Short film The Art of Warez tells the story of the little-known world of hacker graffiti in the era before everyone used the internet as our primary means of online interaction. Directed by Safe Crackers‘ Oliver Payne, the 30-minute film explores the ANSI art scene — a computer art underworld that rose to prominence in the early ’90s through groups connected to bulletin boards systems (BBS). Here, a burgeoning online subculture was born, spearheaded in large part by teenagers dealing in illegally pirated software known as “warez.”
Like the New York graffiti scene of the ’70s and ’80s, the ANSI scene pulled inspiration from the comic books of the day. Hundreds of thousands of artworks were made to be displayed on BBS. However, with the growth of dial-up internet and the world wide web as a means to navigate it, both the boards and the art movements they hosted were eventually rendered obsolete.
We spoke to Payne and his collaborator, one-time ANSI artist Kevin Bouton-Scott, about the birth and near-death of the ANSI art scene and how its story is bound up with copyright theft, graffiti b-boys, comic book culture, and the ’60s practice of phone phreaking. Payne has been hailed by ArtForum as “one of the first new kids of the post-YBA [Young British Artists] moment” and has made films for Supreme and Cav Empt. Here’s what he and Bouton-Scott had to say about the project.
What made you want to explore this story?
Ollie: I was familiar with the aesthetic but knew nothing about the absolutely insane subculture that it came from. It’s important that we remind ourselves of how teenagers were using computers before the internet. It’s remarkable that something so cool is virtually unknown to most people that would find it fascinating. As youth subcultures go, this might be the best one. It combines so many wonderful things: hacking, video games, graffiti, freedom of information, fantasy art, mecha anime, anarchist literature, comic book monsters, phreaking.
Kevin: I’d been in grad school getting my MFA at ArtCenter [College of Design in LA], doing paintings that were focusing around subcultural histories and technology. The ANSI scene and all of its related documents became a really fascinating place to dive back into, as you can see examples of what later generations of technology-oriented populations presume to be their own unique inventions or attributes.
I was big in the ANSI scene in my early teens and ran a BBS out of my bedroom that served as a distribution site for the ANSI art packs as they were getting released. It’s always been odd to me how no one knows what any of this stuff is, as it was such a big part of my life. The film actually began as a PowerPoint assignment I had to do for Oliver’s video game critical theory class, a 10-minute lecture on the final day of class having anything to do with video games.
How does ANSI relate to the current graffiti scene?
Ollie: Currently, not at all. However, as modern graffiti is having its faux-naive, old school 2.0 moment, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we start to see ANSI-influenced pieces appearing on legal walls on Instagram. But in the early ’90s, the parallels were striking in both spirit and appearance. They were art forms that existed illegally. ANSI originally existed on, and to take credit for, illegally pirated software. As they are criminal activities, both require anonymity and the use of a tag name to achieve notoriety within the scene.
Kevin: Well, most directly in the last few years there has been a huge pixel-graphic aesthetic trend in graffiti stemming from people showing videos of themselves using caligraphy-caps to easily spray paint squares and rectangles, rather than the round dots or lines that most graffiti in the past has been restricted to. So ANSI-looking work is more and more common recently, and I suspect we will see a lot more of it these next few years.
Behind the scenes, there are people that came out of the ANSI scene that influenced some of the style trends American graffiti has seen these past 20 years, so the two are very much linked, whether they know it or not.