Circuits Ablaze

How Technical Limitations Pushed the Early Demoscene to Produce Digital Art

Master's Thesis by Marin Balabanov


I always thought that demos were cool. On my old Commodore Amiga 600 in the early 1990s, I used to watch these real-time animations excitedly, mesmerized by their abstract graphics, pumping soundtrack and inventive images. Not only content to stare amazed at, I started copying the art style in art software, trying to recreate and capture what appealed to me about their imagery. I like to think that without this fascination I would never have pursued a career in IT. Eventually, my interests moved away from demos and, to my shame I must confess, I forgot about them. If I ever thought of demos again, I considered them to be phenomena of the 80s and 90s.

Rediscovering Demos

Around a decade ago, I attended an event at the Subotron digital games culture community in the MuseumQuartier in Vienna. The presentation and exhibition provided a showcase of the works of European demo-makers. I was surprised to learn that the creator scene around demos was not only alive and well but positively thriving. As technology had permeated all parts of our lives, so had creative expression come to inhabit the digital domain, with demos as the incumbent digital forebearers of the media art that grew out of home computers.

While demo-makers in the early years created demo art to surpass the limitations of their computers, they were now faced with the comparatively limitless power and performance of modern machines. And they started to deliberately introduce their own limitations. In some cases, these were time limits to create a demo or size limits for the memory used. For me it was inspiring and breathtaking to see what these wizards had created. I was impressed by their technical expertise but had a premonition that there might be something that I just didn't understand at the time. Then it struck me: The limitations kicked their creativity into high gear.

With this thesis, I try to reveal the underlying truth to this premonition. It is one thing to be dazzled by colorful presentation and a completely different thing to investigate and examine early demos from the perspective of a media art historian. On my journey into the microcosm of those demo-makers I chose to explore, I learned how art emerges at the intersection of technology and culture and how strong a motivation the aspiration is to overcome limitations.

And last but not least, because I still think that demos are cool.


I would like to thank my supervisor Gerald Nestler for providing the best supervision a student could ask for. Strict enough to challenge my shortcomings but kind enough to guide me back onto the right track.

My special thanks go to Univ.-Prof. Dr. Oliver Grau and Wendy Coones, M.Ed, at the Danube-University Krems for creating their uniquely fascinating, supremely invigorating and wonderfully multi-faceted MediaArtHistories program and for always being there for their students, sometimes at impossible hours.

And finally, I would like to thank my fellow student Carl Philipp Hoffmann for graciously listening to me driveling on about demos on old computers. Without our lively conversations, many of the thoughts I brought to paper would never have become coherent.