Circuits Ablaze

How Technical Limitations Pushed the Early Demoscene to Produce Digital Art

Master's Thesis by Marin Balabanov

Introduction: Beholding the Digital Ephemeral

For many people, algorithms are complex mathematical equations that quietly work in the background, powering the technology around us. But algorithms can be much more.

Artists use algorithms to create media art. One kind of algorithmic art is called computer demos. A demo is a computer-generated real-time video clip that shows what kind of graphic and sound effects can be achieved using the computer hardware to its full potential. In many cases, demos are inspired by the aesthetics of video games.

The computer art subculture, known as the demoscene, is a place where programs become sensory audio-visual experiences in a display of the artistic, musical, and development skills of their creators.

One does not need to be an expert to appreciate the creativity and ingenuity behind software-based art, especially when considering the ever-present technical limitations creators must work with.

After all, technology is constantly evolving; a demo created only a decade ago can become obsolete and lost; a victim of its own creative solutions. Demos are often made using undocumented capabilities and features of old computers by developers seeking to push the machines to their limits and beyond.

Since the early 1980s, enthusiasts have developed demos on a wide range of computer systems like the Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the Commodore Amiga, Windows PCs and the Atari ST.[1] On classic retro-hardware in particular, the demo creators use techniques employed in the development of games, in some cases even pioneering these techniques themselves.

One of the most notable groups of demo creators were The Exceptions, who were the first to create demos on the Atari ST home computer in the late 1980s. They did not accept the limitations of the hardware capabilities of this 16-bit machine and instead set out to break them. They wanted to use more colors on the screen than the ST could display, produce better music than the ST's limited sound chip was capable of producing, and match the effects seen on more capable and more expensive systems.

From 1987 to 1989, The Exceptions produced half a dozen demos that proved that the Atari ST was far more accomplished than even the manufacturer had expected. By distributing their demo programs on public domain disks and Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), they reached out to computer users and other enthusiasts to amaze and inspire them. This is how they created the Atari ST demoscene.

Topic, Objective and Methodology of This Master's Thesis

This master's thesis describes the demo art created by The Exceptions. The demo-group first originated as crackers but moved away from illegally pirating and distributing games to create demos. The thesis focuses on the analysis of their productions from 1987 to 1989, which were so successful that they inspired other groups internationally to create demos and subsequently form a collective of demo-groups, aptly named The Union.

At the core of this master's thesis lies the question: How did technical limitations and cultural boundaries enable and motivate the process of creating computer demos instead of hampering and limiting it?

This thesis investigates the cultural context that The Exceptions worked in, their motivating factors, the technical areas they pioneered, and how limitations enable and motivate the creation of art. It retraces the steps that led from the first demos, created by The Exceptions out of the technical limitations of the Atari ST. Subsequently, it recounts how they broke most of the technical restrictions by teaming up with other demo-makers all over Europe. Thus, they laid some of the groundwork for the networked and connected community that thrives today as the demoscene. The hypothesis that limitations are a motivating factor in art is put to the test by applying it not only to the demoscene, but to a wider variety of individuals in art history.

Finally, the thesis examines the conservation of media art in the archival context, including an examination of the different methods to salvage demo files and run demos on original hardware and in emulation. In the final appendix, the thesis concludes with a discussion of archives of media art and the technical possibilities for implementing them.

The examination of the demos is the central part of this thesis and uses the methodology of text analysis. The appendices examine different options to implement new media art archives enumerating their advantages and disadvantages. The final case study documents the development of a demo archive programmed for this thesis.

Why are computer demos important objects to study in art history? Many so-called "bedroom coders" in the 1980s emerged from the demoscene, i.e., young programmers who started writing software at the start of the home computer revolution from their bedrooms before they had actual offices.[2] This led to many individual careers not only in the areas of software development, but also in other areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Music created in the early demoscene became the foundation for an aesthetic called chip music or chip tunes, where musicians choose to write their music the style of old video games. This form and practice have long been a vivid area of experimentation in the fringes of new media art, but in the past few years has found its way into the mainstream as a retro-aesthetic, e.g., in Hollywood movies such as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) and Thor: Ragnarok (2017). Furthermore, many musicians and DJs in the 1990s emerged from the demoscene or were inspired by it.[3] This is particularly true for the vivid techno music scene of mid 1990s Germany, but also as recently as Kanye West, who wrote his first music on a "tracker" on the Commodore Amiga.[4]

In essence, computer demos are the definition of new media art on the edge of technology. They expose and break the engineering constraints of emergent media.

The Historic Developments and Achievements in the Years 1987 - 1989

In demo history, the era before the mid-1990s is referred to as "old school" (or "oldskool" as it is also referred to in the demoscene and in the literature[5]). The chosen scope of this thesis falls in the middle of this "old school" time period. Why are these particular years important for the Atari ST demoscene?

The year 1987 saw the release of the first demo for the Atari ST, created by The Exceptions. There had been demos on other systems before, but overall, the demoscene was in its infancy. In this first year, The Exceptions released two more demos and continued their productive streak into 1988. This was the year an editor from the German magazine ST-Magazin 68000er befriended and persuaded them to reveal their coding tricks in a series of articles. Not only did this turn them from an insider group into minor celebrities in the hobbyist computer scene of the Atari ST, but it also had three important effects:

  1. Even though The Exceptions did not use their real names in articles and only went by their cracker handles, they were now exposed to a much wider audience, accelerating their separation from the cracker scene, and they turned "legit," solely as creators of demos. This, in turn, advanced their plans to become game developers.[6]
  2. The exposure of demos as a concept and the demos created by The Exceptions, including all the tricks, processes, and methods they used, had an inspirational effect on other coders and would-be coders. The inner workings and intricacies of a demo were laid bare, and all the audience had to do was to work hard enough to understand and replicate them to create demos. If the German-speaking demoscene was not already born, then this was its metaphoric birth. Numerous individual demo-makers and demo-groups also started creating demos for the Atari ST.[7]
  3. The Exceptions and the Atari ST demoscene that was inspired from them organized the first demo parties for the system with the ST News International Christmas Coding Convention (STNICC) in 1990. There had been many copy parties where cracked games were shared, but STNICC was the first party completely devoted to demo-making.[8]

By 1989, The Exceptions started to team up with other demo-groups like DeltaForce and The CareBears (TCB) to form the Union. This year saw the release of the first major megademo for the Atari ST, a form of demo particular to this system; the Union broke most of the ST's technical limits in their Union Demo.

In these three short years, the Atari ST demoscene evolved from the efforts of a tightly knit group to a union of multiple demo-groups, culminating in what can be clearly identified as a pre-web network of demo-makers by 1989... even though they did not know it at the time.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Prior Academic Research

The demoscene as a field of academic study is relatively young; yet several definitive works exist already. These writings by academics, such as Doreen Hartmann, Daniel Botz, Lassi Tasajrvi, and Markuu Reunanen, are astoundingly comprehensive and insightful.

Hartmann's doctoral thesis was published in book form as Digital Art Natives. Botz's Kunst, Code und Machine, together with Tasajrvi's Demoscene: The Art of Real-time and Reunanen's licentiate thesis Computer Demos - What Makes Them Tick? are masterful exemplars of academic research cast in eloquent writing. They are one of the reasons for beginning the journey to write a master's thesis on this topic, albeit in a micro-analytic manner, swapping their breadth for the details of a specific scene for analysis.

There is one aspect that ties the quite different works of Hartmann, Botz, Tasajrvi, and Reunannen together. Out of the necessity to describe and analyze a new area of research, their work is admirably overarching, defining the ground rules for further research and finding and determining the historic principles from the perspective of the latter-day 2000s and the mature demoscene. By then, the demoscene had established its formal structure.

The Atari ST demoscene, while immensely productive and inspirational, never produced a number of demos as vast as the scene around the Commodore machines, therefore research in this area has always been limited. Seminal literature on the Atari ST has only recently been published. Marco A. Breddin wrote a trilogy of oral history books that he calls Atari ST and the Creative People.[9] The three books are Breakin' the Borders. A true story of digital liberation and Power Without the Price (in 2017), Beyond the Borders. A fantastic journey to the outer rims of 68000 (in 2018), and Return of the Borders. In the virtual realm of high-tech pixel worlds (in 2019).

Breddin does not limit his works to the demoscene; he delivers an exemplary undertaking of describing the Atari ST development, gaming, music, and software scene over a ten-year period ranging from the early days of the Atari ST through the release of the TT workstation, the expanded Atari STE, the phenomenal Atari Falcon 32-bit computer, and the Atari Jaguar video game system, until the Atari Corporation went out of business in the mid-1990s.

In the past few years, the study of demos has shifted towards more detail-oriented research. In her article Demo Age: New Views, Digital Humanities researcher Canan Hastik analyzed the type and frequency of effects in demos.[10] She applied methods established by the esteemed media scholar Lev Manovich to analyze digital art by distilling multiple individual frames of a sequence into a single image. Manovich outlined his methodology in How To Follow Global Digital Cultures.[11] Hastik is currently preparing the publication of her doctoral thesis, Knowledge Design of Digital Subcultural Heritage. Heuristics from Curating Creativity, Aesthetics and Culture of the Demoscene.

The demoscene is one of many manifestations of hacker culture. In this context, it is tempting to explore seminal works on hackers; for example, the exciting accounts of the ingenious, the illuminating, and the strange, such as Bruce Sterling's hilarious The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier and Stephen Levy's historic examination Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. A similar chord is struck in Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier by Suelette Dreyfus and a pre-Wikileaks Julian Assange, published in multiple editions, the last of which was released in 2011.

We could go back even further to the very origins of computing as we know it with Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges and Douglas Hofstadter, published in 2014. We could explore the dark side of the early days of information processing as described in IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation by Edwin Black, first published in 2001 and rereleased in an expanded edition in 2012. Black recounts the sad and enraging tale of how pre-computing tabulation machines were used by the criminal Nazi regime in World War II Germany to analyze, catalog, and ultimately decimate whole populations on an industrial level. But while these historic stories are engrossing as well as disturbing, a deeper examination would go far beyond the scope of a master's thesis devoted to a specific demoscene.

Demo-makers were part of the open-source movement and culture as it emerged in the early 1990s. The ground-breaking works on open and free software by Richard Stallman would apply here, and Eric S. Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar. The downright delightful Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age by Paul Graham cannot be recommended enough; it discusses not only open source, but also the tension between creativity and coding. A tension that particularly underlies software-based new media art.

Demos as New Media Art

Demo-makers are digital artists creating algorithmic art using the same tools and the same general-purpose computers used in business, gaming, and research. Like their predecessors in the past, demo-makers today still explore the capabilities of computer hardware to learn how to leverage it to produce art. They are a subculture of new media artists aligned with the description in Digital Art through the Looking Glass by Oliver Grau (et al.):

"With digitisation influencing our everyday lives through telecommunication, social media and mobile applications, digital technologies document, organise and shape contemporary societies. By creating with the same technologies, artists investigate our digitised cultures and circumvent the black-boxing thereof. They investigate and mediate the technological influence on socio-cultural development and transformation. Through transdisciplinary methods at the intersection of art, science and technology, digital art combines artistic creation with innovative research and technological development and thereby bridges art history to digital methods and contemporary socio-cultural phenomena."[12]

Other areas at the time, particularly coding, were not regarded as acts of artistic creativity. In the decades since, the consensus that inventive coding, in fact, constitutes artistic creativity has grown towards acceptance, as argued by Paul Graham in Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age:

" the other extreme you have the hackers, who are trying to write interesting software, and for whom computers are just a medium of expression, as concrete is for architects or paint is for painters."[13]

Standing on the shoulder of these giants, this thesis explores a specific history, the Atari ST demoscene, and the most important demo-group of the system's early years, The Exceptions. By exploring this clearly demarcated area of research, this thesis attempts to do what other works of research have only seldom achieved: an in-depth and detailed examination of specific manifestations and works of the early days of a small part of the demoscene to offer a conclusion of general validity by revealing how limitations affect and propel artists.


As tempting as it might be to pronounce ST as "Saint," it is actually simply pronounced as "Es Tea."
» Back [1]

Wiltshire, Alex (Ed.). 2015. Britsoft: An Oral History. Read Only Memory.
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Weinstein, Paul. June 2, 2016. 8 Influential Chiptune Artists Who Pioneered the Genre. Soundfly, (Retrieved on August 12, 2020)
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Music trackers are sound and music applications that allow musicians to address each track individually and play music modules and sound samples on them. Trackers were popularized in 16-bit video game and the early demoscene. See
» Back [4]

Reunanen, Markuu; Silvast, Antti. 2009. Demoscene Platforms: A Case Study on the Adoption of Home Computers. University of Art and Design Helsinki.
» Back [5]

"The publisher's revenge" Page 167. Breddin Marco A. (Foreword by Prof. Dr. Gundolf S. Freyermuth). 2017. Breakin' the Borders. A true story of digital liberation and Power Without the Price. Hannover. MicroZeit Verlag.
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"TEX, The CareBears, ULM and the Lost Boys were like superstars to us." Page 358. Breddin, Marco A. Breakin' the Borders.
» Back [7]

"It was the first big Atari ST party." Page 364. Breakin' the Borders.
» Back [8]

The writer of this thesis has supported Marco Breddin's crowd-funding campaigns and is listed as one of the supporters in the third volume (and - of course, misspelling it.
» Back [9]

Hastik, Canan. 2014. Demo Age: New Views. University of Applied Sciences Darmstadt. 19 pages. (Retrieved on June 15, 2020)
» Back [10]

Manovich, Lev. 2009. How To Follow Global Digital Cultures.
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Grau, Oliver; Hoth, Janina; Wandl-Vogt (Eds.). 2019. Digital Art through the Looking Glass. New strategies for archiving, collecting and preserving in digital humanities. Edition Donau-Universität Krems; ÖAW Austrian Academy of Sciences.
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Graham, Paul. 2004. Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age. O'Reilly.
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