The Charm of the Demoscene

A Commodore Amiga 2000 with 3.5 inch floppy drive, 20 MB hard drive, keyboard and mouse. A cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitor is missing. (Photo: Trafalgarcircle

Imagine home computing in the late 1970s. Machines are weak. Software is unrefined. Popular models include Apple II and its clones, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC. The IBM PC, and its clones, have not yet arrived.

I remember a friend showing off his Apple II. It would show a line of text, Name? followed by a blinking cursor. When I typed in my name, and pressed return, it would respond by writing: Hello, Brock! It was easy to be impressed by technology in the late 1970s.

Inspiration for today’s demoscene first came in 1980, when Atari used a looping demo with visual effects and music to show off the features of the Atari 400/800 computers.

Demoscene is a type of computer art, that will be described in more detail later in this post, and in chronological order. It has a darker past, but a lighter present. In this weblog post, many of the terms used will be defined. It is an artform that generally avoids mainstream exposure. According to some sources, about 10 000 people are involved with it.

Cracker = a programmer who alters video game code to remove copy protection. Cracking crew is used where more than one person is involved in the cracking process.

Cractro = (crack intro) an introductory screen used by a cracker/ cracking crew to claim credit for cracking a game. They became very complex a medium to demonstrate superior programming skills, advertise BBSes, greet friends, snub rivals and gain recognition.

More important in Europe, than in other parts of the world, the cractro transmutes into the demo. A cracker community emerges then evolves into an entity independent of gaming and software sharing.

New machines are better suited to support the scene, most specifically the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST. Some IBM clones are acceptable, if they have sound cards. Not the Apple Macintosh.

More inspiration came in 1985 when Atari demonstrated its latest 8-bit computers with a demo that alternated between a 3D walking robot and a flying spaceship.

That same year, Amiga released a signature demo showing the hardware capability of its Amiga machine, with a large, spinning, checkered ball that cast a translucent shadow.

Demo = a self-contained, originally extremely small, computer program that produces an audio-visual presentation. Its purpose is to demonstrate the programming, visual art and musical skill of its producer.

Demoparty = a festival where demos are produced, after a day or weekend long coding marathon, then presented, voted on by attendees, then released, originally on floppy disks and on bulletin board services (BBS).

Compo = a demoparty competition, traditionally divided into categories where submissions must adhere to certain restrictions: production on a specific type of computer, or a maximum data size. Submissions are almost always rendered in real time. This contrasts with animated movies, which simply record the result of a long and intensive rendering. The purpose of a compo is to push computing hardware to its limits.

Demoscene = computer art subculture focused on producing demos, international in scope.

Demoscener = a computer artist focused on technically challenging aesthetics, but with a final product that is visually and aurally pleasing.

Demogroup = a small, tightly-knit group of demosceners, centered around a coder/ programmer, a musician and a graphician. Some groups may have supporting roles and grow to tens of people, but this is the exception. Demogroups always have names. Individuals within the group have unique handles for self-expression. Demogroups use wordmarks, logos, catchphrases and slogans. They are skilled at public relations and even human resource management. The demogroup is undoubtedly the most important social unit in the demoscene.

While belonging to a group is often synonymous to being a demoscener, there are individual productions. Not infrequently, this individual will adopt a group name. There are also fake groups, involving secret identities for making humorous, political or vulgar productions without harming the reputation of the original group. Individuals invent new handles, or pseudo-pseudonyms.

There used to be an American demoscene, but it barely exists today. Who killed the American demoscene? The simple answer is the American crackdown on software piracy. European copyright law only criminalized for-profit breaches. In many European countries, including the Netherlands, Greece, Finland, Sweden and Norway, it was possible for the cracker to repent and to transform into a law-abiding demoscener.

The Amiga 2000

Our first family computer was a Commodore Amiga 1000, on loan to us while we waited for our Amiga 2000 to arrive, which it did some weeks later. In 1986/ 7, these were the best residential computers money could buy. If I remember correctly, the Amiga 2000 cost NOK 19 000 (a little over US$ 2 000 then or about US$ 4 000 in 2019.)

We bought the Amiga while living in Bodø, in Northern Norway. The company that sold it consisted of two young male idealists, who were among the most active Amiga enthusiasts in the country. In addition to selling machines, they developed software and also published a Norwegian language Amiga magazine. Some of my work appeared there. They had the largest collection of 3.5 inch Amiga floppy disks in Norway, which contained software and content on every conceivable topic. They made cractros.

The Amiga 2000 was an advanced machine. Some even claimed at the time that it would last into the 21st century. In contrast to the Amiga 1000, it allowed expansion cards to be added internally: SCSI host adapters, memory cards, CPU cards, network cards, graphics cards, serial port cards, and PC compatibility cards were available. We used a SCSI adapter with a hard drive, and a PC card, that allowed us to run both Amiga and PC-DOS programs. The Amiga 2000 also had five Zorro II card slots, the motherboard also has four PC ISA slots, two of which are inline with Zorro II slots for use with the A2088 bridgeboard, which provided IBM PC XT compatibility.

There were about 4 850 000 Amiga machines of all types sold. The machines were most popular in the United Kingdom and Germany, with about 1.5 million sold in each country. Sales in the high hundreds of thousands were made in other European nations. The machine was less popular in North America, where only about 700 000 were sold

The Naked Truth

Woman in bikini lying on paddleboard in water. Above her head is a red keyboard.
An advertisement for a Logitech Keys-to-Go Keyboard. The keyboard occupies about 0.2% of the photo’s area; the woman about 4%; the paddle board (with keyboard and woman) about 14% or 10% without these elements; water about 86%. (Photo: Logitech)

This post is especially for Arild, an inmate at another institution – currently on leave.

This post began to emerge after Arild sent an email to Billi Sodd about Modesty, a series  of 8 paintings depicting seven generations of (western) women dressed in beach wear at 20 year intervals from 1910 to 2030. Since 2030 is still well into the future, two choices were offered – the minimalistic, with the wearer dressed in a hat, and the maximalistic, with clothing resembling that of a burkini. Here is a translation of that letter:

In the name of modesty, you have made a very daring piece of art. The idea and execution are good, but you must remember that there are some groups in the country that may feel offended by what you present here. Even I am a religious teacher at an academy in the county and raised in Western Norway, so I am highly provoked, and thus violated when I see a woman in microbikini. My many Muslim friends will consider it almost blasphemous to equate their decent Burkini dressed women with the West Decadent and Sexualized Women’s Idea.

Art’s essence is to be provocative, so you’ve succeeded with your artwork. Congratulations! But: Is it all art that benefits, has the limits of freedom of expression? I give you a good advice, dear apprentice painter: If you want to keep your head, do not try to show the two futuristic paintings to an Imam or other Muhammadans. Even I am :raised in a Protestant spirit, and then you will meet a provocator with understanding and respect, but not necessarily with acceptance. As mentioned, the artwork is well done and you have shown good color understanding. I want to take this opportunity to recognize your talents in the subject. I look forward to further contributions in your further artist career, be aware of the choice of themes.”

Billi admits that his intention was to provoke. His work begs the question: What are the limits of propriety? It goes beyond beachwear. It goes beyond clothing. I have considered painting a second series, with a focus on men, but not in terms of clothes. That’s because men dress in cars. The sportscar is the male equivalent of the female microkini. Of course, this series would have to feature 1957 – most probably a Chevrolet. I am considering the years: 1897, 1917, 1937, 1957, 1977, 1997, 2017 and 2037.

Male clothing, in this case a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air 2-door hardtop. (Photo: hotrod.com)

Despite believing in God, and being a member of a religious community, I have an appreciation of the atheistic feminist movement, Femen. Their grievances with established religion are largely justified. Scandals emerge almost daily to prove their point. At this stage in human development, I can support large portions of the Femen manifesto, including:

“FEMEN Ideology: Atheism […] FEMEN’s Objectives: church – by putting these institutes through subversive trolling to force them to strategic surrender. […] FEMEN’s Requirements: to universally and completely separate the church from the state and to prohibit any intervention of the religious institutions in the civic, sex and reproductive lives of modern women.”

A typical photo from a Femen protest. (Photo: Femen.org)