Konstantin Elfimov (Elfh/Inward) 22.11.2008
Relations between Soviet Russia and computers were always a bit obscure, especially, when it comes to foreign models, not officially exported in Russia. But, if one wants trace the roots of Russian demoscene, especially on spectrum, one should dig into 80’s, when the first generation of radio amateurs built their first machines. A very popular magazine “Radio” had main role in this development, through years of existence this magazine gathered a lot of talented people, trying to invent something, using available elements to bring technology closer to people.
By the mid 80s Soviet Russia had various models of computers, but none of them were cheap enough to be affordable for average soviet family. Only institutes and other studying facilities had an opportunity to own computerized classes, sponsored by national budget. In 1983 “Radio” published schematics of “Micro-80” computer, which became one of the first machines, available for the people to construct themselves. The main drawback of this schematics was a big number of components – more than 200, this fact complicated the possibility to build “Micro-80” for average radio amateur, because a lot of elements were hard to find in normal stores, only on black market. Of course, some progressive minded people already knew about home computers in Europe, which everyone could buy.
Even iron curtain couldn’t stop the flow of information about modern technologies. Some people already had computers, brought through the border as contraband. No wonder, ZX-Spectrum reached Russia more often, as it was cheaper to buy. By the end of 1984, engineers in several institutes already had schematics of this machine and been trying to copy it, using only Russian parts. It was a hard task, because of ULA chip, which formed a video image on the display and was too complex to hack and copy. Anyway, as the story says, engineers from the Ukrainian city Lvov were the first to fulfill this task and build a working machine in the August of 1985. Schematics, they designed, became very valuable information, so they could trade it to the researchers in other cities for knowledge on other topics, being in development.
Still, this remained unknown to the public and only limited amount of people actually knew about the existence of a cheap home computer with colorful graphics, which any radio amateur can build himself. For example, even in 1986 “Radio” magazine was still publishing the schematics of Radio-86RK – computer, which consisted of 29 parts, but again had only black and white text mode. Despite this, it became first very popular machine in Russia – some games and utilities started to appear, all done by homebrew programmers. Two more years became necessary for ZX-Spectrum 48 production facilities to appear in almost every large city.
No one had ever heard the word “copyright” back then and producing a hacked English computer never counted as a crime. More to say, many manufacturers changed or optimized schematics and gave the computer the name they wanted. This is how “Dubna”, “Moscow”, “Leningrad”, “Delta” and about 40 more models appeared. Some were very similar to each other some contained a lot of changes, even custom built-in RAM routines. For example, they could have Russian font, debugger and turbo loading procedures, loosing in the same time some compatibility with original programs, written for speccy. Software was not a big problem either – traders traveled to socialistic European block, countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland, where cracking groups already existed and a way of transmitting cracked software through FM radio channels, so one could easily get any programs.
First Polish demos reached Russia that way. As far as I know, in the beginning of 1990s some Russian coders decided that they are better than Poland ones, so they made demos themselves. While making those simple demos with ripped from games tunes, no one really understood, they are becoming a part of something much bigger, than just a circle of several friends with ZX-Spectrum in their home city. They didn’t know the word “demoscene” at that time, but in fact, they were the first wave of this cultural phenomena that would spread here a few years later. Very soon appeared first magazines, mainly about games and programming. As there was nothing to crack: all the games had been already cracked by Polish guys, coders started to make Russian versions of games and add intros to it.
A bit later, when disk interface became more common, there was a need to convert tape versions of games to work with TR-DOS, this even started some release competitions between teams, like it already existed on Commodore64. The really interesting and unique kind of releases were and still are, gifts. I never saw such things on other platforms or even in European spectrum scene. Those were small, intros, usually containing one part with some fx, music, graphics and a long scroll text with wishes and congratulations to the person, who had a birthday. I once asked main coder of the group Flash inc., who were responsible for starting this massive trend in the beginning of 90s “How you decided to do the first program of this kind?” – “Easy, one of our team members had a birthday, and as we all were students, we had no money and couldn’t buy a present for him.” That’s it, those people already carried the main principles of what demoscene is always about: competition and embodying emotions in software.
As news from outside always reached Russia with great delay, majority of speccy users became aware of another interesting home computer Amiga only in the early 90s. A few teams, especially those, who were located near the border or in big cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg started to work on Amiga, still continuing to release demos on speccy. There was a time, when you could read “Amiga rulez!” in a lot of scrollers in speccy demos, but still, for most of speccy or pc users this was an obscure, never seen platform. Anyway it became one of the major forces in development of Russian demoscene, as a lot of ideas were inspired by and copied from Amiga. Imagine, in a country without music channels, in a small cities, where one can never see a work of contemporary art in a lifetime, video tapes with amiga demos were copied over and over, then sent to friends in other cities and so on.
Mid 90s, and exactly 1995 was the first year, when Russian demoparty took place. Enlight95 was organized by Realm of Illusion – a well-known pc demogroup – which also released a disk zine Infused Bytes. It was not advertised in speccy media, no invitations were released, so mostly groups active on pc and amiga arrived to the party place. About 200 visitors, very excited about this event, spent an unforgettable time there. This surely became a milestone in a whole Russian demoscene history and next two years were marked by significant development in demo making. A lot of groups appeared on this second wave, aiming to explore the limits of already spread speccy hardware. All main techniques in coding, pixelling and music composing appeared during 1996-2000. To name a few groups, leading the results of demo competitions, I should mention: Progress, Eternity Industry (later renamed to Placebo), Rush, Extreme, Code Busters, Brainwave, Triebkraft, 4th Dimension, Accept corp. and X-Trade. Most of them appeared in those years, and didn’t exist or were not active in the early 90s.
By the end of 20th century, for some people it became completely clear – the era of copied ideas and effects is gone for speccy. Several groups disappeared, others released totally dull, non-creative works and then disappeared too, but some started to find new ways of self- expression. It was really hard way for them in some cases, because concentrating on visual concepts and emotional content instead of pure technical skills was not usual for the public on demoparties, so such demos were not well appreciated. In this context, I’d like to mention a demo by Skrju group, with the name, which speaks for itself – “Fuck You Scene”. Released in 2003 on CAFÉ demoparty it was filled by highly sensible photos and text, telling that scene is “deaf, dumb and mute by its own will”, because it is rejecting complex emotions, usually carried out by demos of a new wave.
Within next few years, such demos continued to appear and really highlighted the face of demoscene for a lot of us. Political views, emotional experiences and experimental art are essential parts of contemporary demos today.
Here is a right time to mention groups, who are active in Russia right now, continuing to work with machine, which specifications more than 20 years old: CyberPunks Unity, Skrju, Inward, Simbols, Milytia, Triebkraft + 4th Dimesion. Some of them are working in experimental direction, others prefer follow traditions close to pop art. Even if amount of released demos is not big as 10 years ago, Russia is still the main country, when it comes to speccy demoscene.
Same year, Skrju released their seminal work, a group, which I am a part of was born. Actually, we released our second demo at the same party, where “Fuck You Scene” was released. For a long time before that, all members of Inward were and still are a part of much bigger collective, called CyberPunks Unity, which was located in Rybinsk – a small Russian town. At one moment in 2003 Skvortsov Roman (Moran) and I decided to start this side project, because we had a lot of similarities in our vision of further development. Roman is a good graphic artist and a musician; I was only a programmer by this time. Zx-spectrum was a good medium for us, as we knew how to express ourselves through it very good, according to past experience since mid nineties.
First our demo was a forty minutes long drone piece, called “Microcosm”. Basically it consisted of two, repeating with slightly differences, visual patterns with a touch of randomization, a text, describing the state of consciousness, this demo arouse in us a hypnotically droning soundtrack. As we clearly understood: no festival could accept such kind of work for a public presentation, we released it out of any competition in a year 2003. Two years later, we got news, stating that our assumptions are not fully right – Nomad festival, organized by Serbian demogroup Kosmoplovci had a show of this demo from start to an end. The only drawback was a soundtrack, which can’t be correctly played by an emulator in this particular case. Anyway, as they said, visitors were enjoying this, even in a slightly different form.
A natural next step for us was to release a demo at a demoparty, to present ourselves to a bigger audience. A mentioned above Computer Art Festival in Kazan city suited for this very well – our friends from Skrju and CyberPunks Unity were coming to this event and prepared several, very interesting works. You can imagine our disappointment, when a beautiful demo “Evenless” by CPU, where I also took part as a programmer, was turned off in the middle of presentation, because it was too minimal according to the taste of organizers. In the same time I had a bit of bitter joy, because Inward prepared a very short, one and a half minute experimental piece, called “The Source”.
After this event it became clearly seen – our works doesn’t fit in the frame of a Russian demoparty. On the other hand, we didn’t know, where else we could release it, and the desire to express ourselves through speccy demos was inevitable. At that time we had a limited access to internet and rarely got news about film festivals or other events, connected with experimental art. Also, living in a small town, far from big informational sources played its role on our point of view in art world. So, we did two more works for demoparties, with no big success. One was called “The Path” – it is a 18 minute techno trip, presented at Slovakian event Forever 2004 and the other – “Inmost Sun”, inspired by a significant novel “Secret Man” (Sokorvennyj chelovek), written by a Russian novelist A.P. Platonov in 1927. For this demo we cooperated with Mikhail Ershov (Miguel/CPU) – a musician from CyberPunks Unity, who was our good friend for a long time. Here we started to incorporate graphics based on photos of our hometown, its suburbs and people. This trend continued in later works, changing in style from demo to demo.
Note: it is quite hard to do proper screenshots from this demo, because of an algorithm, used to display graphics – it shows only part of image per frame, to make a surreal feeling to a whole picture.
During all this time, while we were making demos, Roman Skvortsov was composing music, using Zx-spectrum. At some moment amount of finished tracks reached number, enough to release an album. In support of demoscene tradition, we designed a music disk on Zx-Spectrum, called “Global Sensorica”, where layout was designed, using photographed elements from old destroyed Russian buildings. Music could be described as a hypnotic techno, same style as in our demo “The Path”. A few months later, I read about musicians, playing 8bit music live, using various computers and other hardware. Immediately I got an idea to play this music live. Only 2 years later I had in my disposal a customized speccy with 2 built-in sound chips, crossfader and software, I programmed to play and mix two tracks on stage. Hardware was done with the help of Chunin Roman and Akimov Vadim from NedoPc group, who are one of the few developers of spectrum hardware in Russia. Until now, this project was carried out to big stage only two times – at a big experimental music festival Sickfest in Moscow and at a demoscene event Altparty 2008.
Year 2005 brought us international fame, because of a demo “I am the seed”. Eventually, we got noticed by Scene.org awards committee and were nominated for this annual demoscene ceremony. We didn’t win, but it was a big honor to be in the same list with groups, whose works we admired through years. In this work we used noise on images of landscapes around our city and other creatures, moving around it, to reflect blurriness and uncertainty of our thoughts and feelings about past and future. To say with a visual language, how it feels sometimes, that all your efforts lead to nowhere, but in the same time you understand that you have to move.
Among several other works I want to mention an art pack called “Flashback faces”, consisting of several pictures by Roman Skvortsov and a soundtrack, composed also by him. It was not a usual kind of release for us, done mostly without a programmer. Contrary to that, in 2007 we released a 256 bytes intro “We all shivering at night”, where programmer has to do everything he can in a very limited space. It contains one scene with a generated landscape, close to the one, you can see in winter night at a bleak field. It moves and changes a bit, according to simple l-system fractal algorithm and some randomization. I even composed an atmospheric soundtrack in order to make immersive experience stronger.
After my experiments on music composing, I came to decision to compose soundtrack for a next demo myself. I had several ideas and a strong theme, which touched me very deep in that time. The fact is, a lot of people from demoscene community passed away in late 2006 and 2007. It is hard to tell a reason of this, but sad news of such kind filled forums worldwide and in Russia also. Even if I never knew those people, I felt sorrow and desperation. With the need to express those feelings “Your song is quiet” was done – a demo, which I first presented at a German demoparty Breakpoint and was able to visit this event myself. At this point I became 28 years old and automatically was liberated from Russian military service – the needed condition to get visa and travel abroad. A demo was received very well and a whole trip was very inspiring.
During Brackpoint I had a chance to meet a lot of interesting people, and among them Filipe Cruz (ps/tpolm) from Portugal, who is also a demoscene artist, involved in nearly all areas of experimental creativity – music, graphics, programming and running of a netlabel Enough records. A few months after the party we decided to collaborate on the next demo, the second part of “Your song is quiet”. He worked on graphics and we often discussed direction by email. Graphics for one scene were drawn by Delilah from group Skim. This demo was intended to be calm and placatory, reflecting the state when one has to resign to death and accept it as it is. Maybe, sometimes it is hard to find beauty in such things, but I think we have to learn this at one point of our lifecycle. In our opinion, smooth forms, growing plant-like visual patterns and music with a positive mood suited well for such kind of representation. We brought this demo to an outstanding event – an Alternative party 2007, where it got 1st place in a competition. This was a big surprise for us, because there were several beautiful works, also deserving this place.
In the meantime I thought about finding of new forms of self-expression quite for a long time. Roman already had an experience of working with video and I was curious about this medium. That is why we decided to try ourselves in a still motion animation. “Give me future or give me death” was shot during 3 weeks and then I spent another 3 weeks on video editing and music composing which was based on Roman’s rhythm pattern. To create a haunting atmosphere we used simple objects, found nearby our city and also bought some material for decorations. All in all, the budget was close to 2e, which was more than acceptable for us.
Film shows an everyday struggle of a man, trying to create some beautiful pieces in his world, or escape it. Along this way an abstract ”evil” thing is destroying everything, always leaving the main character alone. At some point he feels desperate and tired, so the only thought he is capable of is ”Give me future or give me death”. The end sequence shows his intension to destroy the camera, which keeps an eye on his life, letting the viewer to see everything he is doing. When video was almost done I asked a Holland artist Sander Van Den Borne from group Focus to add some typography, telling work’s name. He made it very well, and we decided to travel to Breakpoint again, this year, to participate in a video competition. The strange fact, that amused me a bit, was the response from some people, who said, that work itself is good, but there is no place for such kind of animation at a demoparties. This was nearly the same as with our first demos, presented at Russian events. But, in the end, we got more positive feedback, than the opposite.
A few years ago, when I got an opportunity to receive news around the world easier, I started to ask myself a question “Why I so rarely see demos, exhibited anywhere, except demoparties?”. Yes, Lately I got some reports from Europe, telling about demo and video art exhibitions, where our works were included, but that is really not much. There are a lot more interesting manifestations in demoscene, which can enrich galleries and art festivals. I see several reasons for such alienation, including a bit of conservatism and lack of knowledge on this subject. After recent presentation of our works in Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, Kari Yli-Annala, who teaches experimental cinema there, told me that today’s students know more about this form of contemporary art than their teachers.
It is good, if teachers are open-minded persons and appreciate new things, brought to us by magnificent development of technology in last century. But I clearly understand, this area is hard to explore, especially if one was not following it for several years. Demoscene is a good example of an art movement, where various forms and styles are interweaving, so by downloading a random demo or video you can expect to see anything – from a simple scrolling text with greetings, to a vast droning experimental work, where thoughts and feelings expressed in an unusual way.
Also, demosceners, of course, rarely care about making their works more famous and easier to access I think it is a common thing for a lot of artists. I am glad, we had an opportunity to present our works in an academy, which lead to an article, that you are reading now. When I think, where else we could have such a seminar, in Russia, for example, I am completely lost, it seems like Finland and Europe in general, are more open to unknown kinds of culture and art. And I hope we’ll hear about more events like this in future.