The Art of Warez

THE ART OF WAREZ is a short film amade by multi disciplinarian artist and film-maker Oliver Payne & painter and ANSI expert Kevin Bouton-Scott, telling the story of the hitherto virtually unknown world of the ANSI art scene … while some of us were whiling away the hours listening to cassette players make ‘that noise’ as it audibly loaded your game on a Vic 20 or a Spectrum 48k others were inside the machines taking control in a parallel universe located deep in pixels and code.

A LONG TIME AGO IN A GALAXY FAR FAR AWAY … or alternatively in a world before the internet, the late 1980’s and early 90’s, bore witness to the rise of a movement, led by small or collectives and individuals found in rooms located next to their parents and brothers and sisters rooms or maybe in the garage … these computer users were communicating with their peers through the telephone lines by leaving messages for one another on Bulletin Board Systems or BBS’s.

The BBS’s were the perfect proverbial ‘letterboxes' for posting files for sharing as the Hackers and Pirates would use them to illegally distribute cracked software, known as Warez, and veritable treasure trove of other illegal materials. The avant garde phantasmagoric graphical artwork displayed on the BBS’s were called an ANSI. 

ANSI art was the viscerally visual brother / sister to the BBS scene and represented the depth of the subculture of hackers, software pirates and computer game crackers. Fundamentally ANSI were pictures made from coloured blocks, created using the keyboard … ANSI art became a thing and birthed an underground art movement not dissimilar to Graffiti as a medium and movement ANSI artists also formed crews and competed to release the best ANSI artworks ...

Unfortunately around the corner lay a beast, a narcissistic, sociopathic hegemon AKA The Internet … it killed the ANSI scene and the majority of the artworks were lost in the murderous process.

The Art of Warez tells the mind blowing and mind bending 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. 

We left some messages on Oliver and Kevin's modern day BBS hoping they would reply … it just so happened they did and answered some of our questions on the ANSI art scene …

Interview : Oliver Payne & Kevin Bouton-Scott

Is this the reawakening of a movement ?

Oliver: No. It’s just that they world has run out of past to plunder. The people that make ANSIs either stopped or didn’t - Both to the resounding indifference of everyone else in the world. I don’t think anyone is gonna take it up in 2020 , like they do with other antiquated activities like stick and poke tattoos and pretending to enjoy gardening.

Kevin: Perhaps a reawakening of interest in the movement, or BBS history, hopefully. The ansi groups of today are very dedicated and make things no one dreamed of in the '90s, check out @blocktronics on instagram.

Is the BBS system arguably our first accidental social media forum activating messaging between like minded people whist also allowing a ‘diss’ culture to be pre eminent via piracy and hacking ?

Kevin: The BBS is what '90s chatrooms and social media descend from directly, so I wouldn't say there's anything accidental about them. A regular BBS would serve local communities with mixed interests in a very general way. The piracy scene was an early interest-based computer subculture that was able to operate without any geographical limitations because they were stealing long-distance phone calls. Because of this, they could be much more selective about where they called and who they chose to spend their time with, much more like how we would pick our internet friends today.

Was there anything that was infamously left on the BBS message boards that transpired to be a ‘game changer’ with in the culture ?

Kevin: The BBS was more insular than how we would now think of a forum where every member of the culture was involved in a singular cohesive stream of communication. There might be only 50 regular callers on each ansi or warez BBS, as they had to call one at a time through the phone line. The electronic magazines were the closest thing to universal reportage that the entire scene would be coming across. Raids by the authorities were the only thing everyone would simultaneously be alerted about, if a BBS was raided warnings would be spread not to call it and to ban the owners account everywhere in case they'd turned informant and given the FBI their passwords on other the other warez BBS's.

Oliver: The internet !

Was Warez / BBS system a precursor for the dark web of sorts, based on the trading of encrypted messages via hacking and coding ?

Oliver: It’s funny that we don’t have a name for the part of the web that isn’t dark - the stuff that is owned by big corporations and not people.

Kevin: My knowledge of the dark web is limited to tabloid journalism, but I suspect it migrated out of the h/p/a/c and illicit-pornography scenes occurring in mid '90s Internet Relay Chat. After the BBS died out, the main way I was still seeing pirated software was through bots that sat in IRC rooms and served as file hosts you could download from. These, I assumed, were sitting on servers in countries with lax copyright laws.

Was creating art via ANSI art, uploading and competing utilising WAREZ as a manifesto, the early digital equivalent to bombing trains, specifically regarding the danger of being caught by authorities through crossing the legal lines …?

Oliver: Maybe . At the very least , it’s Little kids writing their made up name somewhere it doesn’t belong.

Kevin: The grim aesthetics on an all-black screen that were common with the warez ansis had an ominous vibe, so the danger felt more decorative and fun, rather than there being any immediate threat like you would in a train yard. If I had to think of a graffiti equivalent, it would be more like tunnels. Yeah it's trespassing, but you're just calmly wandering around a mysterious place in the dark looking at crazy paintings on the walls thinking it would probably feel really great to make one also.

Original pirate material … what is your reason for celebrating it now via this project and fundamentally intruding it to the public consciousness - will we see any extension of your work into any other visual formats from Merch to posters / canvases ?
Oliver: The only bad time to make an ANSI documentary is immediately after someone else. It’s always relevant and important to remind people how kids used to use computers before social media.
Safe Crackers issue 9 , guest edited by Kevin, is a companion reader to the film. It’s comprised of text files rather than ANSIs . More than simply being completely fascinating and utterly riveting, its also a remarkable record of some of the earliest examples of what would go on to form the foundations of the internet and what people would do with it.

Table top dive bar gaming is almost obsolete and the likes of Pac Man and a Schlitz on a lunch break is missed by many - can we reinstate this physical interaction back into gaming culture ?

Oliver: It’s strange how when things that’s were predominately considered uncool , like Game of Thrones books or D&D or Ironman start to be appreciated by the general public they say things like “oh , that’s cool now:.

Never - “that was always cool and i was wrong for failing to understand and recognizing that” .

Peace out.


Culture, ArtDaniel Titchener