Archive for the ‘culture’ Category


August 23, 2011

Text art is having a revival of sorts. If you didn’t notice it yet, you’ll see it in the next release on Chipflip with some goodness from Raquel Meyers. I recently saw some nice work made with Melly’s ASCIIPaint and also good animations made in a program called ascii-paint (which was built from ASCII-Paint).

ASCIIPaint-work by Markham, 2010 (cropped, to avoid artefacts)

But I couldn’t help thinking – despite all the ASCII-names – isn’t this actually ANSI? I remember getting dissed by both Amiga and PC text artists for misunderstanding the terminology. A good friend of mine said that Amiga text art with colours was “ASCII with colours, and definitely not ANSI!!!”.

Yeah. Hm. Since ASCII is the lowest common denominator for all (?) computer character sets since the 1960s, I suppose that most other standards (Unicode, PETSCII, ATASCII, ANSI, etc) can be called ASCII art aswell. But that’s an engineer perspective. From a more cultural point of view, you could argue that each of these charsets has its own function, history, aesthetics and users. So they are more different than similar.

The C64′s PETSCII gave BBS’s (and disk directories, BASIC-games, etc) a special feel, especially since the slow modem speeds made them automatically “animated“. Telnetting to for example Antidote today is an experience that is hard to match. As you read the messages posted in the PETSCII-section, you can see how the text (art) slowly builds up, char by char. Check out Poison’s Notemaker demo to see how it can look. Can you feel the baud rate, aww yeah?!

PETSCII-stuff by Raquel Meyers, 2010, for (coming soon)

Afaik, PETSCII was never released on its own. But on the Amiga scene dedicated ASCII-groups was formed, and the so-called ASCII-colly started to appear as separate artefacts around 1992 [1]. It was mostly connected with warez/hacking but also the demoscene. These cultural settings and the tight monospaced fonts and line spacing led to an eLiTE mixture of graffiti and poetry. When they used colours, they sometimes called it (Amiga) ANSI.

Razor 1911 logo by Skope of Up Rough & Divine Stylers, 2010

On the PC, you couldn’t make ASCII the same way. The most popular characters ( /  -  _  \ ) had space inbetween them, so it wasn’t possible to make continuous lines in the same way. PC ASCII-artists had to find other ways, and they mostly relied on the extra characters found in the 8-bit MS DOS font. It was a new style that the Amiga-people called ANSI, and the PC-people called (Block) ASCII. A couple of years later some PC-users returned to the 7-bit ASCII-usage and called it … newskool! This style became popular on the web, of course, but is nowadays often complemented with Unicode characters.

ANSI then, seems to be applicable to most text art that has colours. But if it’s Amiga text art (which isn’t really supposed to use any DOS/IBM-shit) you should watch out. And of course, if it’s PETSCII, you shouldn’t call it ANSI. You might get seriously injured.

But anyway – it seems that according to the PC’s “art scene” ideas the various ASCII-Paint softwares above should in fact be called ANSI-Paint. But I guess this is a battle that will be lost. For most people it’s not very relevant to distinguish between ANSI and ASCII. Just like with “8-bit” or “chipmusic” or “electro” it gets pretty complicated if you refuse to accept the dominant use.

Besides, is there anyone who wants to discuss the difference between ANSI and ASCII anyway? \o/

Btw#1: if you need more text art, you can also check out these posts
Btw #2: if you know of good resources on text art, get in touch.

[1] Year taken from Freax (p.121). Rotox, Desert and other West Germans are described as the first Amiga ASCII-artists in the late 1980s (which I have not been able to confirm). Early ASCII-groups were H2O and Mogul (de) and U-Man (se). More info wanted!

Fantastic PhD Demoscene Book

June 27, 2011

Daniel Botz has finally published his PhD dissertation on the demoscene. Chipflip’s conversation with him in 2009 revealed some of his approaches. Entitled Art, Code and Machine – the Aesthetics of the Computer Demoscene, it is an extremely well-researched study of the demoscene’s history and aesthetics.

The theoretical base is Friedrich Kittler, who is more interested in machines than humans. From this Botz constructs a media materialism that takes the potentials/limitations of the machine seriously. Human fantasies about subverting the machine is not primary. Demos are immanent in the machine and are only “carved out” by the sceners. They are states of the machines, and not products. There is no software, even.

Still – as a researcher of art rather than computers – Botz describes the aesthetical norms also from a social perspective, occasionally with some ideas from cultural studies. New effects typically reference “oldschool” elements to make it graspable. It’s not a virtual and limitless digital “freedom” where anything is possible, which is often implied elsewhere. You know, Skrju can make lots of fucked up noise but still fit in, while perhaps Critical Artware could use some more rotating cubes.

Unfortunately this book is only available in German. You can read a sample here. My German is not very good, so my apologies if this post contains any misinformation. Having said that, this book is the best demoscene research I’ve read. It’s quite traditional in its theory and methods, which I think is required to cover the topic thoroughly. Still, it offers plenty of surprises compared to the usual clichés about hacker aesthetics. Perhaps that’s because the theoretical perspective is down-to-earth instead of pretentiously post-whatever or ideologically biased (e.g. humans or machines).

I can’t wait for the translation, Daniel! :) Meanwhile, check out the great Demoscene Research site and join the (scarce) discussions in the Google group.


Chip Critique 1: Re-appropriation

April 28, 2011

“I like restrictions, reappropriating & using tools in ways they weren’t meant to be used”. Maybe it’s just me, but after hearing similar sentences for the past 15 years about chipmusic, I’m getting tired of it. Is that what we like, really? And why do so many chipmusicians say this?

The quote above is not from a chipmusician. It’s from the artist Petra Cortright who’s part of what I see as the Rhizome rhizome. In there you’ll find plenty of artists who work with general midi, low-res, old internet memes and GIF-animations. Perhaps it’s what Cory Arcangel called dirt style.

It seems that this grew big in the 00′s, for example with Arcangel’s NES-works. He supposedly reappropriated restricted technologies in new ways. Many low-tech hackers were annoyed with this, seeing it as some kind of imperialism on ‘their’ thing.

I reluctantly admit that I was one of those, back then. The art-perspective on this was just too foreign for me. But of course, chipmusic was gradually becoming part of the package. The postmodern rhetorics was an easy way to get attention for chipmusic, as we tried to legitimize our work beyond videogames and nostalgia (and still are).

So bending, glitching, dirt style and hacking grew more and more connected. And it was given a political relevance in typical postmodern cultural studies rhetorics. Critical new uses of technologies! It assumes that the glitching, bending and hacking of the previous decades, was somehow not the same thing. Making Gameboy music today might have a different cultural status, compared to 20 years ago. But still. It’s not like we’re making something new, or doing something that the technology was not intended to do.

Consider technologies as subjects instead of objects. Or, more appropriately, consider both humans and technologies as objects. Claiming that something has “intended uses” can be a discriminating claim then. Who’s to decide what the intended uses are? We pretend that the Gameboy was an “inter-passive” commodity, so now we pretend that we are heroes who liberated the machines (and ourselves).

Bob Stevenson - Max Headroom (C64, 1986)

We pose as the heroes of the digital age. The glitchers and benders bring forth the hidden expressions of the machine, and the chipmusicians give the technologies new value in new contexts.

Or: we are reinforcing traditional paradigms such as human excellence and and techno-libertarianism. Perhaps it’s a reaction to the lack of control and comprehension that modern consumer technologies offer. Perhaps it’s part of the zeitgeist of hauntology and lo-fi VHS-artefacts (or, uh, hypnagogic cyberpunk). But it’s certainly not very critical in my book.

And the machines continue to laugh. Let’s laugh with them, not at them. Uhm.

Amiga Apes and LSDj in Libraries

April 6, 2011

Archeopterix lives in Marseille and collects old hardware. Plenty of computers and consoles but also video cameras, keyboards, etc. I visited him after the Micromusic #5 festival and hung out with him a bit.

This photo is from the Game Heroes exhibition at Mars à L’Alcazar in Marseille, which he organized. The gorilla (built by Mégalo) is built from plastic guns, and his head is playing Amiga 600 games. The human ape is VJ Kissdub with his amazing PXL-2000 video camera that uses cassettes.

Monsieur Archeopterix also told me that he gave a Gameboy with LSDj to the library, so now people can go there and borrow it just like a book. I really like this idea, and he is trying to expand this to the rest of France. Let’s see if LSDj-Johan will file a massive law suit to destroy all libraries in France!

What seems to separate Archeopterix from other computer collectors is that he’s casual and playful and messy. Things just happen. He’s happy to share things and there’s nothing mainstream or academic about him. His place is more like a flea market than a museum, and you sort of just stumble across BASIC 1.0 for TO-7 or an Intellivision music keyboard or some strange storage media.

It makes me remember how the chipmusic scene was 10 years ago, before people had started to build fancy peripherals, research and reflect on the tools and cultures (like I do) and well, be very serious about things in general. Before it became infected by the standard tricks of art, pop and science. Maybe it’s time to GO APE again! Or Archeopterix.

An Even More Secret History of Social Networks

February 1, 2011

BBC has published a radio documentary called the Secret History of Social Networking. It interviews people involved with BBS-communication in the 1970s, was influenced by the counterculture in California. It’s a rather expected historiography – pioneering Americans that used computers to network the whole world, and John Cage got into it. We’ve heard it before.

The counterculture merged with commercial interests in a Californian ideology that shaped the home computer revolution. This technolibertarianism probably made the term personal computer catch on so well. So in a way, it is a very relevant history of social networking: individual freedom and computer networks and entrepreneurs (yeah!).

Community Memory, a BBS from 1973

On the other hand, there are the social networks that emerged from software piracy in the 1980s. Already in 1979 there were digital networks for Apple II-crackers, and a few years later a lot of people were distributing cracked software. Not only modem-to-modem, but face-to-face and mailman-to-mailman. It was a network for middle-class kids that had little to do with highbrow art or traditional politics; it was merely a way to use computers for what they were designed for. Copying information.

In other words – it was a popular network where common people did common sense things. It was an early warez economy, which is not so different from the current network economy/culture. You make, share and remix things for free and you get stuff back – either as money or status. Or something like that.

The point is that the countercultural BBS-stuff is an interesting early example, but did it influence things to come?  Sure they conversed and organized through modems, but what else? The cracker/demoscene networks pioneered or perfected many things: text art, free distribution of executable artefacts, open source music and remix culture, mail art, computer parties, etcetera – and it had very real effects on the economy and culture outside of itself. Eventually. If the counterculture led to iTunes, then this network led to netlabels and the Pirate Bay.

I don’t blame the BBC for their angle and perhaps they will also deal with this topic in future episodes. But there’s been very little research made on the cracker- and demoscene networks. I wrote a text for the Media Art Histories 2009 that has some additional information, but it was hastily put together so don’t expect too much.

MP3 is so passe

December 29, 2010

Apparently, we are so used to MP3s that we actually prefer music that has the sizzle artefacts that MPEG algorithms produce. Although it’s hard to believe, it’s not unbelievable. The MP3-standard was set in 1991, and a decade later it had become the standard for music compression. In 1999 Wall Street Journal wrote that “MP3 has created an underground online culture, in which hackers hang around chat rooms and online ‘gangs’ prowl for tunes” (*).

Part of this gang war was Monotonik and other early netlabels. For them, MP3 was a natural progression from releasing tracker music (mod/xm/etc) for free. Monotonik came from the demoscene, where copying was not a problem but actually the only form of distribution. The more copies the better, period. It was not a big step to go from that to releasing MP3s. Still, distributing music in the original tracker had advantages. Monotonik released mod-files until 2003 because they were smaller, sounded better and were open source.

The chipscene has a different background, it can be argued. The music in the chipscene was usually spread as MP3-documentations of the original tracker files. It was, and still is, rare to see chipscene people releasing their source files. As far as I’ve found, all MP3-releases with chipmusic was like this at the time – at 8bitpeoples, 20kbps, Kikapu, No’Mo’, Commie, Slapart, Toilville and mp3death. Maybe they were scared of being scrutinized or maybe LSDj was not designed for this purpose. But also, spreading music like open source means to share every detail of the work you do – the small tricks that are important for “your sound”.

But like Education of the Noobz says in his new release, “open source” music has a long history as a sort of folk music. “Before professional games, before cracker intros and before demos, home computer users were peeking and poking around their machines’ memory in search for the addresses the soundchip would react to”. Flip through any computer magazine around 1980 and you will see BASIC-listings of pop-songs and classical music. They were open source by default, since they were distributed as code to be executed by the listener. Sort of like mod-files, and very much like previous hacker music as found in e.g HAKMEM and Creative Computing in the 1970s, or elsewhere in the 1960s.

In hindsight it’s perhaps tempting to see this in terms of hacker ethics and politics, but maybe it was just about academic traditions and a lack of cheap recording technologies. I haven’t seen any open source music that is framed in any political rhetorics, not even from the chipmusic hippies in LOAMC, who didn’t share their source code afaik.

But the situation is different now. Music usually equals recorded music, or performed music. Even digital music is almost always distributed in the proprietary MP3-format. A jam becomes a song becomes a file, with title and author, start and finish, that sounds the same every time you play it. Chipmusic doesn’t have to be like that, but ever since it pretended to be recorded music in the late 1990s, we’ve learnt to like the convenience. Sure it’s convenient with recorded C64-music, but it also deletes some of the mysteries for the listener, and the open source luxuries for the composer. The ontology of chipmusic is removed, which means removing the potentials for remixability, modularity and imperfection that no other music genre is blessed with at such a large scale. Educate the noobs!

(By the way, Monotonik is now on “(permanent?)” hiatus. Bad and sad news, for the label that brought us chip-releases such as Virt’s fx EP (2001), Vim!’s At the Front (1999), Aleksi Eeben’s Grand Rules (2002), Blasterhead’s Killbots EP, and my own Monkeywarning from 2002).

Fox News presents Chipmusic

July 16, 2010

Last Saturday, chipmusic was presented in these two ways by Fox News – perhaps the worst news channel in the world? Br1ght Pr1mate performed live and talked about chiptune. Although the music is not my cup of tea, I think the clips are definitely worth watching because the hosts are perfect OMG-WTF-LOL-journalists, with a target audience that think like this. The hosts seem to think that chipmusic is 10 people making music in Pacman, which was fun to laugh at for a decade but is pretty tiresome now, really. Somehow it makes me think of when John Cage appeared on TV in 1960, playing along with the role of being a clown instead of a pretentious composer (like this, hehe?). Br1ght Pr1mate are aware that they take a similar role in the Fox News show.

The thread at has a discussion about the problems of appearing on Fox News. While Nullsleep points to the political agenda of Fox News, 8bitweapon asks “What evil will come from them performing on fox?”. Obviously the good aspects are that some people will open their eyes to low-tech music, and that Br1ght Pr1mate had a good time. They say that “Whatever politics aside, we can all agree that music should be awesome and fun” and that media are two-way streets that can be used to get your message across.

But I don’t know. Obviously it’s not very useful to have a die-hard 1968-style marxistic outside-of-the-system kind of perspective on the politics of music, since we’re all part of Google World and it’s more or less impossible to be fully non-commercial. It calls for a different kind of political activism, or abstract hacktivism, as done by for example Yes Men or the recently dissolved Piratbyrån. They are prime examples of how large institutions in their obesity, can easily be manipulated or hacked if you are clever enough. From that perspective, if you appear in über-commercial advertisements and motivate it with with situationist rhetorics about subverting the spectacle (eh), it is a bit vague, at best. At worst, it’s just a lame excuse to sell out.

I do not want to diss Br1ght Pr1mate. The point is to ask questions about how one avoids to succumb to a program’s dramaturgy, or a larger media logic, while still being constructive. It’s obviously not easy. But a live broadcast to millions of (conservative?) people is a brilliant opportunity to spread scandalous truths or play pranks that will shake some realities around. I really like how Br1ght Pr1mate ‘publically’ say that the hosts made dick jokes in the commercial breaks and also asked Br1ght Pr1mate for acid. It would’ve been great to have heard about that on the air…

Crackers Cracking Cracks

May 27, 2010

Akira has uploaded a bunch of C64-games at CSDb. As seen here before, the Argentinian C64-scene was special because 1) they had its own C64-clone that worked with the obscure PAL-N standard, 2) it was common that shops sold demos and cracked games, and 3) Argentinian crackers cracked cracks – they took cracks from other groups and put their names on it: so-called re-cracks. This is a big no-no among crackers, but I suppose it was possible since it stayed within Argentina. Cracking was business. To control the market, some crackers even introduced a new “copy protection”, such as a code that you had to know to start the game (read here). Akira also posted a C64-game made in Argentina in 1990: Team Tetris. And here are all the cracked games he uploaded:

And for no apparent reason, here is some classic (for me anyway) Amiga music in a cracktro by M.A.D (who later became Paradox). Does anyone know who made it?

Passionately fucking the scene: Skrju

May 20, 2010

Skrju is a (Russian?) demogroup founded in 2001, still releasing brain-smashing ZX Spectrum demos unlike any other demogroup I’ve seen. Their demos are usually noisy and greyscale, sad and dark. Pleasently uncomfortable. Let’s get sucked into their world with Fuckyouscene (2003).

It makes me think of Alih’s C64-demo Fuck the Scene, which is another kind of alternative to the demoscene aesthetics with its fucky appearance but complex code. But to me Skrju’s works are more consistent, and is definitely not only a rebellion against the scene. Check their 20-second invitro for Chaos Construction 2004, which they made in 2005 (!).

You have to give credit to a group that works primarily with greyscale ZX Spectrum, right? At first, they used colours and a more demoscene-ish aesthetics. Lovemaker (youtube) is a teenage angst poetry trash demo which according to their website was inspired by Fairlight’s Drop the Basics and its childish graphics. For Summermilk (youtube) they mention a Replay-demo (with a classic Radix/Loonie song) as inspiration. After this they started establishing their greyscale-style with Why (2003).

After that they released their Fuckthescene-demo, which I think appears a bit different in the light of their past productions. It’s not just an outside thrashing of the scene without consideration of its traditions. They are not just “making some glitches” but building on the demoscene ‘canon’ (see the end here). Atleast that’s the way I see it. The excellent demo Mother (youtube) is perhaps a bit of an anti-demo, but then Ussr2185 (youtube) features plenty of rotating cubes. Had it used more pixels, colours, and sounds, it could’ve been a quite typical PC-demo, right? Here’s Idiot from 2004.

This demo makes me think of the PC-demo _ by $, which caused quite a discussion in the scene about what a demo is supposed to be. Shanethewolf finally said “let’s give up what once was a target of the demoscene.. high quality real-time multimedia.” Although Skrju are perhaps more traditional than $ in some ways, there are also some similar tendencies in the comments of Skrju-demos at Pouet. Perhaps it’s because they undermine a technodeterministic definition of demos, where demos can be anything as long as they obide by certain technical details (filesize and format, platform, etc). This is proving to be a problem in demoscene-archives such as CSDb, where it has to be discussed what constutites a ‘scene release’. Why is Jeff Minter’s Horses a scene release, for example? This also applies to the chipscene in many ways.

Anyway, let’s go back to Skrju. The current members are sq, nq, kq and t. Their musician, nq, has a website and also did a ZX noise release on Ubiktune called Onomatopoeia. Among their latest releases is the 256-byte story of a lonely cell (youtube) which pre-dates Viznut’s Dramatic Pixels. There’s the dark Reminescence (youtube) and also We are (youtube) which, again, reminds me of Hollowman‘s work, and also Wrath Designs.

Some randomly semi-similar thing-stuffs: tbk – bl, eerie norwegian demos, chip noise, disco calculi, put on your goggles, jodi, hatebitZX Spectrum Orchestra, Lukas Nystrand’s “crack intros” or check out the noise category here. Hardcore will always die!

Demoscene Week at Rhizome

May 18, 2010

Rhizome, one of the leading sites for digital art, is focusing on the demoscene this week. So far, there have been two articles by Markku Reunanen and Antti Silvast at Demoscene Research and one by me. I was invited to write about chipmusic but decided to write a Micro History of Demoscene Music. The impossible mission of writing that history in 400 words somehow appealed to me, although the text is perhaps a bit fragmented. The purpose was to give a broad idea of what it is and give plenty of hints of where to look for more. So I left out larger topics such as the ontology of demoscene music, and authorship versus remixing in the scene. If you want to hear about those things, you are welcome to come to my lecture this weekend at the Demode Festival in Zagreb, Croatia. :—-)

And now, for now apparent reason, an old Amiga production by Otro and Non Plus Ultra:


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