The demoscene was the first large subculture for audiovisual hacking. It is centered around the demo – a piece of software that demonstrates new tricks. The demoscene is a meritocracy where groups compete in doing the best code, visuals and sounds. They meet at copy parties to try to win the competitions. And party.
The demoscene grew out of the piracy movement of the early 1980’s and they shared infrastructure for a long time. Communication often happened through illegal means – e.g making free phonecalls or sending snail mails for free. That’s how teenagers would set up a trans-atlantic network long before the web was around.
As a fringe culture it could apply its own form of copyright. Sceners frequently appropriated pop cultural artifacts – both sounds and images. But it was considered lame to sample from fellow demosceners. This is noteworthy, since many file formats were quite ‘open’ and made it easy to look into.
The aesthetics of the demoscene is very different from “new media art”. Demos are normally neither conceptual nor interactive. They seldom have generative and glitchy aesthetics. To most people, demos are actually quite boring. They are not designed for a large audience.
Demos are the opposite to recordings. They are performative. Demos often generate everything in code, especially when they are 1 kilobyte or less. There’s no space for recordings – you have to rely on algorithms, for example. It is curious then, that demos so rarely are interactive.
Demosceners often do low-level trial and error rather than mathematics and system-friendly data. Since a key motivation is to come up with new tricks, the methods become more and more obscure.
The demoscene used several quite distinct forms of artefacts, except for audiovisual software. The diskmag was an electronic magazine. Diskcovers were photocopied paper covers for floppy disks. ASCII art developed a unique bransch in the demoscene somewhere inbetween poetry and graffiti.
Further reading can be found at Demoscene Research. Some good ones include:
Botz, Daniel (2011) Kunst, Code un Maschine: Die Ästhetik der Computer-Demoszene. 2011. Very extensive and informative PhD thesis in German.
Carlsson, Anders (2010) The Forgotten Pioneers of Creative Hacking and Social Networking – Introducing the Demoscene. My unfinished text – attempts to make it politically relevant.
Polgar, Tamas (2005) Freax – The Brief History of the Demoscene. Three impressive volumes of anecdotes “by sceners for sceners”.
Walleij, Linus (1998) Copyright Does Not Exist. Describes the demoscene in relation to underground subcultures such as phreaking, hacking and rave culture.