32 pixel grid

The first room of the exhibition

The first room of the exhibition

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The second room of the exhibition

The Private View

When I was setting up the exhibition I honestly didn’t expect many people to come; I didn’t know how many people even had Animal Crossing. I was hoping that at least eight people would come so I could take some screen grabs and that would be it. You can access someone’s island by becoming friends with them on the Nintendo Switch. But the moment I gave out my friend code on Instagram I started to get so many friend requests that I couldn’t keep up!

There was a continuous stream of people coming in to see the exhibition all night. I didn’t think I would need to keep it open past 9pm as planned, but I did. I also didn’t think I’d need to keep it open the whole next day, but I did that too! Even the morning after, the moment I opened the exhibition people started coming through straight away! It was honestly unbelievable, I was shocked.

“What I was really surprised by was how the experience genuinely felt like a real private view.”

The private view

The private view

The private view

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The night I opened the exhibition, my partner and I sat and facetimed our friend. We were having beers trying to give ourselves some sense of a regular fun Saturday night. What I was really surprised by was how the experience genuinely felt like a real private view. Having so many people visiting and socialising gave it such an overwhelmingly positive vibe.

People messaged me to say thank you and how this event made their weekend. The sheer amount of positive responses I received about the exhibition was incredible. I think at this time in particular, people need a distraction, something to focus on, and to feel like they can have some semblance of a normal fun weekend.

“Ironically, I’ve probably socialised with more new people during this social distancing period than I do normally.”

The private view

As a result, I actually had better, more intimate interactions with people from Instagram than ever before. Where you might communicate with someone through a like or a comment on a post, all of a sudden we were talking together at a virtual art exhibition and also having fun. Ironically, I’ve probably socialised with more new people during this social distancing period than I do normally.

As long as you had the game, there were very few limitations on who could come to the exhibition. I had people coming from many different parts of the world, France, USA, Canada, and Japan. At a time where every gallery or museum is closed, it has been pretty cool to create an exhibition open for anyone to access. Afterwards, I even found out that someone was able to come and socialise despite having the coronavirus!

Postcards of thanks

Postcards of thanks

Postcards of thanks

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I would definitely love to do something like this again. I’m already thinking of new ideas to improve on what I’ve done to make it a bigger and more exciting experience! After such an unexpected, fun and crazy weekend I honestly felt like I had something similar to holiday blues. Except holiday blues involves travelling somewhere far away, but in this case I hadn’t even left the house!

It’s a really difficult and scary time but if you can, embrace it. Try and be creative, or work on those projects you’ve been putting off. Come up with inventive ways to stay connected with people, even if it’s sitting on your ass playing video games all day.

Posted 01 April 2020 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Parts of the Process
Disciplines: Illustration, Digital, Exhibition Design
Mentions: Stephanie Unger, Nintendo, Animal Crossing

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