E-zines were text files written by Hackers, freaks, nerds, Sci-Fi fans, outcasts, psychotic weirdos, mad dealers and kindred folk, about what was happening in their lives, to reach out to other people with similar interests, lonely people scattered around the world connecting in CYBERSPACE and creating their own micro cultures around their hobbies and beliefs. Most of these e-zines would be about hacking and anarchic subjects […] especially nowadays where it seems that all these original romantic vibes of the cyberpunk/space world are falling apart with corporate institutions dumbing everything down. CYBERSPACE is not facebook, twitter, LinkedIn or your google+ prison which scans every fart you make to sell you more useless stuff you don’t need for your consumer selfie “look at me I am so happy” lifestyle. CYBERSPACE extends all over the place, lightyears removed from your lolcatz and facebook likes…a transcendental hyperreality matrix from seedy little corners only visited by enlightened freaks to an infinite world of clandestine knowledge that extends into infinity without CONTROL.
— Legowelt, ORDER OF THE SHADOW WOLF -cyberzine
Legowelt’s romantic view of the pre-internet era feels far removed from the internet of today. Platforms that dominate the market for community building, like Reddit and Facebook, are highly controlled, commercialised, and give users little to no ability to self-govern or build their own digital space. Legowelt’s description of “cyberspace” seems to be the polar opposite: a place for people to build communities around their niche interests with other like-minded people and without the control of any external authorities.
Even though some of this off-beat mentality has persisted in the internet culture at large, finding and especially joining these kinds of communities nowadays is a difficult task. While researching e-zines, I found a community that seemingly embodied a fraction of this “cyberspace” era even today: the world of ASCII art. For my bachelor’s thesis in 2014, I wrote about Amiga ASCII art and the method of producing images with a small set of typographic glyphs. Even though I enjoy the often delightful and obscure visual quality of ASCII art, I was more interested in what it represents. To me, ASCII art is like folk art of the digital era, and it carries a faint echo of the “cyberspace” era. Partaking in the community of ASCII artists made me feel like I belonged to some arcane, long-forgotten society.
However, the questions of how this community originated and how it organized itself remained open for me. Why does ASCII art exist? Does the ASCII art community have the kind of qualities that define the “cyberspace” era?
To understand how ASCII art came to be, we must have a look at another overlapping community: the software pirates. In the early 90s, the process of distributing warez moved from sending files on a disk via snail mail to distributing files via the digital networks of Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs). On the Internet, any number of people can visit the same website, but BBSs work in a different way. BBSs allow a finite number of persons to access the board at any given time; often, only one person at a time. With some additional hardware and software any computer could be turned into a BBS, and other people could connect to it by “calling” it over a telephone line. This meant that connecting to a BBS was inherently an intimate experience between the caller and the system operator, as the host could see on their screen how the visitor navigated the board, and the host could initiate a chat discussion with the user at any time.
People who had their own BBS tailored their boards to suit a specific interest or topic, but boards sharing cracked copies of games and software were the most popular. Michael Hardagon explains in his thesis how these autonomous, dial-in computer systems dedicated to software piracy were, “worlds unto themselves – secret, sub rosa societies that unified form and system outside the boundaries of the familiar.” These pirate BBSs and the communities around them were thought of as alternative, anarchic spaces that resisted authoritarian forms of consumer capitalism: sharing files illegally was done not only for the purpose of sharing free software, but for ideological purposes. Pirates and hackers were battling against companies who would enclose their software and games behind digital copy protections by giving them away effectively for free on BBSs. The pirates believed in common ownership of the means of production, free self-expression, and self-management in digital realms. They wanted to challenge the conventions of societal authority and fight the controlling systems of retailers and businesses. This kind of ideology goes hand in hand with the late 80s and early 90s “Cyberpunk” mentality, which George Borzyskowski describes as, “primarily an intellectual attitude about personal survival, empowerment and control within, and in defence against, an all embracing governmental and corporate technological infrastructure which seeks to dominate society for commercial and political ends.”
As BBSs were circuit based, unlike the internet, access to them was very limited. This technical limitation forced system operators to regulate the time users spent on their boards by imposing limits on how much time an individual could spend on them during a given day. Especially popular boards like the pirate boards were accessible only to a small inner circle of “elites”: those within the community who had status as brokers of some in-demand digital good – for example, the newest warez, best hacking tools, or the like. The exclusive nature of this platform meant that the digital underground organised itself into a strict hierarchical structure in which users were separated based on their reputation and status. Users with more status had more access to privileged goods, and the quest for status became a competitive sport among users and different bulletin boards.
This is where ASCII comes in: those users who didn’t have any technical knowledge or couldn’t share warez to gain status and access to pirate BBSs could turn to making ASCII art. ASCII art was the only way to display graphics and images on the boards, as the bulletin board systems were purely text based. Therefore, system operators sought out such artwork in order to give their boards the “elite” look and feel that made them unique, “secret, sub rosa societies”. ASCII artists would spend hours on end crafting intricate text mosaics – such as logos (which advertised the name of a BBS), screeners (a complex picture shown after a user logged in to a BBS), and stats screens (part of the BBS’s interface) – that they would trade with BBS hosts in order to gain access to their boards and would in turn enhance their reputation as a skilled artist within the community. As such, ASCII art was mainly created to gain access to boards, rather than just for the sake of art. In this way, ASCII art became a commodity to serve the needs of the software pirates: in exchange for my art being used on your board, I will get access to your board.
Even though digital piracy is often described as a major threat to many industries (especially software, music and cinema) and even to the entire philosophical framework on which capitalism is based (by effectively converting private property into public property and diminishing the returns on surplus value generated in the productive processes), it’s important to recognize that pirates were not attempting to create an anti-capitalist space, but rather a differently organized capitalist space with a more autonomous relationship to commodification and consumption. As such, the social models of these communities fell into reproducing and reinforcing the ideology of capitalist social relations: strict hierarchical structures in which (digital) capital accumulated to a selected few, while digital labourers worked in order to produce commodities, i,e., ASCII art, to be used in trade. While the pirates struggled against elements of control and management in favour of individual autonomy, and even developed organized social and cultural practices to achieve these aims, they were still generating and reproducing the structure of the society from which some of them were trying to escape. The digital underground represented a realm in which they could wield the same kind of exclusionary power that they complained about in “real life”.
It’s important to note that BBS users were predominantly white and male, based in Europe and North America, and typically young and unattached. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the ideological qualities of these communities were not necessarily progressive or well thought out but instead rather naïve. For example, the images ASCII artists decided to reproduce were often quite sexist: images representing female forms were often passive, and overtly sexual, on the verge of being pornographic; while male forms were depicted as heroic, aggressive, and muscular, with powerful poses, perhaps representing typical male teenage fantasies. These images were usually inspired or directly copied from comic books, games, or popular culture, while logos and fonts were heavily influenced by graffiti and 3D effects. While “ripping” was considered normal, stealing someone else’s ASCII artwork and presenting it as one’s own was deemed one of the worst offences within the community. Getting caught doing so would cause loss of status and reputation. On the other hand, art groups and individual artists competed against each other in technical and artistic excellence. Those who achieve excellence were dubbed “elite”. As an ASCII artist it was important to develop one’s own style of drawing in order to possess a unique signature style that could be recognized.
From 1995 onwards, the distribution of digital goods slowly started to move from BBSs to the Internet, which in turn also started to dissolve the link between the pirates and the ASCII artists. The internet provided several different capabilities that BBSs never could. Now, any number of people could connect to an internet-based server, instead of the previous one-person-at-a-time structure of the BBSs. When broadband connections became more available around the 2000s, they were many times faster than the slow connections previously made across telephone lines. The internet was also truly global, unlike BBSs. Telephone calls across continents were very expensive, which meant that BBSs were limited to mainly national calls. Additionally, the telephone network was never intended for sharing large packets of data to large crowds, so it was only natural that the pirates would proceed to the internet. With this transformation in the pirate scene, ASCII art lost its value as a commodity, as it was no longer used to gain access to pirate boards. On the internet, anybody could connect at any time to illegal file sharing sites; it was simply faster, cheaper, and more adaptable for the purposes of sharing digital goods.
Many forms of ASCII were platform dependent, so displaying ASCII on the internet was impossible, or a big hurdle. Types of ASCII art like Amiga ASCII, ANSI, and PETSCII couldn’t be displayed on the internet for a variety of reasons: the character encodings, colours and file systems that made the BBS environment unique were different, and had now been replaced by a unified standard that allowed all platforms to speak with each other. Instead of 16 colours, you could have millions. The character encodings on ASCII art no longer translated to the universal character encoding specification of Unicode, which was used on the internet. Images could also be displayed more easily and quickly on the internet, as opposed to on BBSs, which were text based. The whole purpose of ASCII art was to use characters to create images on a system that didn’t allow images, but with the internet that purpose disappeared, and so the need for ASCII-based images was no more.
The decline of the ASCII community wasn’t immediate, though. In fact, the height of the art scene era was in the mid- to late 90s, at the same time that pirates were moving their systems to the Internet. While originally ASCII art was made for the pirate BBS scene, a new type of BBS began to emerge: the dedicated art BBS. ASCII artists wanted to separate themselves from the illegalities of the warez scene by forming art groups and starting their own BBSs. These BBSs were not focused on hosting illegal files, but instead showcased the art and the artists. But as the masses followed the warez to the internet, and, in turn, the popularity of BBSs was in decline, the ASCII artists faced a question: what was the point of creating ASCII artwork if it would only be admired by other artists? Once the link tying warez trading and ASCII art together was broken, the key motivation for creating such works effectively disappeared.
To give a perspective on the volume of art pieces released by the dedicated art BBSs during their peak, we can look at some numbers: in 1995, over 800 Amiga ASCII collections were released; and within the ANSI art community, around 900 ANSI “art packs” were released in 1997. Amiga ASCII collections were long text files comprising individual ASCII pieces, usually done by a single person, and ANSI art packs were collections of individual art pieces done by many artists belonging to an art group. Combining these numbers, and keeping in mind the fact that each colly and art pack carried dozens, or even hundreds of individual art pieces, we can gain some sense of the popularity of the medium. The number of single works released yearly were easily in the tens of thousands in its heyday. By 2006, the numbers had declined to only a couple art packs or collys per year, totalling perhaps a few hundred ASCII art pieces.
After the break-up of ASCII and the pirate scene, ASCII art’s main raison d’être changed from its use as a commodity, to art for art’s sake – a role that it has continued to perform ever since. Even though some pirate groups still include ASCII art in the “info file” of their warez releases, ASCII art is today mainly discussed and shared on the same social media platforms I criticized earlier. The ASCII art scene experienced a slight revival around 2013 and has continued to rise. In 2017, 41 art packs were released, which is on par with the numbers from 2005. This revival can be explained mainly by ASCII art archival efforts from people involved in the original community; the start of a facebook group for “ANSI and ASCII artists worldwide!”, which has now accumulated around 880 people; and a general sentimental nostalgia amid old ASCII artists wanting to return to their teenage hobby. The ASCII community has not gained a lot of new artists, as the medium is heavily tied to its past, and there’s no longer any easy entry point into it. ASCII art seems to be a decades-old art form with no relevance to new technologies or platforms.
While the days of mad dealers and kindred folk connected to each other in cyberspace on seemingly anarchic pirate BBSs, and the height of the ASCII art era are both long gone, the art itself lives on as a manifesto of its time. The lure of ASCII art might not be in the nostalgia of how it looks, but what it represents: the ideals of “cyberspace”. It stands for a wistful longing for those pre-internet days when corporations hadn’t yet taken control of our digital day-to-day and the community was still in control of organising itself.
ASCII art was born out of a specific need at a specific time, but even though ASCII art can be seen as a remnant of the past and a curiosity powered by zombie technology, it would be unfair to reduce the art form to obsolescence. Raquel Meyers uses Commodore 64 text-mode graphics for her artistic practice. To her, creating art using old technologies is not about nostalgia; it is, “not an aesthetic choice, not a pursuit of self-identity, not an ego trip, not an idle occupation to pass time”, but, “a quest for freedom through knowledge, imagination and creativity.” After looking at how ASCII art came to be, it is clear that it is important to understand the past in order to build the future, because, ultimately, ASCII art can represent possibilities for artists and designers outside of those examples driven by nostalgia. Instead of investigating how ASCII art used to operate within its community, perhaps our focus should shift to what ASCII art could represent today, and to the creation of artworks based on Meyers’ quest that “builds imaginary on and off the grid, shaped in text characters raw and unadorned.” Even though today’s ASCII community might be driven by nostalgia, the art form itself can inspire new thinking, "as knowledge of techniques and knowledge of a skilful or artful use”.
This essay was originally written in 2018 at Sandberg Instituut, Amsterdam. Big thanks to Rana Ghavami for edits and suggestions.
: In this essay I will talk about ASCII art, even though I actually mean ANSIart and Amiga ASCII art. ASCII art technically means the 7-bit ASCII art as specified with the ASCII standard, while Amiga ASCII and ANSI had an extended 8-bit character set and were platform specific. For the purposes of this essay, I will talk about ASCII art, as it is generally used as an umbrella term encompassing all forms of digital text art.
: Illegal / cracked copies of software were known as “warez,” which was a typical commodity on BBSs, with their own production and distribution system and cultural practices.
: Michael A. Hardagon, “Like City Lights, Receding: ANSi Artwork and the Digital Underground, 1985-2000” (master’s thesis, Concordia University, 2011), 112, https://spectrum.library.concordia.ca/7341/
: George Borzyskowski, “The Hacker Demo Scene and Its Cultural Artifacts,” (School of Design, Curtin University of Technology, 1996), http://www.scheib.net/play/demos/what/borzyskowski/
: Michael Strangelove, The Empire of Mind: Digital Piracy and the Anti-Capitalist Movement (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 57
: Michael A. Hardagon, “Like City Lights, Receding: ANSi Artwork and the Digital Underground, 1985-2000” (master’s thesis, Concordia University, 2011), 143, https://spectrum.library.concordia.ca/7341/
: Michael A. Hardagon, “Like City Lights, Receding: ANSi Artwork and the Digital Underground, 1985-2000” (master’s thesis, Concordia University, 2011), 185, https://spectrum.library.concordia.ca/7341/
: Raquel Meyers, “Keys of Fury – Type in Beyond the Scrolling Horizon”, WiderScreen, June 15, 2017,
: Raquel Meyers, “Is It Just Text?” in Teletext in Europe: From the Analog to the Digital Era, ed. Hallvard Moe and Hilde Van den Buck (Gothenburg: Nordicom, 2016), 35
- Carlsson, Anders. “Beyond Encoding: A Critical Look at the Terminology of Text Graphics.” WiderScreen, June 15, 2017. http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2017-1-2/beyond-encoding-a-critical-look-at-the-terminology-of-text-graphics/
- Albert, Gleb J. 2017. ”From Currency in the Warez Economy to Self-Sufficient Art Form: Text Mode Graphics and the ’Scene’”. WiderScreen 20 (1-2). http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2017-1-2/from-currency-in-the-warez-economy-to-self-sufficient-art-form-text-mode-graphics-and-the-scene/
- Lotvonen, Heikki. “Amiga ASCII -taide.” Bachelor’s thesis, Aalto University, 2013.
- Mueller, Gavin. “Piracy as Labour Struggle.” tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique14, no. 1 (2016): 333-45. http://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/737/860