Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Materiality and the demoscene: when does a platform feel real?

I've just finished reading Daniel Botz's 428-page PhD dissertation "Kunst, Code und Maschine: Die Ästhetik der Computer-Demoszene".

The book is easily the best literary coverage of the demoscene I've seen so far. It is basically a history of demos as an artform with a particular emphasis on the esthetical aspects of demos, going very deeply into different styles and techniques and their development, often in relation to the features of the three "main" demoscene platforms (C-64, Amiga and PC).

What impressed me the most in the book and gave me most food for thought, however, was the theoretical insight. Botz uses late Friedrich Kittler's conception of media materiality as a theoretical device to explain how the demoscene relates to the hardware platforms it uses, often contrasting the relationship to that of the mainstream media art. In short: the demoscene cares about the materiality of the platforms, while the mainstream art world ignores it.

To elaborate: mainstream computer artists regard computers as tools, universal "anything machines" that can translate pure, immaterial, technology-independent ideas into something that can be seen, heard or otherwise experienced. Thus, ideas come before technology. Demosceners, however, have an opposite point of view; for them, technology comes before ideas. A computer platform is seen as a material that can be brought into different states, in a way comparable to how a sculptor brings blocks of stone into different forms. The possibilities of a material can be explored with direct, uncompromising interaction such as low-level programming. The platform is not neutral, its characteristics are essential to what demos written for it end up being like. While a piece of traditional computer art can often be safely removed from its specific technological context, a demo is no longer a demo if the platform is neglected.

The focus on materiality also results in a somewhat unusual relationship with technology. For most people, computer platforms are just evolutionary stages on a timeline of innovation and obsolescence. A device serves for a couple of years before getting abandoned in favor of a new model that is essentially the same with higher specs. The characteristics of a digital device boil down to numerical statistics in the spirit of "bigger is better". The demoscene, however, sees its platforms as something more multi-faceted. An old computer or gaming console may be interesting as an artistic material just because of its unique combination of features and limitations. It is fine to have historical, personal or even political reasons for choosing a specific platform, but they're not necessary; the features of the system alone are enough to grow someone's creative enthusiasm. As so many people misunderstand the relationship between demoscene and old hardware as a form of "retrocomputing", it is very delightful to see such an accurate insight to it.

But is it really that simple?

I'm not entirely familiar with the semantic extent of "materiality" in media studies, but it is apparent that it primarily refers to physicality and concreteness. In many occasions, Botz contrasts materiality against virtuality, which, I think, is an idea that stems from Gilles Deleuze. This dichotomy is simple and appealing, but I disagree with Botz in how central it is to what the demoscene is doing. After all, there are, for example, quite many 8-bit-oriented demoscene artists who totally approve virtualization. Artists who don't care whether their works are shown with emulators or real hardware at parties, as long as the logical functionality is correct. Some even produce art for the C-64 without having ever owned a material C-64. Therefore, virtualization is definitely not something that is universally frowned upon on the demoscene. It is apparently also possible to develop a low-level, concrete material relationship with an emulated machine, a kind of "material" that is totally virtual to begin with!

Computer programming is always somewhat virtual, even in its most down-to-the-metal incarnations. Bits aren't physical objects; concentrations of electrons only get the role of bits from how they interact with the transistors that form the logical circuits. A low-level programmer who strives for a total, optimal control of a processor doesn't need to be familiar with these material interactions; just knowing the virtual level of bits, registers, opcodes and pipelines is enough. The number of abstraction layers between the actual bit-twiddling and the layer visible to the programmer doesn't change how programming a processor feels like. A software emulator or an FPGA reimplementation of the C-64 can deliver the same "material feeling" to the programmer as the original, NMOS-based C-64. Also, if the virtualization is perfect enough to model the visible and audible artifacts that stem from the non-binary aspects of the original microchips, even a highly experienced enthusiast can be fooled.

I therefore think it is more appropriate to consider the "feel of materiality" that demosceners experience to stem from the abstract characteristics of the platform than its physicality. Programming an Atari VCS emulator running in an X86 PC on top of an operating system may very well feel more concrete than programming the same PC directly with the X86 assembly language. When working with a VCS, even a virtualized one, a programmer needs to be aware of the bit-level machine state at all times. There's no display memory in the VCS; the only way to draw something on the screen is by telling the processor to put specific values in specific video chip registers at specific clock cycles. The PC, however, does have a display memory that holds the pixel values of the on-screen picture, as well as a video chip that automatically refreshes its contents to the screen. A PC programmer can therefore use very generic algorithms to render graphics in the display memory without caring about the underlying hardware, while on the VCS everything needs to be thought out from the specific point of view of the video chip and the CPU.

It seems that the "feel of materiality" has particularly much to do with complexity -- of both the platform and the manipulated data. A high-resolution picture, taking up megabytes of display memory, looks nearly identical on a computer screen regardless of whether it is internally represented in RGB or YUV colorspace. However, when we get a pixel artist to create versions of the same picture for various formats that use less than ten kilobytes of display memory, such as PC textmode or C-64 multicolor, the specific features and constraints of each format shine out very clearly. High levels of complexity allow for generic, platform-independent and general-purpose techniques whereas low levels of complexity require the artist to form a "material relationship" with the format.

Low complexity and the "feel of materiality" are also closely related to the "feel of total control" which I regard as an important state that demosceners tend to reach for. The lower the complexity of a platform, the easier it is to reach a total understanding of its functionality. Quite often, coders working on complex platforms choose to deliberately lower the perceived complexity by concentrating on a reduced, "essential" subset of the programming interface and ignoring the rest. Someone who codes for a modern PC, for example, may want to ignore the polygonal framework of the 3D API altogether and exclusively concentrate on shader code. Those who write softsynths, even for tiny size classes, tend to ignore high-level synthesis frameworks that may be available on the OS and just use a low-level PCM-soundbuffer API. Subsets that provide nice collections of powerful "Lego blocks" are the way to go. Even though bloated system libraries may very well contain useful routines that can be discovered and abused in things like 4-kilobyte demos, most democoders frown upon this idea and may even consider it cheating.

Emulators, virtual platforms and reduced programming interfaces are ways of creating pockets of lowered complexity within highly complex systems -- pockets that feel very "material" and controllable for a crafty programmer. Even virtual platforms that are highly abstract, idealistic and mathematical may feel "material". The "oneliner music platform", merely defined as C-like expression syntax that calculates PCM sample values, is a recent example of this. All of its elements are defined on a relatively high level, no specification of any kind of low-level machine, virtual or otherwise. Nevertheless, a kind of "material characteristic" or "immanent esthetics" still emerges from this "platform", both in how the sort formulas tend to sound like and what kind of hacks and optimizations are better than others.

The "oneliner music platform" is perhaps an extreme example, but in general, purely virtual platforms have been there for a while already. Things like Java demos, as well as multi-platform portable demos, have been around since the late 1990s, although they've usually remained quite marginal. For some reason, however, Botz seems to ignore this aspect of the demoscene nearly completely, merely stating that multi-platform demos have started to appear "in recent years" and that the phenomenon may grow bigger in the future. Perhaps this is a deliberate bias chosen to avoid topics that don't fit well within Botz's framework. Or maybe it's just an accident. I don't know.


To summarize: when Botz talks about the materiality of demoscene platforms, he often refers to phenomena that, in my opinion, could be more fruitfully analyzed with different conceptual devices, especially complexity. Wherever the dichotomy of materiality and immateriality comes up, I see at least three separate conceptual dimensions working under the hood:

1. Art vs craft (or "idea-first" vs "material-first"). This is the area where Botz's theory works very well: demoscene is, indeed, more crafty or "material-first" than most other communities of computer art. However, the material (i.e. the demo platform) doesn't need to be material (i.e. physical); the crafty approach works equally well with emulated and purely virtual platforms. The "artsy" approach, leading to conceptual and "avant-garde" demos, has gradually become more and more accepted, however there's still a lot of crafty attitude in "art demos" as well. I consider chip musicians, circuit-benders and homebrew 8-bit developers about as crafty on average as demosceners, by the way.

2. Physicality vs virtuality. There's a strong presence of classic hardware enthusiasm on the demoscene as well as people who build their own hardware, and they definitely are in the right place. However, I don't think the physical hardware aspect is as important in the demoscene as, for example in the chip music, retrogaming and circuit-bending communities. On the demoscene, it is more important to demonstrate the ability to do impressive things in limited environments than to be an owner of specific physical gear or to know how to solder. A C-64 demo can be good even if it is produced with an emulator and a cross-compiler. Also, as demo platforms can be very abstract and purely virtual as well and still be appealing to the subculture, I don't think there's any profound dogma that would drive demosceners towards physicality.

3. Complexity. The possibility of forming a "material relationship" with an emulated platform shows that the perception of "materiality", "physicality" and "controllability" is more related to the characteristics of the logical platform than to how many abstraction layers there are under the implementation. A low computational complexity, either in the form of platform complexity or program size, seems to correlate with a "feeling of concreteness" as well as the prominence of "emergent platform-specific esthetics". What I see as the core methodology of the demoscene seems to work better at low than high levels of complexity and this is why "pockets of lowered complexity" are often preferred by sceners.

Don't take me wrong: despite all the disagreements and my somewhat Platonist attitude to abstract ideas in general, I still think virtuality and immateriality have been getting too much emphasis in today's world and we need some kind of a countercultural force that defends the material. Botz also covers possible countercultural aspects of the demoscene, deriving them from the older hacker culture, and I found all of them very relevant. My basic disagreement comes from the fact that Botz's theory doesn't entirely match with how I perceive the demoscene to operate, and the subculture as a whole cannot therefore be put under a generalizing label such as "defenders and lovers of the materiality of the computer".

Anyway, I really enjoyed reading Botz's book and especially appreciated the theoretical insight. I recommend the book to everyone who is interested in the demoscene, its history and esthetic variety, AND who reads German well. I studied the language for about five years at school but I still found the text quite difficult to decipher at places. I therefore sincerely hope that my problems with the language haven't led me to any critical misunderstandings.