The Impermanence of Our Creations

Given a long enough timeline, everything is impermanent.

That’s probably some deep freshman-year Psych 101 shit, honestly, but I want to get that out of the way because we’re all SMART and we all KNOW THESE THINGS and OBVIOUSLY NOTHING LASTS FOREVER. In a vacuum, we understand sunk cost fallacies and we understand the impermanence of life and we understand that art is not defined by the medium but by the emotion; the feeling; the idea itself.

April 2024: The Impermanence of Our Creations

  • “Situation Vacant” — The Kinks
  • “Kill the Barflies” — Self
  • “Pretty Ugly” — Tierra Whack
  • ”The Wake-Up” — How to Destroy Angels
  • “Asteroids” — Rapsody (w/ Hit-Boy)
  • “Portrait of a Dead Girl” — The Last Dinner Party
  • “Don’t Lose a Good Thing” — Mon Rovîa
  • “The Meeting Place” — XTC
  • “I Thought You’d Change” — Hotline TNT
  • “Servants of Death” — Refused
  • “Biking” — Frank Ocean (w/ Jay-Z & Tyler the Creator)
  • “Liberate” — Erick the Architect (w/ Lalah Hathaway)
  • “Headlock” (demo) — Snail Mail
  • “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” — Dusty Springfield
  • “Pins and Needles – In My Heart” — Willie Nelson & Family
  • “The Choice Is Yours (Revisited)” — Black Sheep
  • “Godspeed On the Trail” — Ghost Work
  • “so american” — Olivia Rodrigo

Listen on Spotify. Listen on Apple Music.

And yet.

# #

In 2015, Nintendo released a game for the Wii U called Super Mario Maker.

The premise was simple: create your own Super Mario levels using any combination of elements from multiple generations of past Super Mario games, and then see if people could beat them. But the actual practice was expansive: a community of would-be game creators began churning out millions of custom levels of various difficulties. Each level required at least one successful human-run completion to be considered official, but that didn’t stop the community from creating a gauntlet of nearly impossible levels that required a balance of perfect timing and split-second decisions.

In the world of community-supported gaming, there are two absolute certainties.

  1. Somewhere, somehow, someone will keep the dream alive for as long as there are dreams to be had. Online gaming communities will go as long as the software supports them — at minimum, a core set of users will keep things churning, even if the world has moved on (I’m looking at you, Second Life); at maximum, the world continues to be supported by a rabid fanbase.
  2. Servers cost money, and game publishers balance the cost of those servers with the reach of the community. This means that despite the community, the community-led aspect of the game itself is always at risk of being shut down.

Super Mario Maker was no different — in both cases. Over the first six years of its existence, the community created nearly 69 million official levels. And, after six years of question bricks, lakitus, and goombas, Nintendo announced that they would no longer allow for new uploads.

This was 2021, and this was not just a case of a server being shut down — the very system itself had been eclipsed by the wildly popular Switch, and the game itself had been made irrelevant by its sequel, Super Mario Maker 2. The Wii U was not long for this world, and in January of this year it was made official: all aspects of the Wii U would sunset, and online services would be shut down on April 8th, 2024.

This gave Team 0% — a group who had already made a quest to knock out every uncleared level since 2017 — a deadline. On announcement of this shut-down date, there were about 26,000 levels that had not been completed at least once. Week by week, day by day, the number was updated. 20,000. 10,000. 100. Until, finally, it started gaining some kind of mainstream attention — 10. 5.

Two levels remained with just a few weeks left until apocalypse. A level called “The Last Dance” was completed, leaving just one: “Trimming the Herbs.” And then, “Trimming the Herbs” was exposed as a hacked level, not eligible for completion. A bit of internal drama, the discovery that the finish line had been crossed, and one last burst of attention. The mad lads did it: they “beat” Super Mario Maker.

And then … the game’s levels disappeared. Now that they’re gone, one question remains.

Was any of it even worth it to begin with?

# #

My 14YO is a skateboarder, which means my 14YO is into skateboards. Skateboards — and, particularly, the graphics upon them — are an interesting combination of advertisement and art. They’re designed to show off the brand and back up the skater’s style. They can be weird and they can be beautiful and they can be flashy and they can be plain.

But they all have one thing in common: they’re not meant to last.

Skateboards are a canvas unlike most — their explicit purpose is to be scratched and beaten, flipped and thrown. Your new board’s core goal is to get strapped to some wheels and ridden off a set of concrete stairs. If you’re a street skater, you’ve cut your board’s life expectancy in half — every curb, every missed flip, every accidental launch into traffic threatens to take your “art” and turn it into scraps.

In the beginning, I couldn’t handle this. Why purposely ruin something that looked so good? But my 14YO is a skateboarder, and that means he understands something that I’ve always struggled with: the moment matters more than the artifact. Skateboarding isn’t about the board — it’s about the community, and the action, and the feeling of success.

And so I learned. One of the most refreshing revelations of the past year for me is this idea of impermanence. I’m a collector by heart and a completionist by some kind of horrible curse, so I’ve built the idea that everything needs to be saved. That everything needs to be protected and archived. That, at all points, everything needs to be for as long as it can possibly be. No matter who you are, you have these tendencies — you might be the kind of person who plays a video game by saving every potion “just in case,” or you might be the kind of person who has trouble getting rid of a book even if you absolutely hated it, or you might be the kind of person who saves the good coffee beans for a “special occasion.”

But watching the 14YO take the beautiful design on the bottom of a skateboard and ruin it as a core function of the skateboard itself has put a lot of things into perspective. Nothing is so sacred that it can’t be destroyed or consumed, and the destruction and consumption of these things are a part of the lifecycle.

In other words, it’s not about whether it’s worth it when your art disappears. It’s about whether or not it’s worth it if it’s never actually experienced.

# #

For a couple of years, the Children’s Museum of South Dakota displayed an impermanent sculpture by Patrick Dougherty titled “Tangle Town,” an installation of branches twisted into a kind of playground as a part of his “Stick Work” series. It was designed to be experienced — to run through, to hide in — and not protected. It couldn’t be protected, actually — the laws of the nitrogen cycle strictly forbid it from being permanent.

And that’s the point! Dougherty knew this — in his words, these projects are meant to last “One good year and one more year,” underlining that they are not forever. They are for now. They are for experiencing at this moment and this moment only, with the idea of its impermanence.

And rotting sticks aren’t the only art that lives in this state of experience over permanence. It’s in every gourmet meal and every sand castle. Every improvised jazz performance and freestyle rap. Every musical in the park. Every chalk-drawn flower.

Even physical art is not safe. I’ve got scratched 78s that will never play music again — and, someday, someone’s scratched 78 will be the last remaining copy. Someday, someone’s scratched CD, or demagnetized computer game, or wet and decomposing book, will be the last remaining copy. Given a long enough timeline, etc. etc.

That’s okay! Someday, someone’s Super Mario level will be beaten, and it will disappear, and we will all move on — but not without first holding that feeling of completion, that moment, that experience.

All art will die. New art will take its place. That’s what art does. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be worth it.

# #

This past month, the whole family went to Minneapolis to see Jeff Rosenstock in concert.

The moment was transcendent — a top-five favorite live music experience, heightened by being our kids’ first Actual Punk Rock Show. I bought some records to fill in my collection. The kids bought shirts. Kerrie got a pin. We got our artifacts, our things, our representations of the moment we’d just experienced.

But that’s not really what it was about, was it? Like that community of Mario players, we experienced that show with a select core of hundreds of like-minded friends. We danced and we sang and we moshed and we moved as a group, our voices coming together to mesh with Rosenstock’s, our fists pumping at all the choruses, our little ad hoc scene rushing the moment and living in the moment and trying to hold on as tight as we could to the moment before it was gone. And while I know there will be videos, and I know there are live recordings of other shows, I can’t depend on those.

The moment itself was the point — and it was of that moment and that moment only.

That show came and went and we’ve got a handful of trinkets to prove it was there — trinkets that don’t even begin to live up to the experience. Was it worth it?

A community built 69 million Super Mario levels that are all gone, forever. Was it worth it?

Books continue to deconstruct, and VHS tapes continue to degrade, and CDs get scratched, and we eat the food and our bouquets die and, when we think about it, nothing really lasts forever. Are any of them worth it?

Of course they are. And if they’re not, then why are we even doing them in the first place?

This was lovingly handwritten on April 30th, 2024