With the exception of divorce, the new Totally 80s Rewind exhibit at the Living Computers Museum + Labs has managed to re-create the feel of everything you’d find in that generation's childhood via a three-room installation, from the arcades to the classrooms to a friend’s basement. It's the perfect opportunity to travel back in time without disturbing the space-time continuum.
Even if you didn’t enter adolescence until well after the Bulls won their second three-peat in 1998 (sports are the only way I know how to measure time), you will absolutely recognize plenty of elements from the era, especially if your parents were cheap and living in the past like mine were.
The designers didn't just throw up a hair metal poster and call it the ’80s—this exhibit was made with love.
Take the classroom at the fictional Middletown High School. Each desk is dotted with usable Apple II computers, which sit above squeaky linoleum floors and below fluorescent lights and pencils stuck to the ceiling. Tiny orange plastic chairs, the sort that literally shaped the spines of a generation, sit behind the desks, while the walls are covered with posters detailing the history of telecommunication, types of software disks, and the upcoming weekend’s “Senior Day at Americana.”
This is clearly a programming class, and if any of these students actually paid attention, they’re probably making plenty of money right now in Silicon Valley (and not writing an article about this exhibit).
Then there’s The Bit Zone, an arcade conveniently located just a few feet away from class. After grabbing free tokens, you can play any number of ‘80s-era games, including Ms. Pacman, Joust, Tempest, Galaga, and Donkey Kong, where you'll learn that hopping barrels is way harder than anything on Xbox or Playstation.
At one point, I idiotically placed my little notebook on top of the Centipede arcade game without realizing it had a slope, and heard it fall behind the machine in a tight corner. I meekly asked the staff if it was possible to move the game to retrieve it, and as we attempted the maneuver, I overheard a friendly woman attending the exhibit with her son remark, “You clearly never owned one of these.” She came over and proceeded to tip the machine so it could be moved with far more ease than before, allowing us to recover the precious notebook. It's a rare experience making an ass of yourself in two decades at the same time.
The room I didn’t want to leave is the one that re-creates a friend’s basement, though I wondered: How come it’s always your friend’s basement? It’s never your own basement. Maybe it’s because your friend’s basement was always cooler … and this one is definitely cool. Shabby retro furniture, wood paneled walls, a television only a little older than the one I currently have—and era mementos are festooned around the room. There's even an Atari, awful hotel art, a mesmerizing color organ, a videotape of Risky Business, and perfect 1980s-style porn lighting.
My favorite part? When a telepresence robot from the robotics exhibit in another part of the museum suddenly zoomed into the room. After I stopped screaming from shock and remembered that it’s actually 2018, the robot quickly took its leave. “Probably a Soviet spy,” I muttered to a friend.
The Living Computers Museum + Labs has become far more than an indoor junkyard for nostalgia and old machines. It houses everything from room-sized mainframes to modern robotics, as well as an array of usable computers featuring games spanning the last 50 years, which inadvertently makes it the most distinct arcade in the city.
If anything, Totally 80s Rewind simply adds a sense of evolving lifestyles to complement the panorama of technology. All it’s missing is exposed asbestos and fresh glasses of Tang, but I suppose we can live without either.