Loyal to the Core: Melissa Barron

Posted Mon, Jan. 30th 2012 in News

[Over the course of a few weeks, this blog is presenting written profiles and vignettes from KansasFest 2010, written from that year’s perspective. These excerpts compose a larger feature story written for a general audience looking to be introduced to the Apple II and KansasFest, while also offering community members and alumni a memorable retrospective of the event. Enjoy!]

KansasFest is generally populated by older men. Like Mark Simonsen, most attendees made their careers in computers; more than a few are now retired. Some of the younger guys were born in the seventies and learned to type on their elementary school’s cutting-edge computers.

Melissa Barron‘s attendance at KansasFest significantly disrupted those demographics. The Apple II was already 11 years old when she was born; she was five when the last Apple II rolled off the production line. A few aging units were still left when she got to grade school, where she played Number Crunchers and Oregon Trail. It wasn’t long before she?d outgrown the Apple II as a part of her childhood.

But, as with Simonsen, the Apple II left a lasting impression on Barron, one that was waiting to make itself felt. She was studying for a BFA in new media at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago when she needed inspiration for her final project, an art gallery display. Something tickled her brain and made her remember the Apple II.

What if she took this computer, so representative of its era, and adapted it to modern media? She found a copy of Oregon Trail and starting hacking it to replace all the game’s text with LOLspeak, a pidgin English used on the Internet to make funny pictures of cats. Along the way, she encountered several visual glitches in Oregon Trail and other programs. When Barron next sat at a loom in her fiber and material studies course, she began weaving tapestries depicting her favorite programming bugs. The melding of software and softwear had never been so natural.

applelogoIn researching other ways to unite these two media, Barron’s Internet wanderings brought her to the KansasFest Web site. "I wanted to meet other Apple II fans and to see first-hand what the old-school Apple community was up to," she said. The interest was mutual, as word of her accomplishments had preceded her. Not long after the young hacker registered to attend, she received an email from the event’s coordinator with a request: "Would you give a session explaining to us how you hacked Oregon Trail?" She timidly accepted.

Barron’s presentation was not what attendees were expecting. The older men in the audience were hardcore programmers from before Barron was born: they could disassemble Oregon Trail in their sleep. Barron had no such programming experience, requiring unconventional approaches to accomplish her goals. Her tools were not assembly language routines or decompilers, but simply a word processor. The original approach, its significant limitations, and the amazing results astounded her audience. "This might be the greatest thing I’ve ever seen," said Ivan Drucker, a former Apple employee, only eight minutes into Barron’s session.

"I knew that people were going to have more knowledge of the system than I did," said Barron. "I was kind of nervous about it — but I think my unconventional use of text editors and emulators made me a bit unique."

Barron’s gallery was later on display at Chicago’s Sullivan Galleries and features not only Jacquard weavings with an Apple II theme, but an actual Apple II, acknowledging the source of her inspiration. She is looking at graduate schools at which to study art therapy while continuing to use and explore her childhood computer.