Circuits Ablaze*

How Technical Limitations Pushed the Early Demoscene to Produce Digital Art

Master's Thesis by Marin Balabanov


Contents of this Master's Thesis

Demos can be defined as compact computer programs that generate visuals and sound. They are examples of real-time algorithmic art showcasing the artistic, musical, and programming skills of their creators, and can be appreciated by computer experts and a general audience alike for their ingenuity and the creativity in overcoming technical limitations. The enthusiasts and artists who create demos are loosely organized in the “demoscene” to hone their skills by creating art that takes computers to their technical limits. This thesis examines the question of how technical limitations and cultural boundaries enabled and motivated the process of creating computer art in the demoscene of the 1980s.

The focus of this master's thesis is on the demo-group The Exceptions during the years 1987 to 1989 in the Atari ST demoscene. These were the formative years of the Atari ST demoscene, and The Exceptions were the first to produce demos on the computer system.

Thriving Due to Limitations

Technical limitations and societal restrictions imposed on art have a negative impact on the process and outcomes of art creation. Yet, the argument of this thesis is that the demoscene's ability to thrive despite technical limitations and cultural restrictions transformed it from a community of hobbyists in the 1980s into a media arts subculture and key group in the open-source movement and computer games industry. Despite this, media art history has not fully explored and documented the demoscene.

Cultural Heritage and Its Relevance

Currently, the digital subculture of the demoscene is in the process of being included as the very first digital culture on the list of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. The ethos of early demo-makers anticipated the later open-source movement with the idea that the machine they own should be completely controlled by the developers and all its capabilities discovered and used.

As is demonstrated in this thesis, this subculture's early history is a defining aspect of the history of the digital arts and an important chapter in computing history.

Methods and Approach

A media art history examination of the demoscene in its entirety would exceed the scope of a thesis. Hence, this thesis approaches the historic demos created by The Exceptions during 1987 through 1989 as digital artifacts for detailed analysis. Images, music, scrolling text, and demo effects will be subject to analysis, and the technical limitations that were exceeded and broken will be discussed. The analysis will include first-hand accounts of the demo-makers, The Exceptions, as told from the time of the demos' creation to decades afterwards. Some of the areas discussed are the motivation behind the images, the reason for targeting the Commodore Amiga as a competing system, and how the technical limitations were circumvented and exceeded.

The analysis of the demos will show how the makers created demos by virtue of their motivation to exceed machine limits, and how the competition between different demo-groups created the demoscene on the Atari ST. The thesis concludes that limitations are an important catalyst in the creation of art and thus motivate innovation. Finally, in the light of media art history, the thesis will explore the different methods for the conservation of demo art and as a result provides an in-depth case study on the creation of a prototype digital platform to archive demo art.

Master's thesis by Marin Balabanov.
Supervisor: Dr. Gerald Nestler.

[*] The original thesis handed in for the master's program was titled "Shattering the Limits".
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