The Art of Warez, VEKS, 2019, video still, Courtesy of Oliver Payne

The acclaimed artist-filmmaker Oliver Payne, with the help of one-time ANSI artist Kevin Bouton-Scott, has created a film exploring the lost world of ANSI art that infiltrated American computer screens throughout the late 1980s and 90s. Entitled The Art of Warez, the 30-minute film, which is now available to view online, brings the ANSI scene back to life documenting its rise and fall.

Imagine a time pre-internet (I know its hard but it really existed!) where computer users would communicate through the telephone lines by leaving messages for each other on Bulletin Board Systems or BBS’s. This practice soon became known as a very early form of file sharing where Hackers and Internet Pirates would use BBS’s to illegally distribute cracked software, known as Warez and other genres of illegal materials.

The film uncovers the dark side of these web crews and the artform which accompanied their activities. The graphic display of BBS was known as ANSI, and ANSI was the visual component to the BBS scene and subculture of hackers, software pirates and computer gamers. These were simple pictures made from coloured blocks, created by using the keyboard. Before long ANSI art took on a life of its own and an underground art movement was born.

“ANSI’s were the visual counterpart to early cyber crime mainly done by kids — a sort of juvenile, hacker folk-art. It was a medium that took aspects from the best youth counter-cultures and created something utterly unique. Unlike anything that starts off underground and becomes mainstream, ANSI actually manages to do the opposite and take the mainstream back underground.” — Oliver Payne

During this time, there was an explosion of output as ANSI artists formed crews and competed to release the best ANSI’s. The arrival of the internet and the changes to computers it introduced killed the ANSI scene and the majority of the artworks were lost in the process, which is why the artists’ film holds such relevance as a recollection of an iconic genre which no longer exists.

I had the chance to speak with artist-filmaker Oliver Payne and one-time ANSI artist Kevin Bouton-Scott about their memories of the scene and its legacy.

What was special about the ANSI art scene?

Kevin: For starters, the graphics themselves are fantastic and these are the visual aesthetics for the early teenage computer crime makes it even better. It was an art scene that grew out of very dissimilar conditions than any other that I know of and it was able to use it’s a very limited set of variables to its advantage, creating aesthetics that you cannot find elsewhere.

ANSI art was big in North America, did it take place in other parts of the world?

Kevin: I know it was around in Australia and Europe to an extent, I’m not sure about the rest of the world. I’ve heard the way the phone systems are set up in Europe limited country-to-country calling, so demoscene which was based around floppy-disk exchange grew rather than ansi, which would display live during phone calls.

The Art of Warez, 2019, video still, Courtesy of Oliver Payne

Why did you undertake this project and did you know much about the scene before?

Oliver: I was familiar with the aesthetic but completely unaware of the fascinating subculture it came from. It seems like BBS’s and ANSI’s have been written out of the history of the internet but I think it is fundamental in understanding how the early internet came to be.

Kevin: I was a part of the ansi scene in my early teens, running a BBS out of my bedroom that the monthly art packs could be downloaded from as they were released. I knew a ton about what was going on when I was into it but it’s much easier now to get a comprehensive picture of what went on, as you can download what would have taken weeks back then all at once rather than just living it in the moment. The project grew out of a powerpoint lecture I gave on ansi while I was getting my MFA in fine art. I wanted to examine what went on in the ansi scene based in the same ways we were looking at contemporary art.

The Art of Warez, 2019, video still, Courtesy of Oliver Payne

What is the legacy of ANSI art?

Kevin: It was a huge part of BBS culture, everyone that had a PC-based BBS was likely making custom ansi screens for it, and there were millions of BBS users. It’s deeply embedded into the history of what we as a society all do now. With the development of the world wide web, computer users from this time period that were interacting with the sorts of things the film covers have shaped our present reality in unquantifiable ways.

Oliver: It’s incredible that there were so many BBS users and that pirated video games were so widely distributed , yet virtually no attention is given to the art scene that came out of all this.

This is the story of PRE INTERNET HACKER GRAFFITI, copyright theft, stolen long-distance phone calls, and pictures of fantasy warriors, comic book monsters, naked ladies and graffiti B-Boys; but it is also the story of an artform which escaped the attention of the art world, the last such thing to do so, because as soon as the internet arrived everything was available to everyone.


Produced by safecrackers x somesuch

Freelance journalist covering fine art, photography, film and tech. UK based

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