Demos as an Art

Demos as an Art

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Demos as an Art

A little more than two years ago I came across a very small computer program that amazed me. It was very small as computer programs go, but it did something I have never seen before - it used a mathematical formula to create a stunning moving display, and played music in the background.

After a while of looking around I found more of the same type of programs, most created by different people, all of which had a common purpose of presenting the user with computer-generated art - some by mathematical formulae, some by conventional means, but most a combination of the two. Each one had music composed especially for that program. They were all works of art, a new form of art. I found out that to make such a program one had to have some ideas for something to be represented by mathematical expressions, then express them all in a computer program, that was fast enough to do many complex calculations on an average user’s machine. The latter part turned out to be a lot harder than it sounded. As fast as computers are today, they are not fast enough, for there is always something which requires more and more calculations. Many tricks have to be implemented to make a program run the fastest possible, some of them being, ironically, to write it in the “early” computer languages which dealt more with computer instructions than with the structure of the program itself. Thus the more complex your goal, the simpler means you have to employ to reach it.

Because of this it is very hard to create a fast and small program. The ammount of time and effort spent on writing it can be amazingly high. I, myself, spent two days once writing a program that consisted of about 200 “letters” of computer istructions - a few lines - all generated from a few pages of the program that I wrote, and re-wrote, and re-wrote ...

These programs carry an unassuming name: “demos” , short for “demonstrations”, but they do so much more than that implies. Most of them push computers to the “limit”, doing what was earlier thought of as impossible or at least required a super-computer, but most importantly they define a new art form. This special mode of art requires many new and exciting factors, such as musical composition, art merged with science (a seemingly incompatible mixture), excellent computer programming skills, but most important - teamwork.

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For a “demo” is composed by a team of people, for no other reason than to show others like them what they can do, and of course to compete with them, for rivalry is an integral part of any human, if we choose to acknowledge that or not.

I am a part of a few of these teams (none of them very famous of course), but I am very proud to be playing some role in that world. Some of the people on those teams I know personally, some I have never met in person. It is very strange and exciting at the same time.

The effects of my discovery of this small world of people who work together around the world for no other reason than to impress each other had far reaching consequences on my further course of action. I decided to produce some of these programs on my own, and was forced to explore many areas by my decision. I was consulting with my friend (an artist), on some ideas, the colors, the overall mood I want to set. I had another friend of mine (a musician) compose something on computer (which he never did before, but discovered it a valuable resource after being convinced by me to try it), and learned more about my computer, which tricks work, and which damage it, which are considered “elegant”, and that a good thing to keep in mind when its 3 o’clock in the morning and you are still trying to correct a persistent error, is that if you punch your computer - it usually doesn’t help you or it. (And of course all the virtues and pitfalls of coffee).

This completely new domain of computer programming was like a whole new universe of possibilities, goals and problems opening up for me. I have met many people, talked to them about the subject, and came to know a new society, into which it is easier to be accepted than one might think, but very hard to get one’s bearings, and to achieve in it. Most people who participate in it are friendly and help others with their problems knowing that others will help them if they ever run into something they have to find out. Even though there is little direct communication, it is done by making your work available to others, and others to you, resulting in a stunningly large collection. This community is not old - less than 10 years - yet there are people who are no longer in it, but remembered and revered by all. It is made up of mostly students - in schools and universities - the only ones with enough free time on their hands to participate. Therefore it is kind of a life one might live - coming in at the beginning, learning, contributing, leaving, and being remembered if you invented something new and important, or were just plainly a good person.

The demo “scene” (as it is referred to by its regulars), is a very dynamic, and independent place - if you chose to call it that, for it does not physically exist anywhere, or even logically, since it is a collection of individuals and their work. It has most of the properties of a real life community minus the “real” part. It has legacies of gathering (actual physical ones at that), struggles, fights (not usually physical), competition, love, hate, and all of the other human emotions and actions, but all expressed in the form of computer art.

I have read some books that are composed in a “letter” format - all the events are described in the form of letters from one person to another and back. Now imagine a collection of letters not from one person to another and back, but many, from many different people, not specifically addressed to anyone. Add illustrations, and more things which could have many allegorical meanings. All of the demos are “letters” from people. A way to express their concepts of the state of the world as a whole, and of computer development at a given point in particular. Just as we might look at paintings from the Renaissance and the 19th century and contrast them to see what changes and views the society held at given times, so may be done to demos, of course the time scale compressed manifold.

For example, the simplest form of “history” that can be observed here is the evolution of computers themselves. A demo made in ‘93 would basically consist of two-dimensional math, and some basic three-dimensioanl models. Now, only 3 years later, a complex “world” consisting of many three-dimensional objects, and amazingly realistic, can be seen regularly. This is also observred in other media types, like the movies. Jurassic Park could not have been made in ‘90, beacuse there simply weren’t computers powerful enough to create realistic moving pictures of dinosaurs.

The whole medium is new and emerging, just as computers now are, and is a brand new way of something that has not even been imagined before - the merge of science and art. For centuries scientists and artists were two opposing camps - the former exploring the world seeking logical explanations for everything. The latter however did not concern themselves with logic but believed in human emotions, in the elements of the spiritual rather than the physical. Now technology has finally started to catch up to art, if only marginally. Demo’s combine science with art - making raw mathematical expressions take a form. Math is used to describe objects, their properties, and create something that looks real, or can look like something not possible with any other means.

I think that the existence of this “underground” demo scene is an interesting fact by itself. Participation requires a lot of contribution, and, it would seem, not much return. So why do people support it? Beacuse it is the ability to create something, to produce, which is so needed by humans. You are not something, until you have created something, to justify your existence, or just to prove to yourself you exist.
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