Diskmags: Underground Journalism of the Demoscene


Sex'n'Crime #14, one of the first disk magazines (Commodore 64,1990)

Disk magazines, or just diskmags/mags for short, are digital journals that were originally published on diskettes (hence the name). They share some common properties with their traditional printed counterparts, such as ads, sections and articles, but some features, such as their background music, distribution channels and interactive navigation spring from their digital nature. The demoscene has actively created diskmags starting from the late 1980s, and before the Internet age they could be considered as one of the most important international communication channels of the community. There were also commercial diskmags published by companies and user clubs, but they will not be discussed here.

Diskmags, quite naturally, deal with topics that are of interest to the community. There is a wide variety of content available in them: for example, the largest issues of Imphobia sported as many as 250 articles, spanning several hundreds of pages. Among the most typical topics are news, discussions about the changing field of technology, swapping ads, programming tricks, party invitations, competition results, and interviews of notable demoscene members. Back in the day the discussions were often heated, complete with wars between groups and name-calling. Charts, where people could vote for their favorite groups and productions used to be common as well. Such ranking lists serve as an example of the competitive nature of the community.

R.A.W. #6, an example from the golden age of diskmags (Amiga 500, 1993)

The first diskmags, such as Sex'n'Crime, were simple and contained maybe only a dozen of articles. In a few years the amount of content and the audiovisual sophistication increased considerably, and as can be seen in the second picture, the magazines on the Commodore Amiga already featured a graphical user ...


MSX Demoscene


An MSX1 demo: Bold by Dvik & Joyrex

MSX was the first attempt to standardize software and hardware between different home computer vendors. With its 3.58 MHz processor, Microsoft BASIC, three-channel sound and modest graphics the MSX represented a very typical 8-bit home computer of the early 1980s. Several well-known companies such as Sony, Canon and Philips produced their own models, but their efforts were largely shadowed by the king of the hill, the Commodore 64. In spite of the tough competition, in some countries, such as The Netherlands, Spain and Brazil, the MSX line of computers was actually quite popular. A big factor in the success were the quality games produced by Konami, well-known for its numerous popular game series.

The MSX demoscene is a small but curious resident of the demo world. It could be roughly divided into two eras: the Dutch scene of the early nineties and the MSX renaissance of the late nineties. The Dutch demos ran on the advanced MSX2 computers that had improved graphics modes and often expansions such as additional memory or a sound cartridge. The effects seen in the first wave of demos were typical for the time: scrollers, colorbars, wobblers and even simple flat shaded vector graphics. Interestingly, in the Dutch scene it was considered perfectly normal to sell demos at fairs to other people, to get compensation for the hard work. In contrast, usually demos are distributed for free among the sceners and demo watchers. Many Dutch demogroups also went on to produce commercial games for the platform.

A Dutch MSX2 demo: Unknown Reality by NOP

When the MSX started to disappear from the face of mainstream computing towards the mid-nineties, the Dutch scene also cooled down. It wasn't until 1997 that new demos started to appear, this time ...


A Micro History of Demoscene Music


bughug#1 by Goto80

Most demoscene music is characteristic in that it's made by hand, distributed as semi-open source, and executed in real-time. Composers adapt to the technical limitations as well as the cultural conditions, where resources were often reserved for the visual content. For these purposes, demosceners refined the tracker-software, which is essentially a text-based step-sequencer with quick access to all sound parameters.

TEF GIGAMIX 2 House Acid amiga 1991 PART DEUX

The Amiga 500 (1987) was the first home computer that you could make chart hits with. The megamix was a popular form in the scene [see clip above] but used too much memory for demos. The so-called 'ST-01 style' used smaller samples bundled with the Soundtracker software.[1] In 1989, 4-mat cut out snippets of these samples and looped them, to make beeps. The term chipmusic was coined for this music, which flirted with C64-aesthetics and had a file size of about 15 kb, which made intro-coders happy.[2]

Meanwhile, several e.g. C64-musicians were striving away from 'chipmusic' towards e.g. industrial/rave, in line with the demoscene desire for transgression.[3] Some tried to mimic older styles such as jazz and funk [4] and what was known in the demoscene as 'doskpop' - something inbetween Jarre and Laserdance, very popular in the early 1990s demoscene.[5]

On the PC, demos became more similar to music videos or media art and some demoscene musicians were signed to labels (e.g. Brothomstates on Warp). Demos started to use MP3-audio, while other composers (again) preferred more restrictive settings like soundchips and tiny soft-synthesis.[6]

The musicdisk is an emblematic artifact of demoscene music. It's an executable file that contains music, graphics and texts generated in real-time. The songs are not linear recordings from A to B, but ...


Demo Effects in a Nutshell


Tint by The Black Lotus (1996)

Visual effects are the building blocks of demos. To impress the audience, an effect needs to look good, have some novelty in it, and be technically well-executed. Especially during the early years of the demoscene, in the late eighties, creatively pushing hardware was highly regarded, but later on visual quality became increasingly important. The capabilities of home computers have improved considerably during the last 25 years, which has let the programmers create effects that would have been way beyond the reach of the early 8-bits such as the Commodore 64. Likewise, old tricks have become outdated or unfashionable and fallen out of use.

Scrolling text from an Ikari crack intro (1988)

Most demos released in the late 1980s or early 1990s featured some kind of scrollers: text sliding across the screen. Several variations such as sinus or parallax scrollers exist, but the basic idea is still the same. Scrollers were often used for informative purposes, like displaying the credits or for sending greetings to fellow groups. Other common effects of the time were colorbars, wobblers and sprite graphics moving on top of the background. Common to all of them is that they directly reflect the capabilities of the contemporary hardware. A bit later image-based effects, such as various tunnels and zoomers, started to gain ground, reflecting the move away from bitmapped graphics hardware, which was ill-suited for such feats.

Flat-shaded vector graphics from Vectormania by Phenomena (1990)

Bump+texture mapped 3D from Solstice by Valhalla (1995)

Vector graphics such as rotating objects and scenes became popular in the early 1990s, first in the primitive flat shaded format. Throughout the nineties the sophistication of vector graphics increased little by little and at the end of the decade you could see texture mapping, real-time shading and ...


The Demoscene -- an Overview


Ikari crack intro for Commodore 64 from 1989

1. Introduction

The demoscene is an international collective of programmers, graphics artists and musicians who create real-time audio-visual presentations with home computers. These people call themselves demosceners or just sceners. The real-time presentations are in turn called demos. Geographically the demoscene is a European phenomenon, with relatively little activity on other continents.

In this article, we want to introduce demos and the demoscene to the uninitiated reader.1 In the recent 10 years or so, social scientists, humanists and media researchers have written a number of texts that present the topic. These studies have been overviewed in our online research bibliography, Demoscene Research.2

Generally, the existing studies can be separated into two domains. In the first of these, the demoscene has been viewed as artistic activity. Secondly, many researchers have assessed demoscene culture as a particular way of life, for example as youth culture, counter culture, multimedia hacker culture or gendered community.

These existing works have opened up important and relevant points for discussion. But at the same time, they have often taken quite an abstract and an outsider perspective to demoscene practices. Having been active demosceners ourselves from the 1990s, we feel that the real live action of being in the scene should also receive its share of attention.

In this introduction, we thus focus on what demosceners do and the diverse artifacts they produce. We describe the basic concepts used by the sceners and explain the scene's key social conventions. The final section concludes with tips for further reading.

2. What Demosceners Do

As the name already suggests, the main activity of the demoscene is making "demos". A demo is a series of computer graphics effects with a music soundtrack. In most cases the demo -- short for demonstration ...


Immaterial Incoherence


If we consider Internet art to be a distinct category of art making that uses the Internet as its primary medium or platform, we necessarily distinguish it from other forms in which the Internet does not play a primary role. The objects of Internet art are necessarily immaterial, and it is this immaterial quality that makes them so notoriously difficult to exhibit and archive. For some artists this has led to a kind of hybridization of Internet aesthetics and real world objects, such that they might be purchased or viewed in a real-world setting such as a museum or gallery space. For others it becomes a matter of the careful curation of digital images and documentation in an effort to brand oneself and build cultural capital where there is little possibility for financial compensation. After all, how do you monetize an object whose natural setting is a networked space that encourages many-to-many distribution practices? How do you sell a website, a .jpeg? These are responses to a crisis in image making and distribution in which older curatorial models that rely on the limitations of physical space and the exchange of physical objects are increasingly undermined by distanced, virtual, and distributed viewership online.

For art collective JOGGING - artists Brad Troemel and Lauren Christiansen - this crisis is not limited to Internet art, but has instead become the normative condition under which art is produced and viewed today.


Required Watching


In this talk, Prof. Coleman presents a cultural history and political analysis of one of the oldest Internet wars, often referred to as "Internet vs Scientology," which in recent times has witnessed a different incarnation in the form of "Project Chanology," which is orchestrated by a group called Anonymous who has led a series of online attacks and real world protests against Scientology. I argue that to understand the significance of these battles and protests, we must examine how the two groups stand in a culturally antipodal relation to each other.

Through this analysis of cultural inversion, Coleman will consider how long-standing liberal ideals take cultural root in the context of these battles, use these two cases to reveal important political transformations in Internet/hacker culture between the mid 1990s and today and finally will map the tension between pleasure/freedom (the "lulz") and moral good ("free speech") found among Anonymous in terms of the tension between liberal freedom and romantic/Nietzschean freedom/pleasure.


Originally via Networked_Performance


Required Reading


Gijs Gieskes, Eye

I would like to consider a notion that I have felt was intuitively true but have never explored in depth: that the 8-bit or "low-res" aesthetic of much contemporary electronic art can be thought of as a form of digital materialism. By employing the phrase "digital materialism," I draw upon a specific term that has circulated within the sphere of avant-garde filmmaking from the 1970s onward. In this context, materialism describes a sensibility, most explicitly theorized in the writings of London-based filmmaker Peter Gidal, in which the physical materials of film technology are made visible within the work itself, and thereby become decisive components of a reflexively cinematic but predominantly non-narrative experience. Materialism reverses the usual Hollywood practice of hiding the mode of production so as not to disrupt the suspension of disbelief necessary to enter into a staged, fictional world.


[Originally published in the catalog for the exhibition PLAYLIST at LABoral in Gijón, Spain curated by Domenico Quaranta, available in pdf form here. Subsequently republished to Vague Terrain above.]


Imperfect Sound Forever


Many scholars within the field of media archaeology opt to focus on the backstory behind an influential medium or technology and map out how its inception and organizational logic (re)shaped the world. An alternative approach is the excavation and arrangement of fringe/forgotten prototypes into an array to problematize dominant historical narratives regarding technological progress. Caleb Kelly's recent text Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction uses two consumer technologies, the phonograph and the compact disc, to survey 20th century musical and artistic production. The book catalogs a broad range of experimentation with these playback technologies to create detailed timelines of misuse and critical engagement. In bracketing this realm of sound-producing practice, Kelly proposes "cracked media," a subversion of technological devices whereby "...tools of media playback are expanded beyond their original function as a simple playback device for prerecorded sound or image." Given the prominence of the glitch and lo-fi malformed digital artifacts everywhere from media art to pop music to web video, it is easy to take the aesthetics of failure for granted. The investigation executed within Cracked Media prefigures many of the discussions that underpin generative and glitch aesthetics by focusing on work that foregrounds and interrogates the materiality of two specific mediums. Kelly methodically tracks projects that subvert the CD and phonograph over the entire 20th century and in doing so he builds a fascinating discourse about musical performance and reproduction that is equally comfortable referencing Friedrich Kittler as DJ Qbert.


"Something Wrong is Nothing Wrong: Jodi.org" on Motherboard.tv


In this clip, Motherboard.tv speak with Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans of the legendary Jodi about several of their works, focusing on their playfully chaotic approach toward technology.