I recently had the pleasure of getting a sneak peak on Daniel Botz’s doctoral dissertation on the demoscene, entitled “Hacker-Ästhetik” (to be published). I am struggling with reading German, but I’m quite impressed with the extensive research that has gone into it. It has some refreshing views on the history, aesthetics and materiality of the demoscene. Before I got a peak of the dissertation, I was e-mailing back and forth with Botz during the summer. I thought I’d publish some of it here to see if it can lead to some interesting discussions. I am currently bathing in theory for my thesis on chipmusic, and I have been using some ideas from here. I’ve probably upset the radical post-humanist Friedrich Kittler by studying soundchips as social constructions pre-encoded with musical conventions, rather than mere ontological facts. But the idea of inherent aesthetical potentials in materials is refreshingly anti-individualistic.
CHIPFLIP > I have recently tried to get into the “media materialism” of Kittler and the others. In combination with software studies, or platform studies, I think it forms a very nice contextualization of demoscene works as political aesthetics. As I am more of a musician than a programmer/technology-nerd, I tend to focus more on the musical aspects though. With my restricted knowledge in Kittler’s works, I have understood that he sometimes regards technology as apriori, as something default. I saw you mentioning Kittler in relation to demoscene restrictions. Is that more about the artificial restrictions (4k intros, etc) than the actual hardware restrictions, or..?
BOTZ > To me, Kittlers “media materialism” is one of the key concepts for demoscene aesthetics. It’s not only applicable to specific size or platform restrictions but also to the common law of the demoscene to use accessible, standard customary hardware. Basically, the classic media artist asks himself “What kind of technology would I need to realize my concept”, while the demoscener asks “What can I achieve with the hardware in my hands”, which is regarding technology as a priori. What I basically try to say in my thesis is that demos rely on the artistic materiality of computers. Their aesthetic values are not based on infinite digital flexibility, but on the physical restrictions of computer platforms. That’s why demoscene is not about an idealistic projection of future technology, but about the creative appropriation of present hardware. Thus, it overcomes the frustration of “media platonism”, as Kittler would probably say.
CHIPFLIP > Do you see any problems in focusing on the demoscene’s “bricolage” characteristics? I have grown a sort of love-hate relationship with this perspective. Demos indeed do “impossible” things, but I sometimes find myself ignoring that this is almost like an inherent human trait. We all want to do the best with what we have, you know? Demosceners are reliant on the medium, but so is everybody else. There is no unlimited medium. I think the reason why I am particularly interested in this, is that chip music is often described as political/subversive/novelty/hacking/etc when it’s usually a lot more
conformative than that. Hm, I guess in the end my question to you is – what other subcultures/art-forms do you think are similar to the demoscene?
BOTZ > You asked for an example, I would name Graffiti as a paradigm of how creative subcultures work. I know that the comparison Cracker Scene – Graffiti Scene is really worn out because of the superficial similiarities like leaving traces in public space under illegal circumstances. But in both cases, the aim is to gain freedom, which is to be reached by expanding barriers, sometimes legal restrictions (as you wrote: demoscene began with claiming the right to copy), but at the cost of building up self-set restrictions. For example Graffiti claims the right to paint virtually any wall, it’s the call for freedom of artistic expression in the urban spaces. But the Graffiti Scene itself is far from being anarchistic: There are several traditional styles anyone has to master before getting fame and there is a very complex hierarchy of writers, plus an aerosol can is a VERY restrictive artistic tool.
CHIPFLIP > I have come to understand “art” as being very dependent on (a relationship to) concepts and theory, while “craft” is valued more as technical skills and end results. Thus, I personally regard the demos in general as craftmanship, but as I understand what you wrote you see it somewhere inbetween. In your text, you say that in the demoscene the computer is an artistic material, not a tool. What other artistic practices would you compare this to? Why did you choose the term artistic material?
BOTZ > This is quite simple. Computers are mostly referred to as tools. A tool is used to produce or shape something which in the end exists independently from the tool it was created with. In some cases the product even negates the production process and the use of a computer. Otherwise, a demo cannot exist without its platform, since the definition as a demo assumes its real-time execution on a computer, making a demo not a PRODUCT but a STATE of the computer. Thus, it’s more consistent to think of the computer as a material which is being shaped by its operator, pushing every byte into place. If you take this further, it’s pretty easy to realise that the aesthetic parameters of a demo are heavily dependent on the used hardware platform.
In other words: A demo is not a free concept being realised by the aid of a computer. It’s about the artistic process of interacting with the available material, accepting its boundaries as essential stimuli for shaping the outcome. This concept of “artistic material” is retraceable to Aristotle’s Physics (causa materialis): A statue made of bronze is already included within the possibilities of the material bronze. I like this point a lot, because computer art is often being read as completely virtual and unlimited while a demo makes use of the resistance of a certain hardware platform to define its aesthetic standards. Thus, the demoscene revaluates (not only so-called “obsolete”) computers as artistic material. (Kittler Inside! ;-)
So for now I will try to adress your question about the scene as a kind of craft. The applicability of the this term to the production culture of demos is something I really racked my brain over several times. On the one hand, the appreciation of technical skills, the mastering of formal exercises and the references to artistic traditions has made this comparison very tempting. It is also often used in the attempt to divide “craft” from “art”, which is very common in art history. See for example the title of Shirley Shor’s Article “DEMOing: An Emerging Artform or Just Another Digital Craft?“:
In fact, I use the same distinction as you do, keeping in mind that it’s pure theory and it does not works that simple in real life. Plus, it only works for “western” culture since the 15th century, and it has been dynamised by the avantgardes of the 20th century, which means that performing yesterday’s art equals today’s craft. So, placing democoding somewhere between art and craft is not really something I would dare because both terms are very interdependant and judgmental. But there’s no doubt that the scene really behaves like a craft guild sometimes. I used the term “craftmanship” for the graphics scene, as there has been a long dispute about quality standards, like “pixel art should be judged by pixels skills alone”. I just don’t believe that strict opinions like that have any connection to forms of traditional craft. I think it’s a comprehension of form which serves to constitute the scene as a subculture. In other words, not the SCENE made the RULES, the RULES made the SCENE :)
CHIPFLIP > That’s really interesting. Yeah, I have recently tried to differentiate between demoscene-music and the chipmusic that is released on (net)labels, micromusic.net, 8bitcollective, etc. There are surprisingly few demosceners that release/perform their music elsewhere, which is a curious thing in itself. But also, there seems to be more focus on craft in the demoscene, than elsewhere. Demoscene chipmusic is more technical, while other chipmusic is more about the musical concept or form. Obviously this relates to what you are saying; demomusic rules on small filesize and maximalism. Related to this then, is also that demosceners tend to aim for new or spectacular results, whereas other chipmusicians can embrace the default sounds to a larger extent. Here it is often more important to make the Gameboy-reference clear – especially if you’re not using a Gameboy :D
BOTZ > That’s correct! German Author Ulf Poschardt wrote in his book “DJ Culture” about “Celebrating the means of production”, which claims that for example in hip hop or techno culture musical products are never presented as isolated works of art but constantly referring to their basis of creation. Also, I enjoyed recently reading your (chipflip-)comment on “Fanta in Space”. Insane chip hacking of the C-64 hardware to play an italo disco track is a very good example how demoscene craft works. I think, Fanta managed to pick a musical style pattern which can be instantly associated with demoscene music, some sort of tight lizardking-ish tracker-pop. It’s the same when Spacepigs introduced their Spacetracker on the IBM PC using the worn out first samples of the Amiga ST-01. It seems to me that inside the scene, technical innovations have to be tested by mastering canonical exercises before they can be used for artistic experiments.