British artist-filmmaker Oliver Payne and American painter Kevin Bouton-Scott have joined forces to produce a new documentary that tells an almost forgotten story of the ANSI scene. The Art Of Warez covers the days before the Internet when early hackers and online pirates created an original and, even today, a virtually unknown art movement.
Everyone with nerd appreciation who grew up then will remember the sound of a modem connecting to the Bulletin Board Systems, or BBS, and the unprecedented form of communication they provided. Over time, they became a form of file sharing, and ground zero for hackers and pirates who illegally distributed cracked software, known as Warez, along with other illegal materials. The visual packaging presenting their innovative activities, which was called an ANSI, consisted of simple pictures made from colored blocks. Keyboard-built graphics became so popular that they turned into an underground art movement similar to graffiti, hence “pre-Internet hacker graffiti”.
The Art Of Warez tells a story about the birth, life, and the fall of the ANSI art scene, featuring important individuals and groups who signified the era, as well as a substantial selection of artworks from that period. We spoke with both artists to talk about their motifs and their connection to a scene that immortalized a decade filled with copyright theft, stolen long-distance phone calls, and digitalized pictures of fantasy warriors, comic book monsters, naked ladies, and graffiti B-Boys.
Sasha Bogojev: What’s the source of your interest in the ANSI art scene?
Oliver Payne: ANSI manages to combine a number of things I already have a deep interest in or passionately engage with, such as video games, hacking, graffiti, anarchy, comics, crime, and just general little kid stuff.
Kevin Bouton-Scott: ANSI was a huge part of my early teens, and it continued to inform a lot of the work I made in the years following. After being part of this scene, I always maintained interest in the ways people and art have changed based on the variables of different iterations of technology.
Were you active in that scene in any way?
OP: Not at all. I gratefully and gleefully enjoyed playing pirated games but had no participation beyond being a consumer. As youth subcultures go, it seems like one of the most exciting ones to have a really active engagement with. You get to play video games for free on the day they come out, draw monsters, mech robots, wizards and insanely funky wild-style graffiti, get free long-distance phone calls, screw over The Man, make friends online about fifteen years before social media, and feel like a badass because it’s all mega illegal. Also, you learn how to be good at computers and sort of invent the internet whilst you’re at it. And you don’t even need to leave the house. It makes hobbies like being a football hooligan or a grunger seem really rubbish in comparison.
KBS: Yes, I was a member of the group iCE that specialized in lettering and ran a BBS that distributed monthly art packs as they were being released.
What motivated you to create this movie?
OP: I couldn’t believe that something as fascinating and as important as ANSI was not more well known. Where are the books on this stuff? I feel like I’ve seen dozens of versions of the same documentary about the history of the internet, Silicon Valley, video games and hacking. They all use the same stock footage and tell the same story. Somehow BBSs are never properly included, and the ANSI scene is omitted entirely. I wanted to show some love to this legion of bored, smart juvenile delinquents and the astonishing Easter egg of an art movement they left behind, concealed from view.
KBS: It felt like an opportunity to historicize an art subculture and it’s aesthetics sociologically. I was big into graffiti growing up also, so after that decade when a hundred bad books and movies came out about it, and all these hacks were in art galleries using other people’s techniques everywhere, this film became a weird way of approaching historicization itself as an artwork, using a parallel.
How do you see the importance and relevancy of ANSI artworks in a bigger picture?
OP: Lots of things we believe came out of the Internet were actually already on the Internet. They were already there as part of the architecture or the DNA. BBSs, ANSI, and IRC were very much the primordial ooze that became the web as we understand it today.
KBS: Bulletin Board Systems using ANSIs were huge, millions and millions of people were using them, and this is where everything we now do socially on computers and smartphones descends from to an extent, so it’s actually a bit scary that hardly anyone today knows about this stuff. The ANSI scene was totally radical, nerdy, underground, and anti-authoritarian; they hated the FEDS but loved the MAXX. It definitely deserves a seat at the table when we talk about subcultural art movements. There is a huge computer art underground still going on today that will hopefully start getting more attention.