Last week I made a presentation about the demoscene at the developer conference Øredev. Before the talk I did an improvised C64 ambient dinner performance – where I just start the software and do everything from scratch, and show the screen to the audience. (see image)
Photo by Emiebot
The theme of the conference was art, so my talk was more or less “demoscene vs art”. I argued that the scene and the art world are fundamentally different. The themes of 1960’s computer art might be similar to the scene: moving graphics, sound, code, making “new” thing with technology, networked communications, etcetera. But today the scene and the art world basically doesn’t overlap at all.
The scene competes with skills by making works that you go WOW!LOL!WTF! the first time you see it. The execution is more important than the concept, which connects to scene to craft rather than art. I’ve emphasized this since 2008, because it’s one of the most defining traits of the scene imo.
I talked about the years around 2000 when 8-bit works started to appear in the art world. Usually that was in the shape of glitch (Jodi), chipmusic (micromusic.net, Nanoloop), ASCII art (Vuk Cosic), circuit bending (Notendo), videogames (Cory Arcangel). Sceners were not involved in this, and some of them (including me) were annoyed with the lame execution. “Hey, it’s not eliteeeee!”.
Photo by Codepo8
So… then I went on to talk about why I started to move towards the art world myself. We played HT Gold
, which didn’t really work in the scene because it’s full of trash. I showed demos that doesn’t work in the art world (ie, most of them). And I showed Dansa In
which I think is the first time I’ve worked with something that worked both as “art” and “demo”.
Nevertheless, I discussed the possibilities of scene-style coding playing a bigger role in the art world in the future. Doing things for www
, smartphones and microcontrollers could surely use some of the über-rationalistic yet trial-and-error-craziness that sceners are so good at. Efficient use of the hardware, of course, will become more important if digital art goes monumental but wants to not waste more resources than necessary.
Finally, I mentioned three cultural traits of the scene that could/should have a bigger influence:
Distribution is always free in the scene, and they developed a sort of DIY infrastructure for that. There was an international network established already in the 1980s, using both telecommunications and postal mail. Distribution was hard work by dedicated traders, swappers and sysops who copied software around the world. I was always fascinated by this, and we’re once again seeing the need for this with the recent waves of censorship, surveillance and control.
Copyright remains an infected issue in the scene, despite (or because of) the normalization of free distribution, and its close ties with the cracking scene. Amiga MOD-music is my favourite example, where composers sampled sounds from records and basically claimed ownership of them. “Don’t rip my samples!” was a common statement. In the scene, it is always better to do it yourself, rather than building on someone else’s work. It doesn’t want to be a remix culture.
If someone was “stealing” they would be shamed in public (diskmags, parties, bulletin boards) so they lost their reputation. We could, perhaps, compare this to how Timbaland was attacked by “an angry nerd army” when he sampled Tempest’s chiptune. To me, this seems like a much more modern way than to have a court decide which methods are okay, and which are not. But yeah, it will probably take some decades before we go back to that behaviour.
. Distributing most things as real-time programs instead of recordings, leads to a treasure for future historians. The massive online archives means that the demoscene is one of the most well-preserved subcultures so far. Imagine what we can do with all that data in the future! It’s like cultural analytics
done on “open source” artefacts – or even better. Also, this puts some demands on the platforms. They need to support wild methods and low-level trickeries, not punish them. Strictly enforced license agreements embedded in the hardware (“if you try something funny, your gadget will blow up and call the police”) or underlying mega-protected systems are not really the future, from this point of view.
Finally: I know the few sceners that were in the audience were disappointed that I didn’t show many traditional demos. That wasn’t really the point with the presentation, which I probably should have made more clear. The idea was to discuss the scene from the perspective of art and highlight its advantages and disadvantages. Also – I showed many of my own works because I was asked to, and because I have worked many years in that grey semi-desertic area inbetween art and demoscene.