The Working Class of Computer Art?

I recently talked to a demoscene musician who had just started studying electronic composition at university. He liked it, but felt out of place there. All of them knew sheet music, had parents who liked “high culture” and they actually liked Stockhausen and Cage.  When teachers or students ask him about his past, he no longer talks about the demoscene. It’s just not worth the effort to explain it every time you talk to someone, because they probably won’t care anyway. In music universities anyway.

Elsewhere, like in advertising and programming, demoscene skills can get you a job. Some companies have even grown out of demoscene groups: Dice from the Silents, TAT from Yodel and haxx from Horizon. In the pirate biz there’s also a few sceners like Peter Sunde at Pirate Bay and the Megaupload-guy. But in the arts? Goodiepal springs to mind, but… yeah.

It’s a bit funny. I’ve argued before that demos are works of craft, not art. Demos are made for showing off and winning a compo. It’s about going to parties and not giving a fuck, screaming at dancing PETSCII-characters from 1992. It’s like rock before art/theory defined and confined it?

Is the demoscene the opposite to art? Well, many important things of software art (interactivity, generative systems, process) are almost completely missing in the demoscene. These things are going mainstream too, but still hasn’t really reached the demoscene. What artists and sceners share though, is the desire to do the impossible. There is an obsession with transgression in the new media art world too (going beyond the ‘system’), but the demoscene is so much ahead of everybody else that nobody gets it. Hehe.

I think that the scene is interesting to art people too. Interesting. But not relevant. Perhaps it sounds unbelievable to them that there’s been a network of A/V hobby hackers since the 1980’s. Maybe they feel stupid for not knowing about it. Or it’s more simple than that. They think that demos are boring crap. I’m bound to agree, especially from an art perspective. Although some things are definitely works of art (Deep Throat, Notemaker Demo, Rambo – A Chronicle of, Robotic Liberation, etc), that’s not the point with the demoscene. (besides, art is pretty boring too)

What is the point? Well, I really like the freedom of the copy party. Think of it as a hackerspace disco with lots of man-beer and old music. There’s no money and no bullshit. You don’t have to network with the right people and explain your work on their terms. It’s an odd soup of CEOs, graffiti writers, headmasters, schizophrenics and academics that is hard to find elsewhere. Some people are just quiet and make music, others are fixing some hardware while the Finnish BBS-d00d is puking in the closet. Then they all crash on the floor, covered in data noise. It’s like being 16 again all over, except for the SD-cards.

The demoscene is underground because it doesn’t fit anywhere else. Even if many sceners have high education, income, cultural capital, etc – the things that they produce don’t have the same status. Demos are more like folk culture, than “high culture” (which Dragan would say too, I guess). But compared to other folky computer things – GIF-animations, general midi music, ASCII, silly javascript effects – the demoscene never became part of the repertoire of post-ironic-retro-dirt-style clip-art ding dong

There are exceptions like Low-Level All-Stars. But the demoscene is tricky to use in the art world. When Rhizome (the sort of #1 digital art place) had a demoscene week, they had to invite others (like me) to write, which I think is rather telling.

The demoscene is the eternal underdog of computer art. It does a lot of low-level work (manual labour in computer land) but the skills to do this are not valued higher up in the hierarchy (e.g among the institutions that provide the $). Of course it can give credibility in some situations, but if you want to be an artist the demoscene is essentially a waste of time. Skills like tracking, pixelling and assembly coding are useful for many things, but they don’t give you any extra credit in the art world.

If this is true (it’s a bit speculative), there’s nothing wrong with that. Of course it’s frustrating that the demoscene talents get so little attention, but that’s the way it is. Eventhough other people should care, we’re quite happy with being left alone too. Then we can keep on voting for fart jokes and petscii porn without worrying what all you lamerz think. See you at Datastorm this weekend! DATAAAAA!

19 Responses to “The Working Class of Computer Art?”

  1. Omri Suleiman Says:

    It’s only one person’s opinion, and I’ll be the first to admit I know little about formal Art,

    but, when I first saw Agenda Circling Forth a while back, I couldn’t help but think “that’s the most relevant and beautiful piece of art I’ve seen in years”.

    The code skills part of it put me in mind of painters who have great technical skill when it comes to brushstrokes, but still need conceptual brilliance to create masterpieces.

    • goto80 Says:

      Just had quick look at it, and it looks good. Not sure if I could picture it in an ‘art context’ though. It would be easier to imagine if they had more obvious art history references, “critical ideas” (comparing media agenda setting with flowers and bees?) or conceptual things with all the blabla.

      Or maybe it just works good as it is :)

  2. Per Olofsson Says:

    “it’s frustrating that the demoscene talents get so little attention”

    Why? The demoscene is introvertive. Our gatherings and productions aren’t advertised outside the scene itself, and appreciation is only expected from your peers. An informal, closed gathering where recognition is primarily based on what you create is a haven for skilled but socially awkward figures, and if demoscene activity brought fame and attention it would attract a different crowd.

    Also, skills acquired in the scene are easily applied in other domains, where appreciation and recognition can be had – more often than not in the form of a comfy job in the IT industry.

    • goto80 Says:

      Yeah, the demoscene has been shaped by its introversion. But it’s not only a good thing. Personally, I get annoyed when some art/science thing is presented as news, when sceners have done it for years already. It’s also part of the strength of the scene. But well, sometimes it still gets to me.

  3. chunter Says:

    Supporting the thesis, let’s take a couple favorite generalizations of mine:

    Art is anything a person creates, even a turd in the bathroom.

    Sport is anything a person does for fun.

    In many ways, demoscene is more like sport than art, but it is definitely both.

    Artists are introverted sets of cliques as well, I don’t really see a contrast here- the issue is that explaining one’s history and tastes is not a conversation starter. It may seem rude, but my modern answer to “What is the demoscene?” among a group like that will have to be a link to some video to get them to google it.

    The question “what kind of music do you make?” is just as tedious. (My old, cynical answer was “whatever I want,” now I say “people say this sounds like a video game.”)

    • goto80 Says:

      Even if we describe the world as a set of introverted groups, some of these groups will have a higher status than others. On some kind of general scale. For example – when you’re interviewed by a journalist it makes more sense to talk about art rather than demos. And in fact, that goes for most situations, in most places.

      Being a scener is rarely an advantage (and that’s not necessarily a problem).

  4. Dragan Says:

    The difference in between art and the demoscene is mostly that art contextualizes itself outside of the scene of artists. Art strives to be meaningful beyond itself (though it is oftenly not very apparent).

    The main problem with demoscene is that hardly anybody understands “realtime” vs “video”. If a piece of code produces some visual output for example, and that output looks exactly like a rendered animation or a video game, but is written in 4kilobytes of VisualBasic or something, it will hardly strike a chord in “uneducated” people looking at it.

    Computer arts, especially computer graphics, already have been a success in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Think of plotter drawings, avantgarde compositions, etc. The difference to demoscene works is performative, e.g., the artworks included a message like “this is made with a computer, it uses its unique properties, and it is relevant for you to get that”.

    As our host here noted before, the chiptune scene likes to work with glitches and insuffiencies and is very performative, the demoscene is interested in perfection and algorithmic elegance.

    But glitches make everything more accessible and understandable. Glitches are what forms the authenticity and mediaspecificity of a medium. They bring mysteries closer to the audience, and are a gesture of stepping down from a high horse. So no wonder the Blip Festival gets overrun by people wanting to dance and getting a feeling for the world they actually live in and demoscene events stay exclusive.

    I think when the demoscene split from cracking, they lost the connection to society and the arts. Just check how many kids today are enthusiastic about “keygen music”. For them it represents something special about their digital world, because it is connected to piracy and freedom. The demoscene cannot provide such excitement. Or check out how many kids today love indie games and are fans of the creators, really comparable to Rock&Roll or popmusic culture. Games are the literature of our time, the demoscene is just not as poetic.

    Also, the visuals and music the demoscene produces are not inherently radical by itself.

  5. Dragan Says:

    Check this out:

  6. Dragan Says:

    And, finally, on demos being folk art :)

    Olia and me define Digital Folklore as the cultural products of “user” activity within systems created for them by “hackers”. For us, it is not about experts with a rich knowledge and history, but about the un-educated, that were denied history and knowledge and forced to create their own inside of playgrounds set up for them by the hackers. (See “September that never ended.”)

    We see a big break in between the cultures of early hackers, internet and home computing AND the flood of noobs running over all of this in the middle of the 1990s. Actually we think that “hackers” (as an opposition to “users”) had to actively protect their (folk) culture because they were not able to integrate the huge amount of new people into it. So “users” found more or less closed systems while hackers, home computer people and demosceners always found open systems and could make any system open because of their cultural heritage.

    This brings them into the position to write official history, as opposed to folk history, the low culture that doesn’t seem to be worth keeping because it is “just” the application of software other people prepared.

    It might not really seem so dramatic of a difference, as the demoscene and the hackers etc look still pretty underground. But in fact this is part of their image and their history. People who can do awesome things with computers and networks are already an elite for a long time. They can control what the noobz can do (or at least can try to control them). They make the games, the Hollywood movies, the social networks and are now making the move to political influence. This is not a bad thing though, I love them much more than any other elite before. I would rather have them shape society than others. But they are still, with few exceptions, exhibiting elitist behavior.

  7. goto80 Says:

    Wow, thanks for the long comments!

    Couldn’t it be argued that new media art has the same kind of problematic relationship to art, as the demoscene has to new media? There was a small hype for computer art/music in the 60’s but in the 70’s it cooled off and in the 80’s it became commercial. Was it Quaranta that wrote about this? Media art still hasn’t been accepted and normalized into the art world, and tends to talk too much about technology.

    I like your idea that glitches make it more accessibe. But perhaps it’s also a 1337 perspective. For most people it’s just trash, even if it perhaps makes it *seem* more accessible. They are style indicators that signify openness and authenticity, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the glitches are that. (hehe, sorry for the semiotics!)

    What you write about users vs hackers, makes me think that the demoscene has lost some relevance when the technologies are so bloated, and pluralistic. When there was One machine there was also One coder who did The Breakthrough. Now it doesn’t make so much sense with that rhetoric anymore. (do modern sceners even talk about world firsts anymore?)

    The dualism of userhacker is great. I guess that the demoscene contains both. Many sceners are using pre-defined systems, and are fine with it. But I don’t think that the demoscene has any function in writing history. Sceners say that they influenced multimedia, interfaces, styles, etc — but when asked for concrete examples there’s not much to come up with. Or…?

    Hackers might be doing the code labour, but the decisions about what it’s used for, are much more complex than that. Perhaps sometimes hacker & user is not two different categories, but different degrees of the same thing (adaptation).

    Hm, slightly morning-ish rambling – hope it makes sense!

  8. Linda Says:

    Thanks for making my brain hurt ;) so many interesting perspectives to process.

  9. Theta_Frost Says:

    Awesome article! A really enjoyable read. I’m currently planning to go into music technology for college in a year so this is very relevant. While it may not bring credit yet, I’m hoping that perception can be changed in the future.

  10. horsemagic Says:

    you have hit the nail on the head. the difference is that the sceners care more about Having A Good Time and the Art People care more about making Good Art ((( a shame i don’t find their Good Time such a good time and i often don’t find the Good Art such good art ;) )))

    and of course as you mentioned some sceners make Art too. best of both worlds???

  11. the freedom of the copy party | Olle Jonsson's blog Says:

    […] The working class of computer art GOTO80 talks about demoscene parties: What is the point? Well, I really like the freedom of the […]

  12. iqmagazin Says:

    The demoscene is not the underdog; on the contrary, it is an elitist form of art which only insiders know.

    • goto80 Says:

      It might be elitist internally, and it’s obviously not well-known to ‘outsiders’. But it’s still quite open and welcoming to people who are truly interested. And it’s quite rare to get bonus points IRL because of your scene activities, right?

  13. Rewiring the History of the Demoscene: Wider Screen | CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] data hippies, the copyists, the out-of-space artists, the dissidents, the fuck-ups. The people who don’t have much to gain from their scene history. But also the BBS-nazis (one of them living close to me) is interesting to consider today, when […]

  14. Famous People Who Came From the Demoscene | CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] one hand, the demoscene can be an utterly useless experience to have. Who cares about what you can do in 1024 kilobytes? On the other hand, the scene is like a […]

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