An Abbreviated History of the Underground Computer Art Scene
by Napalm - 11/10/1998 - The History of Art and Technology

Ever since the birth of the alphanumeric computer display there have been those computer users who have wished to express their individuality in a world based on standardization and conformity. From the early days of computers, certain self-proclaimed "artists" have taken it upon themselves to transcend the standard set of letters and numbers to make something original, something exciting and something interesting to look at. It is safe to say that the majority of people in the art and design community have never heard of ANSI or RIP artwork. Even until recently the mention of computer-based "art" would invoke snide remarks and perhaps a joke about Disney’s "Tron". What these people do not know is that for over a decade now a vast network of computer-based artists and art groups has been pushing the limits of available technology and producing fascinating artwork.

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In order to examine the progression and development of the underground computer art scene it is important to first understand the media, or computer formats, and how they have developed. The last ten years have seen computer technology grow at an incredible rate. Processing power doubles every six months and high-end computing equipment becomes cheaper and cheaper every day. Throughout the history of the underground computer art scene there has been a direct correlation between the power and availability of technology and the development of these different formats.

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The oldest format of the underground computer art scene is the ASCII character set. Early computer "artists" were users who did not want their expression to be limited to monochromatic numbers and words. By combining the 128 standard letters, numbers, punctuation and special characters artists could create pictures and logos on their IBM, Amiga and Commodore systems. Since these works were based on the most basic shared character sets they could be viewed and created on a wide variety of computer terminals (see below). IBM also introduced its own extended 256-character set, this allowed even more freedom for ASCII artists but was not compatible with many other systems at the time. A long-time member of the underground computer art scene known as "Necromancer" describes the birth of ASCII artwork in this way:

Ascii Art as an idea coalesced into existence because people wanted more.
They wanted more than just your standard Hercules display Atari or your Monochrome Commodore 64.To meet this demand, one singular artist,
whose name is lost to the annals of history decided to take the plunge. Instead of text, he (or she) had the ingenuity to use the characters /, \, |, -, _ and whatever else came to mind to create words. An amazing idea. And a
perfect one. People latched onto this. Anyone that could display text could
display ascii art. It was fast, compact, independent of platform type, … It was perfect for Bulletin Board Systems, text-based adventures, for anything they could think of. (History of the PC Ascii Scene)

coke step 1
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The ASCII art scene really began to develop in the mid 1980’s when MODEM and networking technology allowed computers and computer users to communicate with one another. With the advent of networks and early Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs), ASCII art became increasingly popular. ASCII artwork soon went from being a novelty to a product in demand; system operators (SysOps) strove to set their BBSs apart from the others by displaying ASCII graphics instead of plain text. Soon thereafter a "scene" of ASCII artwork based bulletin boards and artists emerged. This was just the beginning.

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As computer display technology developed there became a need for display standard that went beyond the basic ASCII character set. In 1979 a new format of computer terminal emulation was set in place by the American National Standards Institute and has been referred to in the underground art scene simply as "ANSI". This may seem misleading to people not familiar with computer emulation seeing as how the Institute sets standards for everything from kitchen cabinets to urinals. The Artpacks Archive’s Introduction to the computer art scene helps explain the ANSI format:

… we are referring to ANSI's Advanced Data Communication Control
Procedure (ADCCP) X3.64-1979. But to the common computer user ANSi
means just one thing: A textmode medium which consists of the standard
IBM PC 256-character set, enhanced by 16 foreground colors, 8 background colors, and the ability to control and move the cursor. So, from here on, ANSI X3.64-1979 = "ANSi". (Insiders Look at ANSi)

(For more on the technical aspects of the ANSI character set see Appendix 3)

The ANSI standard was not widely used until the mid to late 1980’s. The possibility to add colors and many special characters to the otherwise simple monochromatic ASCII designs BBSs was exciting to SysOps and users alike. Artists began creating logos and pictures out of a combination of "blocks", or the ANSI characters. Special ANSI editors or drawing programs were developed to allow artists to create and save these graphics. One of the original and most popular ANSI editors, TheDraw, included ANSI font sets along with complex selection, animation, and painting features. Bulletin Boards were soon flooded with ANSI graphics and ANSI message boards where people could post their handy-work to other users and even across a network of other systems..

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Some ANSI artists created their graphics simply for fun, others used it as a way to gain access to otherwise exclusive BBSs that dealt in the distribution of pirated software (warez), still others managed to sell their artwork to SysOps who wanted to spruce up their systems. Reguardless of motive, ANSI artists soon began to get together to talk, show off and collaborate on projects. Artists began to join together and form "art groups". In the early 1990’s these groups began to distribute montly compliations of their members’ artwork known as "packs" or "art packs". The first major ANSI-based art group called Aces of ANSI Art (AAA) was soon followed by an explosion of art groups such as ANSI Creators in Demand (ACiD), and insane Creators Enterprises (iCE). Groups and members from the USA, Canada, Europe and even the Middle East were soon showing off their creations around the globe (See Appendix 2).

The emergence of the ANSI surprisingly did not result in the death of the ASCII art scene. Similar ASCII groups had already formed to display and distribute their artwork. Some ANSI groups accepted ASCII artists and ASCII graphics into their monthly releases. ASCII artists began experimenting with the colors and shapes of ANSI, while still creating forms primarily out of alphanumeric characters rather than ANSI "blocks". This amalgamation of the ANSI and ASCII standards is referred to as "new school ASCII".

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Prior to the emergence of high-resolution graphics on the World Wide Web and the development of high-speed modems, a format known as Remote Imaging Protocol (RIP) was developed by a company known as Telegrafix. The RIP graphics format required support from special Bulletin Board software such as "SearchLight" as well as a special dial-up terminal such as" RIPTerm". Somewhere in between ANSI and VGA (See next section), RIP allowed BBSs to display higher-resolution pictures and text with complex shapes and sixteen editable colors (See below). The graphics were created by terminals interpretation of text code which represented shapes, lines, curves, fills and gradients. This allowed the graphics to be displayed quickly over current modem technology which ranged in speed from 2400 to 14,400 bytes per second, in comparison with today’s standard of 56,600 bytes per second. As a graphics format, RIP was not too practical and the name was all to fitting:

Unfortunately, due to the hideously proprietary nature in which their protocol
was written, it failed miserably and was not accepted by the masses as they
had originally planned. However, art scene members welcomed this poorly written protocol with open arms and exploited it's limitations of 640x350x16 color EGA display and animation possibilities. (Artpacks Explained)

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The abbreviation "VGA" stands for Video Graphics Adapter, a reference to the cards or chips that allow a computer to display high resolution pictures and text on a monitor. Much like ANSI is a general term for the graphics created using the ANSI standard, VGA was used to talk about graphics that have a high pixel resolution and color depth anywhere from 256 to sixteen million colors. Unlike ANSI or ASCII, VGA graphics are encoded in binary files that specify the color, position and attributes of each pixel. Early VGAs were usually limited to 320 by 240 pixels and 256 colors or below because they would soon become quite large and cumbersome files that were not quick and easy to download from BBSs. While created before the RIP graphics standard, VGA graphics were not capable of being displayed over traditional BBSs due to their high-resolution and relatively large size. A few BBS programs such as "RoboBoard" attempted to incorporate VGA graphics into their systems but could not compete with the speed and ease of use of traditional ANSI based systems. VGA graphics required a special viewing program such as the formerly popular "CompuShow" in order to display correctly, they could not simply be loaded onto the users text-based screen like ASCII and ANSI could.

While AMIGA computers were far more graphically advanced than the IBM based computers of the early 1990’s, the majority of the scene had become IBM based due to their relative cheapness and extensive software support. Because of this, most VGAs were created in rather simple "paint" programs such as Autodesk’s Animator Pro or Paint Shop (See below). These programs introduced the first "virtual" versions of real-world tools such as the paintbrush and airbrush. Other VGA artists began "drawing" in 3d using early formula and number-driven three-dimensional visualization programs such as "POV-Ray".

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As modem speed increased and demand for new forms of computer art continued, art groups began including VGA graphics and small VGA programs known as "loaders" into their packs. Some groups helped spurn the popularity of VGA by pushing it beyond the limits of what people thought their computers were capable of doing. Sophisticated programs known as "demos" became instantly popular and spun off into an entirely new scene known as the Demo Scene (See Appendix 2). In the mean time, the ASCII and ANSI based groups started to develop their own file viewers so that people would be able to view the VGA, ANSI, ASCII and RIP graphics in one convenient interface without having to switch between programs or display modes.

ice 9811 / dm-pr12 acid 69 / jkl-synthetic
click on one of the images to view at full-size

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From a scene concerned primarily with the visual arts, an unlikely addition appeared, electronic literary art, or lit. In a computer-world based primarily on letters and numbers it only seems logical that there be a large community of writers and poets. Some "traditional" underground computer artists began extending their creativity into the written word, incorporating it into their artwork. Other writers took a cue from existing underground art groups and formed groups of their own, releasing monthly compendiums of their creations. While there was some opposition from visual artists about the credibility of these new "artists", lit still managed to find its place in the underground computer art scene. Large multi-format groups such as the Creators of Intense Art (CIA) had their own literary art departments and many electronic magazines such as "Psygnosis" merged the world of ANSI and Literature into one attractive package.

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It is safe to say that ANSI and ASCII artwork enjoyed the height of popularity in the early to mid 1990’s with the height of the BBS scene. The recent explosion of the World Wide Web and the slow but certain demise of Bulletin Board Systems would suggest that these simple and outdated formats are now almost extinct. This, however, is not the case. Today there are still groups of artists that deal primarily with ASCII or ANSI and their artwork has surpassed almost everything done in the mid 1990’s in skill, scale and complexity. New ASCII and ANSI drawing programs such as "ACiDDraw" have been developed and others such as "Empathy" are still being developed today in order surpass past editors and meet the demands of today’s advanced artists. ASCII art enjoys a new-found popularity among today’s computer users in e-mail messages and on terminal-based network stations. ANSI survives in text-mode based electronic magazines and on most remaining BBSs (some of which now have internet connections). More importantly, however, these formats survive because there are hundreds of artists who continue to create and exchange amazing ASCII and ANSI artwork. No longer a functional necessity, these formats are used by artists simply because they love them. There is no fame or fortune to be had in ASCII or ANSI artwork, just a feeling of pride and accomplishment, and the challenge of pushing a decade-old medium beyond its already constricting limits to create something beautiful.

Even more surprising, perhaps, is the continued support of the RIP format. While far surpassed in features and resolution by current graphics programs, RIP remains to be used just to create interesting pictures with a nod to the past. The recent emergence of a RIP-only underground art group proves that many members of the underground computer art scene have a love of computer art that is independent from the practicality or functionality of the chosen medium.

The simple, small and somewhat awkward VGA graphics of the early 1990’s have seen perhaps the most amazing transformation. Advancements in computer display and modem technology, continually falling hardware costs, amazing new software and the overwhelming popularity of the World Wide Web has ushered in a new age for the VGA medium. Now referred to as High Resolution Artwork (hires/hirez), it makes up a very large portion of today’s underground computer art scene. Artists now enjoy a wide range of high-quality drawing, painting, illustration and 3d graphics creation tools such as Photoshop, Painter or Softimage.

Hirez artwork is perhaps the first medium to really successfully transcend the boundaries of the underground scene. Artists no longer have to rely on underground art packs to display their work, as millions of people can view it in its original format via the world-wide web or graphical operating systems such as MacOS and Windows. Additionally, the skills that an underground computer hirez artist learns and displays can often lead to jobs in web, game or movie/broadcast design industries. High resolution artists may be the first members of the underground computer art scene to be recognized by traditional art circles as the concept of digital fine art slowly becomes increasingly accepted.

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For years now there have been people within this art scene who have predicted the demise of ASCII, ANSI and RIP artwork; so far they have all been wrong. Surprising as it may be, new talent continues to emerge working in one or several of these formats. While countless groups have disappeared from the underground computer art scene over the years, several major players in the shaping of its history remain and new groups continue spring up all the time. While the popularity and production of these formats has slowed down, it seems that as long as there are people who know about and love ASCII, ANSI and RIP artwork, it will continue to be created. Necromancer’s view of the future of the ASCII scene sum up the attitudes of die-hard ASCII, ANSI and RIP artists throughout the scene:

But have faith. We will prevail. We were here before you, and we will be here long after you. Ascii art has existed since before people used hard drives, back when you had to plug your Commodore 64 into the TV. It's not just an art form, it's an expression, a style. The creative process can never be stifled completely, and we will overcome.

Long live ascii. (History of the PC Ascii Scene)

High resolution artwork has a slightly clearer future than the rest of these formats. There has been a recent surge in the quality and quantity of high resolution artwork in the underground computer art scene. Some groups such as ACiD have decided to no longer support ANSI graphics in favor of the more "professional" high resolution graphics. Many art groups such as CIA and iCE have members who are professionals in the field of digital art and design. Some of these artists got their start in the underground computer art scene while others discovered it by chance and wanted to become a part of it. The future of hirez will see even higher-quality pictures and renderings, many of which have and will continue to surpass the quality of current commercial and print artwork. Artists will continue to have an invested interest in the underground computer art scene because they enjoy the sense of community, project collaborations, friendly competition and the ability to share their art and ideas with others.

Hundreds of people continue to be active members in the underground computer art scene of 1998. Some participants have been around since its inception, many artists are relatively new to the entire concept. Over the years thousands of people have been a part of this underground computer art scene in some way or another. Since the 1980’s, hundreds of thousands of ANSI, ASCII, RIP and high resolution files have been created by artists who stove to overcome the limitations of technology in order to express themselves. Their ideas and efforts can be found in the gigabytes of archived "art packs" dating back from the early days of computer art up until today. Known only to a small group of people, these artists continue to express themselves through the combination of creativity and technology. Perhaps one day the artists and their efforts will be recognized by the traditional art world as having played a pivotal role in the development and advancement of the digital arts.

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Appendix 2

Underground Computer Art Scene Web Links
Art Groups:

ACiD Productions – http://www.acid.org
CIA Productions – http://www.creators.org
Dark Illustrated – http://www.darkillustrated.org
iCE Advertisements – http://www.ice.org
Purg Productions – http://www.purg.com

News, Articles, Resources and Photos:

Acheron – http://www.acheron.org
Defacto2 – http://www.defacto2.net

Art Pack, Electronic Magazines and Program Archives

Acid Artpacks Archive – http://artpacks.acid.org
The Hornet Demo Archive – http://www.hornet.org

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Appendix 3

RaD Man & Genesis "Insiders Look at ANSi"
(Reprinted from The Product #1 Electronic Magazine)

This article was made for the novice and the expert at ANSI. It s an attempt to explain how I use the ANSI.SYS driver to configure the function keys on your computer, and to control the screen. I have used these techniques on my computer for years, and find them to be convenient and effective. ANSI is not widely used by microcomputer fans because the documentation supplied by IBM on how to send control codes to the ANSI driver is among the most cryptic ever produced by IBM. I learned them by reading computer magazines, programming software documentation, and slowly figured out how it could be done. Everything in this article has been tested before releasing this article, so if you are having problems, please refer to the end of this article to find out where to reach me.

This article covers only IBM Personal Computers (PC, XT or AT) running DOS 3.x or greater. These techniques were tested on an AST IBM Compatible 286 and a Dell 386. I can not assure you that these techniques will work with all compatible systems, so you may be on your own if you try to use these techniques on a compatible computer.

Loading The ANSI Driver
in order to use any of the techniques in this essay, you must first have loaded the ANSI.SYS driver into your computer's memory using your CONFIG.SYS file. You do this my adding the line, DEVICE=ANSI.SYS somewhere in the CONFIG.SYS file and rebooting your computer.

Keyboard Reassignment with ANSI
Before we get to specific ways to send control codes to the (now loaded) ANSI driver, you must first know what those codes mean. For the function keys the codes are listed on the chart below which first appeared in SOFTALK magazine. Each function key is assigned an "extended function code" which DOS will use to recognize that a function key has been pressed and in what shifted mode, if any. Each number is expressed as a 0 followed by a semi-colon, then the number from the chart below. For a more detailed list please refer to our "Extended ASCII Key Codes" article, also included in this newsletter.

F1 59 84 94 104
F2 60 85 95 105
F3 61 86 96 106
F4 62 87 97 107
F5 63 88 98 108
F6 64 89 99 109
F7 65 90 100 110
F8 66 91 101 111
F9 67 92 102 112
F10 68 93 103 113

Accordingly, the way to designate the F5 key would be 0;63 while the F10 key would be designated by 0;68 or 0;113 if shifted with the
ALT key.

If you examine the DOS Technical Reference Manual (not the Technical Manual for PC hardware), you will find a section on SCREEN/KEYS. This section was contained in the DOS 2.0 documentation, but IBM removed it in later editions. Here is a summary of its contents relative to keyboard redefinition.

To change one key to have the meaning of another, enter:


where the first # is the ASCII value of the key being changed and the second # is the ASCII value of the new definition. For example, B "A" has the ASCII value of 65 and "Q" has the value of 81. So:


will result in "A" being redefined as "Q." It is also possible to redefine a key to have the meaning of a string of characters. This is done by enclosing the string in quotes. So:

<Esc>[65;"The Product"p

would change the "A" key to have the meaning of "The Product". If the first value for the first # is a 0 however, DOS knows that what is being changed is not an ASCII value but the meaning of an extended function code. So if you were to enter:

<Esc>[0;68;"The Product"

DOS would know to change the meaning of the function key (in this case F10) to the sting enclosed in quotes. This is the key to redefining your function keys to perform much used commands: like DIR, CHKDSK, COPY *.* B: etc. or to load programs from disk.

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Some Additional Tricks

Here are some additional control codes for the ANSI driver, $ summarized from the IBM material.

To move the cursor to a specified position: <Esc>[#;#H where the first # is the desired line number and the second the desire column.

To move the cursor up without changing columns: <Esc>[#A where # ) specifies the number of lines moved.

To move the cursor to a specified horizontal and vertical position: <Esc>[#;#f where # means first the line number and secondly the column number.

To get a device status report: <Esc>[6n

To get a cursor position report: <Esc>[#;#R where the first # specifies the current line and the second # specifies the current column
To move the cursor down: <Esc>[#B where # specifies the number of lines moved down.
To move the cursor forward: <Esc>[#C where # specifies the number of columns moved.
To move the cursor backward: <Esc>[#D where # specifies the number of columns moved.
To save the cursor position: <Esc>[s and to restore it: <Esc>[u.

To do a CLS (erase screen move cursor to home position): <Esc>[2J 1 To erase from cursor to end of line: <Esc>[K

To set the color/graphics attributes, enter <Esc>[#;#m where the first # is the desired foreground color and the second is the desired background color. Select colors from the list below:

30 black foreground
31 red foreground
32 green foreground
33 yellow foreground
34 blue foreground
35 magenta foreground
36 cyan foreground
37 white foreground
40 black background
41 red background
42 green background
43 yellow background
44 blue background
45 magenta background
46 cyan background
47 white background

To set additional attributes enter: <Esc>[#m where # is the number of the desired attribute. Select attributes from the list below:

+ 0 all attributes off (white on black)
1 bold on
4 underscore (on IBM Monochrome Display)
5 blink
7 reverse video
8 invisible

To give an example of what can be done with these additional C codes, a batch file called MENUOFF.BAT containing only the line:
PROMPT $e[2J$e[30;40m$h
should blank a color display completely. It does a CLS, sets the display to a black foreground and background and the with the "$h" performs a backspace to erase the blinking cursor (the "$h command is documented in the DOS manual under PROMPT). Another batch file called MENUON.BAT containing the lines:
PROMPT $e[0m

Would reset a color display to restore the screen after MENUOFF.BAT had been run.

Enjoy ANSI! It is a wonderful tool, and can be a lot of fun to use. It's not a keyboard enhancer, and if you load it up with too many keyboard redefinitions at one time you will run out of environment space. This is harmless and simply means that ANSI is full. But it will work fine to define your function keys and control your screen.

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Works Cited

1. Necromancer, "History of the PC ASCII Scene (As viewed by the eyes of one who lived it)", 1998, http://artpacks.acid.org/www/html/history-ascii_scene.html

2. RaD Man, Shivan Bastard, and Wildcat, "Artpacks Explained: An introduction to the graphical file formats found within.", 1997-1998, http://artpacks.acid.org/www/html/intro.html.

3. RaD Man and Genesis, "Insiders Look at ANSi", from Product #1, 1992,

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