Every once in a while, you stumble upon an artist who has somehow managed to take the things that you love and put them on display for the world to see. Someone who is able to put things together just so, in a way you didn’t know you needed. Someone whose work just makes sense to you, transfixes you, gives you the energy and focus to stand at just the right distance from the piece, a glint of wonder in your eyes as the work snaps into sharp focus.
These artists can come from anywhere. They can work in high art or low, in music or fashion or food or anything else that you happen to find interesting.
For me, one of these artists is Jon Bois, and in 2017, he may very well be in the middle of his magnum opus. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
I’ve never met Jon Bois. Googling him mostly leads to the work he’s done for SBNation, a sports-centric website I rarely visit. I don’t avoid it for any particular reason - it just never made it into my rotation, like a good-but-not-quite-good-enough-to-DVR TV show.
Bois has been writing there since 2009, but I first noticed his work in 2013, when he launched Breaking Madden, a weekly series where he would come up with wacky experiments to run in the latest Madden football game, and document the results.
Through his mix of storytelling, masterful creation of gifs from his recorded footage, and almost wizard-like ability to find the best/most terrifying glitches within the game, Bois takes Madden and elevates it to art. The game is his lump of clay. Breaking Madden is what was shaped from it.
Like many artists, the work of Jon Bois really must be experienced in full, and taking any one fragment out of context doesn’t convey what he does, but this video, which he made for the season one finale of Breaking Madden, is a small sample of the mind we’re looking at.
Breaking Madden hit a lot of sweet spots for me. It brought together writing and comedy and sports, probably the three things I enjoy the most (after family and friends or whatever, I’m not a total monster). It also evoked fond memories of my youthful days as a video game tester, sitting in a dimly-lit basement office next to friends I’ve since lost touch with, getting paid to literally break video games in creative and varied ways (and we were great at our jobs). Impressed and entertained, I thought that Breaking Madden was the pinnacle of what we could expect from Bois.
I was wrong. Turns out he was just getting started.
It’s 2014, and Tim Tebow’s NFL options have been exhausted. He gives in to popular speculation and signs with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, and immediately finds that Canadian game to be wildly different. The stadium seats 600,000 people. The ball has a long, finned javelin that protrudes out the end. Tebow runs in for a touchdown on his first drive, and learns that he’s scored the first CFL touchdown since the 1980s.
And then he learns that it isn’t a touchdown, because in the CFL, there are no touchdowns. You don’t stop in the end zone. You keep going and going and going, in the same direction, outside of the stadium, through the city, into the woods, and across the continent.
The game lasts more than a decade, spans thousands of miles, and involves wolves and sea battles and a deep ball thrown from the roof of a skyscraper.
It sounds insane, but I promise, it somehow makes sense. And much like every Friday Night Lights fan desperately said to their friends, this isn’t really about football. Or Tim Tebow. Rather, The Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles is an epic tale about taking advantage of your last chance, about a weakness secretly being a strength, about life and regret. Improbably, the tale, which is light and absurd for much of the time, somehow builds to a beautiful third act gut punch and a surprisingly emotional ending.
Look, maybe just watch the trailer. It doesn’t clear anything up, but again, it’ll give you a sense of the mad alchemy at work.
Bois flexes the muscles he honed on Breaking Madden here, and it shows: he’s graduated from video game graphics to making his own lo-fi images, which feel vaguely like something you’d get if a beginning impressionist decided to use Microsoft Paint. His storytelling has also sharpened, as he makes three dimensional characters out of NFL castoffs you may or may not remember - Natrone Means! Dante Hall! Leland Melvin (who was both an NFL player and an astronaut and who recently TOOK THE BEST WORK PORTRAIT EVER)! - and imbues them with wants and needs and gives them a chance to triumph in this bizarre alternate history.
Again, I believed I had just experienced the best of Bois. Again, I was wrong.
And then two days ago, on July 5th, an innocuous message appeared in my twitter dot com:
The piece, entitled 17776, is, in theory, about the future of football, but like his earlier work, this is merely a jumping off point. It begins with a mysterious, confusing, text-only conversation between two entities called Nine and Ten, superimposed over a calendar, forcing you TO SCROLL THROUGH SIX YEARS OF A CALENDAR before there’s any sort of explanation of what the hell is going on.
What has unfolded (so far, as new chapters are being posted through July 15th) is the latest evolution of Jon Bois, Internet Artist. The offbeat comedic timing is still here, as are the lo-fi graphics, but everything feels tuned to a higher frequency (the opening credits, which I won’t post out of context, are a perfect encapsulation of this). That wonderfully weird alternate history from The Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles was quaint and reasonable compared to the absurdist speculative fiction world he’s created for 17776. I hesitate to explain too much because:
2. I will invariably mess it up.
What I can say is that 17776 is confusing and insane and works in little glimpses of this future in beautiful ways, all while explaining the rules of, say, a fictional game in which the competitors attempt to hunt down all of the footballs ever signed by a particular (and particularly unremarkable) player. It is something that manages to take the things in my brain, things that I love like writing and comedy and sports, and puts them on display for the world to see, in a way I didn’t know I needed.
I am standing in the art gallery, staring at this newly discovered piece, a glint of wonder in my eyes as I take in the work, waiting for it to fully snap into focus.
I want so badly to discuss it, to get you to understand how it makes me feel, but in some ways, the task is impossible, as we’ll never experience it in quite the same way.
Feel free to stand next to me if you’d like. I wonder what you’ll see.