What Can We Learn From the Demoscene?

I was in Montréal for the I/O Symposium and gave the talk What Can We Learn From the Demoscene? In 45 minutes I explained everything about the scene and explained what other fields could learn from it.

Or well, not exactly. I tried to give a broad view, but I zoomed in on four key points:

1. Computing as craft. The idea that code (and music and graphics) requires skills and knowledge about the material you are using. The techne is more important than the art, and the human is more important than the machine. Basically. This means that the scene is making computing sustainable, when most others are not and the internet already seems to require nuclear power to live.

2. Non-recorded formats. Releasing things as code rather than recordings gives very different possibilities. Scene productions are not products – removed from the platform once it’s finished – no, they are states of the machine (Botz). There are countless archives of data that future researches can unleash heavy data analysis on. What will the recording industry offer to future researchers? Not much. Especially not if they maintain their stance on copyright and related rights.

3. Collective copyright system. There has always been a tension around ownership in the scene. Early on there might have been plenty of anti-copyright among crackers, but later sceners who wanted to protect their works had a much more conservative stance. I exemplified this through the Amiga mod-scene, where artists sampled records and claimed ownership to the samples. “Don’t steal my samples” like it says in many a mod-file. On the other hand, the mod-format made it extremely easy for anyone to take those samples, or that cool bassline, or whatever else they might fancy. The remix culture was present in the materiality, but the scene resisted it for various reasons. They developed a praxis where artists who transgressed – who borrowed too much, or in a wrong way – would be shamed in public and have their status lowered. This sounds brutal and even primitive, but copyright praxis today means that you can do whatever you want if you have the capital for it. Which is perhaps not much better?

4. A bounded culture. There is a sense of detachment from the rest of society in the scene. The crackers and traders broke laws, the sysops didn’t want journalists sneaking around in their bulletin boards, and some artists follow the idea of “what’s made in the scene stays in the scene”. Some online forums today do not accept members if they are not sceners. And so on. There are all kinds of problems with this attitude, but it also meant that the scene could let their traditions and rituals take root, over a long period of time. Without it, it’s harder to imagine that kids in the 1990’s could maintain a network culture on their own, even before the www was commercialized. The question is, though, how many teenagers today are interested in all those obscure traditions and rituals?

Building on talks I’ve had with Gleb Albert, I also talked shortly about the neoliberal tendencies in the scene. How meritocracy and competition was so important, how groups were sometimes run as businesses with leaders and creatives and workers, and how there was a dream of having a network culture where The Man was not involved.

Discussions followed about how the neoliberal tendencies were different in the North American demoscene. In America, they said, people got into cracking games and making demos with a goal set on making a career and making money. I think this is one of the topics that Gleb Albert is looking into (in Europe), especially the connections between the cracking scene and the games industry.

There were also discussions about what I’ve called the collective copyright system. Some people in the audience talked about how coders would secretly look at other people’s code (because, again, that’s possible due to the formats used) and take inspiration from it. I’m sure most sceners did this at one point or another. But the point is that it wasn’t considered positive like in remix cultures such as hip-hop, vaporwave or plunderphonics. That tension between the Open and the Closed is probably something we need to understand better when we develop post-copyright networks in the digital.

5 Responses to “What Can We Learn From the Demoscene?”

  1. utz Says:

    “Computing as craft” – I’d go even further and claim that code _is_ the actual artform. Or in other words, the “demo” is merely a manifestation of the art, like a print of a photo, or the performance of a piece of music. It’s perhaps not as clean cut for traditional demos, because there’s the “holy trinity” of code, graphics, and music. But take sizecoding, for example. The result of what you see (and perhaps hear) may vary wildly depending on your setup. It’s the code itself that is the defining core element, the essence of it, if you will. Code art, thus.

    • goto80 Says:

      Yeah, someone at I/O said that perhaps the scene was the first to acknowledge code as an artform. Nowadays there is plenty of “software art” that emphasizes the role of code, in and of itself. The hardware platform is almost irrelevant. Code is like traditional poetry or literature. This, I guess, is a postmodern way of looking at it, because it focuses on language and semiotics rather than the materials.

      But what makes the scene stand out from many others is that the praxis is so enmeshed in materiality. The computer is not a tool that you use to create a product, that then exists without the tool. The code needs the hardware to run. While this is true for some other media art, it is rarely as media specific as a demo is. Making an interactive piece in Processing is not as “close to the machine” as a super complex demo is.

      Instead, we can consider the computer as an artistic material that the scener uses to put the machine in a certain state. That’s the distinction that Daniel Botz did in his dissertation, and I think it’s a good way of capturing the uniqueness of the scene, and to not only focus on code but also graphics and music.

      However, if video recordings will continue to take over the scene I guess we will have a reason to find another perspective. :)

      • utz Says:

        Objection, your honour! What you say is mostly correct as far as the traditional 8/16-bit demoscene is concerned, though I would still argue that the relation between a demo and its target machine is more comparable to the relation between a painting and the canvas it’s painted on. No canvas, no painting, eh?

        Anyway, there are certainly a few problems when extending this view to the modern demoscene. Exhibit A: http://www.pouet.net/prod.php?which=68256 A demo running on an entirely virtual platform that isn’t tied to any hardware. Exhibit B: All of the Javascript demos out there. Again, hardware is a generic entity here. Exhibit C: Sizecoding. Quite a few of the prods classed MS-DOS on pouet (especially Baudsurfer’s stuff) would not be runnable on an actual DOS machine. There’s been some discussion whether this is actually valid, but Baudsurfer’s rankings in competitions speak a clear language, I think. And that’s leaving aside the fact that “MS-DOS” is an arbitrary definition not tied to any machine-specific categorization in the first place.

        Also, since you were mentioning video recordings: It used to be standard practise at demoparties to show entries as prerecorded videos. So said practise was, at least at that point, an accepted way of “consuming” the artform.

        So overall, I would argue that at least the demoscene has transcended from it’s original inherent materialism. Not unlike the chiptune scene, as a matter of fact ;)

      • utz Says:

        One could also target this discussion from another angle and argue that art is code. Like, a work of classical music is defined by its score, right? Score, in the end, is nothing but a form of mathematical code. Then the futurists came along and tried to defy that logic. And failed miserably because they weren’t aware of the works of Joseph Fourier. Stockhausen really was just the final nail in the coffin to that. Or take any piece of literature. It’s constructed from a form of code called natural language (certain exceptions confirming the rule). Things get a bit more tricky when it comes to visual stuff, but yeah… I guess that as a text art enthusiast know what I’m talking about :D So what makes demos unique in that sense is that they use less levels of abstraction. They don’t attempt to hide the code, but rather embrace it. They celebrate the maths, so to speak.

        Of course one could also argue that code is language. So if art is code and code is language, then art is all about communication. And demos are just the language of a certain (sub)culture. Which is an argument that really leads to nowhere…

      • goto80 Says:

        Yes, you can see everything in the world as software if you stretch it. People have done that. And now they use the term algorithm instead.

        You can also see everything as physics, or chemistry. Or frequencies. But I don’t really see the point in being so generalistic. A musical score is very different from a recorded song, and also very different from a book or a play.

        Personally, I’ve found Bogost’s model for platform studies interesting. The platform, then, is not necessarily hardware but the ‘thing’ that executes the code, the context, the assemblage, the bottom line. I found it very useful to think about these topics.

        The hardware-software dichotomy isn’t holding up anymore. You can make your own platforms. But they are still platforms, imo. And if you code for Javascript or an MS DOS emulator, it is still possible (but maybe less relevant, I dunno) to define a platform.

        I do however write about hardware and software, because using the terms from platform studies would just be confusing, I think.

        I agree with you that the materialism is going away in the chip- and demoscenes. But there are still platforms to study, whatever people use to make stuff. A game can be a platform too, for example.

        Oh, and video recordings might have been a standard in the PC demoscene, since the machines were always so flakey, but not in the 8-bit demoscenes. ;D

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