Eric Block

The Art of Warez:
Interview with Oliver Payne

Acclaimed artist-filmmaker Oliver Payne, with the help of one-time ANSI artist Kevin Bouton-Scott, brings the lost computer-generated art scene back to life in a new film entitled THE ART OF WAREZ. The film carefully documents the ANSI art scene of the late 1980s and 90s, which was proliferated by pre-internet hackers and copyright theft, depicts fantasy warriors, comic book monsters, nude women and graffiti B-Boys.

Not long after its invention, the ANSI art scene took off and transformed into a type of underground art movement where artists formed crews to compete against each other. In this pre-internet era, computer users would communicate through the telephone lines by leaving messages for one another on Bulletin Board Systems or BBS. This would become a very early form of file sharing as Hackers and Pirates would use BBSs to illegally distribute cracked software, known as Warez, and all sorts of other illegal materials.

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

The graphical display of BBS was called an ANSI. ANSI art was the visual component to the BBS scene and the subculture of hackers, software pirates and computer game crackers. 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.

During this time, there was an explosion of output as ANSI artists formed crews and competed to release the best ANSI’s. However, the arrival of the internet, and it’s subsequent impact on computers, killed the ANSI scene and the majority of the artworks were lost in the process. 

Oliver Payne’s latest film, THE ART OF WAREZ, offers the chance to look back at an iconic art form which no longer exists, and we had the chance to sit down with both Oliver and co-collaborator Kevin and discuss the lost world of ANSI art.

What drew you to the world of ANSI?

Oliver Payne: It combines so many things I adore. Visually, it would be incredible even without the extraordinary set of circumstances that resulted in its creation in the first place. It’s extremely complicated and deep, and has massive historical and sociological relevance with regards to the nature of internet culture and a post-wifi society. It is as much about freedom of information as it is about comic book monsters — which are also great.

Would you say there is any equivalent scenes today?

OP: Nothing that combines the sorts of things that ANSI was. Maybe there are some similarities in the videogame modding and Speedrunning communities in terms of people racing to find ways to exploit or ‘break’ software. 

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

How did your collaboration with Kevin Bouton-Scott come about?

OP: Kevin was taking my Video Game Critical Theory course at Art Center. He gave his PowerPoint presentation on ANSI and by the second slide I knew that I absolutely had to make a film with him about it.

Collaboration seems important to your artistic practice?

OP: I love collaborating. I make art because I enjoy the conversations that can come from it. When I collaborate the conversations are there from the start.

Kevin, can you tell us more about your involvement with ANSI art? How has your practice evolved from the days of being an ANSI artist and do any elements still linger?

Kevin Bouton-Scott: I was mainly into lettering while I was into the ANSI scene, and this has continued to be a major element in most of the art I’ve made since, going from various subcultures and art jobs to now finding myself in the contemporary art world looking at text and my past endeavours like ANSI through a more critical-theory lens. 

Any further projects in the pipeline that you can share?

OP: Kevin has just guest-edited the latest issue of my fanzine Safe Crackers. It’s a companion piece to the film and contains incredible text files from the underground Bulletin Board System. The film is about the visual culture of the scene whereas this zine focuses on the sorts of literature you could find on an elite BBS.

Watch The Art of Warez, a safecrackers x somesuch production, here.

Interview by Eric Block.

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