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Demography and Decentralization: Measuring the Bulletin Board Systems of North America

BBS, Bulletin Board Systems, community, demography, history, internet

Kevin Driscoll
kdriscoll [a] virginia.edu
PhD
Department of Media Studies
University of Virginia

Printable PDF version

For many home computer enthusiasts of the 1980s and 1990s, a local dial-up bulletin board system, or BBS, provided the first opportunity to get online, chat with strangers, share files, and play games. But how many is “many”? Was BBSing limited to a few elite geeks, or did it reach broader populations? Lacking any central record-keeping authority, the demography of dial-up BBSs is difficult to ascertain. To estimate the number of systems and the size of the user population, this study draws on a mix of incomplete sources. Regional lists of bulletin board systems indicate the geographic growth of the decentralized BBS network; a questionnaire circulated by the U.S. Census reveals a partial snapshot of the user population; and market statistics published in the trade press reflect its commercial expansion. In spite of their limitations, a statistical analysis of these data provides a first-order approximation of North American BBS demographics, suggesting a scale comparable to better-known contemporary systems such as ARPANET or CompuServe. Further development of this methodology will enable the production of historical demography across networks, regions, platforms, and language groups.

Scale is both a conceptual and methodological challenge for historians of computer networks. Networks with human users are dynamic assemblages of social and technological relationships; uncertain systems living at particular historical conjunctures. We name them and write them into the singular—The WELL, FidoNet, IRC—but these networks are, by definition, multiple. Each network is composed of nodes and subnetworks, communities, clusters, channels and cliques. In order to compare the size, spread, and influence of various networks over time and space, we need common techniques of measurement. But networks of the past were diverse and their platform characteristics resist easy quantification. So, if we want to know how many people were online in the past, where do we begin to count?

For many users today, the experience of getting online is seamless and ubiquitous. Yet, the historical diffusion of networked personal computing was anything but seamless. In the US, adoption of data communications spread inconsistently across social groups and geographic regions. By early 2000, the “information superhighway” had been a matter of public concern—discussed by state leaders and featured on the covers of popular magazines—for nearly seven years but fewer than half of all American adults reported ever accessing the Internet for any reason.[1] Paradoxically, a majority of the active users (61.3%) had been online for two years or longer, reflecting the unequal distribution of access across society. Furthermore, the technical apparatus connecting personal computing devices to one another changed dramatically with the transition from dial-up to broadband networking.

This paper focuses on a period of computer networking history from roughly 1978 to 1998 (Driscoll and Paloque-Berges 2017). Archival sources refer to this period by several different names. In the late 1980s, some bulletin-board system (BBS) enthusiasts used “modem world” to describe the distributed social computing networks they had created atop the publicly switched telephone network (PSTN).[2] In the 1990s, industry researchers, policy makers, and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) began to use the term “dial-up” to distinguish PSTN access from other network media including DSL, cable, and satellite (Delfino 1994). Finally, early representations of the Internet in popular culture used vernacular terms such as “Grid,” “Matrix,” “Metaverse,” and “Net” to evoke a sense of the global information infrastructure as an uncertain assemblage of new and old media technologies.[3]

To home computer owners of this period, the Net was an archipelago; a metanetwork of diverse systems joined by improvised gateways of uncertain reliability.[4] Depending on a user’s social and geographic position relative to institutions of power, densely settled metropoles, and material resources, the Net appeared quite differently. To some users, the Net was a dial-up BBS, perhaps hosted by an acquaintance, hobby shop, or user group (Delwiche 2018; Driscoll 2016). To others, the Net was a commercial information service such as CompuServe, providing access to a rotating menu of databases, games, and communication channels. To still others, the Net was a State-run platform like Minitel, providing access to a variety of third-party services from the familiar to the mysterious (Schafer and Thierry 2012; Mailland and Driscoll 2017). Taken in aggregate, the Net was a decentralized socio-technical phenomenon, unfolding along the diverse telecom infrastructures linking cities and towns across the globe.

Decentralized networks present peculiar challenges for historical demography. Without a single point of entry, nor clear boundaries, nor overarching authority, there were no official record-keeping apparatuses for the Net. Today, there are no institutional archives to explore the vernacular Net, no single set of server logs to parse. Instead, measuring the Net is an ecological problem. Like a naturalist tagging a small number of birds to measure the migration of a flock, we must extrapolate outward from the few lingering slices and snapshots.

The purpose of this paper is to provide a partial solution to the demography challenge posed by decentralized computer networks. In particular, I propose to answer a deceptively simple question: Approximately how many people in the United States accessed a dial-up BBS between 1978 and 1998? This central research question invites a number of compelling and related questions. How were users and BBSs distributed geographically during this period? How did the population of dial-up BBSs reflect the larger population of the US in terms of age, gender, race, class, and education? Finally, this work provides a foundation for a demography of the modem world extending beyond the hobbyist communities of North America, enabling us to trace more precisely the influence of these early communities on the mass-scale systems of the broadband era.

Sources of demographic data from the early Net

There is no comprehensive source of historical information about modem owners or BBS users. Whereas commercial online services such as CompuServe kept a single database of all of their users, every dial-up BBS maintained its own database, resulting in redundant records spread across the network. In spite of this fragmentation, the overall size and character of the BBS user population is evident in a handful of surveys published by government researchers, trade organizations, and the BBS community itself. In aggregate, these sources portray BBSing as a widespread form of networking, reaching millions of personal computer owners throughout the United States.

The U.S. Census Bureau, 1984–1997

For the first ten years of the BBS phenomenon, from the late 1970s until the late 1980s, there appear to have been no nationwide surveys taken of bulletin board system users or operators in the United States. Beginning in 1984, the Bureau of the Census began to administer “sporadically” a supplemental questionnaire about personal computing sponsored by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Initially, the questionnaire did not ask about going online, but was revised in 1989 to include a set of questions about networking at home and in the workplace. In 1989 and 1993, the Census specifically asked respondents about their use of “bulletin boards,” but in 1997, the Bureau removed the question about bulletin boards and replaced it with a question about “internet” access.

The results of the Census questionnaire illustrate the relatively small scale of the early Net. In 1989, fewer than one-in-ten adults reported using a computer at home (9.3%), and among those home computer users, going online was quite uncommon (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991: Table 5). Of the 16.8 million American adults who reported using a computer at home, approximately 5.7% reported accessing a bulletin board and 5.3% reported using electronic mail. The only specific activity to rank lower than BBSing and e-mail was “Telemarketing” (1.5%). The proportion of BBS users was relatively stable across age groups, with little variance among respondents aged 22-54 years old (5.7-6.6%) and income groups (respondents with family incomes ranging from $10,000 to $75,000 reported between 5.7-6.3%). Counter to a common sense assumption, perhaps, BBS use fell off among the highest income earners. Of those households earning $75,000 per year or more, 4.8% reported accessing bulletin boards.

Sharper demographic differences in the 1989 Census data emerge, however, when we examine BBS use by race and gender. Relatively few Black home computer owners reported using bulletin boards (3.5%) or electronic mail (3.1%). Black users were, however, somewhat more likely than their White counterparts to use their computers for home businesses (12%), programming (22.4%), and video games (46.7%). Similarly, male users of all racial categories reported using bulletin boards at nearly twice the rate of female users (7.1% and 3.9%, respectively). Across the survey, the respondents reporting the greatest use of bulletin boards were single men living alone (9.2%).

Experience may have been a key factor in the reported use of bulletin boards by American adults in 1989. Between the 1984 and 1989 reports, the overall proportion of households that reported owning a PC jumped from 8.2% to 15%. Similarly, about one in five respondents indicated that they were still “learning to use” their machines, a proportion that grew inversely with the rate of bulletin board system use. It may be the case that modeming was practiced primarily among long-time PC owners. Indeed, a much greater number of respondents reported owning a modem (23%) than reported ever accessing an online service. Most modems, it seems, remained quiet.

By 1993, the prevalence of home computers and the visibility of the “information superhighway” seemed to have drawn a greater number of American adults into the online world. The number of households with a computer had grown to 16.1% and many had owned a home computer for five years or longer.[5] Additionally, the proportion of home computer owners who reported going online rose dramatically. While bulletin boards grew slightly from 5.7% to 8.7%, electronic mail grew sixfold from 5.3% to 32.2%. These trends were consistent across race and gender groups as well. Black and white computer owners now reported similar rates of bulletin board use (approximately 8.7-8.8%) and a higher than average number of Black users reported using their computers for electronic mail (35.21%). This parity was not evident across gender groups, however. Female-identified users were still nearly half as likely to report using a bulletin board (6.07%) as their male-identified peers (10.93%), a disparity reflected in the first-hand accounts of women from the period (see Horn 1998).

Table 1. Hardware Components of Home Computers (in thousands). 1989. Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991: 2.
Component Number Percent
All computers 13,683 100.0
Floppy disk drive 10,137 74.1
Dot matrix printer 7,812 57.1
Color monitor 6,962 50.9
Joystick/mouse control 6,681 48.8
Hard disk drive 5,613 41.0
Telephone modem 3,149 23.0
Laser printer 1,571 11.5
Plotter 719 5.3
Don’t know 1,127 8.2

Optimistic statistics and the trade press

Toward the end of the 1980s, as online services attracted growing visibility and attention from home computer owners, publishers of technical books began to commission how-to guides for BBS users and administrators. The typical how-to book began with a wide-eyed overview of the modem world, highlighting the many joys and curiosities to be found in the electronic realm. A standard feature of this genre was to offer rough estimates of the number of bulletin boards in operation and the population of users one might meet online. As one author put it, “No one knows quite how many bulletin boards exist. The number involved is elusive.” (Dewey 1998) Elusive, maybe, but it did not stop him from throwing out a few numbers of his own (See: Table 2).

Table 2. Anecdotal estimates from how-to books and technical manuals.

 

Users BBSs Year Source
1,500–2,000 1987 The Essential Guide to Bulletin Board Systems (Dewey 1987)
500,000 1990 Using Computer Bulletin Boards (Hedtke 1990)
20,000,000 60,000 1994 Running a Perfect BBS (Chambers 1994)
15,000,000 150,000 1994 Creating Successful Bulletin Board Systems (Bryant 1994)
“Several million” 60,000–200,000 1998 The Essential Guide to Bulletin Board Systems, 2nd ed. (Dewey 1998)

Although the authors of these books rarely cited a source for their statistics, their crude estimates are nonetheless valuable. As cheerleaders for the BBS community, these authors were motivated to exaggerate its size but their estimates needed to fall within a plausible range in order to maintain good faith with their readers. As a result, though the numbers themselves are hardly reliable as precise measures of the burgeoning BBS scene, we should assume that they reflect an upper bound of plausibility for the time of their publication. The numbers are surely inflated but not outrageously so.

In their discussions of BBS statistics, the authors of how-to books often reveal intriguing details about their perception of growth. In 1990, author John Hedtke suggested that BBSing was a particularly urban phenomenon, musing that the user population was expanding “particularly in metropolitan areas.” (Hedtke 1990, 3) Later, in 1994, Alan Bryant, author of multiple BBS books, positioned BBSs within the broader economy of online services: “one of the fastest-growing segments of the computer industry.” (Bryant 1994, xiii) Bryant also portrayed the BBS as a point of entry into a kind of secret society, “[a] huge audience of computer-smart, modem-using individuals.” (ibid.)

Consistent with the global imaginary that accompanied popular articulations of the early Net, many authors gestured at a transnational diffusion of dial-up BBSs by using ambiguous geospatial phrases like “around the world.” The authors of a characteristically giant tome from tech publisher Que suggested that going online was “one of the primary uses for the PC [practiced by] over 20 million BBS users worldwide.” (Chambers 1994: 3) Similarly, Bryant implied that the use of BBSs in the US represented just a fraction of the overall growth, “It is estimated that more than 15 million people call BBSs each day in the United States alone” (Bryant 1994, xiii, emphasis mine).[6]

In the December 1995 issue of Boardwatch magazine, editor Jack Rickard set out to correct these overly-optimistic estimates with his own numbers (Rickard 1995). By this point in his career, Rickard had long promoted an integrated view of the modem world, casually slipping between “Internet” and “the Net” in his editorials, and sub-titling his magazine: “Guide to the Internet, World Wide Web and BBS.” He prefaced his quantification effort with an admonition of his industry peers: “The online community in general, and most wantonly the Internet portion of it, has a history of inflating virtually all measures of usage sufficiently to qualify as a case of ‘liar, liar, pants on fire.’” (Rickard 1995, 8) As a booster for the entrepreneurial BBS sysop, Rickard argued that accurate statistics were essential to establishing sustainable business plans and reasonable expectations among investors.

Rickard’s editorial included a useful round-up of market research statistics in circulation during the mid-1990s. First, Rickard detailed the “host count” approach to measuring internet use, highlighting a recent estimate from Mark Lottor of Network Wizards.[7] Lottor estimated that 6.64 million unique computers were connected to the Internet in July 1995, of which 4.25 million (64%) were located in the United States (Rickard 1995, 8-9). Rickard rejected any effort to extrapolate a human user population from Lottor’s host count on the basis that there was no reliable way to determine the number of humans per host computer. To illustrate this problem, he suggested that some estimates were based on an assumption that a single host computer might represent any number of users from 1 to 250,000.[8] Beyond this statistical assumption, however, the “host count” approach also failed to represent the practices of microcomputer enthusiasts who might own two or more active machines. Rickard noted, for example, that the Boardwatch offices were populated by 14 employees and 25 computers, a human-per-computer factor of 0.56.

Instead of host count, Rickard preferred an estimate based on a nationwide telephone survey commissioned by O’Reilly and Associates and conducted by Trish Information Systems (O’Reilly et al. 1995). The O’Reilly/Trish survey determined that 5.8 million adults in the US accessed the Internet “directly” from home, work, or school.[9] Of the internet users in their sample, approximately one-half were aged 18-44 years old, one-half earned between $35,000-$75,000 per year, and two-thirds identified as male. By dividing the O’Reilly/Trish user population by Lottor’s count of hosts in the US, Rickard argued that a reliable human-per-computer factor was likely closer to 1.37174. This line of reasoning lead him to conclude that the internet of 1995 was populated by 9,111,096 individual human beings (Rickard 1995, 64-65).

Despite the title of his magazine, Rickard did not attempt to break out the number of BBS users from the overall estimate of Internet users.[10] Instead, he turned his attention to the equally tricky category of commercial online services (Table 3). By comparing the marketing materials from various services to the survey results from O’Reilly/Trish, Rickard argues that the subscribership claims made by commercial online services were inflated. These numbers are additionally difficult to interpret because of how different platforms defined an “account.” On Prodigy, for example, a single account might have been shared by multiple users. Conversely, highly-engaged users might have been counted more than once because of the likelihood that they subscribed to more than one service.

Table 3. Commercial service populations (in thousands). Source: Adapted from Rickard 1995: 65.
American Online 3800.0 38.65%
CompuServe 3540.0 36.00%
Prodigy 1720.0 17.49%
Microsoft Network 200.0 2.03%
Delphi 125.0 1.27%
eWorld 115.0 1.17%
Genie 75.0 0.76%
Mnematics Videotex 65.0 0.66%
ImagiNation Network 62.0 0.63%
Reuters Money Net 33.0 0.34%
AT&T Interchange 25.0 0.25%
Interactive Visual 25.0 0.25%
Digital Nation 15.0 0.15%
The Well 12.0 0.12%
Computer Sports World 10.2 0.10%
Multiplayer Games Network 10.0 0.10%
TOTAL 9832.2  

Neither the nationwide surveys conducted by the Census, nor the BBS trade press provided a clear sense of the size of the BBS user population in the US during the 1980s and 1990s. Yet, each source offers some clues as to how we might proceed. While Rickard was correct to critique the “host count” method used by over-eager readers of Lottor, the BBS network represents a unique case. Nodes in the BBS network were functionally different from hosts on the Internet. Whereas internet users might jump from host to host via remote logins or Gopher, BBS users tended to stick to a few nearby systems. Therefore, the statistical relationship between BBS users and hosts should have been closer than on the internet at large.

Modeling the BBS user population

To estimate the population of BBS users, we will analyze a database of BBS hosts. The best source of data for the population of dial-up BBSs is The TEXTFILES.COM Historical BBS List, an archive of BBS dial-in numbers compiled and maintained by Jason Scott since 2001. Scott originally drew these data from hundreds of BBS lists compiled by BBS enthusiasts during the 1980s and 1990s (see: http://bbslist.textfiles.com/usbbs.html). In the absence of central directories or search engines, BBS lists were a primary means of discovering new systems for BBS enthusiasts. Circulated in both print and electronic forms, BBS lists could be found at computer shops and swap meets, as well as online in both nationwide online services like CompuServe and on BBSs themselves. Many lists, such as Clark Gilbo’s “Westcoast 813 BBS Directory,” Gerry George’s “Caribbean BBS List,” and Charles R. Grosvener Jr.’s “Worcester Area BBS List,” were organized by geographic region, reflecting the structuring force of long-distance dialing fees on North American BBS culture (George 1994; Grosvenor Jr. 1995; Ziegler 1993). Other list-makers took a thematic approach, such as Tom Brown’s “Ham Radio Phone BBS List” or the collectively-authored “Gay and Lesbian BBS List” (Brown 1988; Miller 1992). While BBS lists cannot provide a comprehensive account of every BBS in a region, the decentralized manner of their production reflects the decentralized structure of the BBS phenomenon, a similarity that suggests greater reliability than the centralized directories sold in bookstores (e.g. Cane 1983; Cane 1986).

According to my independent analysis,[11] the Textfiles archive includes 106,438 distinct BBSs grouped into 264 area codes.[12] This quantity represents BBSs that operated anywhere in North America for any length of time between 1978 and 2001. Informally, this number conforms to the anecdotal estimates published in journalistic accounts of the period. In a trade book published in 1994, for example, technical writer Markus W. Pope wrote evocatively of “tens of thousands of creative souls—BBS operators—who act as hubs, succumbing to the supply and demand of an information-hungry culture.” (Pope 1994, 1) Similarly, in 1995, Gary Wolf and Michael Stein published Aether Madness, an irreverent “travel guide” featuring a curated sample of the “more than 50,000 BBS” dotting in the modem world (Wolf and Stein 1995, 4). And, also in 1995, San Jose Mercury News writer Mark Shapiro suggested that there were “over 100,000” BBSs active in the US (as quoted in Dewey 1998).

Each BBS in the archive represents an unknown number of individual users. To model this decentralized network, we need to set upper and lower bounds on the possible size of each node. At lower end of the scale, each BBS had, at minimum, one user—its sysop. It is difficult to imagine such a system staying online long enough to be added to a BBS list, however, so we might reasonably set our minimum somewhat higher than one. A plausible minimum number of users might be in the range of five to ten users—imagine a group of friends sharing software on local BBS.

For an upper bound, however, we need to return to our historical sources. Arguably the most well-documented and widely-publicized BBS in North America was The WELL in Sausalito, CA.[13] In Katie Hafner’s popular biography of the system, she reports a peak user population in the range of 10,000 subscribers (Hafner 2001, 164). Boardwatch, meanwhile, published a somewhat greater estimate of 12,000 “WELLians” (Rickard 1995, 65). For our purposes, we might take the mean of these two ballpark figures and set our maximum subscriber number at 11,000.

For the present exercise, I assume a highly-skewed distribution of users among BBS.[14] This assumption is supported by the first-hand accounts of former users as well as the anecdotal evidence of many other social computing systems. The limitation of Rickard’s approach to estimation was that he assumed a normal distribution of users among host computers. By seeking a single human-per-computer factor, he ignored the “rich-get-richer” phenomenon that often characterizes the distribution of resources and attention in information systems.[15] Instead, we should assume that a small number of BBSs attracted a massive number of users while the vast majority of systems got by with just a few regular callers.

Based on these assumptions, I estimate that approximately 2.5 million users accessed the dial-up BBSs listed in the Textfiles archive. I arrived at this number by modeling the entire network using a power-law distribution with a lower bound of 5 and an upper bound of 11,000. I then used a computer program to take a random sample of 106,438 values from this distribution; the simulated population of each BBS. Next, I ranked these simulated BBSs and summed their values. Finally, I repeated this simulation, resulting in a sampling distribution with a mean of 2,505,694 (SD=43,417.86). This mean represents the estimated population of North American BBS users.

The challenges of Net demography

The statistical model detailed above is admittedly incomplete. In the absence of ground truth, I present the estimated population of 2.5 million BBS users as a methodological provocation, an oblique strategy for thinking creatively about network demography. If we are to write persuasively about the history of personal computer networking, we need techniques that allow us to assess the scope and scale of the phenomenon. A richer, more nuanced census of the modem world would address the limitations of this first-order approximation, taking into account addition information about the social and technical characteristics of dial-up BBSing.

First, the geographic locations of each bulletin board system should play a role in any population estimate. It may be possible to use government census data about the surrounding population to estimate the number of likely callers to nearby systems. Second, in many cases, we know which BBSs were multi-line or featured high-speed modems. These platform features would have accommodated a greater number of users in a given time period, suggesting a greater overall base of subscribers. Third, we must contend with the obvious redundancies in the BBS user population. From numerous memoirs and first-hand accounts of the period, we know that only a very few BBS users dialed into just one system. Indeed, in densely populated regions, users might be active on a dozen or more systems simultaneously. How should we measure these overlapping accounts? Is it necessary to collapse them into one? Or, might an argument be made for counting each account individually?

Finally, the pursuit of precision and scale may simply be a quixotic exercise, a pleasurable diversion from the hard, messy work of oral history and archival research. The decentralized structure of the modem world may prove sufficiently resistant to population statistics that we must abandon the epistemology of macro-scale quantification altogether. Indeed, although there is a utility in knowing how many thousands or millions of people accessed BBSs at a given time and place, these statistics should support and provide context to detailed case studies of specific users and systems.

The critical outcome of this demographic work is that many—perhaps most—of the systems that populate the “long tail” of the modem world were operated and populated exclusively by white, middle-class, American men. Like the previous generation of ham radio operators, they built their systems for the intrinsic pleasure of technical mastery and a fraternal intimacy sustained by technologically-mediated communication.[16] But, as FidoNet creator Tom Jennings cried out 1985, “Enough tech boards already!” (Jennings 1985) The overwhelming homogeneity of the majority of BBS culture should push us to pursue the stories of systems that represent alternative glimpses of futures from the past: queer, women-only, and Black-owned board; boards aimed at connecting rural communities together; boards founded by religious sects; boards for the elderly; and boards on which people wrote in languages other than English.[17]

With over 100,000 bulletin board systems in the Textfiles archive alone, the work of net histories is only just beginning. As we explore the islands of this network archipelago, we will need to develop new techniques for shifting between micro- and macro-scale perspectives. In doing so, however, we should endeavor to represent the period with fairness and justice, acknowledging the overwhelming homogeneity while at the same time celebrating the pockets of difference, resistance, creativity, and utopian possibility.

References

All links verified 16.6.2020.

Websites

Brown KA2UGQ, Tom. 1988. ‘Ham Radio Phone BBS List March 1988’. http://textfiles.com/bbs/BBSLISTS/hamradio8803.txt.

Chris. 1991 ‘The Fall of the Modem World,’ August 1. http://textfiles.com/bbs/fotmw.txt.

Dame-Griff, Avery. 2018. ‘TGNet Map.’ Mapping TGNet. http://queerdigital.com/tgnmap/index.html.

George, Gerry. 1994. ‘Gerry George’s Caribbean BBS List,’ February 22. http://www.ugcs.caltech.edu/~benedett/trinidad/bbs.html. Accessed 2018.

Grosvenor Jr., Charles R.. 1995. ‘Worcester Area BBS List’. http://www.inthe80s.com/july1995/bbs/worcbbs.html.

Hobbs, Charles P. 2000. ‘The Modem World,’ http://textfiles.com/history/modemwld.txt.

Miller, Leedell J. 1992. ‘The Gay & Lesbian BBS List.’ Soc.Motss, November 2. https://groups.google.com/forum/#!original/soc.motss/mdXaPe3cw2k/NWGHeaoz0KkJ.

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Notes

[1] The statistical claims in this section are based on data published by the Pew Research Center, specifically the “Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet,” “Mobile Technology Fact Sheet,” and the March 2000 survey, available for download here: http://www.pewinternet.org/datasets/march-2000-survey-data/

[2] Across a number of sources, I found the term “modem” being adapted to serve new discursive purposes: as a verb (“modeming”), an adjective (“modem scene”), and a noun (“modemer”). This symbolic use of the modem reflected a growing orientation toward computer-mediated communication that Annette Markham described as a “way of being.” See: Chris 1991; Driscoll 2014; Hobbs 2000; Markham 1998.

[3] Cyberpunk author John Shirley’s articulation of “the Grid” offers one of the clearest examples of the popular understanding of the internet as a collection of multiple co-joined systems rather than a single, coherent platform. Shirley’s Grid is a massive infrastructure, always changing and frequently breaking down, that includes every sort of data transmission from financial transactions and television news, to military operations and corporate espionage. See also: Shirley 2012; Stephenson 1992; Sterling 1988.

[4] For examples of cyberspace as an archipelago, see: Held 1994; Quarterman 1990.

[5] The statistics in this paragraph are based on an independent analysis of data published as “Computer Use in the United States October 1993” and available from the US Census FTP site.

[6] Bryant, Creating Successful Bulletin Board Systems, xiii.

[7] Lottor repeated the host count for nearly two decades. See: “ISC Domain Survey,” archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20150524091949/http://www.isc.org:80/services/survey/

[8] According to Rickard, the number 250,000 was based on a possibly apocryphal story about a server at IBM with one IP address and 250,000 active user accounts. See Rickard 1995: 9.

[9] The discrepancy between this figure and the results of the Center for the People and the Press survey seems to lie in the definition of “Internet.” Without access to the original report, it is difficult to discern from Rickard’s summary alone.

[10] Indeed, to do so would undermine Rickard’s assertion that the popularized/privatized Internet was the result of a widespread BBS metamorphosis.

[11] Shared with and verified by Scott.

[12] Area codes are three-digit dialing prefixes defined by the North American Numbering Plan (NANP). The Numbering Plan went into effect in 1947 and has been continuously updated by the North American Numbering Plan Administration (NANPA). Initially, area codes referred to specific geographic regions. Following the break-up of AT&T, the deregulation of telephony in the 1980s, and the growth of telematics devices such as fax machines and modems, demand for telephone numbers rose dramatically. To meet the demand, area code “splits” and “overlays” were introduced to densely-settled areas such as Houston, Los Angeles, and New York. With the emergence of mobile telephony and “number portability,” the geographic meaning of area codes is largely symbolic. See: “NANPA : North American Numbering Plan Administration – About Us,” accessed May 2, 2016, https://www.nationalnanpa.com/about_us/index.html.

[13] One might argue that the WELL is more accurately compared to nationwide services like CompuServe but it serves our immediate purposes to place it in the BBS category.

[14] The analysis in this section uses the powerlaw Python module. See: Alstott et al. 2014.

[15] For a more detailed discussion of these phenomena from a computer science perspective, see: Easley and Kleinberg 2010.

[16] For this point, I am indebted to the histories of radio written by Susan Douglas and Kristen Haring, specifically: Douglas 1987; Haring 2003; Haring 2008.

[17] For exemplary work in this area, see: Dame-Griff 2018; Evans 2018; McKinney 2018; Rankin 2018.

Kategoriat
2–3/2020 WiderScreen 23 (2–3)

West and East German Hackers from a Comparative Perspective

culture, Federal Republic of Germany, German Democratic Republic, hacking, home computers, practices

Julia Gül Erdogan
julia-guel.erdogan[a]hi.uni-stuttgart.de
M.A.
Institute of History, Department History of the Effects of Technology
University of Stuttgart

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This overview deals with the advantages and problems of comparing hacker cultures in the liberal Federal Republic of Germany and in the socialist German Democratic Republic. The history of the divided Germany in the 1980s is thus used to compare the influence of state frameworks and technologies, arguing for more comparative and entangled perspectives in the research of sub- and countercultural computer usage. By looking at cultural practices, the complexity of hacker cultures will be highlighted and thus will show that hacking neither was just a Western phenomenon, nor that a technical retardation of the East covers the whole history of computerization.

Introduction

Hackers are an international phenomenon. Beginning with the “first hackers” in the 1950s at the MIT in the USA, one can observe that everywhere where computer technologies arose, hacker cultures emerged. Hacking is, broadly understood, the practice of playing with and exploring computer technologies. It can be either breaking codes like the software crackers, or creative programming like practiced in the demoscene, or hardware tinkering (Alberts and Oldenziel 2014, 4; see also Raymond 2003).

For quite a while now the history of different hacker cultures has been explored far away from the American master narratives. Local contexts of sub- and countercultural computer use were the main focus of the contributions in the anthology “Hacking Europe” (Alberts and Oldenziel 2014). The book offers a multitude of pioneering studies on home computer usage in national and regional contexts, which focus not only on Western industrial nations. It does not surprise that the history of hackers in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), not least because of the prominence of the Chaos Computer Club (CCC), is one of these contributions (Denker 2014). In addition to the history of the CCC, which, despite initial works (Denker 2014; Kasper 2014; Röhr 2012; 2018), still requires in-depth investigation, the history of German hackers beyond this prominent institution is also relevant. And this applies not only for the West German context, but also for the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

The comparison of West and East Germany and the study of those two states’ entanglement is a recent, yet well-established approach in contemporary history (Bösch 2015). Some studies have also been published on media and technology use in both states, which have highlighted numerous similarities and differences (e.g. Schildt 1998; Dussel 2004; Bösch and Classen 2015). An entangled and comparative history of the computerization of the two German states is, however, a new approach (Danyel and Schuhmann 2015) and needs further investigation.[1]

In my contribution I want to highlight why hacker cultures are worth studying from a West and East German perspective. I will argue why there should be more comparisons and cross border investigations for the history of home computing in general – even beyond the focus on the regime competition between capitalism and socialism.

Home- and microcomputers moved into German households in the 1980s. Computerization in the private sphere thus began in the last decade of a divided Germany. In this respect, the history of computerization of the divided German states also offers the opportunity to not only present a comparative study, but also to examine the merging of more or less separated entities.

My paper aims to highlight different problems which result from a comparative and entangled history of the FRG and the GDR regarding private computer usage in the 1980s. A study on the sub- and countercultural use of computer technology thereby has to take the broader social, political, economic and cultural levels into consideration. The term “hacker”, the question of the availability of resources, and the different and asymmetrical infrastructures must therefore be elaborated. These problematic areas also provide chances, as I will show inter alia by emphasizing the findings that have resulted from my research on German hackers’ history. It will show that despite different conditions, numerous similarities existed between the hackers of the FRG and the GDR, even though famous hacker clubs like the CCC did not cultivate contact with their equivalents on the other side of the Wall until the opening of the inner-German border in November 1989.

In fact, such exchanges took place only after this crucial event in German history. Since 1984 the CCC had annually hosted the Chaos Communication Congress in December, where hackers and activists of various kinds would come together. Just a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the motto of that congress was dedicated to the East German computer hobbyists: “Offene Grenzen: Cocomed zuhauf” (“Open borders: Cocome in droves”). This referred to the restraints of the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Exports Controls (CoCom) that banned or restricted the export of certain trade goods, including high-tech, to the countries of the Eastern bloc from 1950 onwards. CoCom also influenced the naming of the first West and East German Computer amateur meeting in February 1990 in Berlin called “KoKon”. This was the short form for “Kommunikation Kongress” – which also referred to the annual hacker meetings in Hamburg, organized by the CCC. Despite the missing interaction of popular West and East German hacker clubs before the autumn of 1989, the inner German border was permeable with a clear tendency of goods and ideas being transferred from the West to the East, and less in the other direction.

In the following I will address the question of what a hacker is in regards to the case of a divided Germany, as well as from an international perspective. I will also discuss the problem of an imbalance of sources for studying West and East German history. In the second part of this article I will outline the usage and access to computers in the two German states. Then I will stress the role of computer clubs in respect to education and community formation.

I. Terms, practices and resources

Of course, an advantage in the history of a divided Germany lies on a linguistic level, since the researcher only needs to be familiar with the German language for working with sources. Despite the fact that the two German states spoke the same language, some kind of translating efforts must still be done, as we are dealing with a liberal-capitalist Germany in the West and a state socialist Germany in the East. The language is thus influenced by the political situation. Especially in the history of hackers and computers, it is apparent that although German was spoken in both countries, it was not always the same vocabulary that was used. Hence the term “hacker” was not used in the GDR, except when magazines or state authorities talked about a Western phenomenon.[2]

Even terms for technical devices such as “joystick” were not universal, the latter sometimes having been called “Spielehebel” (“game lever”) in East Germany, as the socialist state wanted to prevent English vocabulary due to the antagonism of the two competing systems. Curiously enough, we still find English terms here, but these are mostly collective terms such as “computer fans” and seldom “computer freaks” (Gießler 2018). However, this should not prevent us from assuming a similar phenomenon of exploring computer technology in private, despite different designations for those enthusiasts. In researching hacker cultures we are confronted with a lot of synonyms everywhere: “hobbyists” or “computer wizards” in the USA (Levy 2010, ix), while in the Netherlands, hacking could be called “computerkraken” (based on the Dutch term for squatters, Nevejan and Badenoch 2016, 202) and also in the FRG, synonyms and broader terms were used to name these kind of computer fans, for example “frieks”, which is simply a German notation for “freaks” (see also Erdogan 2018, 228).

To explore the connections and similarities, it is therefore necessary to employ a stronger focus on the level of cultural practices. It is with a focus on practices and values of subcultural computer groups that a study on hackers from a comparative East-West-perspective becomes possible. This approach also enables us to investigate the phenomenon of hackers in all its broadness, thus diminishing the two dominant narratives of political and social activists on the one hand, and of wild intruders into computer networks on the other. Too often the hackers are only seen in their relation to online systems. This disregards the fact that hacking could also involve soldering or offline programming.

Also, the image of the hackers changed in the course of the 1980s. In the FRG, hackers had been first regarded as ‘excessive programmers’ (Weizenbaum 1976; von Randow 1978; 1982) until hacking activists entered the public stage in the mid-1980s. Clubs like the CCC or people around the hacker zine Bayrische Hackerpost (BHP) managed to establish a rather positive public image of hackers as specialists in the course of home computerization. In the second half of the 1980s, this image was challenged as more and more hacking was done to intrude computer networks. Furthermore, developing and changing laws concerning computer usage influenced this transformation (Denker 2014).

Already in the first half of the 1980s, the increasingly unruly activities of hackers in data networks caught media attention in the USA. In 1981, a hacker broke into a Norwegian system that monitored Soviet atomic bomb tests („Schweifende Rebellen“ 1983). In addition, a group of six teenagers operating under the name “The 414s” – Milwaukee’s telephone area code – hacked into computers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which inter alia developed atomic and hydrogen bombs. The so called “good” hackers tried to defend themselves against the increasing equation of what they were doing with data theft and what hackers in turn perceived as “crashers” – the destroying of code and databases. It was at this point that a separation of different hacker cultures began (see also Hartmann 2017, 86).

Steven Levy’s book Hackers. Heroes of the Computer Revolution, which he wrote in the first half of the 1980s, is witness to this differentiation. He actually provided more than just a story and a documentation of the history of hackers. First of all, in his book he put up an ethic (Levy 2010, 27–38) that still represents an important foundation of many hacker cultures today:

  1. Access to computers – and anything that might teach you something about the way the world works – should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!
  2. All information should be free.
  3. Mistrust Authority – Promote Decentralization.
  4. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
  5. You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  6. Computers can change your life for the better.

It should be pointed out that this code of values was not written down by hackers themselves. On the contrary, it was a kind of silent agreement and shared convictions which were expressed in hackers’ practices, which were, in turn, examined and summarized by Levy. This ethic thus did not presuppose hacking practices, but was a result of Levi’s observation of hackers from which he derived these maxims. Moreover, he summed up various groups as “hackers” which explored and played with computer technology and acted under different synonyms from the late 1950s to the 1980s. Levy’s codification of hacker ethic, in turn, influenced the practices of computer enthusiasts and, through the publication of the book, promoted the prevalence of these hacker values. Computer users recognized themselves in Levy’s narrative, creating a sense of affiliation and a philosophy. As the media scholar Claus Pias stresses, there was a certain necessity for the hackers to separate the “bad part” of hacking from the hackers, and for this purpose, Levy’s ethic came just in time (Pias 2002, 268).

The hacker ethic and popularity of the hacker phenomenon in media, as well as the divergence of their culture, had an influence on West German hackers. The code of values was translated, published and even extended by the CCC (Schrutzki 1988, 172–74). First of all, the version that the CCC put up included “sex” or rather “gender” – as the German language makes no distinction in this respect – in point four of the hacker ethic which specified that hackers should be judged by their skills and actions and not by other criteria. As the hacker movement in the FRG emerged above all as a watch group for data security and the protection of the private sphere, this aspect was also included in the German version of the ethic. Last but not least, the database break-ins previously mentioned and the case of Karl Koch from the West German city of Hannover, who was paid for hacking by the Soviet secret service, led to a modified version. The version of the CCC, which developed into the voice of many German hackers in the 1980s, has eight instead of six points. It also contains points dealing with the maxim of hackers’ behavior in databases: “Do not litter in other people’s data” and “Make public data available, protect private data”.[3] Thus, we see that West-German hackers not only adopted the hacker ethic, but also extended and specified it for their own beliefs and aims. The computer enthusiasts of the GDR did not have this fixed code of values. Nevertheless, their practices of computing as well as the interaction within their peer-group was quite similar.

It is here that another problem of a West and East German history of hackers becomes apparent. The West German hackers were highly vocal participants in the discussion about computerization, and, as a result, produced a lot of documents. For example, they made their own newsletters such as the CCC periodical Die Datenschleuder, while Munich hackers published Die Bayrische Hackerpost. In their statements they offended and mocked authorities, and this peer feeling of “we against those up there” became an integrative motive next to their interest in technology. They were able to create a specific public image of themselves and to present hacking as an instance of bottom-up control against the state. These kinds of documents are mostly lacking for the GDR, where freedom of expression and criticism of the state were much more limited and repressed. The descriptions of hacker practices that are available to historians are therefore mainly produced from the state’s point of view. There are some letters to the editor and several magazine articles of the 1980s which deal with computer experiences and the everyday life within the computer clubs. But these are very different from their Western pedants, because the subversive element is missing. At least there are some retrospective views that show the computer hobbyists’ perspective in the GDR (Pritlove, 2010; Schweska 2015; Strugalla 2017; Schweska 2017).

A source imbalance also exists due to the availability of access to files of the Ministerium für Staatsicherheit (the Ministry of State Security, also known as Stasi), while documents of the West German intelligence services are not accessible to researchers. Other West German state documents are becoming accessible only now, as the record retention period amounts to 30 years. At the same time, however, the collapse of the GDR and the associated processing of Stasi documents offers an extraordinary opportunity for research in contemporary history. Yet we have to keep in mind that in the case of the FRG there is an abundance of documents presenting the hackers’ perspective, while documents on hackers from the state’s security point of view are mostly missing – while it is the other way around when it comes to the GDR.

II. Consumption of computer technology

The 1970s and 1980s in the GDR were strongly influenced by Western lifestyles, protest and social movements (Gehrke 2008). Still, a comparison of consumption and its practices in the two German states can only be asymmetrical due to the different availability of goods and different economic concepts. The GDR ran a planned economy and was primarily oriented towards providing everyday goods instead of catering to conspicuous consumption, contrary to the social-liberal market economy in the FRG. Changing consumer practices can still be determined in the GDR from the 1970s onwards. Researchers speak of a “consumer culture” in relation to the GDR as opposed to a “consumer society” in the Federal Republic to focus on the consuming practices, which were, in fact, quite similar (Neumeier and Ludwig 2015, 240f).

The GDR was able to record a certain boom in computer technology in the 1950s and 1960s (Danyel 2012, 204) and computerization was formulated and promoted as a central task by the political leadership from the end of the 1970s again.[4] In 1988, GDR engineers managed to construct a 1 megabit chip (Danyel 2012, 205), but the planned economy of the socialist state could not achieve the same supply of consumer goods as the West German market. Nevertheless, several computer clubs emerged as results of private initiatives, as well as so called „Computerkabinette” or “Computerzirkel” (“computer cabinets” and “computer circles”) which were sustained by the state authorities. Many of these facilities, which provided computer workstations, were directly connected to the communist youth organization Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ), schools or universities (Weise 2005). Some microcomputer models were developed in East Germany, for example by the state-owned company Robotron, which were primarily provided to enterprises and educational institutions.

These models remained rare consumer goods in private household. On the one hand, the GDR was only able to achieve low production rates: The production of a 8-bit microcomputers series called KC (Kleincomputer) began in 1984 and until the opening of the inner-German border in 1989, only 30,000 units of this computer series were produced (Weise 2005, 13). On the other hand they were therefore hardly realistic purchases for private households. For example, the KC 85/1.10, which was sold from 1986 onwards, costed 1550 East German Marks, while an average monthly income of that time amounted to 1179 East German Marks (Arbeitseinkommen 1987, 129).

Yet, Western home computers were used in the GDR, too. Most of them were obtained by East German citizens through relatives living in the FRG, but also, from 1985 onwards, microcomputers could be bought for high prices at the so called Intershops which offered goods from the West in exchange for Western currency. Also, computer smuggling was widespread: In 1987 alone, 188 cases of speculation with and smuggling of computer technology were recorded, with a value of 45 million East German marks.[5] Western microcomputers were profitable speculation objects: The black market price of a microcomputer from the West German company Schneider, for example, could be 22 times higher in the GDR than its original retail price. In the course of the regime competition, the leadership of the GDR tried to satisfy the desires of the population and at the same time promote the socialist system. With the increasing tendency towards a consumer goods market in the second half of the 1980s, the political leadership of the GDR also increased consumers’ desires. The state leadership could not completely resist international changes in consumer behaviour, even though the Western model of possession was opposed to the goals of the socialist idea (Merkel 2009).

The asymmetry between the FRG and the GDR can be relativized with regard to actual consumer practices, as similar ways of dealing with the new medium emerged. These similar consumption practices are particularly reflected in the distribution and use of numerous computer games. In a list from 1987, the State Security registered 253 computer games, mostly with English titles, which were shown and exchanged among the participants at the computer club in the Haus der jungen Talente (“House of Young Talents”, HdjT) in East Berlin. This list illustrates the popularity and distribution of computer technology goods in the socialist state.[6] The role of computer technology in the GDR can also be demonstrated by the advent of computer magazines. In spite of a lack of paper, which in the GDR did indeed lead to a restriction in the range of print media (Meyen and Fiedler 2010), the subject of computers was not only dealt with in more general technical journals such as Jugend+Technik (ju+te) and Der Funkamateur. From 1987 onwards, the journals Mikroprozessortechnik and from 1988 onwards, Bit Power, provided further public platforms to promote and discuss computer technology or, in the latter case, computer games.

In the 1980s, prompted in part by a nationwide lack of supplies, there was an abundance of DIY practices in the GDR, including the soldering of circuit boards in order to build computers, as had already been done by hackers in the USA in the 1970s. A case in point is the Amateur Computer (AC 1), which could be built with the help of a manual distributed by the magazine Der Funkamateur (Der Funkamateur 12/1983). However, this practice of tinkering had its limits. As the magazine Jugend + Technik, which published the construction plan for a home computer in 1987, noted with regard to a kit called Z1013, the components for this 8-bit microprocessor were rarely available on the market (Jugend + Technik 5/1987, 322).

The impression of scarcity which results from the stories of tinkering and soldering in the East must not obscure the fact that computer technology was not necessarily common in West German teenagers’ rooms either. Also, prices could be quite high, especially if peripheral devices such as floppy disk drives or printers were added to the home computer. Furthermore, DIY practices remained part of computing activities in both German states, especially among hackers, because they could adapt the computer technology to their own needs or overclock it with the aim to achieve a higher computing power. While the DIY practices of the GDR were more a necessity than part of a subcultural ethos, the hackers’ tinkering and programming were part of wider DIY movements in West Germany. It was a reaction to and rejection of a consumers’ market, especially in regards to the commercialization of the software market (for the change in the software market see Ensmenger 2012, ch. 7.). Meanwhile, this comparison highlights the “contemporaneousness of the non-contemporaneous” (Bloch 1973, 104), which is immanent in the history of the use of technology, as historian of technology David Edgerton has notably pointed out in his groundbreaking book The Shock of The Old (Edgerton (2006) 2019, xii ff.).

In general, while comparing the hacker cultures of these two states one has to deal with an unequal infrastructure and different state-of-the-art of technology. While hackers from the FRG not only promoted bulletin board systems (BBSs) but could use them widely, hacking in the GDR did not include this particular practice. This was not only due to the fear of uncontrolled flow of information by the states leaders that prevented the private usage of online communication. The telephone network was in bad condition and poorly maintained, and its development lagged behind, thus telephone mainlines often had to be shared by multiple households. When telephone calls were necessary, one used the telephone of a neighbour or friend. Owning a telephone was rare, and such luxury in private households was often reserved for supporters of the regime. Still, there were some attempts by users either to produce home-built modems or to use modems imported from the West to connect one’s computer to the telephone network. One GDR citizen, for example, used information from West German magazines to build an acoustic coupler.[7] The Ministry of State Security even recorded a case of a private connection being set up within the GDR using an acoustic coupler, and referred to a case where a connection was established from Poland to the Netherlands.[8]

In the FRG, one of the main goals of different hacker clubs and groups was to promote BBSs not only as a way of communicate with people worldwide, but also as a participative medium. The BHP, for example, stated: “We’re here because there’s DFUE [remote data transmission, J.G.E.]. Our engagement is the pleasure of going for a stroll in public and other data networks” (Die Bayrische Hackerpost 1984). One aim of the hackers of the Association to Promote Public Mobile and Immobile Data Traffic (Verein zur Förderung des öffentlichen bewegten und unbewegten Datenverkehrs, FoeBuD e.V.) from Bielefeld in North-Rhine-Westphalia was to develop their own BBS system called BIONIC. The club aimed at promoting computer communication networks among social movements and non-governmental organizations and in doing so, it focused in its work on making technology accessible to non-technophile persons and groups. This meant, among other things, providing manuals and striving to avoid the technical jargon that was quite common in other hacker groups. The club’s BBS was also supposed to contain less exchange about technology itself than about political, cultural and social matters (Pritlove 2009).

But even though the FRG was a liberal nation, hackers here still had to deal with restrictions. While in the USA for example, the choice of a modem for computer networking was free and consequently, there was an open market where computer users could choose the model according to price and function, this was not permitted in the Federal Republic of Germany due to the postal monopoly. Based on the Telecommunications Ordinance of 1971 (§8(a) Fernmeldeordnung, 1971), the Federal Post Office was able to determine which devices would be allowed to be connected to the telephone network. Liberalisation, as in the USA, progressed slowly in the Federal Republic, but was already decided upon in 1982. It was not until 1996 that the monopoly fell entirely (Trute, Spoerr, and Bosch 2001, 4). Therefore, the networking of computer systems in the FRG coincided with a phase in which the Post Ministry had to fulfill its role as a monopolist, but at the same time to execute a certain opening towards a deregulated market. As the historian Matthias Röhr pointed out, digital technology increasingly weakened the basis of the legitimacy of the state monopoly (Röhr 2018, 269), which also manifested itself in numerous conflicts with hackers. Distributing and producing instructions “for cheap and universal modems” (Die Datenschleuder 1984) was one of the central concerns of these hackers due to their antagonism against the Post Ministry.

This emphasizes the fact that in both countries hackers had to deal with restriction, even if they were of different severity, and that hackers had to cross legal boundaries: The West German hackers used self-made modems, which – at least in theory – could at worst lead to a five-year prison sentence (Röhr 2018, 252), while the East German computer freaks tried to dial into international networks and thus were prone to being accused of contacts to the “enemy”. After the opening of the border and even before the reunification in autumn 1990, hackers from the FRG helped to set up BBSs in the East, as GDR activists saw an urgent need to be able to use this way of networking (“Nun sind die Haecksen auf dem Vormarsch” 1990). In the first half of 1990, already five BBSs were running in East Berlin. Here, the computer amateurs also used self-made acoustic couplers to dial in.

III. The integrative and educational role of computer clubs

The sub- and countercultural appropriation of computer technology was often a social, interpersonal activity in both countries (Erdogan 2018). Aside from financial reasons, the practices of exchange among each other – including knowledge as well as software – and of showcasing one’s own skills led to collective computer usage and the formation of clubs. In 1986, the East German State Security stated that “as a rule, owners of computer technology are continuously interested in establishing and expanding contacts with their peers”.[9] Beyond that, some of the East German computer fans even became members of clubs in West Germany.[10] This membership worked on the basis of exchange of programs and printed information.

Documents from the State Security show that not only various Western computer brands were used in the GDR, but also that there existed a substantial number of private computer users in general, of which 1200 were under observation in 1988.[11] Despite this surveillance, which was mainly motivated by the state’s distrust of private associations and possible relationships to countries abroad, computer users remained largely untroubled. They were even given a great deal of freedom, because they participated in the promotion of computer technology. With regard to the computer games mentioned above, of which many were even explicitly banned in the GDR, no punitive consequences are known from the available sources. Furthermore, the club of the HdjT did not carry out any attendance control, neither did it register what the participants, who occasionally brought their own computer to the meetings, actually did during their attendance at the club premises.[12] This was actually a thorn in the side of the authorities, but did not challenge the club’s continued existence. In fact, the club leader set up regulations himself: He did not prohibit the exchange of software entirely, but he threatened to denounce those who sold games and software in the club, regardless of whether they were self-programmed or copied. The computer club in the HdjT was not to be used for individual enrichment. Instead, the focus was on exchange and learning from each other.

The maxim of freedom of information can thus also be found among active computer users in the GDR. With a code of values that prohibited the theft and alteration of data, the West German CCC attempted to steer these practices, too. Thus, the Club declared: “We are the opposite of computer criminals who, for their own financial advantage, penetrate computer systems and sell data, just as we clearly dissociate ourselves from people who copy software and then resell it” (Chaos Computer Club 1985). Financial enrichment by selling information was thus frowned upon in computer clubs on both sides of the Wall. Also, at the first West and East German KoKon meeting in February 1990, one of the most intensely discussed issues was the question of the free exchange of information and the idea of freely accessible software (Tolksdorf 1990). The CCC also set up a copy centre at this congress, which enabled GDR citizens to obtain copies of hacker magazines and other Western computer magazines free of charge. The possession of a copier had been forbidden in the GDR until the fall of the Wall, and printers could only be obtained with a registration (Wolle 2013, 231).

In the FRG, especially since the 1970s, the membership numbers in citizens’ clubs and associations rose sharply. Thereby hobby clubs had gained importance. There was an increase in the number of associations characterized by political and social commitment as well as those which provided consultative services to citizens (Werner and Zimmermann 2002, 11). Most hacker associations combined all these purposes: On the one hand, they served as organizations where the hobby of computing could be practiced, but on the other hand they formed counter- and subcultural spaces. In contrast to given structures such as families, clubs and associations represent an alternative form of community (Zimmer 1996, 11). Ulrich Beck discovered in the declining significance of classical communities, such as family or class, a loss of security that accompanied this process (Beck 1986, 206). The social movements, clubs and associations addressed these insecurities and created spaces of community, which nevertheless satisfied the demands of the individuals for their own performance and the pursuit of special interests (Effinger 2013, 338). The statement of the West-German hacker and virus expert Bernd Fix in an oral history interview about the moment when he heard of the CCC for the first time stands for both this communal and individual aspects in particular: “But I didn’t know that what I was doing was called hacking. Or that there are also people who do the same, or who even join together to form such a group. That was a real revelation for me – to know that I am not crazy. That there are others who do the same.”[13]

Besides pointing out the variety of hacker cultures in different national or regional contexts, it can also be useful to put the different computer subcultures into close comparison. The recent works on different computer subcultures show numerous similarities despite the differences in actors and contexts. Jaroslav Švlech, for example, points out that gamers in Czechoslovakia also used techniques of bricolage similar to hackers (Švelch 2018, xxxvi. and ch. 6). Numerous works also show the role and importance of clubs additionally to that of private initiatives during the computerization of the private sphere (see e.g. Jakic 2014; Wasiak 2014; Švelch 2018, 95ff; Veraart 2014; Lekkas 2014).

Apart from developing pioneering technical solutions, hackers took on an important role on the social and cultural level. In my research I therefore stress the role of hacker cultures as space-creating instances. The hacker clubs enabled both contact zones with the new technology and designed spaces for computer use. By physical spaces I primarily mean club and association rooms. In addition, through conferences and congresses on both sides of the Wall, they created temporary places for exchange and socializing. But not only did the peer group benefit from the meetings, they also offered opportunities to get to know an almost unknown medium – far away from the opportunities provided by the state or the market. The club in the HdjT did not explicitly see itself as an institution for educational training, but as an opportunity for living and learning from a hobby („Haus der jungen Talente hat jetzt Computerklub“, Berliner Zeitung, 23.1.1986). The interest of the participants in the Computer Club of the HdjT laid in graphics programs, computer games, creating music, or simply calculating and text production (Ibid.). The hackers from the CCC saw the club as an opportunity to learn critical and creative computer usage, too: “The Chaos Computer Club is a galactic association without fixed structures. After us the future: diverse and varied through training and practice in the correct use of computers, often referred to as ‘hacking’” (Die Datenschleuder 1984). This was accompanied by the fact that the approach to computers in these spaces was more open, and new possibilities of application and even ways of a counterculture developed through playful exploration in these spaces.

Jaroslav Švelch, who also argues for more comparative perspectives (Švelch 2018, 221), comes to a similar conclusion in his study of the gaming communities in Czechoslovakia. He emphasizes the role of computer clubs in training in the early period of home computing. In this case “the state itself did not claim the territory of home computers, its socialist organizations granted patronage to clubs. […] Clubs in turn offered services that were otherwise (in the capitalist contexts) mostly performed by commercial companies.” (Švelch 2018, 215) The East-West-German comparison provides a more nuanced picture concerning the role of capitalist and communist systems’ impact on home computing.

In the case of the GDR, the state leadership was strongly involved in home computerization. Reports to the Ministry of Higher Education and Technical Education testify that microelectronics had gained in importance in the school and extracurricular youth institutions at the end of the 1980s.[14] A report criticized, however, that above all the lack of equipment and access restrictions prevent the exploratory appropriation of the new technology. This illustrates that in the GDR the use of computers was not only to be promoted, but that playful learning was also of interest. And this function of clubs also applied to the capitalist West. A lot of letters addressed to the CCC around the year 1984 show that computer users saw the club as an important source of information on computing. The hacker club provided more of what state or business organizations offered less. For example, one letter said that “conventional clubs” did not provide the necessary information about security or networks for an experienced computer amateur.[15] Another student wrote that it would be boring to do only reasonable things with a computer,[16] and that is why he made contact with the hacker club.

Computers and computing practices were intrinsically linked to processes of identity formation. Computer enthusiasts in both countries were interested in more than simply having the latest and best computer model. At least since the opening of the borders, their own cultural practices became threatened by an uncertain future, also in computer usage. The KoKon meeting showed that it was not only the pure performance of the devices which was a decisive criterion for the potential users. Some GDR computer fans warned that the Western technological advantage should not lead to the total exclusion of devices and especially user practices from the GDR. While East German users could be content with computer technology being delivered from the West, they still wanted to determine the modes of usage themselves. Under no circumstances did they see themselves as beggars.[17] Some GDR citizens, despite the unquestionably more advanced technology in the West, took a critical stance towards Western computers and did refer to their own technologies and practices with pride. From their point of view, the computer dominated in the West as a consumer good. This was a development they wanted to avoid by all means for the GDR.[18] However, similar concerns had already been expressed by the West German CCC in 1981, which warned against considering computers as pure consumer goods. In the announcement for their first meeting it criticised “that ‘the personal computer’ in Germany is now to be sold to the video-saturated BMW driver” and pointed out that a “useful” computer approach should be followed instead (Twiddlebit et al 1981). For both states, it can be said that hobbyists came together and wanted to use computer technology far aside from a purely rationalist or consumerist approach. Creativity and fun were particularly in the focus of these enthusiasts, and this way of exploring and using computer technology was mainly realized in clubs which offered free spaces.

Conclusion

Of course one can question the usefulness of a comparison between West and East Germany. Would it not make more sense to compare the FRG with other liberal states or the GDR with other countries of the Eastern Bloc, where access to consumer goods or the possibilities of the expression of opinion would be more alike? And these concerns have their legitimacy, as such studies are also needed. After numerous case studies, there is a lack of comparisons to emphasize commonalities as well as differences, and thus the diversity of computer subcultures. How, for example, to explain the difference between the FRG, where hackers were able to establish a very positive image of themselves and follow their practices quite freely, and its similarly liberal and democratic neighbor, France, where hackers went underground because they were severely persecuted and punished harshly since the 1980s (Ankara 2007; „Manifeste pour la création d’une organisation hacker en France“ 2009)? Socialist countries of the Soviet bloc also display interesting differences, as the results from Jaroslav Švelch concerning the state’s involvement in private computer usage show in contrast to the GDR.

But it is precisely in these differences, in the comparison of different political and cultural frameworks, that such an approach is beneficial. It may show us what role the technology itself plays in its use and how, on the other hand, national political, cultural and economic frameworks influenced computer practices, or how similar practices were pursued across borders. Since the GDR was lagging behind Western standards on the technical level of production and supply of computer technology, a comparison between East and West is able to avoid the common mistakes of writing the history of technology as a history of progress. This history, on the contrary, emphasizes that the use of technologies can be marked by particular identities and apparently intersecting practices in technology use and consumption. Soldering one’s own circuit boards, which has become increasingly obsolete due to the establishment of a market for computers and computer parts, remained for instances. Through this approach it becomes more apparent that practices of computing are temporally overlapping and not only superseding. And this does not only apply to the GDR or less developed countries, but is also reflected, for example, in the emergence of hacker cultures in the FRG in contrast to the USA. In this case, it can also be seen that hackers in West Germany developed their own values, which not only adapted the original hacker ethic, but extended it from the outset. The approach also helps to understand that hacking is not only a Western phenomenon, as well as to emphasize the offline aspects of this computer culture. The comparison of different countries also stresses the role of communities in the course of private computerization, and allows us to write a history of home computing from the bottom up. Last but not least, comparing subcultural computer usage in different contexts not only generates new insights on computing history, but also on social and cultural history.

References

All links verified 16.6.2020

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Notes

[1] At the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam a project started in 2014 researching exactly the entanglement, parallelism and similarities of computerization in the two German states. It deals with the computerization of the police and intelligence services, the banking system, the pension planning, the military and my own project on the sub- and countercultural use of computers by hackers: https://zzf-potsdam.de/en/forschung/linien/departure-towards-digital-society-computerisation-and-social-regimes-west-and-east.

[2] E.g. Ulbrich, Dr. Reinhard. Undated. „Code-Knacker“. In BStU BV Berlin XX 3118, 4.

[3] “Mülle nicht in den Daten anderer Leute“, „Öffentliche Daten nützen, private Daten schützen“

[4] „Unterrichtsmittel und Schulversorgung; Beschleunigung der Informatikausbildung im Bildungswesen“, 1986–1987. In German Federal Archives, Berlin-Lichterfelde (in the following: BArch Lichterfelde) DR/2/14059.

[5] „Information zu Problemen des Schmuggels und der Spekulation mit Erzeugnissen der Computerindustrie“, 1988. In Stasi Records Agency, Berlin (in the following: BStU) MfS-ZAIG 20262.

[6] „Operative Information HdjT Computerclub“, 1988, BStU BV Berlin XX 4334, p.7.

[7] E.g. Hinweis zu einem DDR-Bürger, der private Kontakte zu einem Verlag nach München unterhält“. 1984. In BStU, MfS HA II 1713.

[8] Fetsch. 1988. „Information zu vorliegenden ersten Erkenntnissen im Zusammenhang der Nutzung privater Rechentechnik“. In BStU MfS-ZOS 1510.

[9] Ibid., p. 74

[10] Ibid., p. 25.

[11] Ibid.

[12] „Operative Information HdjT Computerclub“, 1988, BStU BV Berlin XX 4334, p. 23.

[13] Fix, Bernd. 2015. Interview mit Bernd Fix – Virenexperte (BRD) Interviewed by Julia Gül Erdogan.

[14] “Ausbildung im Fach Mathematik/Informatik; Stand der EDV”, 1988. In BArch Lichterfelde DR/2/11708.

[15] Letter from Bad Aibling. Undated. In CCC Archiv Berlin, Folder 28.

[16] Letter from Stuttgart. Undated. In CCC Archiv Berlin, Folder 28.

[17] KOKON 004 msc/fr .1990. In Wau Holland Archiv Box I, Berlin.

[18] Ibid.

Kategoriat
3/2018 WiderScreen 21 (3)

Disliked and Demonized Dollies: Pediophobia and Popular Toys of the Present

doll design, dolls, horror, pediophobia, toys, uncanny

Katriina Heljakka
katriina.heljakka [a] utu.fi
Doctor of Arts, Visual culture, MA Art History, M.Sc. Economics
Toy researcher
Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies / University of Turku

Printable PDF version

This study explores the phenomenon of pediophobia and popular character toys of the present day. Pediophobia, or, the fear of dolls, is a common reaction when discussing character toys with adults. By turning to a combination of various research materials concerned with popular toys, their characteristics, and the audiences who dislike and dismiss them such as previous research papers, media texts and interviews with adult toy players, my aim is to locate the joint phenomenon of the disliked ‘dollies’ and pediophobia in popular culture, the currently communicated reasons for it, and the strategies for avoiding encounters with the ‘dislikeys’.

Image 1. “Dolly, don’t look!” Photoplay by the author, 2018, 2018 assisted by Sara Petrucci.

Introduction

In the summer of 2016 I participated in an urban art exhibition called Hidden Art as an artist with a colleague. Together, we designed and set up a gamified art exhibit, featuring a photoplay (or story including toy photography) of a girl we had named Sigrid (Heljakka & Ihamäki, in press 2018). The character toy, who I photographed for our narrative – a MakieDoll – was partly designed by myself through an online application, then fully 3D-printed by MakieLab, a toy company based in Britain that was effective 2014-2016.[1]

1 Once deciding upon the facial features for the doll, I always aimed to design her to look like me, to function in an avatarial manner (Heljakka, 2013, 351). Consequently, the doll sported a serious face without any connotations to the bright smiles of contemporary fashion dolls like Barbie or Bratz. However, I wanted to give my new toy friend long blonde tresses, like I had at the time myself. After having anticipated the arrival of my mini-me for a month or so, the cylindrical, black box finally arrived. Little did I know that the hair style I had chosen for the doll resembled very little my own hair style. In fact, to my shock, the plaything looked rather like the malevolent character from the horror film The Grudge (Takashi Shimizu, 2004). Quickly, I arranged my hair dresser to style the hair of the doll in a less intimidating style. She followed me to the salon and after the cut, started to respond to the look I had had in mind at first.

While conducting a study on our gamified art exhibition later on, involving a group of preschool-aged children from a local kindergarten, I was surprised to hear that my doll still had an eerie resemblance to the demonized dolls of popular films of the past: One of the children responded with distaste to the little Sigrid in the photographs – whom she named ‘a creepy doll’.[2] Although I could in no way agree with this harsh remark towards the doll I had partly designed myself, I could sympathize the little girl. After all, I know many stories of children (and adults), who have experienced discomfort with toys of a similar kind. In fact, in their beta-version, the MakieDolls seemed far too uncanny to myself and this was the reason why I kept myself from ordering a doll of my own, before its aesthetics developed, and I was encouraged to act.

Image 2. My MakieDoll 3D-printed doll, before and after a professional haircut, given at a salon (for humans). Photos by author.

Method

This review traces the relationship between dolls and people who find them unnerving. One of the aims of the study is to briefly outline the history of dolls as images of the human being with their many faces. First, I discuss how dolls have evolved from ritualistic objects used in religious ceremonies to playthings mostly targeted to female players. I then move on to the historical development of the aesthetics, animism and adult imagination in connection to dolls. Thirdly, after positioning the aesthetic trends of grotesque hyper-simulation in one end and the fantastically emerging cutification of contemporary character toys in the other end of the continuum, I then ask what it is in dolls that turns liking into disliking and disgust. Examples of character toys, i.e. toys with a face such as action figures, dolls and plush are given to demonstrate, how the horrifying is now being transformed on the one hand to hyperreal versions of the popular characters and on the other hand cute, ‘tamed’ and playable objects. I continue with a discussion on the relationship between dolls and the films that supposedly ‘demonized’ them by letting toys take center stage as playthings with agency and an aspiration to kill. Finally, by turning to research materials collected from adults, the review presents current examples of dolls that are disliked according to the interviewees. My goal is to find out the reasons behind disliking and to seek answers to if popular narratives, for example, cinematic films are to blame for the ‘demonization’ of dolls in the experiences informed by adults.

In order to investigate the disliking and the fear for character toys in particular, I conducted a qualitative interview by distributing a questionnaire through social media channels. The questions targeted adults’ relationships towards toys on a general level asking about childhood memories of toys and current ownership of them. The questions also addressed the favorite toys and most memorable toy experiences of past and present, and uses of toys both in terms of offline and online practices. Disliking of toys such as negative feelings towards them in childhood and adulthood were asked about in the following set of questions. The last question related directly to discomfort, disgust and fear in association to toys in adulthood with a request for the participants to reflect upon the reasons for such reactions to toys. No questions specifically asked the respondents to draw connections between toys and other media texts, such as audiovisual narratives featuring toys.

The Finnish and English online questionnaire with open-ended questions was distributed on three different social media channels including Figuurien ja Elokuvamemorablian keräilijät (Collectors of Figures and Movie Memorabilia), Star Wars Finland fan group page, and by the help of Finnish toy museum Hevosenkenkä in February-March 2018. With a total of 16 responses the research materials collected represents a scarce, but valuable data set.

Object of study: Defining the dolly

The currently available version of the Oxford English Online Dictionary defines the doll as “a small model of a human figure, typically one of a baby or girl, used as a child’s toy.”

Lois Kuznets writes how the origins of the word doll “first recoded in 1700, is simply derived from the diminutive Dorothy (at one time Doroty also signified a puppet), and has associations with littleness, triviality, and vanity. In Latin and French, the words for doll are the same as for puppet; in German, the word essentially identifies a block of wood” (Kuznets, 1994, 11-12).

Dolls, unlike other playthings, have always been recognized by adults to have a special significance to their owners, Newson & Newson write (1979, 87). Most of the oldest ‘dolls’ now exhibited in museums were, according to Newson & Newson, never children’s toys, but were made and used for religious and magical purposes (Ibid.). However, this view of dolls as ritual objects has been debated extensively. One early example that illustrates the complexity of defining the role of historical dolls as a part of human activities can even be found in academic literature of the early 20th century, for example, in the writings of Yrjö Hirn, Professor of Aesthetics and Modern Literature, and an early Finnish researcher of toys and play who was active in the beginning of the 1900s. Hirn writes: “it can’t be denied that among the savage and barbarian peoples there have been discoveries of many small modellings of the human body, which are not used as play dolls, but as instruments in magic doings or which are seen to function a habitation of some dead soul. On the other hand, to counterbalance, one can plead to Dr. Luschan’s observations of some West-African wooden images, which museum lists claim to be false gods, but which, in reality are nothing else than pure playthings of children” (Hirn, 1918, 19, translation by the author).

Animism, or the belief of objects, animals and plants to have spiritual lives of their own connects with the idea of bringing toys into life. In this tradition of thinking, objects are given agency, so that the manipulable object is believed to encompass supernatural qualities. Again, anthropomorphizing refers to the tendency of attributing human form or personality to things not human (see e.g. Merriam-Webster dictionary). Humans are predisposed to anthropomorphize, to project human emotions and beliefs into anything (Norman, 2004, 138). In terms of relationships to toys, this tendency to ‘animate the inanimate’ is also visible in adult toy play and the cultures around it (Heljakka, 2013). For example, a study conducted by Hiromi Ikeuchi (2010) examined adults who organized memorial services for dolls.

Besides the traditional thinking of the doll as a girl’s toy-baby, as defined by Oxford English Dictionary, in the 21st century the meanings of dolls are renegotiated as toys of all kinds are gaining more ground as playthings of adults. For example, dolls can no longer be viewed as purely feminine objects intended for girls and women, but for all gender and ages. Moreover, the boundary between what comprises a doll and what is to be understood as an action figure, is blurring. For instance, the MakieLab pioneered in their decision to expand the notion of dolls by defining their plaything an action doll.[3] Therefore, we should broaden our understanding of dolls to include all playable humanoid figures, such as action figures and soft toys, which have also been discussed as character toys, or, toys with a face (Heljakka, 2013). For the sake of clarity, in this review I challenge the notion of the doll further, by extending its meaning to include puppets. Consequently, the terms toys, dolls and puppets are used interchangeably.

The mundane and the monstruous: Dolls of the contemporary

Experiences in relation to toys may be structured by using a framework with the dimensions of physical, functional, fictive and affective (Heljakka, 2017, see Table 1). Contemporary dolls as three-dimensional, material playthings may in other words be considered as physical entities that can be manipulated in terms of object play. Usually, the dolls are functional in terms of both their playability – they are intended to be used in play of some kind and afford, for example, possibilities to pose and display them in different ways. Dolls of the contemporary kind often also include a fictional aspect – they may due to their personality as character toys have a backstory of some kind. In the simplest sense, they may have a name and a personality described in a few sentences. On the other hand, they can be tied to transmedia franchises or storyworlds. Finally, the toy experience usually includes an affective component, which means that the player forms an emotional bond with the plaything.

Figure 1. Dimensions of the toy experience.

The aesthetics of the doll play a significant part in a dual process of bonding with it: Either one befriending the plaything as an ‘individual’ – a standalone character with its own personality (i.e. backstory) not entwined with a web of transmedial connections, or simply using it as a displayable item, a three-dimensional material reminiscent of adoration for other popular culture phenomena one has a fannish relation to, such as films or TV series.

The toy industry is heavily guided by trends and the idea of newness. Although new character toys are brought to the marketplace constantly, only a handful of these toys remain on the market after the first years. Generally, toys that have transmedia connections, survive in the ecosystem of play thanks to these relations (Heljakka, 2016).

Today, as in the past, toys are objects with designs that can reflect contemporary fashions and trends (Brougère, 2003). Dark themes interested in the fantastic supernatural have thrived in contemporary doll design for some time now. According to traditional thought and especially considering the most typical perspective on toys as objects belonging to childhood, toys should not be too scary, Yet, popular culture is full of cinematic examples of dolls ‘gone wrong’ (Bado-Fralick & Sachs Norris, 2010, 3, c.f. in Heljakka, 2013, 340).

In popular Western entertainments through the end of the twentieth century, the supernatural translated mostly as terror and monsters enjoyably consumed (Nelson, 2001, 19). The toys of today have come to communicate attitude, spunk and subcultural styles of a darker, morbid nature. Seemingly, skulls, dark tones and gothic attributes familiar from the horror genre have found their permanent way to Toyland.

One major difference between the toy cultures of adults and that of children is that the toys directed to adult ‘collectors’, fans, geeks or toy enthusiasts are constantly redefining the limits and level of ‘darkness’ in toys. After the rise of vampires, werewolves, voodoo dolls and zombies on the market of toys, trends in horror inspiring toy designs are split between the hyper-simulated and the fantastic.

As suggested elsewhere, the ‘uncannyness’ of the toy depends on where it falls on the axis between the simulation of real, and to the fantastic, and to some – the morbid (Heljakka 2013, 346). In this paper this aesthetic is discussed with the help of the notion of ‘uncanny’. Nelson formulizes the “uncanny” as something that literally cannot be “kenned” or known by the five senses. She writes that Freud’s famous definition of the uncanny (or unheimlich) relates primarily to a resurgence of primitive “discarded beliefs” – omnipotence of thought, fulfilment of secret wishes, return of the dead, and so on (Nelson, 2001, 17). The uncanny has inspired many storytellers of the past, especially in connection to dolls.

In the horror genre, evil also resides in the figures of the dolls themselves. For example, Chucky (Child’s Play, 1988) and the doll Annabelle, known from the horror films in the Conjuring franchise are now available to purchase as ‘life-size’, three-dimensional versions from outlets catering to the adult toy and fan merchandise market, and provided by the series of hyper-simulated Living Dead Dolls—designed by Ed Long and Damien Gloneck, and produced by Mezco Toyz since 2000, true to their cinematic paragons such as Chucky and Annabelle.

The toy industry with its novelties and collectable items directs these products primarily to adults. Mature audiences are expected to cope with toy-types that would not be let in any nursery. Yet counter-trends to the nightmarish and grotesque may be detected in contemporary toy cultures: As horror is becoming increasingly toyified, it is simultaneously cutified as well. Whereas the hyper-simulated toys meticulously follow their forerunners in the context of film in their accuracy to detail, the other end of the fantastic seem to cutify and soften the dark and monstrous elements of the characters by making them more compact and by adding plumpness and more vulnerable expressions to their facial features.

Funko Pop!, a massively popular series of character toys is based on seemingly every possible transmedia phenomenon (horror-related or other) that was ever dreamed up by the human mind, for example, the characters from the remake of Stephen King’s It (2017) such as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. In this way, the toyification of horror with its cute toy-types of vampires, werewolves, Voodoo dolls and most recently Stranger Things’ Demogorgon as cutified by Funko, continue to blur the boundaries between what is commonly addressed to as ‘sick’ and ‘evil’ and the common idea of character toys as cute, tamed and approachable, child-friendly objects. What is considered monstrous, then, is in constant transition: As result, Jenkins writes, ‘any stable separation between the monstrous and the normal is breaking down. What provoked unimaginable horror a decade ago, might well be mainstream and mundane today (Jenkins, 2007, 50).

Yrjö Hirn’s ideas from one hundred years ago seem to touch upon the same phenomenon of humour contrasting with the horrendous, as he writes:”Uglyness that is not anymore capable of terrifying, amuses as a comical phenomenon. That is why it is rare for some toys to be more popular among children than those that frightened them and that still awake a small, but passing sense of fear; and this is why one meets many grotesque masks, dolls and toys among uncivilized and civilized nations, whereof it is not easy to decide if the purpose of their ugliness is to frighten or to amuse” (Hirn, 1918, 17, translation by the author).

Image 3. Examples of Funko Pop! character toys: Multiple Pennywise clowns and ‘toyfriends’. Photo by author.

Animating the inanimate: Dolls in play(s)

“A puppet is an inanimate figure that is made to move by human effort before an audience. It is the sum of these qualities that uniquely defines the puppet. Nothing else quite satisfies the definition… It is definitely not a doll. When somebody plays with a doll, it involves an intimate action which never extends past the two of them. The player supplies the life for the both of them” (Baird, 1965, 3, c.f. in Haskell, 2017).

The doll (or a puppet) as a plaything cannot be separated from the activity of play. Victoria Nelson, author of The Secret Life of Puppets (2001) writes of Plato, who in his text The Laws describes the puppet to explain how humans, as the gods’ puppets, are pulled in various directions by their desires but must strive to go on in the direction of that cord which represents the common good (Nelson, 2001, 42). In other words, according to traditional thought, the player has agency over the plaything. Haskell (2017, n.p.) notes how Baird distinguishes the puppet from the doll. She writes:

“However, the intentions which separate the two are unique; the player of the doll is entirely selfish in their actions, creating an intimate process of imagination beneficial only to the self. Contrastingly, the puppeteer animates the puppet for the enjoyment of the audience – perhaps the audience enjoys the performance even more than the puppeteer enjoys creating it. Whilst the doll is recreational only for the player, the puppet creates a world of its own that shifts attention away from the puppeteer and draws the audience into its liveliness, thoughts, concerns – and survival.”

Some people find dolls a particularly disliked category of character toys. For a long time, I have wondered whether or not the reason for disliking dolls is grounded in the human tendency to anthropomorphize dolls, think of them as malevolent, and if this is true, find certain types of dolls a source of more discomfort than other ones.

As said, anthropomorphizing points to the human desire to inanimate the nonhuman. It is extended to all sorts of objects: “they toys that emerge from the toy cupboard are all granted mobility, feelings, and desires” (Kuznets, 1994, 144). Karl Groos writes in the Play of Man (first published in 1901), “the child playing with the doll raises the lifeless thing temporarily to a place of a symbol of life. He lends the doll his own soul whenever he answers a question for it: he lends to it his feelings, conceptions and aspirations” (Groos & Baldwin, 2010, 203). Adult imagination in connection to dolls of the contemporary kind results, at many times, as well in the anthropomorphizing of the plaything, when the interest leans heavily on ‘animating the inanimate’, giving the toy a life.

Nikki Bado-Fralick and Rebecca Sachs Norris note in their book Toying with God (2010) how dolls can be used to channel a socially acceptable personality in play, to function as an outlet for unsanctioned feelings or to conduct acts of rebellion. Moreover, dolls can be a projection of what one is not supposed to be (Bado-Fralick & Sachs Norris, 2010, 160). From the perspective of my study, I emphasize the last mentioned option – the use of dolls as vehicles that mirror projections of our dark side: Humans as the ‘dislikers’, dolls as the ‘disliked’, even demonized entities, and investigate their connection to popular narratives of the past that make use of playthings, and pediophobia.

Pediophobia: Fear of dolls and the pop culture to blame

For many adults, pediophobia, or, the fear of dolls, often relates to playthings of the(ir) past, but as a phenomenon, is not restricted to historical toys. It is an anxiety disorder that can be associated with a range of (and wide understanding of) dolls. To be more, precise, according to a definition given in Fearofnet.com – “The ultimate list of phobias and fears”, pediophobia entails:

…the unwarranted, irrational and persistent fear or worry of dolls. It is a specific phobia belonging to the category of ‘automatonphobia’. This is a type of phobia where the individual is afraid of all humanoid or “human-like- but-not-quite” objects including mannequins, marionettes, ventriloquist’s dummies, wax figures, animatrix or robotic figures etc. (Pediophobia, or the fear of dolls phobia)

During the years of my research interested in toys and playing carried out with them, I have, on several occasions met with reactions that express a severe dismissal, distaste if not a fear for my own dolls. Most often, the negativity has, according to the commentators, resulted from the fact that for instance the Blythe dolls, (Kenner, 1972 – later Hasbro), have a large and staring pair of eyes that many find disturbing. Additional to this, Blythe dolls have a mechanical feature that most dolls lack: A ‘magical’ set of eyes which change in color by pulling a string. For most, this is the source for utter disliking: the doll’s mechanical but mystified ability to transform ‘at the blink of an eye’. I can easily understand the disliking of certain toys, particularly with dolls in mind – I indeed share this dislike for some toy types, mostly, historical ones, myself. Still, the question tantalizes me: What is it in dolls that make us avoid them? What is it, besides the aesthetics of a plaything that provokes feelings of unease in a person?

Apart from the toy itself, there seem to be other reasons for disliking and fearing of dolls. To my belief, pediophobia as a condition is reinforced by contemporary storytelling, in particular, through audiovisual, televisual and cinematic films. But previous studies on the relationships between toys and narratives illustrate how playthings as characters of (horror and other genres of) stories have emerged as a phenomenon in literature long before the moving image as popular culture knows it today.

For example, a journalist named Carlo Lorenzi, writing as Carlo Collodi produced a serialized novel of a wooden puppet who finally achieves his dream of becoming a real human boy, The Adventures of Pinocchio: Story of a Puppet (1883). Nelson observes how the novel anchored on the trend of writing stories about puppets rather than staging puppet performances with them (Nelson, 2001, 253).

“A stronger type of subversion is sometimes evident in stories where toys go their own way and engage in liminal, carnival behavior. This behavior will allow the child reader an otherwise forbidden identification — a safe form that has its fascination and terror”, writes Lois Kuznets in her book, When Toys Come Alive (1994, 43).

My own childhood experience of fear related to certain types of dolls ties in with a popular, Norwegian-British TV miniseries of the 1980s, Maelstrom (1985). The show used multiple scenes of antique dolls floating in water or becoming distorted when burning in a fire – haunted images in my own mind that were vigorously discussed with childhood friends during the mid-1980s.

In Maelstrom, the presence of dolls – silent and paralyzed, yet unnerving – was to my interpretation used to reinforce the psychological state of the main character, a young woman who visited a house filled with secrets in coastal Norway. The uncomfortable, yet suggestive silence of the antique dolls in a coastal villa, was a product of their empty stare: These creatures knew something that the main character — or the audience, did not.

Play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith says that it is dangerous to pretend that we know what a child will do with a toy based on its characteristics alone because children have a way of doing things with toys over and beyond the apparent character of the toy (Sutton-Smith, 1986). The idea of monstrosity and evil treatment in reference to playthings has been toyed with for example in the Toy Story trilogy’s first film, and later a cameo role in Toy Story 3 (1995-2010)[4], which have introduced the character of viscous Sid Phillips, the neighborhood ‘bad boy’ who conducts questionable experiments with toys tricked from their original owners. The Hieronymus Bosch-esque landscape of Sid’s laboratory is intimidating indeed, as the strange hybrids mashed-up of a diversity of toy elements are constructed with seemingly evil plans in mind.

There seems to be something very appealing about what is considered dangerous, if not downright evil in play. According to Kuznets, abuse as a theme is recognized and widespread in all doll stories (1994, 107). As shown, pediophobia as a form of fear does not exclude other humanoid types of three-dimensional figures such as puppets or dummies. In fact, these types of toys were one of the first playthings to express violence in popular storytelling. Nelson’s book demonstrates how ‘homicidal mannequins’ emerged in Anglo-American popular film after the year 1950. The violent puppet entertainments of Punch and Judy and puppet-to-puppet terror changed, according to Nelson, with the Dead of Night (1945). In this British film, Hugo, a ventriloquist’s dummy, appears as the “first puppet murderer of a human in a popular film” (Nelson, 2001, 257).

The tradition of man-made characters that channel evil intentions has continued in recent horror films such as the SAW series with Billy the Puppet that debuted in the film SAW (2004) and has since made appearances in comics, video games and at amusement parks. The character offers inspiration to fan-made art as well. For example, Etsy, the outlet for creative maker culture currently showcases numerous toyified versions of Billy, such as a Lego-version and several amigurumis.

Moreover, the fear of clowns, or clourlofobia, intertwines with pediophobia, not only as a popular ‘toy-trope’ in cinematic films of the past, but due to the fact that many clown characters of the TV series and films have been recently toyified.[5] For example, the clown doll in the film Poltergeist (1982) and the novel and television adaptation of Stephen King’s It (1990) with Pennywise the Dancing Clown represent some classic examples of narratives in which clowns – either toy versions or humanoid types – terrorize children and families by their murderous behaviour. The latter, comes in fact, in several toy versions, for example as cutified by Funko Pop! (for references, see Images 3 and 4).

As shown, with toys, practices of viewing audiovisual material (spectatorship) turns to object relations including both imaginative and manipulative engagement with physical materials (play) when imagination is woven into the fabric of materiality. Besides collecting toys, the toy enthusiasts of the contemporary kind create customized horror toy characters which are not yet to be found in the traditional toy store, such as the Lego version of Billy the Puppet.

Terrorizing toys are finding their inspiration from the sphere of social media as well: Today, digital folklore is increasingly affected and mediated by social media phenomena. Memes are turned to both material and digital playthings and find their way to the toy chests of players of many ages. Online cultures are now what television and films used to be – a site for selective consumption. Additionally, they are playgrounds in which creativity and disruption thrive. In this way, they enable audiences of the past to become creators, even in the context of toyification of culture.

One example is Slender Man, a digital character born in the online forum Something Awful and further developed through mimetic practices on the Social Web as this character was quickly turned into multiple toys by makers within DIY culture.

Slender Man conveys contemporary horror outsourced, describes Chess (2012). Digital folklore and toyification thereof demonstrate a new, inspirational avenue for toy design, if the active and creative participants of maker culture are to believe. Although the popularity of customized horror toys among the (child) audience remains unknown, the practice of creating them indicates that what is not made available by mass-market outlets of global toy companies, will eventually find its way through creative (adult) hands to DIY toy markets such as Etsy.

Research on the dislikeys and the ‘damned’

What causes pediophobia? Is it the subjective aesthetic preferences in relation to character toys, narratives of toys that are evil, the demonization of toys based on popular narratives or a combination of these? Kenneth Gross, in his book Puppet. An Essay on Uncanny Life (2011) interviewed a puppet artist, Giuliano, who claimed a distaste for ‘children’s dolls’, which I assume to refer to the baby dolls most of us know young children are first playing with:

“Among so many sorts of toys, puppets, and manikins, there are no traditional children’s dolls [in his studio]. When I ask Giuliano about this, he explains that such dolls, with their smooth faces, chubby cheeks, and glass eyes, their static, kitschy innocence, disturb him too much. They carry too strong an air of death about them. He explains that dolls of this sort were originally created in the nineteenth century as memorial portraits of dead children” (Gross, 2011, 21.)

As seen in Giuliano’s response, although playthings like “children’s play dolls” referred to in this example are traditionally thought of as objects connected to childhood innocence, they may also cause other types of responses. In Giuliano’s thinking, there may also be a disturbing ‘air of death’ around the chubby cheeks of children’s dollies at least for those who position them in the context of historical uses of dolls.

For many, the risk of spontaneous encounters with the dolls must be eliminated, at least in the domestic sphere. Anecdotal information I have gathered throughout the years being a toy researcher demonstrate examples of toys that are disliked, such as the story of the Italian wedding doll that was given to a young bride and ultimately, hidden under her bed because she, according to her own words utterly ‘disliked the dolly’ and found it disturbing. If these snippets of information regarding dolls were to be taken as evidence for that adults have a tendency to fear some types of toys, there would already a great deal of research materials gathered for this review, dealing with the relationship between pediophobia and popular culture of the present. However, the inquiry calls out for a more rigorous method of study.

Related academic research on pediophobia is scarce, when considering studies on toy culture. In a study conducted by Eberle (2009) at the Strong National Institute of Play, participants were found to express nostalgia and fondness to certain doll types, while others provoked feelings of unease. Eberle writes about the uncanny as something that lies just outside the boundary of play. “The disquieting, unnerving, spooky, and somewhat sickly sensation contrasts with the pleasure and ease we feel at play; beginning to feel unnerved and spooked is to start to feel the sense of play draining away […] the words describe the odd sense that arises from an encounter with an object that looks real enough to be real, or moves realistically enough to seem real, but that is nevertheless not real or that seems not quite real” (Eberle, 2009, 168). In contemporary toy cultures, the concept of uncanny, relates to both toy design and play patterns (Heljakka, 2013).

Empirical study: What is liked and what is not

According to some, popular culture itself ‘demonizes’ dolls. Previously, I have speculated on how much of the disliking of dolls is grounded in the demonization of dolls that multiple horror series and films and can be accused for doing. This paper aims to a critical inspection of these themes through an empirical study introduced in the next part of the review.

The goal of this review is to seek answers to which facets, types and even brands of dolls – historical and present – provoke pediophobia. I am interested in the reasons for how casual disliking turns to disgust and even fear of toys such as antique dolls, anatomically realistic dolls and grotesque dolls. The review builds on the study focusing on baby dolls and described in the article by Eberle through an exploration of the notion of the uncanny, introduced by Jentsch (1906) and later famously used by Mashihiro Mori (1970) in connection with characters (robots and dolls).

In order to find out about the toys that are liked and disliked in contemporary times, an interview questionnaire with fifteen questions was composed for an adult audience of toys in both Finnish and English. Altogether sixteen adults, both male and female born between years 1947-1992 participated by answering the questionnaire. Respondents were asked to provide pseudonyms and real names were later changed by the researcher in order to guarantee full anonymity. Six of the participants answered in Finnish, the rest in English. The Finnish answers were translated to English by the author.

The research data was inspected through a thematic analysis, through which the answers were grouped into thematic categories according to the Dimensions of the toy experience framework (see Figure 1.).

The questions were formulated in order to find out about the participants’ attitudes towards toys in general. Moreover, the open-ended questions targeted both positive and negative experiences related to toys. Questions related to positive matters dealt with favourite toys of childhood and in adulthood, current ownership of toys, the most memorable toy experience, and online and offline play activities with toys. What was of most interest from the perspective of this study, were the questions concerning negative aspects of toy relations. It is important to note how the questions did not address dolls per se, but toys in more general terms. This ensured the validity of the collected research material, as the open-ended questions allowed more nuanced reflections to be communicated by the participants of the study.

To exemplify, the participants were asked to answer questions of the following kind:

  • Name toys you dislike (mention what kind of toys) including an explanation why.
  • Are there toys that provoke negative feelings in you? If yes, what kind of toys and why?
  • Have you had experiences with toys in your childhood that you would describe as negative? If yes, please describe in which way?
  • Describe the kind of toys that make you feel uneasy (feel discomfort, disgust, fear etc.) in adulthood, with an explanation why you think this is the case.

Results

The answers to the questions concerning positive and negative aspects of toy experiences were grouped according to areas addressed in the Dimensions of the toy experience framework (see Figure 1.) and their relations to the physicality, fictionality, functionality and affectivity will be discussed briefly in the following.

Toys are functional and invite to play on many levels. According to participants ‘Misteli’ and ‘Jenni’, toys, in the ownership of adults are interesting objects because of their capability to communicate playfulness:”They [toys] store sentiments, they are a symbol of being carefree and imaginative. They lack the seriousness of most other things and inspire playfulness” (Interviewee ’Misteli’).”They [toys] are diverse and meant for everybody, they empower and break the paradigm of playfulness being only for the kids” (Interviewee ’Jenni’).

Toys are fictional because of their relationship to narratives and transmedia storytelling, as illustrated in the comment made by ‘Rawhawk’: ”Toys capture the feelings of the movies and cartoons they are based on. Toys bring up many memories and stories.”

Similarly, the reasons for disliking toys may be grouped into areas of physicality, fictionality, functionality and affectivity. The strategies of disliking toys range, according to the interviewees, between a dislike for poorly made objects of play (functionality) to a dislike for toys with a certain aesthetic (physicality, fictionality). Interviewee ‘Rawhawk’ says that “any toy which don’t bring the best quality to the table gets my dislikes”. For example, fifty percent of the interviewees claimed a dislike for toys of bad quality that tend to break easily. Other reasons given for the disliking of such toys have to do with that they contain too few details or have a single specific action feature. In other words, they are considered too short-lived because of a lack of sustained play value.

More specifically, toys are disliked by two of the interviewees (‘Misteli’ and ‘Katti’) because of either sound in general or poorly executed sound design. Besides the auditive dimensions of toys (sounds), the aspect of olfactory qualities (sense of smell) was mentioned in one interviewee comment describing disliking of toys: “[I also dislike] toys that smell awful like barbies [sic]”.

Two of the interviewees (‘Eulaalia’ and ‘K-pie’) pointed out that they don’t really dislike the toys, but become sad “if someone has broken the toy” (affectivity), or “It’s more a matter whether they appeal to me or not” – comments, which again relate to the question of aesthetics encapsulated in the toys physicality, functionality or fictionality.

A more philosophical reason given for the disliking of toys was made in a comment by interviewee ‘Jenni’, who stated that “any kind of toy that has exploit sexualization, inadequate cultural appropriation, stereotyping or profiling of some sort. I dislike toys “meant for x or y gender and toys that feed superficiality, war or severity.” The sexualization of dolls in particular, was brought forward in another comment as well, given by interviewee ’CutiePlushie’ in the following way: ”I don’t like toys toys (that are sold for little girls) that describe girls too sexy, like Bratz-dolls – they’re too plastic looking and their proportions are way off (huge lips and eyes and tiny body).”

Character toys, and dolls in particular are for many the plastic manifestations of our cultural condition and in the 2010s according to some, toy design is still to be blamed for promoting unrealistic body images and overtly exaggerated facial features. In one way then, disliking for (fashion) dolls especially links with societal concerns of the moment, such as over sexualization of children and youngsters. At the same time the fantastic toy is paradoxically blamed for not conveying realism. Furthermore, these dolls are understood to communicate a lifestyle in terms of choice of clothing that is not seen as appropriate for their main target group of young girls. As interviewee ‘Misteli’ describes, one example of these dolls are Bratz: “I’m all for women expressing their sexuality how they choose, but these dolls were dressed and painted like brazen hussies, and marketed to pre-teen girls.”

Image 4. Close ups of the Chucky doll and a ‘cutified’ Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Photos by author.

“Just too scary”: Disliking turns to fear for dolls

In the questionnaire, the interviewees were also asked to describe the kind of toys that make one feel uneasy – to feel discomfort, disgust, fear etc. in adulthood, and to provide an explanation why they think this is the case. Adjectives such as ‘scary’ or ‘creepy’ were intentionally left out for the sake of neutrality. Nevertheless, similar wordings were used at most times by the interviewees, when they described the kind of toys that provoked uneasiness in them.

Four of the interviewees reported not to have experiences of unease or feelings of fear in relation to dolls. However, nine respondents informed the researcher that the toys that created such feelings in them, represented character toys and dolls in particular. The doll-types mentioned in these nine answers ranged from baby dolls (that cry or speak) to fashion dolls – and old-fashioned dolls– from puppets to clowns and life-like dolls to finally, a toy representing a doll familiar from horror storytelling, namely Chucky[6].

The doll types mentioned in more detail in the research materials include references to popular mass-produced dolls intended for children, such as baby dolls. In her answer, interviewee ‘CutiePlush’ shares an anecdote from childhood illustrating how the aesthetics can cause a complex situation, when the player is unsure of how to cater for the dolls’ needs: “the boy-doll […] it never smiled so I never played using it and still I didn’t want to throw it away. I thought that he needed comfort, it made me confused” (Interviewee ‘CutiePlushie).

Babies as character toys go hand in hand with emotional responses of their players, as the two following interview excerpts illustrate: ”BabyBorn – I have never liked those baby toys! …and maybe something looking creepy (bloody, angry or sad face)…” (Interviewee ’CutiePlushie’). Interviewee ‘Rita’ explains the complexity of bonding with a childhood doll that is sad as well: ”I have a doll from childhood…a little boy that cries – I don’t understand why a child would want a toy who always cries and never smiles. And a creepy real-looking doll makes me nervous. If it would stare me from the shelf, I could panic in the night” (Interviewee ’Rita’).

Interviewee ‘CutiePlushie’ gives a reason for not coping with “scary looking life-like dolls, [as their] eyes [are] open and staring…sooo creepy”. The face of a doll seems to cause feelings of unease in respondents, but the research data also includes references to ventriloquist dummies, clowns and character toys made popular by horror narratives: ”Dolls like Chucky are just too scary for me” (Interviewee K-pie’). And: “Charlee McCarthy dummy…you know why” (Interviewee ’JR’)[7].

”If the toy would have to do with some horror theme and I would be very young at my age, that could scare me. For example, the doll Annabelle which is part of a horror film. On the other hand I found different clown toys scary as a child, I did not like them. My mother collected wooden clown toys, which of one could move like in a puppet theatre. This feeling of fear really comes from the horror movies which I watched a lot when I was young. The expressions on the clowns’ faces were so unnormal and created a sense of fear in me”, interviewee ’Rita’ explains.

The anthropomorphization, or the attribution of human characteristics in dolls, results in a fear that once left ‘unplayed’, tossed in the trash and abandoned, the toy would make its way back and take revenge. Interviewee ‘Ashley’ connects this fear with antique dolls and dolls that speak: ”The old-fashioned and creepy looking dolls. The ones that have the right kinda stare that makes you feel like they are evil within when they look cute on the outside. If they giggle/laugh or say ”mamma”, when you press their tummy it’s even more creepy. You get the feeling they gonna come back if you throw them into trash and other spooky stuff” (Interviewee ’Ashley’).

”Sometimes as a young child I was scared that I have hurted my toys somehow and they would get their revenge for me when I fall asleep. […]. Because of horror movies I […] get anxious about baby dolls. We have one of those little BabyBorn dolls received as a gift and I always try to not hurt it and if I see it on the floor it needs to be put into its bed so that it won’t mind and take revenge :D” (Interviewee ‘CutiePlushie’).

In sum, although toys are loved and cherished objects in the lives of some adults, the same adults also demonstrate how certain toys are less liked and appreciated. In fact, there are toy types capable of communicating negative associations thanks to their ‘toyish’ dimensions from physicality of the plaything to their functional affordances (or despite of these affordances), and from their ties to transmedia storytelling to the individual and affective meanings and connections established by their players.

What the study shows is that although none of the interviewees reported to suffer from pediophobia directly, there are several comments among the answers in the research data that point to how character toys sometimes also provoke feelings of fear in adults. The most prominent reasons described by the participants of the study for the fear of dolls was either because of the specific aesthetic of the doll, or their imagined agency. That is, dolls as a particular category of toys are causing discomfort due to their looks versus the action the toys are envisioned to take, if treated poorly by their owners. Both the aesthetic of toys and the agency they have, has for a long time offered inspiration to the genre of horror storytelling, especially with its audiovisually-oriented productions in mind. Dolls are ‘homes’ for evil because of their endless potentiality to embody the monstrous ‘other’. At the same time they are ‘uncanny’ – not really because “the toys are us”, but because they carry scarily close resemblance to the human-being, on the one hand mirroring cuteness and warmth but also, on the other hand, the capability to channel a killer-instinct when becoming ‘possessed’.

Discussion

Toys are a medium in themselves, largely powered by storytelling. This medium has different genres according to toy types. In this review, I have investigated the relationships between pediophobia and pop culture, and presented an empirical study interested in the disliking of contemporary character toys. What is distinct about these toys is that they come with a face, often with a set of expressive eyes.

As speculated in the beginning of this journey, popular narratives especially tied to dolls of different kind have an effect on how today’s adults relate to toys. The horror genre in particular influences toy culture in a multitude of ways. In fact, three directions may be detected, when investigating the relationship between horror and toys. First, horror with its themes and characters inspires toy design. Second, the results of toy design based on horror storytelling become a tangible resource for players to reminiscence and display their horror-related experiences by manipulation of the toys. Third, disliking of dolls happens because of aesthetic preferences: disliking their appearance, physical form and materiality, face value or a lack thereof.

Nevertheless, and perhaps most importantly, toys and dolls in particular, function as a source for horror stories – toys are the reason for horror because they have been chosen to depict, channel and become the vehicle for the (d)evil. This is where disliking turns to discomfort. Dolls make one uncomfortable because a fear made possible by products of popular culture: for animating of the inanimate, the behavior, agency and actions of toys in popular narratives, and the functionality the playthings have conveyed in stories.

Figure 2. Dimensions of the horror toy experience.

Toys as a tangible medium make it possible to treat these physical entities as objects of study that allow many perspectives to be taken into account. As formulized in Figure 2, the “Dimensions of the toy horror experience” are based on the regular dimensions of toy experiences – the physical, fictional, functional and affective, but with distinctive accentuations, as illustrated in this review.

A final example clarifies this: The physicality of the toy, according to the study presented in the review may cause discomfort in terms of its “scary” aesthetics, like the Chucky doll. But for fearing Chucky, there are other reasons as well, those mostly tied to popular culture through its transmedial relations. It is the fiction behind the toy, the character backstory of Chucky as presented in the film that made the possessed doll a celebrity.

Nelson writes, “Killer puppets like Chucky clearly embody the long-standing Protestant dictum that what is not of this world is the Devil. As the supernatural is a Protestant taboo it enables the idea of evil to inhabit the spiritual realm and at times possess ‘the proxy bodies of imaginary artificial humans’” (Nelson, 2001, 259). Chucky’s own functionality makes it impossible for the owner of such a doll to have agency. The toy is functional in the sense that it possesses its owner. But the affective component in relation to Chucky then, as my study suggests, emerges as perverse emotional dis-connection with the doll: One cannot nurture a toy friend that has murderous intentions in mind – not at least one which in its fictional state may harm its owner. And once again, the attention turns to the player and preferences beyond aesthetics or pop culture: Some of us are more willing to explore the dark aspects of the human condition through their object interests and toy play.

Conclusion

Toys represent a powerful medium which is able to mirror the human condition in many ways. Both toy-based horror and stories based on other supernatural narratives – what has previously terrified audiences and fans of screen-based entertainment – are now being toyified – i.e. turned into multifaceted, three-dimensional playthings to generate visual, tactile pleasure and enjoyment derived from their narrative aspects for the object players of today.

This review has discussed distaste, disliking and the fear of dolls in relation to adult experiences of playthings. The goal was to investigate dolls – a wide category of character toys including puppets, action figures and soft toys – as a source for disliking and discomfort. Whereas fear of the imaginative unseen may present the greatest source for horror of all, the disliking and disgust of the physically manipulable toys offer a multidimensional object of study, which has been targeted from many angles in this review.

Even though toys with a face such as action figures, soft toys (or plush) or dolls of different types offer enjoyment, comfort and even possibilities to cultivate creative skills for many adults, there seem to be some who express a dislike for particular dolls and feel discomfort around them.

Despite multifaceted reasons to disliking associated with the physical dimensions of toys such as fragility and stereotypical aesthetics, the most central topic raised in the interviews was a disliking for dolls because of different levels pediophobia. Essentially, the most obvious connection made by the interviewees in my study is the one between disliked and discomforting dolls and how they have appeared in popular audiovisual storytelling, namely the connection between characters made known by television series or popular films and the dolls’ distinctive way of acting in the narratives. In sum, character toys and puppets, for which I, for the sake of clarity, have used the joint term dolls, are disliked for their potentiality as active agents.

Possible avenues for further research would, for example, be first, specific case studies on how horror is being re-played with toys e.g. in photoplay (i.e. photographing or videographing toys), and second, case studies on how industry designed horror toys versus independently created or customized horror toys emerge as three dimensional objects for play.

What presents an additional possible area of research is to turn to YouTube, the largest shop window to the cultures of toy play of today, in order to see how amateur creators of horror entertainment have continued (or challenged) toy-tropes made popular by the horror films using playthings in their plots for shock value. For instance, a study on player created YouTube videos on demonized dolls would propose an interesting example of a study in order to examine, how toy-related horror has evolved in connection with the rise of user-created content, as results of ‘playbor’, and in the hands of the ones who are inspired by dolls, both liked and loved, but also disliked and demonized.

References

All links verified 30.9.2018.

Films

Child’s Play. Directed by: Tom Holland, written by: Don Mancini, starring: Catherine Hicks, Chris Sarandon, Alex Vincent. United Artists, 1988. 87 min.

The Conjuring. Directed by James Wan, written by: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes, starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston. New Line Cinema, The Safran Company, Evergreen Media Group, 2013. 112 min.

The Grudge. Directed by: Takashi Shimizu, written by: Stephen Susco, Takashi Shimizu, starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Clea DuVall. Columbia Pictures, 2004. 91 min.

Poltergeist. Directed by: Tobe Hooper, written by: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, starring: JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke, Craig T. Nelson. MGM, UA Entertainment, 1982. 114 min.

Saw. Directed by: James Wan, written by: James Wan, Leigh Whannell, starring: Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell, Danny Glover. Lionsgate, 2004. 103 min.

Toy Story. Directed by: John Lasseter, written by: John Lasseter, Pete Docter, starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles. Pixar, 1998. 81 min.

TV Series

It. Directed by: Tommy Lee Wallace, written by: Stephen King, Tommy Lee Wallace, Lawrence D. Cohen, starring: Richard Thomas, Tim Reid, Annette O’Toole Lorimar Productions, DawnField Entertainment, 1990.

Maelstrom. Directed by: David Maloney, written by: Michael J. Bird, starring: Tusse Silberg, David Beames, Edita Brychta. BBC, Gryphon Productions, 1985.

Toys

Annebelle, MezcoToyz.

Blythe, Tomy Takara (under a license from Hasbro).

Chucky, MezcoToyz, Funko.

Demogorgon, Funko.

MakieDoll, MakieLab.

Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

Websites

Mezco Toyz, www.mezcotoyz.com.

Fear of, https://www.fearof.net/fear-of-dolls-phobia-pediophobia/.

Literature

Bado-Fralick, Nikki, and Rebecca Sachs Norris. 2010. Toying with God. Baylord University Press, Waco, Texas.

Brougère, Gilles. 2003. A Study of the Make-up of Children’s Toy Collections, in Toys in Educational and Socio-Cultural Contexts. Toy Research in the Late Twentieth Century, Part 2, edited by Lars- Erik Berg, Anders Nelson and Krister Svensson. Selection of papers presented at the International Toy Research Conference 1996.

Chess, Shira. 2012. Open-Sourcing Horror. Information, Communication & Society, 15:3, 374–393, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2011.642889.

Eberle, Scott G. 2009. Exploring the Uncanny Valley to Find the Edge of Play. American Journal of Play 2.2, 167–194.

Haskell, Jasmine. 2017. Divining the plaything. The relevance of puppets and dolls in a contemporary, adult culture. Research paper (undergraduate), Grin Verlag.

Groos, Karl and Elizabeth Baldwin. 2010. The Play of Man (orig. 1901). General Books, Memphis, Tennessee.

Gross, Kenneth. 2011. Puppet. An Essay on Uncanny Life. The University of Chicago Press.

Heljakka, Katriina. 2013. Principles of Adult (Play)fulness in contemporary toy cultures. From Wow to Flow to Glow. Doctoral dissertation, Aalto University. Aalto Arts Books.

Hirn,Yrjö. 1918. Leikkiä ja taidetta. Muutamia lukuja lasten leluista, lauluista, tansseista ja pikku teattereista [Play and Art. Some chapters of toys, songs, dances and small theatres] (trans. J.V. Lehtonen), Werner Söderström Osakeyhtiö, Porvoo.

Ikeuchi, H. 2010. Animistic thinking in adults: The memorial service for dolls as a voluntary loss. Research in Social Psychology. 25, 167–177.

Jenkins, Henry. 2007. The Wow Climax. Tracing the emotional impact of popular culture. The New York University Press.

Kuznets, Lois. 1994. When Toys Come Alive, Narratives of Animation, Metamorphosis and Development, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Nelson, Victoria. 2001. The Secret Life of Puppets. Harvard University Press.

Newson, John and Elisabeth Newson. 1979. Toys & Playthings. Pantheon Books.

Norman, Donald. 2004. Emotional design. Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. Basic Books, New York.

Notes

[1] Accoding to an article published by Techcrunch, the doll company has since been partly acquired by Disney. See: https://techcrunch.com/2017/02/22/makielab-may-the-force-be-with-you/?guccounter=1.

[2] For further information on the gamified art exhibition, it’s implications and the possible ‘pitfalls’ in creating game elements such as character design, see: Heljakka, Katriina & Ihamäki, Pirita (2017) Designing an Urban Adventure Gamescape: Avoiding the Pitfalls in Creating Opportunities for Learning Through Location Based Games. Play 2 Learn Proceedings, 19. Abril, 2018. Forum Picoas, Lisbon. 297–317.

[3] For a discussion on dolls and gender, see for example Heljakka, 2016: http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2016-1-2/strategies-social-screen-players-across-ecosystem-play-toys-games-hybrid-social-play-technologically-mediated-playscapes/.

[4] A fourth film is set to launch in 2019. See: https://www.wthr.com/article/toy-story-4-gets-june-2019-release-date.

[5] Toyification refers here to the idea of an entity being reinforced with toyish elements or aesthetics; an object (also tool, instrument, system etc.), a character or a human being acquiring a toyish appearance, form or function through intentional or motivated behaviour.

[6] Chucky, the ‘Good Guy’ doll that was animated to be ‘the archetypal killer puppet of late twentieth-century popular film’ (Child’s Play from 1988 with its three sequels), is a doll that becomes possessed with the spirit of a human killer, when he is shot in a toy store (Nelson, 2001, 258).

[7] “Charlie McCarthy was brought to life by carpenter and ventriloquist dummy maker, Theodore Mack at the request of a teenage Edgar Bergen.” For more on Charlie McCarthy, see: http://www.charliemccarthy.org/.

Kategoriat
1–2/2018 WiderScreen 21 (1–2)

Kick the Dead Rabbit: Tuxedos, Movies, and Cosmopolitan Urban Imaginaries in Macao

Casinos, China, Cosmopolitan, Film Studies, Macao, Urban Imaginary

Benjamin Kidder Hodges
bhodges [a] umac.mo
Department of Communication
University of Macau

Printable PDF version

This article explores ways in which a cosmopolitan, urbane subject is on display in Macao’s gaming, tourism and leisure industries. Much like the fin-de-siècle flâneur studied by Walter Benjamin, the cosmopolitan tourist and gambler portrayed in the visual culture of Macao witness the city as both an aesthetic object and as a set of new experiences to be seen and felt. In asking for whom and to what end this subject and the urban imaginary of Macao is created, it is necessary to examine how a cosmopolitan space and subject have historically been represented. This article borrows from Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas and Thom Anderson’s video essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself the use of a comparative approach to scenes and images. While Warburg’s early 20th century approach to art history and Anderson’s later film criticism arose from different eras and disciplines, they both point to the value of juxtaposing images as a form of analysis. The contention in this case is that through the comparison of specific details in movies set in Macao one might construct a visually mediated genealogy of the cosmopolitan. In other words, to better understand the urban imaginary of contemporary Macao it is helpful to look back at cinematic images of leisure and nightlife from the past. To this end, the tuxedo, as well as other luxury goods, so often seen in films about Macao can be explored as a visual through-line linking tropes of success and leisure to the construction of a new vision of cosmopolitanism that is marketed to predominately Chinese tourists.

Branding Macao as cosmopolitan

Image 1. Taxi in front of Galaxy Macau, Macao. Copyright 2014 Author’s own.

Macao is a place built around arrivals and departures with the average visit lasting little more than 24 hours. Thousands of tourists come across the border daily to enjoy the legal gambling that is available in this special administrative region of China. Macao, a city with roughly 650,000 permanent residents was visited in 2016 alone by 30 million visitors. The vast majority of these visitors come from mainland China, but the numbers include visitors from Hong Kong, South Korea, and other parts of Asia. Gaming was a large part of the economy of Macao well before its return to China during the 1999 handover from Portugal and remains so today. Its special administrative status makes it an ideal testbed for the mainland Chinese government to experiment with introducing and regulating the availability of legal gaming for its citizens with the flow of tourists effectively managed by changes to visa schemes (Simpson 2011). Nonetheless, central government officials have routinely encouraged Macao to diversify its economy to provide alternative attractions for tourism and leisure. So while the predominate industry remains gaming there is an active effort to rebrand Macao as a site for other forms of leisure.

Leading up to the handover, the Chinese and Portuguese governments worked together to define and promote a continuous image and history of multicultural cohabitation in Macao (Clayton 2010). Every year, since 2011 the date of the handover, December 20th, has been celebrated through a campaign called “Parade through Macao, Latin City.” In addition to marking the anniversary of the handover, the campaign promotes a vision of multicultural harmony. With costumed dancers, musicians, and elaborate pageantry Macao’s Portuguese heritage is linked with a broader notion of Latin culture. The city itself becomes an example of a multicultural ideal meant to be seen both by local residents and through its television broadcast seen by the millions of potential tourists that may one day come to experience it in person. This is just one example of the active effort to brand Macao as a safe controlled cosmopolitan experience of different cultures.

Outside of the typical heritage tourist sites and such occasional festivals celebrating cultural heritage and diversity, the casino industry that drives most of the economy also offers its own vision of cosmopolitanism. In one continuous air-conditioned space, tourists can walk from the Venetian to the Parisian or cross the street to a wide variety of large scale casino resort complexes. With names like Studio City, City of Dreams, and the Galaxy they suggest their ambition to offer a whole world of leisure and gaming services. For the potential tourist, the suggestion is that it is possible to take in the world in just one destination.

A whole host of cultural criticism has rightly been levied at the notion of a singular universal vision of cosmopolitanism. James Clifford’s notion of discrepant cosmopolitanism highlights the wide variety of mobility around the globe in contrast to traditional narrative tropes of discovery that inform European colonial literature (Clifford 1997). In Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality Aihwa Ong studies a Hong Kong Chinese diaspora that has expanded beyond a traditional notion of a bounded national culture (Ong 1999). Given the new mobilities of transnationality and the wide variety of economic and cultural imperatives to move, ranging across a spectrum from tourists to refugees, is it still viable to describe oneself, as the Greek philosopher Diogenes did, as a “citizen of the world?” To answer this we need to ask alongside Ulf Hannerz, “[a]re tourists, exiles, and expatriates cosmopolitans and when not, why not?” (Hannerz 1990, 241). He answers himself in theorizing that cosmopolitanism “is an intellectual and aesthetic stance of openness toward divergent cultural experiences a search for contrasts rather than uniformity” (1990, 239).

Studying the image of cosmopolitanism on display in Macao does not have to involve questioning the authenticity of the resorts and cultural experiences on offer. The more relevant question is what kind of experiences and differences tourists can encounter and how they might be construed as part of a cosmopolitan experience. Tim Simpson has theorized that Macao offers an “interiorized and encapsulated urbanity” (Simpson 2014, 824). Given that Macao’s casino resorts promote themselves as cities in miniature, we can ask what kind of encapsulated cosmopolitan do they deliver. Do the amenities, services, and experiences they provide to tourists looking to temporarily participate in new cultures and cities result in a new form of cosmopolitanism?

Dressing Cosmopolitan: the tuxedo and Macao

As with other cities designed around tourism, Macao is a place first seen ahead of time. It is seen in official promotional materials as well as in vlogs, travelogues, and other such material shared online. In a media landscape dominated by the gaming industry, a particular vision of cosmopolitanism is on display. Images of nightlife, leisure, and luxury are regularly depicted. These also often take the form of a cosmopolitan male subject decked out in black tie who is there to witness the city as a set of new aesthetic experiences. Deniro, Decaprio, and Beckham have all appeared in advertising campaigns for local casinos which show them in formal attire ready to explore the night life of Macao. Similarly, stars from Korea to India come to Macao to walk red carpets at film festivals, concerts, and enjoy Macao as a tourism and lifestyle destination.

“Tek sei tou” (踢死兔) is the phonetic version of “tuxedo” in Cantonese. It directly translates as “kick the dead rabbit.” This playful, seemingly nonsensical mnemonic helps Cantonese speakers remember this English word. One might also construe that it has some class based significance, perhaps implying a criticism of the upper class; but I have not encountered any literature or references to directly support this interpretation. In contrast to this speculation about the etymology of the Cantonese phrase, it is clear that tuxedo, in fact is an Algonquian word, as it has its origins in the dinner jackets worn by wealthy New Yorkers visiting the resort town of Tuxedo Park, New York in the later part of the 19th century. This formal evening wear has remained a symbol of affluence. Worn to weddings, film premieres, and state dinners, it has become synonymous with wealth, success, and leisure. More than just a sartorial history, the iconic character of the tuxedo signals the associated affects of aspiration and accomplishment. In New York’s Chinatown, from 1897 to the 1920s, the “Chinese Tuxedo” operated as a popular restaurant; and in 2017 a new restaurant opened with the same name. This genealogy from Tuxedo Park through to Chinatown is slim anecdotal proof of anything; but it does show a legacy of trading on black tie as a persistent marker of success and cosmopolitanism. It is a concept that travels. The forms of luxury and leisure change and evolve like fashion but the desire and aspiration for such forms persists. What does this mean for a city like Macao attempting to brand itself as a place for leisure and luxury? The tuxedo may be more or less relevant depending on the whims of fashion, but the desire to differentiate and create markers of success remain.

For most, to wear a tuxedo is a rare occurrence, something just rented for the day, unless it is a part of one’s uniform. Many of the dealers and hospitality staff that populate Macao’s casino resorts wear some variation of the tuxedo or formal evening wear. I know the only time I wore a tuxedo was to my high school prom, so I can not profess to be an expert in the particulars of high-society fashion. I did, however, grow up seeing a certain kind of male cosmopolitan subject decked out in tuxedos. I watched James Bond and countless other espionage themed films portray a world of international travel, danger, and leisure. When I first came to Macao in 2008 to teach film-making at the University of Macau I was uncertain what might be the appropriate attire. I knew very little about Macao; only later did I learn more about the city, about its Portuguese colonial past and its history as a port, one that predated Hong Kong’s later role as the region’s center for trade. I also learned that even though I did not know about Macao directly, I had unwittingly grown up with it. As a child in the 1980s and 90s in the U.S. making the usual pilgrimage to see movies on the weekends, I had unwittingly seen a version of Macao appear on screen. Macao regularly stood in for Shanghai during years when commercial production in the mainland was not possible. It was there, when Indiana Jones in a white tuxedo replete with a red carnation escaped from a bar in the opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). And it was there again in the Kung Fu films of the 1970s. Hong Kong based studios like Golden Harvest and the Shaw Brothers used the streets of Macao as a stand in when they were unable to shoot in Shanghai or elsewhere in Mainland China. Perhaps most notably, in Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury (1972), Macao again played the part of Shanghai.

Sean Penn and Madonna’s Shanghai Surprise (1986) also used Macao to stand in for Shanghai. During the shooting, Penn notoriously fled Macao after being arrested for attempted murder of a paparazzi caught in his hotel room (South China Morning Post 2004). This gossip cements the cliché of Macao as a place to which, and from which, one escapes under the cover of night. In the French film Largo Winch (2008), based on the Belgian comic by the same name, Macao plays Brazil; with the village of Coloane dressed up to play the part of the state of Mato Grosso. Locals were easy enough to cast as extras given the Portuguese connection. The James Bond film, Skyfall (2012), also shows an invented Macao, a virtual Macao that was produced by an animation studio in Shanghai. The computer rendered establishing shot shows a fantasy version of the floating Casino Macau Palace that once famously operated in Macao. In the scene, James Bond appears in a dark blue tuxedo, enters the lantern lit casino and narrowly escapes equally computer rendered Komodo dragons and other prototypical bad guys.

Macao plays itself

In Thom Anderson’s video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), Anderson shows how the city has been seen in films throughout the many years of filmmaking produced along its streets. The changes in the city are revealed in the background of films that never had such a documentary intention. He also highlights ways in which the city itself has played as a character in films. Los Angeles became a good guy and a bad guy, a pivotal part that could be relied on to support one’s plot. Macao has also played itself and continues to play itself in films meant for the burgeoning mainland Chinese market and for international audiences still apparently keen to see James Bond walk into a exotic bar and ask for a drink.

Anderson’s approach to Los Angeles as seen through film, echoes the Mnemosyne Atlas of Aby Warburg. Warburg sought to trace and explain the persistence of iconography in Western art. There has been a resurgence of efforts to link Warburg’s visual approach to art history to contemporary theories of the archive and curatorial practices (Latsis 2013). In the Mnemosyne Atlas, Warburg constructed panels with photos of different works of arts on a black background. Whether or not the central iconography of Warburg’s panels are legitimate underlying engines of art history, the form of his approach is still relevant. These black panels grouped artwork from different time periods and cultures, much like Anderson looks to draw links by putting movie scenes from different eras side by side in his film collage in order to draw out the iconography of Los Angeles.

Warburg looked for the Pathosformel or “emotionally charged visual tropes” expressed through elements in western art (Becker 2013, 1). He focused on specific details and ornaments what he called bewegtes Beiwerk” or animated accessories.” For Warburg, the flowing hair and dresses in the Birth of Venus and Primavera paintings by Sandro Botticelli and work by Domenico Ghirlandaio hinted at some underlying motion and energy (Russell 2007). In Macao, tuxedos, nightlife and other such images of success and luxury hint at some underlying possibility of financial power and mobility. To see cosmopolitan figures in movies and advertising campaigns is to see the potential of a cosmopolitan subject. The goals of diversifying Macao’s economy and creating more family friendly tourism activities arrive into a visual landscape that is already populated by figures of cosmopolitan subjects from earlier eras.

The popularity of Anderson’s video essay and the renewed interest in Warburg may have something to do with the ways in which we are regularly tasked with negotiating a landscape of multiple images, genres, and media content. To see and experience Macao as a city is to negotiate these links, to sift through a wide array of user-generated content, social media feeds, and popular media. Historical images of it and emergent visions of what it may soon become can be thought together at the same time. The origins of a particular Macao modern or urban imaginary may not be so clear but the persistent details and images of success and luxury remain. There may not be a continuous genealogy of luxury that we can trace. We may, however, find parallels in the depictions of a fictional Macao on display in movies from a wide variety of eras and genres.

Film noir and precode films from Hollywood and Europe imagined Macao as a place to escape to and from, a liminal port city on the physical edge of China and the discursive edge of morality and legality. The city’s appeal was that it worked as an escape from the rest of the world. These story-lines primarily appealed to western fantasies of travel to exotic locales with heroic male leads saving troubled women from the dangers of a dubious other. In movies and in reality, however, it was a place to hide, a place like Casablanca from which to flee the fronts of World War II. In the nineteen forties it served as a nearby escape from the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong and mainland China. Then governed by a neutral Portugal, Macao was a place to wait out the war. It was also a place to hide and move money into and out of China. This was aided by the fact that it was not a signatory to the international gold standard so it served as a financial intermediary between otherwise warring sides (Gunn 2016). And later it was a refuge for those fleeing from the Cultural Revolution in mainland China. This trend continued in the 1960s and 70s, when numbers of overseas Chinese from Myanmar and Indonesia escaped to Macao. Later on Cambodian and Vietnamese additionally sought out refuge in Macao. The exceptional status of Macao, made it attractive to a wide variety of interests and a perfect location for the gaming industry to grow and eventually eclipse Las Vegas.

Image 2. Poster Macao, l’enfer du jeu (Gambling Hell 1942). Demo Films.

The earliest western film set in Macao was the French film Macao, l’enfer du jeu (1942) or as it is known by its English title Gambling Hell directed by Jean Delannoy. It was based on a book of the same name by Maurice Dekobra and tells the story of a lounge singer in peril in Macao only to be saved by a ship captain. In Josef von Sternberg’s Macao (1952) another lounge singer, played by Jane Russell also finds herself in danger in Macao only to be saved again by the male lead played by Robert Mitchum. In both of these films, Macao is depicted as a place of peril, an existential milieu that must simply be survived. In Josef von Sternberg’s earlier film Morocco (1930), staring Marlene Dietrich, the character of the endangered lounge singer already appears. In one scene, Dietrich’s character famously appears wearing a tuxedo, replete with white tie and top hat. This scene has since been interpreted as a positive emblem of female empowerment and gender play. Years later, in Macao (1952) Russell’s character does not don a suit but she occupies the same position as a lounge singer surrounded by a backing band as she soundtracks the gaming of the casino’s patrons. Both these films set in Macao were notably not shot in Macao outside of some exterior pickups for the later film. This meant that both literally had to reconstruct Macao on a sound stage in France and Hollywood respectively. These constructed visions of the city offer an imaginary urban space that may never actually be visited but remains visible.

Cosmopolitan for whom?

Image 3. The Cotai Strip, Macao. Copyright 2018 Author’s own.

Since the opening of the casino licenses in 2002, a number of large scale casino-resort complexes have been built in a stretch of reclaimed land between the previously separate islands of Taipa and Coloane. Sheldon Adelson, the owner of the Venetian, branded it the “Cotai Strip” in a clear move to both rival and mimic the Las Vegas Strip. From the Venetian to the City of Dreams, from Studio City to the Galaxy, each resort offers a different themed space combining hotels, retail, and gaming tables. The urban on offer in these themed spaces is a particular kind of enclosed or encapsulated luxury. Promotional material for these venues and the venues themselves present a vision of the city that is regularly swept clean and free as possible from everyday concerns. The mundane and the cosmopolitan are etymologically related, they are both of the world. The distinction is which world. The mundane suggests a world, from which to escape, and the cosmopolitan suggests another world, to which to aspire. By comparing images of a cosmopolitan subject in movies set in and shot in Macao, we can see changes in the world of leisure that is on offer. Through these images we can consider for whom and to what end this vision of a luxury city is created. These contemporary media, when combined with historical images of the city, form an ever evolving picture about what Macao was, is and will be.

As Venturi, Brown and Izenour show in Learning from Las Vegas, there is much to be learned from the vernacular architecture and aesthetics that arise in support of and alongside the gaming industry. The compressed confines of Macao and its status as a special administrative region of China, make it the most densely populated region in the world, with 21,340 people per square kilometre (DSEC 2017). At first glance Macau’s casino architecture appears to have little to do with the expanses of highway and roadside signs that these scholars studied in Nevada. The architectures and aesthetics of Macao, nonetheless, address visitors directly as iconic images. Visitors to Macao crowd to take in the ever-present Grand Lisboa, with its pineapple shape and mirrored base. Shuttle buses unload masses of tourists at the internationally themed casino resorts of the Cotai Strip. The buildings themselves serve as giant LED displays delivering images of success and leisure. These themed architectures and spaces are designed to be iconic, to be seen and photographed, to lure in patrons and stand in as a backdrop for photos to be taken back home and shown around to friends and family, first hand proof for having been there. Whatever a visitors’ wins or losses at the gaming tables, this experience of the themed architecture confirms participation in a cosmopolitan space.

Image 4. Grand Lisboa Macao. Copyright 2018 Author’s own.

The video content on the giant LED billboards on display inside the shopping arcades of the casino resorts also narrate an experience of the city that focuses on escape, luxury, and new aesthetic experiences. Tuxedoed celebrities, brand ambassadors, and movie stars stand in as proxy representatives of what it is like to visit a world of luxury and success. The reality of travel is, of course, not always as glamorous as that being portrayed in films and promotional videos. Masses of tourists must negotiate lines at the border and lines at the shuttle buses. Public transportation and the streets themselves can become overwhelmed with the sheer numbers of visitors. This can lead to tension between locals and tourists. Similarly construction projects to improve the existing infrastructure have become symbols of the difference between the needs of a tourist only in town for a day or two and a local resident troubled by the additional traffic and delays in construction. Such a gap between promotional images used to market a city to tourists and the reality of mass market tourism is not, of course, unique to Macao. What is specific is the relationship between the scale of the mass market tourism and the recurrent images of high-rolling vip gaming.

The foil to the commonly portrayed urbane subject jetting into Macao for a round of VIP gaming, is the figure of the nouveau riche or in Cantonese touhou (土豪). This term suggests provincial Chinese who have come into new money without an associated cultural background or frame of reference for the luxury items that they now have the economic power to purchase. As in the familiar shift in Western popular culture from the flâneur to the dandy to the swell, the image of a wealthy mainland Chinese visitor to Macao runs a continuum from a positive vision of a modern cosmopolitanism to that of a naive person from the countryside.

Hong Kong director Wong Jing’s series of gaming themed films, starting with God of Gamblers (1989) show Andy Lau as a debonair, suave gambler who is able to win high stakes games involving international rivals. These films, while less commonly the subject of film studies criticism, do express popular anxieties and attitudes of film audiences that have had to negotiate the changing political landscape of Hong Kong (Chan 2011). In the most recent film from the series, From Vegas to Macau III (2016), Lau remains a worldly character even able to best K-Pop star Psy who makes a cameo in the film. This figure of the cunning and witty gambler contrasts with mainland produced films that have focused on using Macao as a setting for romantic travel genre films. In director Xue Xiaolu’s Finding Mr. Right II (2016) a casino worker who is the daughter of a gambler who moved to Macao from mainland China, finds love through becoming anonymous pen-pals with a similarly second generation Chinese realtor living in Los Angeles. In the end, they find love not in success at the gaming table, but rather in a bookshop in London. These two films, both catering to the large mainland Chinese audience, provide a chance to see how Macao has evolved as a constructed cinematic space. A vision of the city is built in much the same way that scale models are used in architectural previsualization to present what will be. In other words, these new visions of Macao speak to an imagined future.

Cosmopolitanism as world building

Image 5. Grand Lisboa Macao. Copyright 2018 Author’s own.

Macao is simultaneously different worlds. It is sometimes a cosmopolitan world of luxury. At other times it is a mundane world of 24 hour shift work and labor in support of the large scale of mass market tourism. The intent of this article has been to consider if the image of the cosmopolitan can be used to make sense of these different worlds. By focusing on the details that represent success in films set in Macao, can one contribute to the existing literature on cosmopolitanism? Questions about the relationship between globalization, tourism, and cosmpolitanism, as explored in work by Ulf Hannerz, James Clifford, Aihwa Ong and others, can also be brought to bear in Macao. While scholars might debate the utility of the cosmopolitan as a concept in theorizing global mobility, it is clear that the cosmopolitanism on display in films set in Macao is a kind of costume that is tailored and worn for different audiences and purposes. Particular forms like the tuxedo give shape to the otherwise fleeting affects of aspiration, ecstasy, and interest. Like the animated accessories Warburg noted in Renaissance painting, the forms of fashion indicate that there are some otherwise unseen forces at play. At different times, these cinematic details may be more or less significant, represent different symbolic or cultural capital, but their presence is a sure sign that there is something at stake.

The cosmopolitan subject on display in Macao, and in films about Macao, is an urbane subject whose very being is connected to and of the city. The tuxedo provides the corporeal form for this subjectivity, and promises that there is somewhere to go, some party, event or other special occasion that necessitates such formal evening wear. So the brand ambassadors, movie stars, and other such besuited subjects confirm that there is something happening. There is a place to which we may or may not be invited, rarefied exclusive spaces to which Macao offers access or, at least, of which it offers glimpses. The theme spaces of each mega-resort casino complex offer visions of the city. The city is confirmed in the faux facades that line the outside of the Venetian and the avenues and shopping arcades of its interior. The existence of these cities in miniature is also confirmed in the details of luxury that serve as a guarantee that there are still more exclusive VIP spaces that may not be seen but whose existence is confirmation of the scale of the city. The tuxedoed subject is proof that there is still more to see and experience just out of sight. In this way, depictions of a cosmopolitan subject help build the city as a new world to be discovered.

Themed spaces and built environments are not the sole domain of Macao. The window shops of turn of the century Paris juxtaposed luxury goods and products sourced from around the world long before the Cotai Strip. Through a simple stroll one could take in the world, browse what it had to offer. To walk in the enclosed canal promenade of the Venetian Macao with its painted sky ceiling and swimming pool blue canal water is to similarly experience a commercial world of products. The relevant question here may be if this version of the Venetian is doing something different than the one that came before it in Las Vegas. Is this copy of a copy producing something new? So too the newly unveiled half scale version of the Eiffel Tower at the Parisian Macao is not the first to try and trade on this vision of modernity and European cosmopolitanism. As casino companies look to new markets from Japan to the Philippines, Macao’s unique advantage as a nearby region to China where gaming is permitted is drawn into question. Promotional videos and marketing teams from these new projects are also after the same VIP gambler and Chinese tourist. So Macao must regularly offer up new visions of luxury and new urban experiences to compete for their attention and interest.

In K-Pop star PSY‘s shoot for his 2017 music video “New face,” shot in the resorts of the Cotai Strip, he plays a variety of parts, from the bellhop to the masseuse to the cosmopolitan tourist. PSY wears the attire appropriate to each, from the staff uniform to the tuxedo. His ecstatic enthusiasm for the potential of “new face,” new people and new affects suggests exactly the kind of appeal that the local gaming companies want to attract. This music video, with its tightly choreographed dance numbers set in and around the city, greets visitors on the Turbojet ferries that shuttle tourists to and from Hong Kong and Macao. It plays together in a loop alongside promotional videos from the casinos and Macao tourism office. The combined effect is designed to promote Macao as a place of visual pleasures and leisure. However they are dressed, the tourist, pop star and the movie hero alike want to imagine themselves as cosmopolitan, part of a world that includes them and is full of new possibilities.

Video 1. PSY’s music video New Face.

For those studying cosmopolitanism, tourism and urban studies, we might ask if the comparative visual approaches of Warburg and Anderson, not to mention PSY, offer a relevant method to better understand how the urban imaginary that precedes a visitor’s arrival to a city inform their experience of it? Does such imagery do more than simply create interest? In the specific case of Macao, cinematic images and details of nightlife persist as traces of an earlier era of colonialism and gaming. New mass market tourists may never dress up in these fashions, but they are still met with these images. They are seen ahead of time, on arrival, and in memories shared after the trip. They appear in advertisements, films, and even in the background of their own tourist photos. The changing symbolic implications of luxury and black tie attire across various contexts are up for debate but the persistence of these images is undeniable. Brands and companies trade in these details while the government-organized Parade through Latin city does not. They are two different approaches to the multicultural and cosmopolitan. Both revolve around the optics of seeing the world, experiencing it as a different set of affects and aesthetic pleasures. The government’s aim to promote Macao as a family friendly destination and to diversify the economy away from its reliance on the gaming industry compete with the legacy of the cosmopolitan subject that has historically been a predominant figure in narratives and films about Macao. At face value, many of the films set in Macao are comprised of the same film tropes and clichés that inform many other genre movies. From action adventure chase scenes, troubled femme fatales, and scenes of high stakes gambling, the actions of these films appear to have little to do with the current industry of mass market tourism.

The clean, safe urbanism and interior spaces of the Cotai Strip with its all-encompassing mega resorts appears counter to the allusions to criminality and noir that informed earlier representations of Macao in film. What they have in common is the offer of an encounter with another world of new and different experiences. When transitioning from one casino to the next, from the Venetian to the Parisian, from the Galaxy to the City of Dreams, these border crossings between different themed spaces and cities in miniature are a positive advantage of Macao. The difference on offer is important. Macao’s cultural and urban heritage is just one other city in miniature offered to be seen and experienced. If we accept that these casino resorts are miniature cities or even worlds, we might describe the movement between them as a kind of encapsulated cosmopolitan. They provide a safe form of travel across different spaces without the dangers or anxieties that accompany so many border crossings. The question to be posed, then, is whether the amenities, services, and experiences they provide to tourists looking to temporarily participate in new cultures and cities constitute a new form of cosmopolitanism.

To answer this question of whether or not a new form of cosmopolitanism is on display in Macao involves deciding where to look for the answer. In addition to the built environments of the Cotai Strip and the earlier fantastical casino architecture of Macao, one can also find the image of the city in visual culture. This entails not just images from movies and advertisements but also the self-generated content produced by the tourists and residents of a city. Like Warburg and Anderson, so many of us now regularly make archives and share collections of images online. On social media and in the consumption of visual culture, we curate our desires and interests. The resulting collections made up of material from different influences and cultural traditions draw into question the utility or necessity of the cosmopolitan as a particularly distinct or rarefied figure or subject. In other words, browsing and collecting worldly images and experiences is no longer just the domain of international spys and well financed scholars. Nonetheless, there is still a need to name this aspiration that drives tourists and flâneurs alike to take in differences between worlds and chronicle the encounter. Casino designers, filmmakers, and content creators design new worlds of images to be seen and visited. In the case of Macao, the visions they offer trade in certain recurrent icons of success and leisure, tuxedos and other markers of achievement. In order to make sense of these new visions of cosmopolitanism and success I suggest that it is helpful to put them alongside the images that preceded them, to construct a local, miniature Mnemosyne Atlas; or in the case of Macao, to think “kick the dead rabbit” alongside “Macao, l’enfer du jeu” and the all the films and visions of Macao still to come.

References

All links verified 11.5.2018.

Films

Los Angeles plays itself. Directed and written by Thom Anderson, starring Encke King, Ben Alexander, Jim Backus. Los Angeles: Submarine Entertainment, 2003. 169 min.

Macao, l’enfer du jeu. Directed by Jean Delannoy, written by Maurice Dekobra (novel), Pierre-Gilles Veber, Roger Vitrac, starring Sessue Hayakawa, Mireille Balin, Henri Guisol. Demo Films, 1942. 90 min.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz and George Lucas, starring Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw, Jonathan Ke Quan. Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures, 1984. 118 min.

Shanghai Surprise. Directed by Jim Goddard, written by John Kohn and Robert Bentley, starring Sean Penn, Madonna, Paul Freeman. Los Angeles: MGM, 1986. 97 min.

Macao. Directed by Josef von Sternberg and Nicholas Ray, written by Bernard C. Shoenfeld and Stanley Rubin, starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Russel, William Bendix. Los Angeles: RKO Pictures, 1952. 81 min.

Fist of Fury (Jing wu men). Directed and written by Wei Lo, starring Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, James Tien. Hong Kong: Golden Harvest, 1972. 106 min.

God of Gamblers (Dou san). Directedand written by Jing Wong, starring Yun-Fat Chow, Andy Lau, Joey Wang. Hong Kong: Win’s Movie Productions Ltd, 1989. 126 min.

From Vegas to Macau III (Du cheng feng yun III). Directed by Andrew Lau and Jing Wong, written by Jing Wong, starring Sally Victoria Benson, Chun-Tung Chan, Jacky Cheung. Hong Kong: Gala Film Distribution Intercontinental Film Distributors, 2016. 113 min.

Finding Mr. Right 2 (Beijing yu shang: Xiyatu 2). Directed by Xue Xiaolu, written by Miao Jiao and Xue Xiaolu, starring Wei Tang, Xiubo Wu, Zhihong Liu. Beijing: EDKO Distribution, 2016. 132 min.

Online videos

officialpsy. “PSY – ‘New Face’ M/V”. Filmed [May 2017]. YouTube video, 3:21. Posted [May 2017] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OwJPPaEyqhI.

Online resources

DESC (The Statistics and Census Service) (2017, May 5) “Detailed Results of 2016 Population By-Census” http://www.dsec.gov.mo/Statistic/Demographic/GlobalResultsOfBy-Census/2016%E4%B8%AD%E6%9C%9F%E4%BA%BA%E5%8F%A3%E7%B5%B1%E8%A8%88.aspx?lang=en-US.

News articles

South China Morning Post, December 26, 2004. “Penn tells of Macau arrest for murder attempt” scmp.com http://www.scmp.com/article/483396/penn-tells-macau-arrest-murder-attempt.

Literature

Chan, Brenda. 2011. “Identity and politics in Hong Kong gambling films of the 1990s: God of Gamblers III and God of Gambler’s Return” in New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film, 9 (1):35–48.

Becker, Colleen (2013). “Aby Warburg’s Pathosformel as methodological paradigm” in Aby Warburg’s Pathosformel as methodological paradigm” in Journal of Art Historiography (9).

Clayton, Cathryn H. 2010. Sovereignty at the edge: Macau and the question of Chineseness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Clifford, James. 1997. Routes: Travel and Translation In the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gunn, Geoffrey C. 2016. Wartime Macau: Under the Japanese Shadow. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Hannerz, Ulf. 1990. “Cosmopolitans and Locals in World Culture” in “Theory, Culture & Society 7(2): 237–251.

Latsis, Dimitrios S. 2013. “Geneaology of the Image in Histoire(s) du Cinéma: Godard, Warburg and the Iconology of the Interstice” in Third Text, 27(6): 774–785.

Ong, Ahiwa. 1999. Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality. Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Russell, Mark A. 2007. Between Tradition and Modernity: Aby Warburg and the Public Purposes of Art in Hamburg 1896–1918. New York: Berghahn Books.

Simpson, Timothy. 2011. “Macao Noir: Criminal Brotherhoods, Casino Capitalism, and the Case of the Post-Socialist Chinese Consumer,” Fast Capitalism 8(1). Special issue on Global Noir,” ed. By Gray Kochharr-Lindgren (With photographs by Adam Lampton).

Simpson, Timothy. 2014. “Macau Metropolis and Mental Life: Interior Urbanism and the Chinese Imaginary”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38(3): 823–842.

Venturi, Robert, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour. 1977. Learning from Las Vegas: the forgotten symbolism of architectural form. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Kategoriat
1–2/2018 WiderScreen 21 (1–2)

Constructing the Moral Landscape of a City: The Narrative Exclusion of Delhi’s “Floating Populations”

floating population, landless poor, migrant labour, moral landscape, New Delhi, slums, urban landscape, urban underclass

Somdatta Bhattacharya
jijabh [a] gmail.com
DR, Assistant Professor
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur
West Bengal, India

Printable PDF version

This essay uses as an illustrative example the infamous Nirbhaya Case, the brutal case of gang-rape and murder in New Delhi, India, and a set of politico-legal, governmental, moral, socio-economic and journalistic narratives that ensued in its wake, to analyse a broader discourse on the urban landscape of Delhi as a morally pristine space threatened and invaded by “urban floating populations”. The author looks into the narrative construction of the (threatening) floating populations of migrant labourers and the (threatened) urban landscape within an ethical-politico-legal-cultural discourse that constructs – and imagines – the city as a moral landscape conducive to the manoeuvres of Big Capital, and simultaneously uses, abuses and erases the migrant labour feeding the city’s upper and middle classes. The discussion draws upon a range of materials – from journalistic writings, opinion pieces and media interviews, to court verdicts and government reports – to locate a perception of insecurity that structures the narrative rendering of the city as a cluster of middle- and upper-class residential areas (sharif mohallas, as a Delhiwallah, a citizen of Delhi, would put it). This narrated insecurity touches upon issues that range from sexual violence and murder to urban cleanliness and littering of the urban landscape.

Introduction

In the winter of 2012, New Delhi, the National Capital of India, was rocked by the brutal gang-rape of a paramedical student in a moving bus. As the victim battled for her life in a hospital bed, there was an explosion of narratives – politico-legal, governmental, moral, socio-economic, journalistic, among others – that covered the (in)security questions haunting the Capital. A major issue arising out of these narratives was that insecurity is created by “landless” poor, of “migrant” workers, i.e. by people who circulate between rural hinterlands and urban centres in search of livelihood. This “floating population” was variously traced back to the economic liberalization of India in the early 1990s and the real-estate boom that transformed urban-rural borderlands.

In this essay I explore the more general ethical-politico-legal-cultural discourse that seeks to construct the city of New Delhi as a pristine moral landscape by simultaneously representing, using, abusing and erasing the migrant labour that feeds the city’s upper and middle classes. I will look closer at narratives that “imagine” the city as a cluster of middle- and upper-class residential areas (sharif mohallas, as a Delhiwallah would put it) threatened by the “floating populations” of migrant labourers. The Delhi gang-rape (the Nirbhaya Case) serves as an example of how a city and its underclass are publicly imagined in the Indian context. I use diverse discursive materials (journalistic writings, media representations, etc.) to illustrate the popular narratives emerging in the wake of the gang-rape as parts of a broader discourse articulating the city’s response to its perceived Other. I use the term “discourse” in the essay to mean, borrowing from Foucault, “the general domain of all statements . . . and a regulated practice that accounts for a number of statements” (1972, 80), as a body of utterances in various media. With the term “narrative”, in turn, I refer to the mediated telling and retelling of events and ideas that comply with the rules and structures of a particular discourse.

Nirbhaya’s Killers: Specimens of a “Floating Population”

The news broke on 17 December 2012. New Delhi, and in fact the country as a whole, was shocked by the heinous gang-rape of a twenty-three-year-old female physiotherapy intern the previous night. The incident would be later termed the “Nirbhaya Case”; the word “Nirbhaya” is a Hindi equivalent of “fearless”, the adjective that will go on to represent the victim’s fight for survival and her strong resolve to see the rapists punished. She was brutally raped, tortured and fatally beaten up in a private bus which she had boarded with her male friend, Awindra Pratap Pandey. She fought for her life in hospital beds and intensive care units. As a nation took to streets in outrage, she was taken to Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Hospital on 23 December, where she died on 29 December (Press Trust of India 2013).

The timeline and details of the case are only too well-known to warrant an exhaustive recounting.[1] The six joyriders on the bus – the bus driver Ram Singh, his brother Mukesh Singh, Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta, Akshay Thakur, and a juvenile who could not be named for legal reasons – who brutalised the girl and her companion were quickly identified and apprehended by Delhi Police. As the case unfolded and details were revealed, an alarming pattern became visible in the profiles of the accused: Ram Singh (33) and Mukesh Singh (in his early 20s) were members of an immigrant family from Rajasthan, a desert state neighbouring Delhi; Vinay Sharma (20) was an assistant gym instructor who lived in the same slum area, Ravi Das Slum, where Ram and Mukesh had their two-room shanty; Akshay Thakur (28) was a helper on the bus and hailed from the eastern Indian state of Bihar, and had moved to Delhi in 2011, looking for a livelihood; Pawan Gupta (19) was a fruit-seller; the juvenile accused (who was 17 at the time) had come to Delhi from a “village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh at the age of 11, and lived his formative years alone, doing menial jobs in Delhi” (“Profiles: Delhi Gang Rapists” 2015). Their class profile was immediately evident as was the fact that the majority of them were immigrant labourers living on the fringes of the urban landscape of Delhi. It seemed to fit a pattern, as the “threatening urban fringe” has been a refrain in narratives that had constantly been warning the city of the dangers posed by the rural interloper (as we will see below in the essay).

As the case unfolded in the investigation and the extent of the brutality became known through incessant reporting on national media, commentators were quick to point out the class-angle in explaining the misogyny implicit in the act. For instance, Kishwar Desai, a well-known Indian journalist and writer, wrote:

. . . there are some who feel that a certain class of men is deeply uncomfortable with women displaying their independence, receiving education and joining the workforce. The gangrape becomes a form of subduing the women, collectively, and establishing their male superiority.

The frightening fact is that many of these alienated young men have reached their twenties with a bizarre attitude towards women, and little affection towards them. […]

As a society with a skewed gender ratio, we need to be extremely vigilant about the delivery of justice in crimes against women and in trying to bring disaffected family members, especially alienated and marginalised young men, back into a civilised discourse. (Desai 2013)

Soon the fact that the convicts formed part of the “floating population” inhabiting the fringes of the city entered public discourse, and a number of commentators pointed out that these “faceless multitudes” of people, who enter the city from rural hinterlands looking for work, were a clear threat to the security of the city. In an interview with the New York Times, published just five days after the gang-rape, Suman Nalwa, then the head of Delhi Police’s Unit for Women, directly pointed to the link between the crime and the city’s insecurity as the influx of the floating population” changes its demographics:

Q: The number of reported rapes in Delhi is higher this year than before. If the police are doing their job, why is it that cases of sexual harassment and rape are increasing?

A: It’s not just this year, it’s been happening for several years now, ever since economic liberalization. There is a lot of floating population in Delhi. We have a lot of people who are not residents of Delhi, but are just coming for work.

Plus we have a lot of immigrants in Delhi, so social alienation is high. A lot of people have made it big, but they don’t know their neighbors. So social corrective mechanisms are not in place. Earlier, people would hesitate to commit a crime because they were worried: What will people think of me? That doesn’t exist anymore.

Also, because of economic liberalization, many people in the national capital region have made good money through land deals. But they haven’t changed their values. For years, they have treated women as second-class citizens or maybe worse than that. Delhi is different from Mumbai, which exists almost as an island. Delhi has such porous borders. It’s very difficult for Delhi to control its floating population. (Mandhana and Sreedharan 2012)

The essay will revisit these assertions, by Desai and Nalwa, in the course of the discussion below.

Delhi’s Floating Populations: The Indispensable “Undesirable”

For the purpose of this essay, I use the term “floating population” as a term denoting a group of people “whose normal place of residence is different from where he [or she] is ‘temporarily’ present” (Canales 1993, 69). In the context of Delhi, this includes the migrants (especially rural labourers) who arrive at the city everyday in overcrowded trains and buses and become part of the city’s shifting, unaccounted shanty/slum population. A short discussion of the location of this floating population” within the urban power matrix of Delhi and NCR (National Capital Region, a metropolitan area that includes the National Capital Territory – NCT – of New Delhi and surrounding urban areas of states such as Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan) may better inform this analysis.

Delhi, the national capital of India, has always been a destination for the rural poor, especially of the country’s northern belt, who had dreams of transcending the shackles of a stagnant agrarian economy steeped in feudalism.[2] However, a veritable explosion in this exodus takes place, as Nalwa rightly points out, in the wake of the economic liberalization of early- and mid-90s, as the federal government, facing defaults on its foreign debt, was forced to introduce marked economic reforms. Within the next decade, the urban population of the city pushed outwards to the fringes and, in the case of Delhi, ancillary cities took shape in Gurgaon and Noida where large townships developed around industrial and IT hubs. The other side of this apparent glitz and wealth was the arrival of herds” of migrant workers, who tended to the needs of the urban sprawl. One estimate in 2011 reported the number of migrant workers in Gurgaon alone to be 200,000 (Yardley 2011). This was inevitable as the agrarian economy of the rural heartland plummeted further in the wake of the withdrawal of many subsidies and state support,[3] as much was it essential for the new urban landscape which was underserved by a state unprepared for the rapid expansion of the urban landscape.

Jim Yardley’s reportage on Gurgaon (referred to above), although indirectly, proves how central the migrant” had been to this new urban”. As Yardley describes: Gurgaon (…) would seem to have everything, except consider what it does not have: a functioning citywide sewer or drainage system; reliable electricity or water; and public sidewalks, adequate parking, decent roads or any citywide system of public transportation. Garbage is still regularly tossed in empty lots by the side of the road” (Yardley 2011). The new city, rapidly growing despite the much-needed infrastructure that should have been provided by the state, largely provided for itself: In Gurgaon, economic growth is often the product of a private sector improvising to overcome the inadequacies of the government” (Yardley 2011). The floating populations of migrant labourers are the cogs of this growth engine: they provide the scavengers, water-carriers, chauffeurs, domestic labourers, courier boys, and (in an ironic twist to the insecurity narrative) private security guards that “man” the city.[4]

This veritable army of urban underclass is massed around in the slums that dot the city, especially around affluent townships that they serve. A 2015 survey conducted by the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi said that “about 6343 slums with approximately 10.20 lakh households were estimated to be in existence in urban Delhi in 2012,” and defined a “slum” as “an urban phenomenon which comes into existence on account of industrialization in and around cities thereby attracting in-migration of population from country side” (Directorate of Economics and Statistics 2015). It is this context of reliance and dependence that makes the discourse around the security threat posed by the floating population seem a subterfuge. I peg the central argument of this paper on this context, to ask whether the narrative of insecurity that attempts to erase the “slum” from the sharif mohalla masks an economic necessity. The discussion below seeks to analyse the various coordinates of this narrative and its attempt to characterise and qualify, simultaneously using and erasing, deploying and spatially containing, an economically essential and socio-culturally undesirable” population.

Moral Parables and the Migrant Other

The commentaries by Desai and Nalwa, which are representative of the many pronouncements that came out of the protests around the Nirbhaya case, are unequivocal in their construction of an urban moral landscape. A conflation of the two statements will easily bring out the contours of this inherently spatial narrative. Spatial metaphors abound especially in Nalwa’s characterization of the city as having porous” borders, as (regrettably) not being an island” like Mumbai, and as being under threat from the floating population” and immigrants”; the atrocity happens when the police/state fails to secure this landscape against the invasion. The narrative clearly constructs a moral landscape which is, in itself, pristine and innocent, before it is invaded by the immoral Other – the landless, rootless, floating migrant laborer. This Edenic landscape reflects certain moral codes: it is (apparently) at ease with its women being educated, independent and being part of the “workforce”; it is rooted and socially connected”, and values societal approval and fears social censure. However, this landscape is invaded by alienated” men and rootless groups that have come into a lot of money. They are brazen enough not to think of societal sanctions. The interlopers’ communities uphold values that treat “women as second-class citizens or maybe worse than that”. Urban space is vulnerable because “they haven’t changed their values” although they partake of urban economic prosperity in the wake of “economic liberalization” (emphasis added). This separation between “them” and “us” is inscribed on the moral landscape of the city. In what follows I explore and try to understand the discursive production of this moral landscape through its various markers.

The urban woman (and her body) is located at the centre of this discourse. Like any other morality tale, this one too hinges itself on the woman’s inviolate body and its moral ambience. The observations made by both Nalwa and Desai paint a picture of the alienated immigrant male who is cut off from his roots and family left behind in his native village, and often frustrated in his libidinal lures in the city-space. His unchecked sexual drive then becomes a threat to the city-space, as it is often directed at women who have imbibed the values promoted by the modern city and are liberated and defiant of patriarchy (while retaining their rootedness in the moral landscape of the city). As Krupa Shandilya has shown in her analysis of the nationalist and patriarchal discourses surrounding the Nirbhaya Case, the victim was often framed as a “chaste Hindu woman” (Shandilya 2015, 472). The doublespeak that proclaims the immorality of retrogressive patriarchy while denying the female body both agency and sexuality, is an important marker of the them vs. us” narrative. Mukesh Singh’s statements that blame the victim for the rape and murder – A decent girl won’t roam around at nine o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy” (Udwin 2015) – have often been cited in these narratives. Children are equally vulnerable to the invading predators. Commenting on the increase of sex crimes directed at children in India, Samar Halarnkar writes that the perpetrators are mostly semi-educated, male migrants in their 20s, unmarried and living away from a social structure.” The criminals worked as fruit sellers, itinerant labourers, gym cleaners, wood-cutters, private-bus drivers and other dead-end marginal jobs on India’s urban edges.” (Halarnkar 2013.) The narratives here, as Halarnkar explicitly admits, resonate with the argument of “Bare Branches” made by Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea den Boer (2002).[5] The “Bare Branch” theory endows the rural immigrant male with anti-social, anti-urban, and immoral tendencies that are reiterated in most of the commentaries connecting urban crime (especially sex crimes) to the immigrant problem in Delhi.

The discourse that posits the urban female as the symbol of vulnerable urban landscape, and the rustic immigrant as its immoral Other, subtly glosses over the class moorings of the narrative. While Desai, in her analysis” of the anatomy of gangrape”, discusses “a certain class of men” which “is deeply uncomfortable with women displaying their independence”, she does not elaborate on some who feel” and perceive them to be predators, or profile the victim. Shandilya, in her analysis of the discursive production of ’Nirbhaya’, has shown how the debates around the Delhi gang-rape framed the victim, while she remained anonymous as stipulated by courts, as everywoman”, which helped rally disparate activist groups as well as citizens from all walks of life to the protest”. However, even after the victim’s identity was revealed, she remained everywoman”, because of her very specific identity as a middle-class, urban woman” (Shandilya 2015, 469-70). I argue that, at this point, the urban moral landscape develops into a landscape of exclusion. It seeks to exclude the floating populations as aggressors, while also excluding women who have no access to the class privileges that this narrative presumes in its central subject. As David Sibley has shown, such exclusions are informed by ideas of the “self” and the “other”, where, in spatial conflicts, one “community represents itself as normal, a part of the mainstream, and feels threatened by the presence of others who are perceived to be different and ‘other’” (Sibley 1995, 28-29). Dominant space discourse defines members of the subordinate groups as dirty, defiled or diseased. Boundaries are set up and “violated” through border-crossings, which are a punishable offence. Boundaries “provide security and comfort” to some people, while they are the cause of deprivation to others (Sibley 1995, 32).

The narrative of exclusion, while accounting for the many cases reported around the national capital and reinforcing the mainstream perception of the immigrant laborer as morally suspect, obscures the fact that misogyny is not class-specific or the result of the libidinal urges of the uprooted bachelor in exile. Misogyny pervades all classes of India; it is embedded in highly patriarchal cultural traditions which span from religious rituals excluding women (for instance, the Hindu practice of forbidding menstruating women from entering places of worship) to hyper-masculine popular cultures (the male-centric Bollywood film being one of the most visible examples)[6]. As Leeza Mangaldas has pointed out, in the context of the Nirbhaya Case, Misogyny has long permeated our textbooks, our pedagogy and our parenting. In fact, it runs so deep that it reflects itself even in our linguistics.” (Mangaldas 2013) It would be fatuous to apportion this cultural trait along class divides. The fact that misogyny is not a class-specific malaise brought into the city by itinerant laborers is borne out by the statements made by the defence lawyers appearing for the accused in the Nirbhaya Case, in the same interview which saw Mukesh Singh making derogatory comments about the victim. One of the lawyers, M. L. Sharma, went on to say, “If you keep sweets on the street then dogs will come and eat them. Why did Nirbhaya’s parents send her with anyone that late at night? He was not her boyfriend. Is it not the parents’ responsibility to keep an eye on where she goes and with whom?” (Garg 2015) The comments made by a lawyer (neither a “low status” immigrant nor a “Bare Branch”) that objectify the woman and the female body should be read along with the analysis of the security question posed by the immigrant; the canine metaphor employed above underlines the mainstream view of the “fringes” of the city.

Pristine City/Squalid Slum

Sibley has discussed how the morality of cleanliness” (Sibley 1995, 64) can be pivotal in constructing geographies of exclusion. The morally upright is often equated with the “clean” and the “orderly”. “The virtue of cleanliness can be suggested by associations of people and places” (64) and the “immoral” to be excluded/erased could also be suggested in much the same way. In much of the journalistic discourse following the Nirbhaya Case, the space of Ravi Das Camp, the slum housing three of the six accused, was constructed as the city’s “underbelly”, the Other that bred the criminals running riot in its streets. Many of the reports juxtaposed Ravi Das Camp with the neighbouring R. K. Puram, one of the “swankiest” parts of urban Delhi.

The visual representation of Ravi Das Camp would further underscore this exclusion: the slum was repeatedly represented for its squalidness and cramped, dirty spaces. On 19 December 2012, three days after the gang-rape, India Today carried a piece on Ravi Das Camp, headlined “Dens of Rapists: Delhi’s Underbelly is a Fertile Breeding Grounds for Criminals”. The article, framed as an “investigation” that “brings out a first-hand account of Delhi’s seamy underbelly”, gives a sweeping account of the slum: The accused all lived within 30 meters of each other, in the camp’s narrow by-lanes, clogged sewers and makeshift hutments that turn into breeding grounds for some of the Capital’s worst headlines” (Bagga 2012). The narrative is supported by a composite image that brings together three inter-connected visual representations of the slum (see Image 1).

Image 1. A composite image of Ravi Das Camp slum, which underscores the spatial narratives of squalor and immorality.

Here, the resident covering her face in apparent shame, the squalid interior of the home of one of the accused rapists, and the closed and clogged lane that leads nowhere, come together in a ‘spatial’ narrative that reinforces the stereotypes that Nalwa and Desai point to, while at the same time asserting that this site falls out of the moral landscape of the city.

This morality of cleanliness and the need to exclude/erase the “dirt space” is a recurring theme in narratives that posit the floating populations as the Other. The outcry against JJ (jhuggi jhopris, the Hindi term for slums) colonies is a case in point. The ethos of cleanliness and order that govern the moral landscape of the city demand that these be erased. For instance, in 1995, the Pritampura Sudhar Samiti and Okhla Factory Owners Association filed a petition demanding the removal of slums from their neighbourhood because:

JJ dwellers defecate in neighborhood parks causing “untold miseries to the residents” . . . [are] a health hazard to the locality and has [sic] transgressed their right to decent living. Besides young girls do not come to their own balconies throughout the day as obnoxious smell pollute the atmosphere and the entire environment. (qtd. in Batra and Mehra 2008, 401-02)

Sanjay Srivastava, in his study of the Akshardham Temple complex in Delhi, has pointed to a socio-spatial transformation that is currently underway in Delhi and a number of other Indian cities:

. . . the making of “clean spaces” . . . proceeds apace with the removal of “unclean spaces” such as jj colonies. . . . The “cleared land” is to be put to various uses, including new leisure and commercial activities. . . . Akshardham sits just across the river from the erstwhile jj colony of Nangla Machi, demolished in 2006. There is a telling relationship that each of these sites has to discourses of legality and illegality. (Srivastava 2009, 241)

The morality discourse here coexists with politico-legal discourses that seek to remake the city in the image of a global city conducive to the manoeuvres of Big Capital. The demolition of Nangla Machi to make way for a temple complex that projects the commercial side of religion is not an isolated case. For instance, the Pritampura Sudhar Samiti petitioners who demanded the removal of slum dwellers because they were unclean, also pointed out that the slum should be removed to “prevent the spread of any dangerous disease, [due to which] . . . foreigners [have] stopped (coming) to India [and] that has . . . affected foreign trade resulting into [the] loss of crores in foreign exchange” (qtd. in Batra and Mehra 2008, 402). And the legal authority seemed to agree:

Delhi being the capital city of the country is a show window to the world of our culture, heritage, traditions and way of life. A city like Delhi must act as a catalyst for building of modern India. It cannot be allowed to degenerate and decay. The slums that have been created . . . [are] the cause of nuisance and breeding ground of so many ills. The welfare, health, maintenance of law and order, safety and sanitation of these residents cannot be sacrificed and their rights under Article 21 is violated in the name of social justice to the slum dwellers. (402)

The verdict is rather stark in its expressions of how the city is to be imagined. The geography of the “show window” has no place for slums that are a “nuisance” and “breeding grounds of so many ills”. This geography will “degenerate and decay” if the slums invade its pristine precincts. It is also interesting how the court verdict chooses to cast the city in a narrative that stresses the duality of its landscape: it is, simultaneously, a symbol of our culture, heritage, traditions”, and a catalyst for the building of modern [read, commercially vibrant and market-oriented] India”. This is exactly where I locate an important moment in the discursive production of the moral landscape of exclusion – in the collusion between right wing political activism (that stresses on the conservation of a certain way of life”) and Big Capital (that needs the city to be cleansed of the undesirables to attract investment).

The Political Economy of the Urban Moral Landscape

Implicit in the middle- and upper-class assertion of the moral landscape of the city is, as Leela Fernandes points out, “a new civic culture for the middle classes in liberalising India” (Fernandes 2004, 85). The drive to “beautify” the city, to make it a global metropolis that attracts “foreign exchange”, is in effect an effort to purge the city of its migrant poor, or to imagine the landscape of the urban as purged of the floating populations. Fernandes sees a new form of class-based socio-spatial segregation” in this re-fashioning of the urban.

This drive to demolish the urban refuges of immigrant labor needs to be read in the context of new coalitions between the state and Big Capital, formed and nurtured in the wake of economic liberalization and the arrival of private investments in urban development. To attract capital flows from multinational corporations and other developed markets, Delhi is forced to become a “smart city” shorn of its “underbelly”. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), launched in 2005, is one example of this project of urban transformation. JNNURM aims to “encourage reforms and fast track planned development of identified cities”. Focus is to be on efficiency in urban infrastructure and service delivery mechanisms, community participation, and accountability of ULBs/Parastatal agencies towards citizens. While one of the goals of the mission was to “take up a comprehensive programme of urban renewal and expansion of social housing in towns and cities, paying attention to the needs of slum dwellers” (Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India 2017), as analysts have shown, the Mission in fact asked urban administration to do away with their pro-poor schemes and to work on further commercializing the urban space (Chatterjee et al 2012).

The politico-legal sanction for this process of exclusion and erasure is further brought out by the numerous evictions sanctioned and carried out in favour of “development”. For instance, in December 2015, the government agencies demolished Shakur Basti in North-West Delhi to make way for a railway project, leaving the slum inhabitants, largely migrant daily-wage labourers from north Indian hinterlands, to live in the open in the biting cold of the Delhi winter. In the melee of the demolition, Mohammad Anwar and Safeena Khatoon, whose families had moved to Delhi from Khagaria in Bihar, lost their six-month-old daughter Rukaiyya, who was crushed by falling debris (Iqbal 2015).

Liberalizing India was also the India were right-wing majoritarian identity politics gained ground as a political force. Within a decade of the economic reforms, right-wing parties would come to rule the federal government. In this context, the crystallization of the “Hindu” identity as the Indian identity has had a role to play in the spatial purification of the city – or in the effort to imagine the moral landscape of the city as an exclusively Hindu middle/upper-class space. In the wake of the Nirbhaya case, Mohan Bhagwat, the supreme leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an ideological mentor to right-wing politics in India, commented that “such crimes [read, rape and sexual crimes against women] hardly take place in Bharat, but they frequently occur in India” (qtd. in Shandilya 2015, 472). Here the space of “Bharat” (an ideological space which privileges Hindu traditions, customs and ways of life, and a mythological space of Hindu domination) is pitted against the actual, everyday space of “India” where teaming millions, including the underclass and the minorities and the marginal, defy ideological regimentation and domination. Also, note that the statement refers to “Bharat” in the present tense (and not in nostalgic past tense), thereby claiming the simultaneous existence of two parallel landscapes – one that lays claims to a moral high ground derived from Hindu traditions; and another one that is invaded by the Other and thereby, in immoral chaos. It is no coincidence that, as shown by Shandilya, right-wing political activists and organisations were active in consolidating a nationalist campaign around the Nirbhaya case, where the victim was elevated to the status of a martyr and the incident was seen as a reminder about the need to “save” Indian culture and tradition.

The right-wing discourse often works on the fear that floating populations, who often fall outside state surveillance, can be a threat to national security. Fernandes has read these fears alongside right-wing political narratives that have dominated the Indian landscape since the late 1990s, to analyze the production of “a form of purified Hindu citizenship that converges with the dynamics of spatial purification” (Fernandes 2004, 98). The question of visibility/invisibility in relation to state surveillance forms an important crux of this discourse – the haunting fear that anti-India, terrorist, and foreign elements use floating populations as a cover to infiltrate Indian cities. For instance, one of the major complaints against Ravi Das Camp, which emerged in the reportage of the Nirbhaya Case, was that this site was clearly not well-policed or administered, unlike the rest of the city (Bagga 2012). Another ubiquitous example is the narrative of “Bangladeshi illegal immigrants” and the grave threat they pose to Indian urban spaces, which is often played out in mainstream media.[7] In these narratives, the illegal immigrant” dissolves into the larger multitude of immigrant laborers inhabiting the slums of the city and uses the invisibility of the group to make his inroads into the city.

The threat of terrorism further complicates this discourse: as one news report claims, “[t]he fear that, along with innocuous ‘economic refugees’, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence and Al-Qaida-linked terrorists may also be crossing over is all too real” (Chakravarty 2012). This narrative heightens and feeds the paranoia surrounding the “invading Other” and drives the desire to cleanse the city of such elements, as Sujata Ramachandran (2003) has noted in her analysis of Operation Pushback (the action plan implemented by the Indian central government in 1992 to oust “illegal”, “undocumented” Bangladeshi immigrants); such operations are situated in a political-bureaucratic collusion with the sanction of centrist political movements. The implementation of this “operation” brought out the processes of othering implicit in the characterization, identification, and description of the spaces that the floating populations of the city inhabit. As Ramachandran points out, “all of the ’Bangladeshi prone areas’ recognised by the government and reported widely through the press were also insignificant and marginal spaces occupied by the urban poor”. And the way they were categorized brought out the insignificance that bureaucracy assigned to these spaces, “in relation to the rich mohallas they abut”:

Some slums were catalogued primarily through nearby landmarks like police station or monument and prominent land use features like ’shamshan ghat’ (cremation ground), ’ganda nala’ (open sewers), ’bara pul’ (big bridge) near or on which they were situated. (…) A non-Bangladeshi resident of a slum interviewed during the course of fieldwork pithily uncovered this link. ’Log garibi ko nahi, garibon ko hatana chahaten hain (People do not want to eliminate poverty; they want to eliminate the poor). (Ramachandran 2003, 639-40)

Here, a narrative of marginality encompasses the space of the slums, its inhabitant community and their insignificance. The cataloguing here is a clear indicator of a strategy of exclusion where the city locates, constructs, reads and rejects the “slum” along with the pollutants it rejects and expels from its landscape – dead bodies and sewage.

The Politics of “Relocating” the Migrant Other

The metaphors of the moral landscape find their physical spatial dimensions in the actual “removal” and forced “relocation” of the floating populations and communities of migrant laborers. The physical realization and consolidation of the moral landscape of the city is complete when you ghettoize the floating populations on the fringes of the city. The convergence of the narratives of right-wing paranoiac nationalism and Big Capital seeks the erasure of the floating populations from the landscape of the city. However, the city cannot do without its scavengers, watermen, and “maid-servants”. Hence, you install them in the ghettoes you assign – (reassuringly) away from your gated communities, while they (conveniently) still service your apartments. Kavita Ramakrishnan has written on one such ghetto – the Bawana resettlement colony. Hers is a testimony of lives uprooted and displaced:

Mostly rural migrants to Delhi, those who live in the resettlement colony express sadness at the stalling of what they formerly perceived as an incremental migrant journey to relative financial security in the city. Now displaced to the semi-rural periphery, people bitterly speak of Delhi’s ‘world-class’ city ambitions that mainly served to exclude the poor. Though nostalgia permeates narratives of basti life in the city, at times glossing over the hardships faced, they make a sharp contrast between the bastis of the past and the current situation. (Ramakrishnan 2014)

Their erasure from the imagined moral landscape of the city and the attendant “demolition drives”, and their forced relocations to the fringes and semi-urban landscapes farther away from the city, often prove hazardous. Their health and safety are endangered, while the movement away from the city centre curtails the economic ambitions that had originally driven the migrations. Moreover, As Ramakrishnan points out, “in these in-between spaces . . . women face sexual violence on an everyday basis, adding an extra layer of marginality to the already bleak lived realities” (2014). However, these are never reported, discussed or protested.

The dominant discourses on the security threats seemingly posed by floating populations often mask these stories of urban apathy, and elide questions of how urban spaces themselves threaten these marginal populations. Although cases such as the Nirbhaya Case have brought the issue of women’s safety in public spaces to the forefront, the lived realities of women (and children) who have to relocate to the margins are often kept out of these “mainstream” dialogues on women’s safety. As one of the women in the Bawana resettlement colony tells Ramakrishnan, “[t]he girls here are treated like insects, as if they have no dignity.” Here, the urban subterfuge, which seeks to hide away the economic necessity of floating labour and to project a moral landscape that excludes the perceived Other, also becomes a cover for sexual predators who raid these resettlement colonies. Settlements like Bawana live in fear of drunken men driving out of their city enclaves or from neighbouring villages. None of these stories are reported and no candles burn for these victims.

The narrative politics of the spatially contested city

The insecurity threat that the city perceives in the “flotsam” that arrives at its shores is often based on a contestation over space and the product of a discourse that legitimizes certain classes of the city over others. In this sense, this question of (in)security hinges on the “hospitality” that the modern city seeks to deny. In the narrative representations of the floating populations of Delhi, the idea of hospitality” moves from the ethical or moral realm of inter-individual relationships to the economic, political and legal realms of the city’s precarious relationship with a class of migrant laborers, played out as a conflict over urban space.

It may be fruitful to read these narratives against the backdrop of the present state and local government’s attempt to restructure the city (as a populated and polluted space) into a “functional” and “efficient” one. The decades following the economic liberalization have seen a new official vision of the city taking shape in the form of government projects to remake it as a global city. Politicians and planners aim to overhaul crumbling urban infrastructure and demolish its slums teeming with migrant laborers, to “reimagine” the city. And yet, inherent to such cosmopolitan” initiatives is a class-based sensibility and politics that attempt to flatten out contests over the different meanings and visions of the city.

References

All links verified 15 May 2018.

News articles

Bagga, Bhuvan. 2012. “Dens of Rapists: Delhi’s Underbelly is a Fertile Breeding Grounds for Criminals.” India Today, December 19. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/delhi-gangrape-unsafe-delhi-crime-grounds/1/238440.html.

“Bangladeshi criminal gangs new challenge for Delhi Police.” 2013. Yahoo News, July 22. https://in.news.yahoo.com/bangladeshi-criminal-gangs-challenge-delhi-police-103908012.html.

Chakravarty, Sayantan. 2012. “The Bangladeshi Immigrants are Everywhere. They Even Have Crime Syndicates in Delhi.” India Today, February 6. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/bangladeshi-immigrants-are-everywhere-even-have-crime-syndicates-in-delhi-ib-report/1/207062.html.

Desai, Kishwar. 2013. “Skimming the Surfaces of Sexism isn’t Enough.” The Indian Express, January 3. http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/skimming-the-surfaces-of-sexism-isn-t-enough/1053547/0

Directorate of Economics and Statistics. 2015. “Urban Slums in Delhi: Based on NSS 69th Round Survey.” February. http://www.delhi.gov.in/wps/wcm/connect/adcd1f0047a86473ab46ffbdc775c0fb/pdf+report+69th+round+slum+final.pdf?MOD=AJPERES&lmod=538772215&CACHEID=adcd1f0047a86473ab46ffbdc775c0fb.

Garg, Abhinav. 2015. “Defence Lawyers Blame Nirbhaya for Rape.” The Times of India, March 4. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Defence-lawyers-blame-Nirbhaya-for-rape/articleshow/46451407.cms.

Ghildiyal, Subodh. 2015. “Landlessness key to rural deprivation, census says.” Times of India, Jul 13. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Landlessness-key-to-rural-deprivation-census-says/articleshow/48047026.cms.

Halarnkar, Samar. 2013. “India’s Bare Branches.” Hindustan Times, April 24. http://www.hindustantimes.com/columns/india-s-bare-branches/story-CSEhacsxs3l2pQCncM4l2M.html.

Iqbal, Naveed. 2015. “Shakur Basti Demolition Drive: In Debris, a Birth Follows Death, Barely 50m Away.” The Indian Express, December 15. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/shakur-basti-demolition-drive-in-debris-a-birth-follows-death-barely-50-m-away/#sthash.0kgKW3Fz.dpuf.

Mandhana, Niharika, and Anjani Trivedi. 2012. “Indians Outraged over Rape on Moving Bus in New Delhi.” International New York Times, December 18. http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/outrage-in-delhi-after-latest-gang-rape-case/

Mandhana, Niharika, and Gayatri Sreedharan. 2012. “A Conversation with Suman Nalwa, Head of Delhi Police’s Unit for Women.” International New York Times, December 21. http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/21/a-conversation-with-suman-nalwa-head-of-delhi-polices-unit-for-women/

Mangaldas, Leeza. 2013. “Misogyny in India: We Are All Guilty.” CNN, January 3. http://edition.cnn.com/2012/12/30/world/asia/misogyny-india/.

Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India. 2017. “Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission: Overview.” http://jnnurm.nic.in/.

Press Trust of India. 2013. “Delhi Gang Rape: Chronology of Events.” The Hindu, August 31. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/delhi-gangrape-chronology-of-events/article5079321.ece.

“Profiles: Delhi Gang Rapists.” 2015. BBC, December 20. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-23434888

Ramakrishnan, Kavita. 2014. “Sexual Violence on the Margins of Delhi.” Open Security: Conflict and Peace Building, April 15. https://www.opendemocracy.net/opensecurity/kavita-ramakrishnan/sexual-violence-on-margins-of-delhi.

Udwin, Leslee. 2015. “Delhi Rapist Says Victim Shouldn’t Have Fought Back.” BBC, March 3. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31698154.

Yardley, Jim. 2011. “The Gurgaon story: A mirror to India’s growth,” NDTV, June 9. http://www.ndtv.com/gurgaon-news/the-gurgaon-story-a-mirror-to-indias-growth-458043.

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Batra, Lalit, and Diya Mehra. 2008. “The Demolition of Slums and the Production of Neoliberal Space in Delhi.” In Inside Transforming Urban Asia: Processes, Politics and Public Actions, edited by Darshini Mahadevia, 391–414. Delhi: Concept.

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Dutta, Debolina, and Oishik Sircar. 2013. “India’s Winter of Discontent: Some Feminist Dilemmas in the Wake of a Rape.” Feminist Studies 39. 1: 293–306.

Fernandes, Leela. 2004. “Class, Space and the State in India: A Comparative Perspective on the Politics of Empire.” In Labor versus Empire: Race, Gender, Migration, edited by Gilbert G. Gonzalez et al, 80–104. New York: Routledge.

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Notes

[1] Debolina Dutta and Oishik Sircar give an overview of the amount of journalistic and opinion-page commentaries that came out on the case: “There has been a surfeit of writing on the incident and the protests on blogs and social media. There was widespread international attention, with statements from the United Nations and international human rights organizations. Media from across the world covered the protests and provided regular updates, many of them recreating the colonial imagery of premodern victimhood.” (Dutta and Sircar 2013, 295) For an instance of international coverage of the incident, see Mandhana and Trivedi (2012).

[2]. As recently as in 2015, the Indian federal government estimated that 48.5 per cent of all rural households [in India] are saddled with at least one deprivation indicator” that the study focused on (the indicators ranging from lack of proper housing to illiteracy to landlessness) (Ghildiyal 2015).

[3]. G. S. Bhalla and Gurmail Singh have studied the visible deceleration” shown by the Indian agricultural economy in the post-liberalization period (Bhalla and Singh 2010, 34–44).

[4]. Yardley (2011) reports that Gurgaon has almost four times as many private security guards as police officers”.

[5]. Hudson and den Boer (2002, 11) take the term from a Chinese word, guang gun-er, “indicating those male branches of a family tree that would never bear fruit because no marriage partner might be found for them”, and the term is used in a study that draws a causal relationship among the gendered dynamics of Asian (especially Chinese and Indian) societies where male children are preferred over female, the disproportionate numbers of bachelor men and the increase in the security threats in those societies. Rural–urban migration brings these gender imbalances to the fore as there develops a “a large floating population”, “full of the poor, the unemployed, and the vagrant, all of whom were noted to be prone to violence” (ibid., 30). These “transient workers find bewildering differences when they first come to cities, often experiencing disdain or exclusion from urbanites” (ibid., 29–30).

[6] The mainstream Bollywood musicals, comedies, dramas, romances and action-thriller genres are commonly centred on the male “hero” who exemplifies heteronormative masculine ideals. As Kush Varia (2012, 99) puts it, “characters that are symbols of rebelliousness and ideals of hypermasculinity – these are men of action, not words”. As Murali Balaji (2013, 56) has noted, Bollywood has increasingly projected a “hegemonic masculinity” to promote “an ideal masculine image while marginalizing the Indian Other—the supposedly undesirable Indian masculinities that fall outside the hypermasculine heteronormative ideals”. Also see Roy (2010) for an analysis of the stereotyped imaginary of the hypermasculine Punjabi in Bollywood.

[7]. For instance, see the following report: “In a new challenge for Delhi Police, some Bangladeshi criminals have turned to committing big time robberies in the national capital and fleeing by road or rail back to their country for a few months – before they strike again. According to police, these Bangladeshis take rooms on rent in slum colonies. The women members of the gang work as maids in nearby neighbourhoods. The men, during the daytime, conduct recces of these colonies disguised as garbage collectors or scrap dealers.” (Quoted from “Bangladeshi criminal gangs new challenge for Delhi Police,” Yahoo News, July 22, 2013)

Kategoriat
1–2/2018 WiderScreen 21 (1–2)

‘Loitering’ in Urban Public Space – Wandering with a Street Poet in Berlin

ethnographic-artistic research, performance, public space, street vending, tactic

Julia Weber
julia.weber [a] zhdk.ch
PhD-Student, joint PhD
Institute for Contemporary Art Research
Zurich University of the Arts – Art University Linz

Click the image to read the full text.

Kategoriat
3/2017 WiderScreen 20 (3)

The Fear of Death in Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)

Close reading, Death, Expressionist film, Fear of death, German expressionism, Nosferatu, Siegfried Kracauer, The First World War

Heikki Rosenholm
hepero [a] utu.fi
Doctoral Student
Cultural Heritage Studies
University of Turku

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This overview deals with the Expressionist German silent film, Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), directed by F.W. Murnau. The article is based on my 2016 Master’s Thesis for Cultural Heritage Studies (see Rosenholm 2016). The aim of this examination is to take an in-depth look at certain scenes in the film and to analyse elements regarding the theme of death, or to be more specific, the fear of death. This theme is approached by delving into the teachings of German film theorist Siegfried Kracauer, and by analysing the Expressionist Film Movement and its relation to German Society in the 1920s.

 This overview closely examines different depictions of the fear of death in Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens, an Expressionist German silent film from 1922 that was directed by Friedrich Wilhelm “F.W.” Murnau. Murnau’s film is loosely based on Irish author Bram Stoker’s gothic horror novel, Dracula (1897). The basis for this article is my master’s thesis: Vampyyrin varjossa. Pelon elementit elokuvassa Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens (unofficially in English: In the Shadow of the Vampire. The Elements of Fear in Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens) in which the film’s elements of fear were analysed with the close reading method of my own development, which was based on various, diverse theoretical methods (see Rosenholm 2016, 17–29). The objective of my thesis was to determine how certain scenes of the film implied the broader fears of 1920s German society.

The events of Stoker’s Dracula take place in late 19th century England during the Victorian era. It tells the tale of an undead vampire, Count Dracula, who attempts to move from the distant Eastern European land of Transylvania to England. Dracula’s goal is to find new victims in order to quench his thirst for blood. Standing in Dracula’s way, however, is a small group of men and women: solicitor Jonathan Harker, his wife Mina Murray (later Harker), Doctor John Seward, the nobleman Arthur Holmwood, an American cowboy Quincey Morris, and a Dutch professor named Abraham van Helsing. The group eventually manages to drive Dracula back to Transylvania and destroy him. Other important characters involved in the novel are Lucy Westenra, a friend of Mina and Dracula’s first victim, and Renfield, a patient at Dr. Seward’s insane asylum who has a supernatural connection with Dracula.

Nosferatu, the very first unauthorized film adaption of the novel, changed various details from the novel, most of which were done by the film’s screenwriter Henrik Galeen (see Rosenholm 2016, 2, 11–13, 45). Nosferatu is set in 1830s Biedermeier-era Germany in the fictional town of Wisborg. Although the name Transylvania’s remains the same in the film, the main characters’ names have all, however, been changed: Dracula is known as Orlok (also referred to as Nosferatu in the film), Jonathan Harker appears as Hutter, Mina Murray as Ellen, Renfield as Knock and van Helsing is called Dr. Bulwer. Certain major characters from the novel, such as Quincey Morris, do not make an appearance at all. It is widely believed that the reasons behind the various name changes were due to copyright issues as the production company, Prana Film, had not obtained the rights to the novel (see Rosenholm 2016 2–3). In addition to the various name changes, the film also alters some of the novel’s other major elements. For example, Orlok spreads the plague everywhere he goes and his death differs from the novel; instead of being killed by the vampire hunters, he is killed by rays of sunlight.

Nosferatu also deals with numerous fears of which many can be associated with 1920s German society. This overview takes an in-depth look at one of the most common elements of fear visible in Nosferatu: ‘the fear of death’. The fear of death is present for the majority of the film and is particularly noticeable while examining the scenes that feature the main antagonist, Orlok. Different reactions to the fear of death are also seen through the reactions of the other major characters in the film. However, before going into the in-depth process of analysing the film, I will review the history of Germany and the Expressionist Film Movement in the 1920s as it places Nosferatu and other Expressionist films in their wider historical and socio-cultural context. The analysis of Nosferatu’s scenes is conducted in the latter part of the article.

The Short History of Expressionist Film in 1920s Germany

The history of Expressionist films is closely related to the history of 1920s Germany. To be more specific, German Expressionist cinema was greatly influenced by the events following the First World War (1914–1918). Before the war, Germany had been known as the German Empire from 1871. However, after accepting its defeat at the hands of the Allied forces in 1918, the German Empire was then reformed into a federal republic the following year. An unofficial historical designation for the republic is the Weimar Republic as the new constitutional law for the German state was declared in the city of Weimar in 1919. Nonetheless, the era of the Weimar Republic was short lived and came to its conclusion in 1933 when Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor and, together with the Nazi Party, seized power from the Republic’s coalition government. (Rosenholm 2016, 1–2, 29, 32; see Kershaw 2008, 367–377.)

The reasons for the short life of the Weimar Republic were closely related to the heavy economic burden of First World War reparations, which the Republic had to carry throughout its existence from 1919 to 1933. For example, there were numerous economic crises throughout the years and violent riots on the streets of major cities became commonplace. One of the main reasons for the country’s collapse was the Treaty of Versailles, which for many Germans was better known as ‘diktat’ (referring to what Germans saw as the harsh and unfair penalties that the victorious parties had levied on the country). The Treaty declared that Germany alone was the War’s only guilty party and, as a consequence, had to pay significant war reparations, surrender its territories and reduce the size of its military forces. (See Rosenholm 2016, 30; Kershaw 2008, 367–372; see also Kracauer 1987, 43–44.)

All these actions had a substantial impact on Germany and in a mostly negative way. However, for the film industry, the state of post-war Germany offered several benefits. According to cinema researchers Pam Cook and Mieke Bernink, ‘The end of the war, the collapse of the November uprising and massive inflation all contributed to an export boom in the German film industry that began in 1919’. (Cook & Bernink 1999, 67.) In addition, after the outbreak of war in 1914, Germany imposed restrictions on foreign films in its domestic markets. As a result, German films had little to no competition and various production companies therefore had considerable space to expand. However, many of the films made in 1913–1919 were considered poor and cheap exploitation films that had little chance of succeeding in foreign markets. This led to the eventual decision of several major industrialists to merge most of the production companies into one new company, Universum Film AG (Ufa), with the goal of creating high quality films for both domestic and foreign markets. (Kracauer 1987, 36–37; Cook & Bernink 1999, 67; Cousins 2004, 95–96.)

Ultimately, Expressionist art films were chosen as the flagship for German cinema abroad. Expressionism itself was a part of larger art movement that had its roots in the late 19th century. The main idea behind Expressionist art was the portrayal of subjects’ negative emotions in a very distorted and chaotic manner. The milieu of expressionist paintings was usually set in a dream- or fantasy world-like setting, which made it easier for the painters to express their negative emotions. Generally, Expressionism resisted the realism and objectivity of the 19th century. This setting was also the main source for many Expressionist films, which were further influenced by the chaotic times of the Weimar Republic: The films were usually set in worlds where the environment was distorted, and buildings, walls, ceilings, furniture and even shadows, were exaggerated and asymmetrical. The distortion of the environment was also reflected in the main characters who were usually mentally unstable or in a state of confusion. (See Holte 1997, 29–30; Rosenholm 2016, 32–35.)

Image 1. ‘The Scream’ (1893) by Norwegian Expressionist artist Edvard Munch. The creature in the foreground has been compared to an individual suffering from mental disorder, which thus causes the environment to feel distorted and chaotic.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920), directed by Robert Wiene,, is one of the most famous of the Expression films of the era and universally considered as one of the founding works of the Expressionist Film Movement. The sets were designed by artists Hermann Warm, Walter Röhrig, and Walter Reimann, who came up with the idea of painting bizarre looking buildings and objects, as well as shadow and lightning effects, in the sets. The result was an expressionist, dream-like twisted world that avoided all the bases of rationality. The film, in short, tells the story of Dr. Caligari who arrives to a German town called Holstenwall. After his arrival, mysterious murders start to take place all over the town. Franzis, a young student, whose friend is a victim to one of the murders, becomes suspicious of Dr. Caligari and starts his own investigations. Franzis discovers that Dr. Caligari is indeed behind the murders and has been using a somnambulist, Cesare, to carry out the murders.

Other major Expressionist films include many of Fritz Lang’s films such as Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, 1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), Metropolis (1927) and M (M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder, 1931). Many of the Expressionist films commented on the chaotic age of 1920s German society; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for its part, is widely considered as a critique of authoritarian government. (Holte 1997, 29–31; von Bagh 2004, 87; Cousins 2004, 95–101; Rosenholm 2016, 32–36; see also Kracauer 1987, 58–72.)

Image 2. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (left), Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (middle) and Metropolis (right) are some of the classic Expressionist films.

The Golden Age of Expressionist film lasted from 1921 to 1924, while the movement persisted until the early 1930s. The main reasons for its decline were the rising tensions in the German political environment as well as the return of Hollywood films, which flooded the German markets in the late 1920s. However, instead of completely disappearing, the style of the films simply transferred, mainly to Hollywood films, as German Expressionist film-makers immigrated to United States when political tensions began to increase in Germany. The style of Expressionist films is particularly noticeable in Universal’s 1930s horror films and also in much film noir from the 1940s and 1950s. These films all share the same slow pace, dark and grim atmosphere, mentally unstable characters, and also utilize strong shadow effects, sets and make up. (Cook & Bernink 1999, 68; Cousins 2004, 98–99, 195–198; Hakola 2011, 31–32; Rosenholm 2016, 36–37, 45.)

German film researcher and theorist Siegfried Kracauer states in his famous book, From Caligari to Hitler. A Psychological History of the German Film (1947), that the events of 1920s Germany are especially apparent in Weimar-era German films (see Kracauer 1987, 9–16). Kracauer’s main thesis is that the films predicted the ascension of Hitler and his Nazi Party in Germany (Kracauer 2004, 11). This so called ‘reflection theory’, that films directly reflect the state of the society, has been much criticized in film studies. Indeed, the main issue that critics have with Kracauer and his book, besides the controversial suggestion that Weimar-era films predicted the ascension of Hitler, is that he considers the audience as an easily manipulated and passive receiver. His critics maintain that he doesn’t take into consideration the individual and sees the audience as one simple mass (see Kracauer 2004, 6, 8–9; see also Kracauer 1999, 389–391). Alternatively, contemporary scholars widely agree that films work in active and complex socio-cultural interaction with their audience. (See, for example, Salmi 1993, 152–156; Hakola 2011, 53–55; Ahonen 2013, 26–29.) Kracauer’s book, however, was a major turning point for film studies as it was the very first work that considered fictional films as reliable source material for studying the socio-cultural and historical contexts of society.

While his proposition that Weimar-era films predicted the rise of Hitler can be rightly criticized, Kracauer’s argument regarding the visible economic, social and political agencies in German cinema, is certainly worth consideration. It can always be argued how explicitly these elements are involved in Nosferatu; this also raises issues regarding the researcher’s risk of possible over-interpretation. However, when taking into account the other source materials of the socio-cultural and historical contexts that are examined, it does help confirm certain aspects of the theory and lessen the possibility of making digressive interpretations (see, for example, Ahonen 2013, 343–346). Even though Kracauer’s study has created much controversy among film researchers, the fact remains that his study has had an impact on many later studies regarding how films could possibly represent the psychological as well as socio-cultural state of a country (see, for example, Bordwell 1985; Hansen 1994; Koch & Gaines 2000; Beckman 2014).

Nosferatu and the Theme of Death

For example, although Nosferatu is considered a part of the Expressionist Film Movement, it contains elements of romantic art-style cinema as well. The later films of Nosferatu’s , F.W. Murnau’s have actually been described as more romantic-style as opposed to expressionist-style cinema. The influence of the romantic style can be seen in Nosferatu’s landscape shots such as Transylvania’s beautiful green valleys, flowing rivers, sunrises and sunsets, and the high Carpathian Mountains reaching towards the sky. But as seen in the film, there is also plenty of expressionist landscape scenery that shows ghostly and white-coloured forests, raging rivers, ominous winds and the valleys of Transylvania turned into a land of death. (See von Bagh 2004 (1998), 89–90; Cousins 2004, 101; Rosenholm 2016, 41–42; Perez 2013, 7–8.)

Image 3. The above images display the romantic style while the below images are reminiscent of the expressionist style in Nosferatu. Also, worth noting are the shifts in the tint of colours with romantic style shots being mostly displayed in red and yellow while expressionist hues usually appear in blue or green colours.

Murnau, as well as screenwriter Henrik Galeen, doubtlessly played an important role in many of Nosferatu’s features such as its expressionist artistic design and story elements; after all, both shared a prior history in the Expressionist film movement (see, for example, Murnau 1999, 499; Galeen 1999, 447–449). However, the person who had the greatest influence on Nosferatu was undoubtedly Albin Grau. Grau produced the film and was also responsible for the film’s costumes and set designs. Grau, together with fellow producer Enrico Dieckmann, founded Prana Film with the goal of producing occultist films. In the end, Prana Film managed to produce only one film, which turned out to be Nosferatu. The collapse of the studio was due to the lawsuit filed by Bram Stoker’s widow for copyright infringement following the film’s release. Prana Film lost in the courts and soon declared bankruptcy in order to avoid paying copyright infringement penalties. The court ordered all copies of the film to be destroyed. However, some prints of the film survived throughout the years and Nosferatu and many other Expressionist films became legal again during the 1950s and 1960s. (Rosenholm 2016, 43, 47–48.)

Image 4. The illustrations of the Vampire Book (left) and incomprehensible inscriptions in Orlok’s contract (middle, right) were some of the occultist details that Albin Grau implemented in the film.

Grau was personally very interested in occultism and was also fascinated by death cultures as well as Eastern European vampire folklore. The impact of these contributors is seen in many ways throughout Nosferatu. For example, Orlok’s appearance isn’t as aristocratic as Count Dracula’s in Stoker’s novel and the pale white Orlok resembles a resurrected body that rises from the grave to drink the blood of the living. Orlok’s bald head, rodent-like front teeth, long and thin arms, and sharp claws are, to some, reminiscent of a cross between a rat and a human skeleton. Orlok’s resemblance to a rat is no coincidence; in the film, Orlok spreads plague everywhere he goes and is followed by rats. This element of death associates Orlok with the historical ‘Black Death’, which was carried by rats and killed millions of Europeans in the mid-fourteenth-century. In Eastern European vampire folklore, it was also believed that vampires carried epidemics. (Rosenholm 2016, 46–47; see also Perez 2013, 8–9.)

Image 5. Albin Grau’s designs for scenes of Nosferatu (lower-left corner) were inspired by the novel ‘The Golem’ (1914), which was written by Gustav Meyrink and illustrated by Hugo Steiner-Prag (above). Orlok’s face (lower-right corner) is supposedly based on the novel’s titular character.

 

The story of Nosferatu was also inspired by the events that Grau experienced in 1916 Serbia during the First World War. Grau had heard a story from a peasant in a local tavern about a vampire, nosferatu[1], who woke up at night to drink the blood of the living. He tells this story in great detail in an article ‘Vampires’, originally published in 1921. Grau’s interest in the theme of death is also explained in the same article as he interestingly states that Nosferatu was somewhat inspired by the millions of casualties from the First World War. (See Grau 2013, 35–37; see also Rosenholm 2016, 43–44.) Grau, by associating the deaths caused by the plague in Nosferatu with the deaths caused by the First World War, proves that the historical events indeed had at least somewhat of an impact on the theme of death. In the 2013 commentary made for Nosferatu, film historian David Kalat argues that the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which also claimed millions of lives around the world, also affected the theme of death as presented in the film (Kalat 2013). One can always argue that films are affected by their cultural and historical context but in the case of Nosferatu, I maintain with a strong degree of reliability, that the film was indeed thus influenced by recent history.

The cultural heritage of Nosferatu is today very widespread and the impact that Nosferatu had on later vampire and Dracula films has been broadly acknowledged. The legal proceedings that followed soon after the release of the film, brought worldwide attention to Dracula and eventually transformed it into a pop culture phenomenon, a status that it retains even today. (See Rosenholm 2016, 13-16.) Nosferatu also changed the conceptions regarding vampires. For example, it was the very first movie in which a vampire was killed by sunlight. Further, it portrayed the vampire in a very animalistic and primitive way, which is truer to its folklore origins (see, for example, Hovi 2014, 66–70). Two major film tributes for the film have been made so far, the first being Werner Herzog’s remake of the film Nosferatu the Vampyre (Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, 1979) and the second being Elias E. Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire (2000), which is a fictional account of the events surrounding the filming of Murnau’s Nosferatu. The film has also played a role in popular culture: the rock metal band Blue Öyster Cult released a song Nosferatu in their 1977 album Spectre, as a tribute to the film; and the popular animated television series, SpongeBob SquarePants, featured the character of Orlok in a small cameo role in a 2000 episode.


Video 1. Orlok’s brief cameo in SpongeBob Squarepants.


Video 2. ‘Nosferatu’ by Blue Öyster Cult from the album Spectre.

Nosferatu is not only unique among other Expressionist films; it’s also exceptional when compared to later vampire films because of its focus on the theme of death. The film pays scant attention to other themes such as sexuality, religion or unknown cultures, which are often the focus in many other vampire (specifically in Dracula) films (Rosenholm 2016, 4). Nature and other general environments play a major role in creating the deathly and spooky atmosphere, which also creates an interesting mixture of romantic and expressionist styles. The reasons for Nosferatu’s unique death theme can also be traced back to the film’s historical and cultural context.

Additionally, Nosferatu itself is not as political as many other Expressionist films were. The political is diminished in the film by having the film take place in a distant, semi-fantastical and -historical past. The film makes no attempt to be political; it was Albin Grau’s wish to focus on occultist lore and that’s what Nosferatu is ultimately about. Nosferatu works as an allegory for victims of war and epidemics, which was influenced by the recent chaotic events in Germany, occultist beliefs and vampire folklore. In this sense, Nosferatu is indeed closely related to death, and especially the fear of death.

The Transformation of the Fear of Death

The fear of death is one of the most basic fears of humankind. Death as a theme, for example, is one of the most common topics in philosophy. Death has been a topic of discussion among ancient Greek philosophers such as Epicurus, Plato and Aristotle (see, for example, Warren 2004), and has, as a theme, remained popular, particularly among late 19th and early 20th century German philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger (see, for example, Heidegger 1992, 279–311; Nietzsche 2001, 26–27).

Academic studies have, especially during the 21st century, been more interested in death studies. In her book, Fear. A Cultural History (2005), Joanna Bourke examines cultures of fear. Bourke analyses the cultural meanings of fear, including the fear of death, in British and American cultures from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries. For example, in the late 19th century, people were afraid of being buried alive or of God’s judgment and the possibility of going to Hell after death. These fears of death were replaced in the early 20th century with the fear of ‘nothingness’ after death, and a sudden and a violent death due to the events of the First World War. (Bourke 2005, 3–4; see also Kershaw 361–377) During the 21st century, death has become distant from the everyday experiences of people. The fears about death, however, remain but in different forms. According to Bourke, ‘People are more worried about the excessive death prolongation of life after all pleasure has been removed than about the sudden death.’ (Bourke 2005, 4.) Today, the images of death in the media and popular culture are also more common, which brings death closer to us than ever before, but at the same time it makes it seem like something that only exists in fiction or far away from us (see Hakola & Kivistö 2014).

Even though Bourke’s study focuses on British and American cultures, it is still relevant regarding Germany experiences in the early 20th century. Frank Furedi, another researcher of fear, has said, ‘How we react in general and how we fear in particular is subject to historical and cultural variations.’ (Furedi 2006, 7.) The First World War was a turning point in the culture of death and this was especially felt in Germany during the époque of the Weimar Republic. The fear of ‘nothingness’ after death was also present in society and is also seen in Nosferatu; the victims of Orlok don’t turn into vampires but nevertheless die in a horrific manner, while religion is absent or scarcely mentioned in the film. The theme of death has always been closely related to horror films (see Hakola 2011, 10) and while it’s important to note that film genres as such, did not officially exist until the 1930s, Nosferatu could still be considered as the first horror film that deals with the theme of death.

In the next section, I will show through the example of three of the film’s scenes, how Nosferatu portrays the fear of death. I will analyse each scene’s content before drawing my final conclusion. The scenes are: (1.) Hutter’s Journey to the Land of Transylvania, (2.) Orlok aboard the Demeter and (3.) Orlok’s Demise at the Hands of Ellen.

First Scene: Hutter’s Journey into the Land of Transylvania – The Arrival of the Fear of Death

Time: 00:22:22–00:26:16 (refers to the time of the scene in 2013 Blu-ray copy)

In this scene, the fear of death is expressed to the audience through Hutter’s (Gustav von Wangenheim) journey in the land of Transylvania. It begins with Hutter entering Transylvania and finally meeting Count Orlok (Max Schreck) outside his castle. Hutter embodies an individual who has never been in contact with death and is about to experience it for the very first time in his life. The fear of death takes a hold of Hutter, as well as the audience, during his journey to meet Orlok. I refer to this first stage as the arrival of the fear of death.

The scene has been preceded by events that showcased Hutter in Wisborg, where he enjoyed a cursory, happy and joyful life with his wife, Ellen (Greta Schröder). Hutter’s fate is, however, altered when his employer Knock (Alexander Granach) sends him to Transylvania to meet a new client, Count Orlok. Without showing any kind of hesitation, Hutter accepts his newly given task and soon embarks on his journey. Hutter’s journey starts in a very cheerful and happy manner, but as he travels deeper into the land of Transylvania, the atmosphere of the film evolves into something more dark and grim. Hutter, as he journeys, also takes the audience into the same world as him.

What is also seen in the preceding scenes is that Hutter has actually received warnings about Count Orlok from the local peasants. At a local inn he even read a vampire book that warns of Nosferatu. Hutter, however, ignores the book’s warnings and instead goes straight to bed in order to prepare to cross the Carpathian Mountains the next day.

Image 6. Hutter in the middle of reading the Vampire Book (left). The book (right) explains Nosferatu’s origins.

On the next morning, Hutter gets a ride from a local coach to a mountain pass, however, the coachman refuses to take him any further. Hutter then takes his bags and continues his journey on foot. The transition from the normal world to the unknown world happens in the next moment when Hutter crosses the bridge (image 7), which is followed by an intertitle with the film’s storyteller saying:

No sooner had Hutter stepped across the bridge, than the eerie visions he had often told me about seized hold of him.

Image 7. Hutter crossing the bridge and taking a step into an unknown land. The boundaries between familiar and unknown worlds are not clearly visible.

Hutter’s journey now takes an entirely different turn. The bridge scene has been analysed by Craig Keller who has said that scariest thing is that everything looks exactly the same on the other side of the bridge (see Keller 2013, 48–49). We cannot differentiate between the familiar and the other unknown world. Even Hutter seems to be oblivious to this reality; he is seen looking back at the camera and seems to be quite cheerful. The music played during the shot is also very joyful, not to mention that the bridge scene takes place during daytime. The atmosphere of the bridge scene basically plays with audiences’ minds by convincing them that nothing is going to change on the other side. However, the intertitle’s words ‘the eerie visions he had often told me about seized hold of him.’ indicate something completely opposite and this is proven to be the case later in the scene.

After crossing the bridge, Hutter travels for a while and arrives on the side of a road. Soon, a carriage arrives ridden by a mysterious coachman covered in black clothing. The coachman is actually Orlok in disguise who advises Hutter to climb aboard. During the ride, the carriage goes through a ghastly white forest, which emphasizes the unknown world to which Hutter has entered.

Image 8. Orlok, disguised as a coachman, rides into the fog and takes Hutter though a spooky white forest. The landscape’s style has turned from normal and romantic, into abnormal and expressionist.

The coachman leaves Hutter in front of the castle gates and exits the site. Hutter takes a look at the huge gates and steps inside the courtyard of the castle. There he is greeted by Count Orlok, who welcomes him and says: ‘You have kept me waiting – waiting too long. Now it is nearly midnight. The servants are sleeping!’ Orlok signals for Hutter to follow him inside the castle. Together, they both enter the dark tunnel and disappear into the darkness (image 9).

Image 9. Hutter standing in front of the gates of Orlok’s castle. Hutter is unsure of where he is about to enter (left). Later with Orlok, he walks into a dark tunnel (right).

So how do the elements of the fear of death stand out in the scene? As stated earlier, this is the first time Hutter comes into contact with an unknown world with which he is unfamiliar. The romantic landscape turns expressionist and the only ‘living’ creature Hutter meets after crossing the bridge is Orlok who looks entirely different from the other people Hutter has earlier met in Transylvania. This is because, after crossing the bridge, Hutter has entered the land of the dead with Orlok being its only resident. Orlok represents death and what it causes to an individual. Orlok is neither dead nor living and is actually balanced between the two worlds (image 10).

The transition from the land of the living to the land of the dead is visually portrayed in various ways. Some of the most notable visual details are the numerous doors and gateways shaped like an arch. The arches resemble coffins and when Orlok is seen standing next to or passing through them, they represent the boundaries between life and death, which are very vague in the film. (Perez 2013, 13.)

Image 10. Orlok standing between two gateways formed in the shape of arches in the castle’s courtyard. The shot reminds the audience that Orlok is a being who doesn’t belong with the living or the dead.

Hutter doesn’t exactly know how to react to the ‘deathly figure’ of Orlok. This is seen through his uncertain expressions and gestures (image 11). Hutter represents an individual who has never been in contact with death. He simply follows the embodiment of death, Orlok, into the tunnel, believing that there is nothing to be worried about. However, the fear of death has now arrived and seized Hutter for the first time.

Image 11. Hutter’s facial expressions and reactions during his journey indicate that he’s uncertain how to react to new and unfamiliar experiences.

In the scenes after Hutter’s journey, his arrival and resulting slide into the grip that the fear of death holds, is emphasized even more as Hutter stays as a guest in Orlok’s castle and eventually discovers the truth about his host (see Rosenholm 2016, 5570). That being said, I will not go through these scenes, rather, the next scene I analyse concerns the transition to the fear of death as seen through Orlok and the sailors aboard the vessel Demeter.

Second Scene: Orlok aboard the DemeterThe Transition to the Fear of Death

Time: 00:58:13 – 01:02:08

In this scene, Orlok travels across the sea to reach Wisborg. The scene can be interpreted as the transition to the fear of death from the barren and primitive land of Transylvania to the sophisticated and modern town of Wisborg. I refer to this as the second stage: the transition to the fear of death. The fear of death begins to take shape aboard the Demeter before it reaches Wisborg. The scene also introduces the association of Orlok with the rats that aid him in spreading the plague.

The scene starts by showing a sailor resting in the cargo hold of Demeter where the coffins of Orlok are also laid out. Suddenly, the spirit of Orlok rises from one of the coffins, which terrifies the sailor who soon dies off screen. An intertitle follows, explaining that:

It spread through the ship like an epidemic. The first stricken sailor pulled the entire crew after him into the dark grave of the waves. In the light of the sinking sun, the captain and ship’s mate bid farewell to the last of their comrades.

Only the Captain (Max Nemetz) and the First Mate (Wolfgang Heinz) remain. After throwing the body of their last comrade in the sea, the First Mate picks up an axe and cries to the Captain: ‘I’m going below!!! If I’m not back up in ten minutes…’

Image 12. The First Mate prepares to go into the cargo hold to find the cause of the crew deaths. The Captain decides to turn around and walk back to his post.

The First Mate then enters the cargo hold and, axe in hand, starts to break apart the coffins. To his shock and terror, he discovers Orlok and the rats from the coffins. Orlok rises from one of the coffins and reaches out his arm to the First Mate. The terrified First Mate flees back to the deck and jumps into water. Orlok then rises from the cargo hold and slowly advances upon the last remaining crew member, the Captain.

Image 13. The fear of death takes hold of the First Mate when he discovers Orlok in the cargo hold.

The First Mate’s reaction represents the panic that fear of death may cause an individual. Unable to face the fact that he is about to die, he flees and jumps into water, sharing the same fate as the rest of the Demeter’s crew before him. The Captain can only watch hopelessly as the First Mate disappears into the raging waves of the sea. The Captain, however, does not panic and shows great determination. Not planning to abandon the ship, he ties himself to the helm and watches in horror as Orlok approaches. The scene ends, showing the empty sailing vessel followed by the intertitle: ‘The ship of death had acquired its new captain.’

Image 14. The ship of death sailing across the sea with Orlok and the rats as its only passengers.

Orlok’s slow advance is very much like death, which also approaches slowly and inevitably (see Perez 2013, 9). The Captain knows that death is unavoidable and with the little time he has left, he decides to prepare for it as best he can. Although his actions do not save his life, in return, he receives a different death than the First Mate: The Captain doesn’t die in panic or horrified but with dignity and determination. Although the Captain’s death might not be peaceful, he shows signs of resisting death.

The First Mate and Captain display, as seen earlier, different kinds of fears of death: ‘If the vampire represents impending death, the film’s other characters, all stylized, generalized figures drawn with the broad strokes of expressionism, represent different responses to death, different ways in which the self may approach life as death approaches’. (Perez 2013, 11.) The First Mate and Captain are no different; they try to fight against the fear of death only to lose their lives in the end. While the First Mate reacts in horror, the Captain’s reaction is more steadfast and prepared.

The fear of death no longer remains confined to the land of Transylvania and it undergoes a transformation. When Orlok boards the Demeter with his coffins, he eventually turns it into a ship of death. The transformation happens both physically and spiritually in which Orlok and his rats are the physical manifestation of death. The winds that blow the sails of Demeter and the spiritual appearance of Orlok all represent the otherworldliness of death. This same kind of transformation also happens in the city of Wisborg, with the events of Demeter foreshadowing this. After reaching Wisborg, the fear of death has completed its transition from the shadows and soon becomes part of the normal and familiar world instead of only remaining in the unfamiliar and unknown world.

Image 15. Orlok walking slowly towards the Captain of Demeter (left). The point of view from the hatch of the cargo hold resembles an open grave where the dead watch the living (Perez 2013, 9). The Captain can only watch in horror as Orlok approaches to take his life (right).

Another important detail surrounding the events taking place on Demeter is the showcasing of Orlok’s invincibility; as the embodiment of death, he cannot be defeated. This is seen when the First Mate tries to battle Orlok with an axe and when the Captain shows great resilience by tying himself to the helm. Both efforts are ultimately in vain as Orlok manages to end both their lives. Later in the film, Orlok’s invincibility is further emphasized by demonstrating the ineffectiveness of religion (crosses have no effect) and science (Dr. Bulwer’s minimal role) (see Perez 2013, 10–11, 28). Both of these doctrines are useless as Orlok is death himself and can never be defeated. However, the fear of death that Orlok also represents is possible to strike down as seen in the next analysed scene in which Ellen is the main character.

Image 16. Orlok represents death and the fear of death, both spiritually and physically. Orlok’s spiritual form diffuses his presence everywhere (left). His physical form on the other hand reminds the viewer that the death is closer to us than we may expect (right).

Third Scene: Orlok’s Demise at the Hands of Ellen – Conquering the Fear of Death.

Time: 1:26:26 – 1:34:15

The film’s final scene shows the destruction of Orlok at the hands of Ellen. Victory, however, does not come without Ellen’s ultimate sacrifice, her life. In this scene, the fear of death enters its third and final stage: conquering the fear of death.

In the preceding scenes, Orlok’s arrival to Wisborg onboard the Demeter were shown. Orlok immediately headed out to the streets of the town while carrying one of his coffins and later dissolves into thin air in front of the house he had purchased earlier from Hutter. Orlok is next seen in the final scene when he confronts Ellen. Orlok’s arrival to the city also meant the advent of the plague, which now breaks out in Wisborg. This completes the transformation of death; from the remote land of Transylvania, death now becomes part of ordinary life among the residents of Wisborg (see Rosenholm 2016, 75–79; Perez 2013, 18).

Image 17. Upon his arrival, Orlok, walks through the empty streets of Wisborg with one of his coffins. The shape of the arch is once again present in the buildings he passes by.

Moving on to the final scene, which begins with Orlok looking outside his building’s window to Ellen’s bedroom where she is resting together with Hutter. Orlok, using his vampire powers, forces Ellen to open the window and invite him into the building (this is actually a reference to conventional vampire folklore in which a vampire has to be invited inside before it can enter the building). Meanwhile, Ellen wakes up the sleeping Hutter and sends him to fetch Dr. Bulwer (John Gottowt).

Image 18. Orlok uses his powers to force Ellen to open the window and invite him into her home.

Hutter leaves the house in order to fetch Dr Bulwer. Meanwhile, Orlok walks through the staircase towards Ellen. Hutter manages to find Bulwer and together they head back to Ellen. However, by this point, Orlok has already reached Ellen’s bedroom and has started to drink her blood. What Orlok doesn’t notice, while drinking the blood, is the slowly rising morning sun. At the same time, in the town’s prison, the captured Knock senses that his master is in danger.

Image 19. While Hutter fetches Dr. Bulwer (left), Knock senses that his master is in danger (right). The final scene portrays the futility of the male characters in the film; Hutter and Bulwer are unable to provide any kind of help for Ellen, while Knock can do nothing to save his master.

As Orlok realizes that he has stayed too long in Ellen’s bedroom, he stops drinking her blood and walks towards the window. Orlok reaches his arm towards the sun as if trying to grasp the sun itself. Soon, the rays of light destroy Orlok, leaving only a trail of black smoke behind. Knock, also realizing the gravity of the situation, cries in desperation ‘The master… is… dead’. Ellen, lying in bed and realizing that Orlok has been destroyed, gets up and shouts ‘Hutter!’ and then collapses. Hutter, who has just arrived with Dr. Bulwer, catches Ellen in his arms and witnesses her death. With Ellen’s sacrifice, the citizens of Wisborg have been saved from the terror of Orlok and the plague he brought. Dr. Bulwer looks at the lovers with sadness and allows Hutter to mourn Ellen’s death in peace. Finally, Bulwer looks towards the camera and an intertitle follows with Storyteller saying:

Witness the miracle on the heels of the truth: at that very hour, the Great Death came to an end, and as if confronted by the victorious radiance of the living sun, the shadow of the Deathbird was dispersed.

At the end of the final scene of the film, the last shot shows Orlok’s castle, which now lies in ruins due to his death.

The final scene of the film is quite compelling; mainly because of Ellen’s sacrifice and the multiple interpretations it has caused among audiences, film critics and scholars. Firstly, it’s important to note that typically, credit for the destruction of Orlok is given to ‘radiance of the living sun’. This could be seen as a reference to the power of the nature as Orlok emerged from the depths of nature, it is also the same nature that destroys him. This essentially refers to the natural circle of life and death.

However, Ellen’s role shouldn’t be underestimated; the part she played in destroying the vampire was also essential and proves that it’s possible to affect natural events. Kracauer himself asked if Orlok embodied the destructiveness of nature in the form of the plague or if the image of the plague represents Orlok? Kracauer states that if we go with the former, then Ellen is a passive victim whose sacrifice was for nothing as Orlok would eventually have been destroyed by natural forces. Kracauer instead argues for the latter interpretation, claiming that Ellen is a victim of a tyrant and has to endure the hardships in the name Christian love. (Kracauer 1987, 75.)

However, film researcher Gilberto Perez doesn’t support Kracauer’s argument as ‘A tyrant, however, is a political figure; the reign of death that Nosferatu represents is not a political order because it cannot be changed, it can only be faced; the death that comes to all the living falls outside the political because it is something inevitable’. (Perez 2013, 9.) I agree with Perez’s statement, as Orlok certainly is not as political character as is the character of Dr. Caligari, for example. However, the fact remains that it is Ellen who stalls the vampire long enough so that the rays of sunlight destroy him. Without Ellen’s actions, it could be assumed that Orlok might have managed to slip away.

F.W. Murnau was also known as a director who favoured strong female characters in his films. This could partially explain why Ellen is responsible for destroying Orlok, and why the role played by the male leads Hutter and Bulwer is greatly diminished in the final scene. Murnau interpreted Ellen as the main heroine of the tale who must destroy Orlok. (Kalat 2013.) Kracauer, for his part, actually credits Ellen’s role to Henrik Galeen instead (Kracauer 1987 (1947), 73–74.) But whatever the reason, the fact remains that Ellen’s role is important in the destruction of Orlok.

Image 20. The death of Orlok.

Ellen’s actions also prove that one doesn’t have to act passively and accept the forthcoming. Ellen shows the ‘real’ way of resisting death, which is about accepting one’s own death. As Ellen accepts death, she realizes that it’s inevitable, something that all living things must face some day. This gives her a peaceful death, something that the First Mate and the Captain also tried to accomplish but failed to achieve in the end. Ellen’s actions, however, prove that while avoiding death is impossible, it is possible to be delayed and that conquering the fear of death is entirely possible.

Image 21. Orlok’s iconic shadow is seen in the staircase as he advances towards Ellen.

In summary, we could provide three reasons that explain why Orlok is destroyed. First, the rays of sunlight; they represent the natural causes as death is a natural event and simply a part of the circle of life. Second, Ellen’s intervening actions; she stalls Orlok long enough so that he doesn’t notice the morning sun in time. The third reason, a fact of pure coincidence and unpredictability could be taken into consideration; Orlok simply doesn’t notice the rise of the morning sun and could have survived if he had not been overconfident in his abilities. These three reasons are also something that can be associated with the fear of death: it is a natural event, one can fight against it or it is also a matter of coincidence.

But Orlok’s destruction doesn’t mean the end of death or the fear of death itself. Orlok’s arrival in Wisborg symbolizes death becoming part of everyday life. After Orlok’s death, death has simply returned back to nature, from where it will eventually rise again. So, what does this all mean in the end? One could say that Orlok, in a questionable manner, did a favour to the townspeople of Wisborg as he made them aware of the fear of death. By realizing that death will now always be a part of their lives, they will be more respectful and show more appreciation towards life itself. Each person’s life is unique as every living being only lives once. One could say that this is what Ellen also wanted to achieve with her final sacrifice; that life is precious.

Image 22. Hutter and Bulwer arrive too late to save Ellen, who soon dies in the arms of Hutter (left). Bulwer then takes one final look towards the audience (right).

‘After the death diffused everywhere in the stricken midst of the familiar, the death personified by the vampire when he reappears at the film’s conclusion is not death generally but the death each human being must face individually’. (Perez 2013, 29.) Ellen’s sacrifice forces individuals to think about their own death and how to face it. Ellen’s example shows that by making death one’s own, conquering the fear of death is entirely possible. Ellen is not ignorant of death in the manner in which Hutter is, nor is she as terrified as the First Mate or as bravely acquiescent as the Captain of Demeter. She doesn’t resist inevitable death but rather makes it her own, which gives her a peaceful death without experiencing physical or mental pain.

Conclusion: The Meaning of Fear of Death in Nosferatu

Nosferatu can certainly be described a timeless classic that still holds the audience in its grasp. In fact, the different meanings of death and its fears in Nosferatu providea very accurate portrayal of its socio-cultural-historical context. The First World War caused millions of deaths and also changed the meaning of death itself. No longer was death viewed as something peaceful, as something that should be ignored or as something that should be considered as an ‘abnormal part of life’, but instead, death could be seen as something that could happen to the young and healthy, suddenly in a violent manner and/or to anyone everywhere: Death therefore became a natural occurrence in life.

But one could also maintain that Nosferatu is not strictly tied only to its own time and place; it could also be seen as a reflection of contemporary cultures of fear in some ways. But just as in the film, the fear of death has been transformed. The meaning of the fear of death today is more about survival and prolonging life as long as possible. In the 1920s, after the first modern global war, people living in the western world became afraid of ‘nothingness’ after dying. Today, the fear of death has been replaced by the fear of being forced to stay alive against one’s own will. (Bourke 2005, 49–50.) This, in turn, is related to contemporary questions regarding themes such as euthanasia.

The state of Weimar-era Germany is visible in Nosferatu, although it’s not demonstrated in the same way as in other Expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which commented on the state of society in 1920s Germany by placing their settings in a more identifiable environment. Nosferatu is different. It is set in a distant past, in a dream- and fantasy-like world (Transylvania) mixed with elements of the normal world (Wisborg). The various socio-cultural problems of Germany in the 1920s have all taken different forms in Nosferatu: For example, the death caused by the plague among the townspeople of Wisborg reminds viewers about the victims of First World War and the devastated Transylvanian landscape resembles the destruction caused during the First World War, while the film’s various characters – Hutter, Ellen, the First Mate and the Captain – display different aspects of death and the reactions it causes in different individuals.

Regarding the main theme of Nosferatu, the fear of death, the film could be said to expresses three different kinds of stages of the fear of death:

1st stage: The Arrival of the Fear of Death. This stage was seen in the first analysed scene when Hutter enters the land of Transylvania and comes into contact with Orlok. At this stage, the fear of death is described as something new, unknown and terrifying, which one doesn’t know how to react to. The fear of death’s arrival is unexpected and what it causes in individuals is always a personal, and not universal, reaction. It takes a firm grip of its victim and doesn’t let go easily. Once the fear of death arrives, the victim sees things in a different light, no longer being able to return to their past life.

2nd stage: The Transition to the Fear of Death. The second analysed scene in which Orlok is sailing in Demeter across the sea with his coffins and rats shows that the fear of death is something you can resist and fight against, although it may still remain unbeatable. The First Mate and the Captain both show different kinds of reactions to the fear of death, proving the point, as with Hutter before them, that the fear of death is not universal. The fear of death goes through a transition; from the world of the unfamiliar it moves into a world of normality. It transforms into different shapes, which in turn cause diverse reactions in individuals. The fear of death that Hutter and the sailors experienced is different than what Ellen or Knock experience due to these reasons.

3rd stage: Conquering the Fear of Death. In the third and final analysed scene, Orlok and the fear of death that he represents, meet their demise at Ellen’s hand. The scene clearly shows that accepting the fear of death and deciding on the fashion of one’s own death enables its conquest. When Ellen accepts her fear of death, she is granted a peaceful death with a positive outcome: Orlok, the embodiment of evil and death, is ultimately destroyed and the citizens of Wisborg can then live in peace. In the final stage, the individual conquers the fear of death. Depending on the reaction, the individual gains either a peaceful or a restless death. The fear of death’s final attack, death itself, cannot be conquered, but its power can be reduced. In the end, the film declares that Ellen’s method is the best compared to, for example, how Hutter, the First Mate and the Captain dealt with Orlok. The final conclusion also raises the question of whether interfering with natural causes, such as death, is necessary; if death emerges from the depths of nature, then it should be assumed that it will eventually return back to where it came from.

In Nosferatu, the fear of death is described in diverse ways, which can lead to several possible interpretations. I have simply displayed one way of analysing the scenes, which is through the standpoint of close reading while taking into consideration the historical and socio-cultural context of 1920s Germany. I also argue that the aforementioned three stages of the fear of death still remain to this day but in different forms. Most likely, the majority of people are no longer afraid of being buried alive or of a violent death. Instead, survival and being ‘forced’ to stay alive are today associated with the fear of death.

References

Links verified 1.6.2017.

Films

Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens. Germany, 1922. Sc: Henrik Galeen, Bram Stoker (based on the novel Dracula). D: F.W. Murnau. S: Max Schreck (Graf Orlok), Gustav von Wangenheim (Hutter), Greta Schröder (Ellen). P: Jofa-Atelier Berlin-Johannisthal & Prana-Film GmbH/Enrico Dieckmann & Albin Grau. R: 17.2.1922. Feature length of DVD copy 94 min. 2009. Feature length of Blu-ray copy 95 min. 2013.

Commentary: Kalat, David. 2013.

Nosferatu 1922 [Full Feature – Enhanced, Stabilized] 1080p, YouTube 4.5.2016, https://youtu.be/BLfBY2w8reo.

Film images for Nosferatu used in the review have been taken from a 2009 DVD copy or YouTube video of the film. English translations are from a 2013 Blu-ray copy.

Documentaries

The Language of Shadows (Die Sprache Der Schatten). Germany, 2007. D: Luciano Berriatúa. P: F.W. Murnau-Stiftung. 53 min. Included in Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens Blu-ray copy. 2013.

Nosferatu – making of – The Language of Shadows HC, YouTube 3.10.2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0egcqCGqiYQ&t.

Videos

Spongebob – Nosferatu, YouTube 5.4.2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yorZRDujbd0.

Blue Oyster Cult: Nosferatu, YouTube 20.7.2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gts2yGraydk.

Dr. Mabuse The Gambler 1922 [Full Movie – Part 1] 1080p, YouTube 4.5.2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UuJRs9xvkPg.

Fritz Lang: Metropolis (1927), YouTube 5.4.2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yeaVxvLyRhE.

Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari 1920 HD, YouTube 18.10.2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fMC-UEUhtl0.

Web pages

Hugo Steiner-Prag’s Golem, John Coulthart {feuilleton}, 26.8.2007, http://www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/2007/08/26/hugo-steiner-prags-golem/.

The Scream, Wikipedia, 19.3.2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scream.

Literature

Ahonen, Kimmo. 2013. Kylmän sodan pelkoja ja fantasioita. Muukalaisten invaasio 1950-luvun yhdysvaltalaisessa tieteiselokuvassa. Turku: Turun yliopiston julkaisuja.

von Bagh, Peter. 20014 Elokuvan historia (1998). Helsinki: Otava.

Beckman, Karen. 2014. “Animating Film Theory: An Introduction.” In Animating Film Theory, edited by Karen Beckman, 1­–22. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bordwell, David. 1985. Narration in the Fiction Film. London: Methuen.

Bourke, Joanna. 2005. Fear. A Cultural History. London: Virago Press.

Cook, Pam, and Mieke Bernink. 1999. The Cinema Book. London: BFI.

Cousins, Mark. 2004. The Story of Film. London: Pavilion.

Furedi, Frank. 2006. Culture of Fear Revisited. London: Continuum.

Galeen, Henrik. 1999. “Fantastic Film.” In The Promise of Cinema: German Film Theory, 1907-1933, edited by Anton Kaes, Nicholas Baer, and Michael Cowan, 447–449. University of California Press.

Grau, Albin. 2013. “Vampires.” The Masters of Cinema Series #70. 2013, 35–37. Translation from the original publication: Craig Keller. Originally published: Bühne und Film, no. 21, 1921.

Hakola, Outi. 2011. Rhetoric of Death and Generic Addressing of Viewers in American Living Dead Films. Turku: Turun yliopiston julkaisuja.

Hakola, Outi, and Sari Kivistö. 2014. “Introduction: Death in Literature.” In Death in Literature, edited by Outi Hakola, and Sari Kivistö. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, ii–xx.

Hansen, Miriam. 1994. Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1992. Being and Time. Blackwell, Oxford UK & Cambridge USA.

Holte, James. 1997. Dracula in the Dark: The Dracula Film Adaptations. London: Greenwood Press.

Hovi, Tuomas. 2014. Heritage through Fiction: Dracula Tourism in Romania. Turku: Turun yliopiston julkaisuja.

Keller, Craig. 2013. “The Bridge (2007).” The Masters of Cinema Series #70, 48–49.

Kershaw, Ian. 2008. Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. Yale University Press.

Koch, Gertrud, and Jeremy Gaines. 2000. Siegfried Kracauer: An Introduction. Princeton University Press.

Kracauer, Siegfried. 1999. “A Film.” In The Promise of Cinema: German Film Theory, 1907-1933, edited by Anton Kaes, Nicholas Baer, and Michael Cowan, 389–391. University of California Press.

Kracauer, Siegfried. 1987. Caligarista Hitleriin. Saksalaisen elokuvan psykologinen historia (1947). Helsinki: Valtion painatuskeskus.

Kracauer, Siegfried. 2004. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German film (1947). Revised and Expanded edition. Edited and introduced by Leonardo Quaresima. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Murnau, F.W. 1999. “My Ideal Screenplay”. In The Promise of Cinema: German Film Theory, 1907-1933, edited by Anton Kaes, Nicholas Baer, and Michael Cowan, 498–499. University of California Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Virginia Tech, Blacksburg VA 2001.

Perez, Gilberto. 2013. “The Deadly Space Between (1998).” In The Masters of Cinema Series #70, 7–34. Original publication: The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium. John Hopkins University Press.

Rosenholm, Heikki. 2016. Vampyyrin varjossa. Pelon elementit elokuvassa Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens. Master’s Thesis, Cultural Heritage Studies. University of Turku.

Salmi, Hannu. 1993. Elokuva ja historia. Helsinki: Suomen elokuva-arkisto ja Painatuskeskus.

Warren, James. 2004. Facing Death: Epicurus and His Critics. Published to Oxford Scholarship Online.

Notes

[1] The term nosferatu is interesting in and of itself as its etymology is ambiguous and difficult to determine. It’s been associated with Romania even though it’s unknown in the Romanian language. This is most likely because of a mistake in English translation as the term was popularized by Stoker in Dracula. Stoker discovered the word from Emily Gerard’s ‘Transylvanian Superstitions’ (1885), which was one of his source materials for the novel. In her book, Gerald mentions that Romanian peasants believe in a vampire, also known as nosferatu. (See Hovi 2014, 64–65.)

Kategoriat
3/2017 WiderScreen 20 (3)

Absurdity in form and matter: the absurd as a central philosophical problem and a genre canon of Fargo series

absurdism, Coen brothers, Fargo, post-irony, postmodern cinematography

Alexandra A. Knysheva
alex.knysheva [a] gmail.com
Doctoral student
Institute of Philosophy, Saint Petersburg State University

Inspired by the iconic postmodern Coen brothers’ film, Fargo series cinematically represents the versatility of the very notion of the absurd. An absurdist show by its form, it raises philosophical problems of the absurd within its content. Each of the three seasons concentrates on one absurd-related philosophical conundrum accordingly: the problem of logical paradoxes, existential philosophy of the absurd and the problem of simulacra in the post-truth world. While paradigmal and socio-cultural shifts have determined the traits of philosophical interpretations of the absurd, absurdism as an aesthetic category has developed in its own tradition, converging with the philosophical definition only in certain aspects. Evolution of the absurd as a genre can be traced on the example of Fargo anthologies: from a postmodernist ironic feature film to the post-ironic TV series, Fargo reflects the development of the genre canon in the late XX – early XXI century. The following analysis of the three seasons of Fargo elaborates the nature of the absurd in both form and content of the series.

Image 1. Fargo TV series poster, 2014 © FX Networks

The duality of the notion of absurd as philosophical category and as aesthetical genre in this work is explored on the example of Fargo series – a black comedy–crime drama in three seasons (as of March, 2018), based on the Academy Award-winning film of the same name, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen in 1996. The first season was released in 2014 on FX TV channel. By 2018 Fargo series has won 32 of its 133 award nominations, including 3 Golden Globes.

Though each of the three seasons feature different eras and different main characters, they all represent a holistic work both stylistically and narratively, referring to each other and the original 1990-s film.

The absurd as an aesthetic form shaping Fargo series

The notion of absurdism in arts and literature normally implies contravening logic, challenging the common sense and provoking the feeling of discomposure and perplexity for a rational mindset. Absurdist features were present in different epochs throughout the arts history: Nikolai Gogol, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Russian OBERIU poets[1] are all inextricably associated with absurdist literature; the absurd is a distinct running theme in Flemish renaissance, dadaism and surrealism. However, there’s no universal definition of the genre neither in literary theory, nor in fine arts or cinematography. In 1942 Camus has conceptualized absurdism as a sense-generation instrument within the framework of existential philosophy. In The myth of Sisyphus he describes the act of creation of an absurdist work as a refusal of mind to explain the concrete, when a clear thought causes a work of art, but thereby denies its own eligibility, realizing itself as illegal. Thus, Camus defines absurdism as a way of “smuggling” unreachable, transcendental ideas to the surface of language. The absurd in this sense endows a statement with multiple meanings, sometimes even contradictory to each other, allowing artists to speak about the questions that are merely conceivable for theorists: Artaud’s poetry unfolds schizophrenic logic brighter than any psychiatry textbook, Escher visualizes the “unrepresentable” geometry in his artworks and Lewis Carroll actualizes language paradoxes in his fictional reality.

The peak of absurdism in European arts and literature is customarily associated with the first half of the XX century – the era, characterized by intensive paradigmal shifts. Scientific revolutions, from controversial discoveries in physics and mathematics to the rise of new discourses in humanities, echoed in artistic works. The short era of absurdism reign in culture ended with the rise of postmodernity, which has declared the abolition of metanarratives. When the truth became a relative category, the position of the absurd consequently changed. As an aesthetic category, the absurd could no longer remain as straightforward and obvious, as it was during the modernist times. Moreover, it acquired a chameleon quality – a statement, seen as absurd for one audience, could now appear clearly logical for another. Postmodernist artists, film directors and writers have readily appropriated this newly discovered quality of the absurd in their works. The absurd was now used in a purely deleuzian way (genesis of the absurd statement not through the lack of sense, but through its excess), thereby connecting incompatible senses, bringing together contradictory points of view and intercrossing parallel plots. The 1990s feature film by Coen brothers is a classical product of postmodern absurdism: appearing as a detective drama at the superficial reading, at a closer look Fargo (1996) opens up as a hoax, a tragic grotesque of daily routine, life and death of an average inhabitant of wealthy province. The persistence of the film characters in their actions regardless of all the absurd and bewildering events around them, alludes to the persistence of Joseph K. throughout the Kafkaesque trial or to the fortitude of Sisyphus in Camus’ philosophical metaphor, but in a less straightforward and transparent manner.

Image 2. Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson (Fargo film © 1996 Twentieth Century Fox)

Almost two decades after the original film, the first season of the TV series Fargo (2014) was released. Absurdism as a genre canon of the anthologies has now been put in the new environment: while the prospect of what will replace (or is already replacing) postmodernity is still obscure today, the fact that irony as an aesthetic tool, inherent in postmodernism, is replaced by post-irony leaves no doubt. Post-irony, on the one hand, is called the “new sincerity”, replacing the outworn postmodernist skepticism. On the other hand, it doesn’t add any unambiguity to a statement. In the postmodernist paradigm access to the author’s culture code was sufficient enough to indicate irony, implied by that author. Today it is practically impossible to determine whether a given statement is sincere or ironic. And it is not due to its author’s intention to hide sarcasm in the depths of the sense, but due to the dissolvent of opposition between irony and sincerity. This can be clearly seen in the metamorphoses of Fargo anthologies from the feature film to the series: the contemporary post-ironic series is no longer explicitly mocking American society, but is contemplating its simplicity and wholeness with naive admiration. Given the desire of the show’s authors not to portray the gaps in the American idyllic myth with obvious sarcasm, the wave of accusations in chauvinism and populism[2] of the series is not surprising. Criticism of the show confirms the audience’s desire to see the media as an ideologist with a clear and simple agenda on what to laugh at, what to admire and what to condemn. This situation can be described with both Fromm’s theory of escape from freedom and Hegelian dialectics of master and slave, where the slave is the media, initially aimed to serve as an entertainer, though eventually gaining more and more authority and power over its masters. By knocking out the audience from its comfort zone, the series creators are mocking the stereotype about Fargo being a stereotypes mocker.

The absurd as a philosophical problem, explored by Fargo series

The idea of devoting each season of Fargo series to a certain absurd-related philosophical problem reveals itself with the form of the series, i.e. the structure of the episodes names: quoting the classical logical paradoxes (“Buridan’s ass”, “Who shaves the barber?”, etc.), the episode names of the first season signify that it contemplates the formal logical notion of the absurd; Season Two focuses on the existentialist interpretation of the absurd and the names of its episodes refer to seminal works of existential philosophers (“Fear and Trembling”, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, etc.); the third season explores the gap between reality and virtual spaces, resulting in incompatibility of signifier and signified, i.e., the absurd, thereby, the names of the episodes allude to digital paradoxes (“The Law of Vacant Places”, “The Principle of a Restricted Choice”, etc.).

Not only the names refer to particular philosophical problems, but the characters themselves are trying to solve these very problems as well: a couple of FBI agents in the first season debate about the heap paradox and other logical riddles. They sometimes offer “out-of-the-box” solutions, which, even though creative, cannot be accepted in the formal logic system, which shapes the universe of Season One. Strict dichotomies of true and false, good and evil, right and wrong form the storyline and, hence, the fates of the characters. The figure of Evil, personalized in Lorne Malvo, is to be eliminated from such system: unshakable binary oppositions form the universe of formal logic, where each object has its own place and each event occurs for a reason. The storyline of the first season demonstrates the lucid idea of the Greek cosmic order, only with the contemporary scent of disillusionment and scepticism. The season’s finale, “Morton’s fork”, illustrates the principle of the dilemma, which gave the name for the episode: no matter what a path seems like, it will lead to a certain predefined result. The rules of the game are clear and strict, but the limited and solid universe does not endow the free will with any power to affect that game’s balance.

It is more complicated with the second season: from the spoilers, provided by the history of philosophy, we know that existentialism implies certain settings, such as crisis of faith, down of Rationalism and perturbation in the moral landscape. Throughout the season a teenage girl Noreen reads Camus, sharing her own interpretation of the philosophy of the absurd with other characters and the audience. Noreen, being a secondary character, in this perspective turns out to be the central figure – the holistic worldview is shaken in adolescence, the inquisitive mind of a teenager faces existential questions. Through the storyline the creators of the second season demonstrate the struggle of two opposing forces for the girl’s soul: on the one hand, a depressive and vague author, who does not offer any answers, but only questions the meaning of life, on the other – a prosperous and benevolent society of the American subtopia that has a sharp answer to any question. The wife of Lou Solverson, protagonist of the season, policeman and veteran of the Vietnam War, in a conversation about Camus gives a pompous speech on how simple the road to happiness and moral satisfaction is, wrapping up her monologue with the words: “and when this life is over and you stand in front of the Lord… Well, you try tellin’ him it was all some Frenchman’s joke”. This speech illustrates the completeness and harmony of life within the mytho-practical paradigm of an average philistine (F. Girenok, a Russian researcher of the absurd, notes that to get settled in the folds of reality means to avoid encountering with the absurd, thereby claiming that the absurd is inextricably linked with discomfort and questioning).

Image 3. Emily Haine as Noreen (Fargo TV series, season 2, episode 1 – Waiting for Dutch, 2015 © FX Networks)

At the same time, any deviation from this complete and enclosed myth is condemned. While the positive characters view their Sisyphean stone in the “fulfillment of their destiny”, for antagonists it appears in the form of vain and tragically ridiculous attempts to break out of the system. The character of Peggy is, at the first sight, a pure mockery of the provincial woman stereotype. At a closer look she reveals as a tragic heroine entangled in judgmental public attitudes and absurd social restrictions, remaining unheard and eventually losing her mind. Mike Milligan, the main antagonist of the season, after the bandit massacre gets a promotion that doesn’t meet his aspirations, but restores the subtopian serenity: ridiculously prosaic finale of a criminal villain at the office desk demonstrates the neutralization of the deviant element by appropriating it into the system. The last episode of the second season is called “Palindrome”: the world, where the absurd is exterminated as a phenomenon, is enclosed in a circle. As in Deleuze’s theory of difference and repetition, only a problematic, incongruous and inconsistent with its range can lead to progress, the rest leads to an endless repetition of the same actions, movement along a circular path.

Since the existentialist paradigm defines hell as other people, there’s no distinct character of pure Evil in the second season. Season Three brings the character back, but in this case the Evil differs from that represented by Lorne Malvo in Season One. Now it appears as a metaphor of the whole social order, embodied in V.M. Varga character – an obnoxious man frantically devouring food and vomiting it out right after consuming it. The society of late capitalism faces the problems of consumerism, simulacra and hyperreality, along with the loss of subject identity. Deleuze and Guattari discuss the power of the desiring-machine and supremacy of the system over an individual, Adorno and Horkheimer raise the problems of culture industry and authoritarian power of consumerism, Baudrillard draws attention to images’ ability to anticipate and influence reality, Benjamin and Berardi reflect on the sense of derealization. This philosophical trend, emerging in the mid XX century and developing currently, gave a boost to research in the philosophy of media, particularly the ontology in the post-apocalyptic digital era (according to Baudrillard, the apocalypse has already come). The problem of the absurd in digital society appears in the relations between virtuality and physical reality. Deleuze defines the absurd as a signifier, deprived of the very possibility of signification. This condition is best illustrated through the phenomenon of post-truth – one of the most discussed (directly and through the events within the storyline) topics of the third season. “Post-truth” was named the word of the year by Oxford dictionaries in 2016. The world, where factual justification of things and events merely affects their influence over public opinions, puzzles rational mindsets of contemporary intellectuals. Variations of the phrase “we want truth, not stories” are reiterated by different characters of the third season of Fargo (e.g., the phrase opens up the season, uttered during a questioning in Stasi[3] police in 1980s East Germany). Thus, the third season suggests some new interpretations to the hallmark of the whole Fargo anthologies – the opening titles “this is a true story” acquire new meanings in the context of the post-truth.

The final dialogue between two opposed forces, Gloria Burgle, a stubborn detective that believes in primate of an individual over the crowd[4], and Varga, a monstrous representation of the soulless system, closes on the problem of the post-truth: Varga magically disappears right from the questioning room in the middle of conversation. Motivations of the post-truth society are illusory, based on nothing but simulacra, and the crowd doesn’t need any tangible rationales for their justification. The apocalypse, as described by Baudrillard, has come insensibly and irrevocably: the sci-fi book, written by Gloria’s grandfather dozens of years ago, tells a story of a useless robot in the post-apocalyptic setting. The robot knows all the secrets of the humankind history, but can do nothing but repeat the words “I can help”. On the one hand, its words worth nothing without the factual ability to help others. On the other hand, the robot becomes a priceless artifact as an information storage device. Thus, this frame story questions the premises, on which we base the current technological and consumption race.

The void behind digital information reflects in the void behind the human self. The crisis of subject identity, along with depersonalization-derealization syndrome, has been one of the top philosophical issues in late XX – early XXI centuries. One of the leitmotifs of the third season is its protagonist’s introspection: Gloria Burgle suffers from the sense of derealization and irrational fear of non-existence. She is a rare type of a person of the past. Unlike Varga, the symbol of the new order, Gloria doesn’t use computers at all and has very complicated relations with the new technologies: one of the reasons for her existential doubts is the fact that motion sensors, whether installed in automated doors, in public WC rooms, or anywhere else, do not “see” her. The only gesture bringing her back to live from derealization horror is a hug of a friend in the real life. While the end of the season is left vague and open for various interpretations, one fact remains univocal: Gloria’s confrontation with Varga made her change. No matter how she feels about the current order, she must survive in it and to do so, she needs to adjust to the digital era setting.

Image 4. David Thewlis as V.M. Varga and Carrie Coon as Gloria Burgle (Fargo TV series, season 3, episode 10 – Somebody to Love, 2017 – © FX Networks)

Conclusion

The creators of Fargo series deploy the absurd in its two roles: A) as a genre canon, which has evolved from the classical modernist technique and a later postmodernist ironic gesture into a post-ironic statement, naive and mordant at the same time; and B) as a philosophical problem, scrutinized under different angles. As an aesthetic instrument, it wraps up the structure of the show, making it a bright example of absurdism in contemporary culture, which, on the one hand, combines some features, acquired by the genre through its development in modernity and postmodernity, and, on the other hand, introduces the post-ironic component to the genre canon. As a running theme of the storyline, the philosophical notion of the absurd opens up in its versatility, from the strict definition in the formal logic to existential impasses and to post-apocalyptic perspectives of technological progress.

References

TV series

Fargo (TV series). Directed by: Michael Uppendahl et al., written by: Noah Hawley et al., starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Allison Tollman. MGM Television et al. 2014–

Literature

Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. 2007. Dialectic Of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press.

Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra And Simulation. University of Michigan Press.

Berardi, Franco. 2015. And: Phenomenology Of The End. Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents.

Camus, Albert. 1991. The Myth Of Sisyphus, And Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. 2009. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism And Schizophrenia. London: Penguin Classics.

Deleuze, Gilles. 2015. The Logic Of Sense. London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.

Girenok, F. I. 2012. Absurd I Rech: Antropologiya Voobrazhaemogo. Moscow: Academichesky Proekt.

Notes

[1] The avant-garde group of poets, writers and artists in the late 1920s – early 1930s Soviet Russia.

[2] Fans on various internet forums blame the series creators for idealizing the contemporary consumerist society, over-simplifying the interpretation of Camus’ philosophy and, most of all, breaking the genre canon with the random and inexplicable appearances of UFOs and mysticism in the storyline.

[3] The name of the East German KGB analogue Staatssicherheitsdienst, more commonly known as Stasi, alludes to the main characters surnames in Season Three. Interestingly, both killers and victims carry the name Stussy, which confirms the dissolvement of the distinctions between good and evil in the third season’s paradigm.

[4] The problem of the individual versus the crowd is metaphorized in the story of Stussy namesakes in the series.

Kategoriat
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Beyond Encoding: A Critical Look at the Terminology of Text Graphics

ANSI art, ASCII art, PETSCII art, text art

Anders Carlsson
info [a] goto80.com
Artist, researcher
protoDATA

Printable PDF version

This paper presents a critical overview of the genres of text art. It includes but is not limited to ASCII, Western and Chinese ANSI, Shift-JIS, Unicode, and PETSCII art. The paper shows examples and briefly explains its features, history and popular uses. A widely held belief is that these genres are merely a consequence of which technological protocol that was used to produce it. But some of these genres formed in user subcultures over long periods of time, and were gradually loaded with conventions and preferences. By the 1990’s, several subcultures had its own understanding of ASCII and ANSI.

Today, as text art is distributed as images or videos on the web, appearance has become more important on the expense of materiality (character encoding). Browsing the #PETSCII hashtag in social media shows graphics that looks like PETSCII, but does not necessarily use PETSCII encoding, or even PETSCII characters. The paper argues that neither materialism nor pop aesthetics alone can explain text art genres today. Depending on the context, they need to be combined accordingly. Text art genres might not be wrong, but they can certainly be better prepared for the future.Text art, character art, micrography, artyping, ASCII art, visual poetry, text mode art… There has been a variety of terms to describe visual works with typographical symbols over the past centuries. These terms have been based in aesthetics, artistic movements, and religious beliefs, but most of the terminology used today derives from technological concepts in general, and character encodings such as ASCII, PETSCII, and Shift-JIS specifically. A character encoding, simply put, assigns a code to each character so that it can be easily transmitted and decoded. A lowercase ‘a’ is encoded as 97 by ASCII and Unicode. EBCDIC encodes it as 129 and PETSCII encodes it as 65.

Technically speaking, it is crucial to identify the encoding in order to display text graphics correctly, which has led to genres like ASCII art, Shift JIS art and PETSCII art. But how relevant are they for aesthetic and cultural purposes? I first started to ponder this question while collecting and categorizing works for the blog Text-Mode. Browsing through tens of thousands of images of text graphics it became increasingly problematic – sometimes impossible – to identify the character encoding. Was this 1960’s print-out made using ASCII, EBCDIC, Baudot, Morse Code, or some other way of encoding?[1] And if the encoding is unknown, how should the work be categorized? Perhaps there are more relevant criteria for categorizing text graphics?

In popular terminology ASCII art is often used as an umbrella term, including works that has little or nothing to do with ASCII: typewriter works from the 19th century (when ASCII did not yet exist), twitter art (which uses Unicode’s UTF-8 encoding, not ASCII) as well as video-to-text conversions as seen for example in The Matrix (where the encoding is unknown or even non-existent). What matters here is the visual appearance, not the modes of production.

As such there are two opposing uses of the term ASCII art. In its broadest sense, it can be understood as a popular genre based on visual aesthetics, detached from technology, that changes across time and space. The stricter meaning mentioned earlier is based on technological determinism to essentially make an objective claim that any graphics made with ASCII encoding is ASCII art.

The purpose of this text is to give a brief overview of ASCII, ANSI, PETSCII, Shift-JIS and Unicode art and how these concepts have been shaped by technology, culture and aesthetics, to discuss alternative categories for text graphics that can be relevant also in the future, when these character encodings have possibly been made obsolete.

The Materiality of Text Graphics

Strictly speaking, character encoding does not say anything about the appearance of the work. An ASCII-encoded work can be displayed with a colourful vector typeface of warning signs or other pictograms, printed in high resolution on gigantic posters. A work like this would hardly be labelled ASCII art unless the production process and the encoding was known, if even then. This is not to say that materiality does not matter, but it needs to be refined beyond encoding.

The model below is useful for studying computer-based text graphics, but can also be applied to text graphics in media such as typewriters, books, and video where the encoding can be irrelevant. As such, the model caters for both generic pop cultural perspectives, and highly specific materialist studies. It is based on the model in Carlsson & Miller (2012) and identifies seven layers: from the perception of the viewer, through media and formats and aesthetics, to the abstract set of symbols that precedes the encoding into a character map.

Table 1. The text graphics model. 
7. Perception How, where and when the text graphics is perceived.
6. Display Medium (screen, paper, textiles) and its characteristics (aspect ratio, resolution, colours, artefacts).
5. Format Storage and protocols (txt, doc, markup, images, movies, control characters, metadata, code).
4. Design Typeface (design, resolution, scale, fixed or variable width) and typography (grid-based, colours).
3. Production Platform (computers, typewriters, paper), interface (keyboard, mouse, apps), techniques (manualism, conversion, drawing, characters used), context (subcultures, art, mass culture).
2. Encoding How a selection of symbols are organized into a character map (see Whistler, Davis & Freytag 2008).
1. Symbols An abstract set of symbols of a system (language, alphabet, ISO graphical symbols).

ASCII Art

In a strict sense, ASCII art should only use 96 of the 256 characters in the ASCII standard.[2] In 1990’s internet Usenet groups such as alt.ascii-art, this was strongly enforced because other characters would not display correctly, and could crash the viewer’s system.[3] This encouraged an alphanumerical aesthetics of predominantly line-based text graphics, sometimes referred to as structure-based (Xu, Zhang & Wong 2010). The works were made for monospaced and monochrome typefaces and were often figurative interpretations of animals, faces and objects.

Figure 1. Western ASCII art. Usenet-style on the left by Joan Stark (1998) and scene-style to the right by Stylez (1995).

ASCII art had a similar basic meaning in the so called scene (see Albert in this issue), although it used low-res pixel fonts and often looked more similar to graffiti and logotype design than the Usenet ASCII art did. But there were, and still are, conflicting opinions in the scene about what constitutes “real” ASCII art. One such conflict concerns typefaces, especially between PC and Amiga text artists. Amiga ASCII is displayed with Topaz or similar fonts[4] where the slash and backslash characters – / and \ – join together with little or no gap when positioned next to each other (as seen in Stylez’ piece). This is not the case on PC where the MS DOS font is used. As shown in Simon Jansen’s piece, there is a gap between the characters which is one of the reasons why Amiga and PC ASCII art is incompatible with each other, and why they each developed different aesthetics.

Figure 2. Star Wars ASCII art by Simon Jansen.

Another conflict concerns works that use more than the original 96 characters, which many do. These works are often labelled as block ASCII, extended ASCII, or high ASCII, while die hard critics might dismiss it as “not real ASCII” since it uses more than the original 96 characters. There is a particularly strong divider between ASCII and ANSI art (see below) in this sense, although they both use the same typeface and encoding.

Shift-JIS Art

What is called ASCII art in Japan, AA for short, is usually called Shift-JIS or SJIS art in the West. It is made with Japanese characters encoded in either Unicode’s UTF-8 or in a Japanese encoding such as Shift-JIS or EUC, displayed with fonts such as MS PGothic or Mona. With a much larger character map than Western ASCII, as well as a variable width vector font, Japanese ASCII art is distinctly different from its Western equivalent. As demonstrated in the pieces by Illiozilli and Runte0531, it is possible to create more fine details and complex shapes, compared to Western ASCII art.

Figure 3. Japanese ASCII art. Robot by Illiorzilli (2013) on the left, and muscular Pedobear on the right by Runte0531 (2013).

It should be noted that ASCII art is a more popular phenomenon in Japan compared to many other countries. Popular memes such as Pedobear and Mona originate in text-based web boards such as 2channel, and even appear in mainstream culture. Another mainstream form of ASCII art is kaomojis, a more intricate (and horizontal) equivalent to emoticons such as :) in the West. You might have seen happy faces such as (* ^ ω ^) or the table-flipping kaomoji ( ╯°□°)╯ ┻━━┻ or the Lenny Face: ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°). As such, ASCII art is common in online culture and is often copy-pasted and remixed by anonymous authors, which makes it possible for a different kind of perception and contextualization, compared to the West.

ANSI Art

From an aesthetic perspective, the main difference between ANSI and ASCII art is that ANSI uses colours. Both use the same typefaces, character map, tools and resolution but each text character in ANSI art can have two colours: one background colour and one foreground colour for the text character itself.

On the Amiga, colours are mostly used to colourize traditional line-based ASCII art, which is sometimes called Amiga ANSI. PC artists however, developed a distinct style using shading characters, from █ and ▓, ▒, to ░. ANSI art often focuses on these shading characters which makes it appear similar to pixel graphics, especially when using a higher resolution (more than 80 characters wide). Consequently, ANSI art is often misperceived as a form of pixel graphics rather than text graphics.

Figure 4. ANSI by Judas/Blocktronics (2015).

In Taiwan there is a thriving ANSI art scene at the popular text-based bulletin board system PTT. It is ranked as 860 on the list of the world’s most visited sites and makes extensive use of ANSI graphics. It uses a Chinese character map with a much larger selection of blocks compared to its Western equivalent. This has spawned an aesthetic that is not focused on the shading characters, but rather on the geometrical full colour blocks as demonstrated in the images by jacky90527 and else.

Figure 5. Chinese ANSI. Top: login screen for PTT by jacky90527. Bottom image by else (2013).

PETSCII Art

PETSCII is a character encoding developed by Commodore for 8-bit computers such as the PET-series and the Commodore 64. Today, PETSCII art usually refers to graphics made with the built-in typeface of the Commodore 64. The typeface has a large selection of semi-graphical characters like circles, blocks and triangles which makes it possible to create gridded mosaics in a similar way to ANSI.

Unlike ASCII and ANSI, PETSCII art was not released as separate artefacts in its own scene. Up until the early 2010’s PETSCII-graphics was only scarcely documented online, which changed after an increased interest for PETSCII around 2013. New programs to create PETSCII graphics were launched for modern computers with options to save the graphics as common image files and not only C64-specific formats.

All these conditions helped to to broaden the interest for PETSCII as a creative medium, as more detached from technical and subcultural norms than ASCII and ANSI is. PETSCII graphics, in some popular understandings, is just a typeface organized in a grid, presented as images and GIF-animations online. In the Commodore 64 scene on the other hand, there are still discussions about what constitutes “real PETSCII”.[5]

Figure 6. PETSCII by Raquel Meyers (2015).

Figure 7. PETSCII by Redcrab (2014).

Unicode Art

Unicode’s UTF-8 and UTF-16 encodings are used in a majority of operating systems, platforms and websites today. As of version 9.0, Unicode covers more than 128,000 characters from scripts and symbolic systems from around the world. For text artists in countries like Japan where there were several incompatible standards, Unicode was welcomed as a unifying standard.[6] Even so, it seems rare to talk about “Unicode art”. ASCII art or AA still seems to be the dominant terms in Japan. In the West, it is even more rare to talk about Unicode art. A possible reason for that is that Western text graphics established itself before Unicode became mainstream, and now Unicode lacks support for those traditions.[7]

There are indeed few indications that Unicode art will replace ASCII art as a popular umbrella term in the West, even if most new text graphics technically is Unicode. But perhaps the future ASCII and PETSCII-artists will use Unicode art to describe “the other”, non-traditional, text graphics; works that require more characters, colours, vector graphics, and Unicode functionality: Japanese ASCII art, Chinese ANSI, Twitter art, emoji art or experimental text art such as Glitchr.

Final Discussion

The categorization of text graphics is a complex mix of culture and subculture, place, and technicity, as this text have shown. Categories like PETSCII, ANSI and Teletext are named after the encoding, although it is the low-res typeface and its characteristic semi-graphical characters that is the key identifier, in most contexts.

Other categories are based more on which characters that are used. When an ASCII artist in the East or West uses alphanumerical characters and focuses on lines rather than blocks, it is usually considered to be ASCII art, both in popular culture and in more specific scenes. But when ASCII artists – again, both in the East and the West – focus on geometric or block characters instead of alphanumerical characters and lines, it gets more complicated. The scene uses a number of fuzzy concepts based on either technology or aesthetics or both, to categorize it. In popular culture these works are sometimes even called pixel art in lack of better words. This style has also been called tone-based, as opposed to structure-based (Xu, Zhang & Wong 2010).

Here I suggest the term text mosaic to describe these works. As an aesthetic concept, I have found it useful to group together the blocky aesthetics typical for text graphics made in eg ASCII, ANSI, PETSCII, Unicode, Shift-JIS, Teletext, as well as the text graphics of many 1980’s 8-bit computers. These works are less concerned with alphanumeric and box-drawing characters and instead focuses on solid block elements such as █, ▖, and ▙, geometrical shapes like ◢ or ●, and shading characters characteristic for ANSI art: ▓, ▒, and ░. Text mosaic uses the same material underpinnings as ASCII art but has a distinct aesthetics that is visually akin to tile mosaics, ancient woven or knitted crafts, and painted minimalist works from the 1960’s. As such, it opens up new historical, cultural and aesthetic connections compared to the usual typographical ones.[8]

Figure 8. Examples of text mosaic. First in Shift-JIS by asciiart (2010), second in ASCII by
Irokos (2017).

Throughout this text the term text graphics has been used as an umbrella term to refer to ASCII art, text mosaic and related phenomena. The avoidance of the art term is a conscious choice to connect text graphics to histories of crafts rather than art. One reason for that is that practitioners – since the early days of typographic ornamentation and typewriter works to recent days of scene art – have emphasized the role of skills and manual work over ideas, concepts and contexts.

Hopefully these terms, along with the text graphics model, can be helpful in future studies of text graphics that aim to combine both materiality, history, aesthetics and culture.

References

All links verified 14.6.2017

Carlsson, Anders, and A. Bill Miller. 2012. “Future Potentials for ASCII Art.” http://goto80.com/chipflip/06/

Danet, Brenda. 2003. “Pixel Patchwork: ‘Quilting in Time’ Online.” Textile 1(2): 118–43.

Whistler, Ken, Mark Davis, and Asmus Freytag. 2008. “Unicode Technical Report #17: Unicode Character Encoding Model.” http://unicode.org/reports/tr17/

Xu, Xuemiao, Linling Zhang, and Tsien-Tin Wong. 2010. “Structure-based ASCII Art.” ACM Transactions on Graphics (SIGGRAPH 2010 issue), 29 (4): 52:1–9.

Notes

[1] There are currently 174 encodings listed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Character_sets.

[2] The early versions of ASCII were 7-bit, containing 128 characters of which 32 were non-printable control characters.

[3] See for example the alt.ascii-art FAQ at http://www.ascii-art.de/ascii/faq.html.

[4] Amiga ASCII-artists developed Topaz-like fonts especially for ASCII art, such as mO’sOul by Desoto, P0T NOoDLE by Nudel and B-Strict by Mortimer Twang.

[5] “If you can print it, it’s PETSCII” was the slogan of the Plain PETSCII Graphics Competition in 2013, which essentially limited the use of characters.

[6] Japan uses several incompatible encoding standards such as JIS, Shift-JIS, Unicode and EUC and there is no de facto standard.

[7] Unicode does not include characters from e.g PETSCII, MouseText, Videotex, Teletext, ATASCII, Amiga ASCII, or SharpSCII.

[8] See for example Danet (2003) who connects text graphics on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) with textile traditions such as quilting.

Kategoriat
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Courting confusions — visual art and text

art and knowledge, visual remix

Michael Szpakowski
michael.szpakowski [a] writtle.ac.uk
University College Writtle, Chelmsford, UK

Printable PDF version

In recent years I have been making a number of works incorporating text, often in ways which might be regarded as contrary or perverse, for example a text in the form of a jpg, posted to the photo sharing site Flickr, about a photograph I decided not to take and a short movie about the city of Stavanger in Norway using Google street view images but eschewing the images themselves for a slightly poeticized textual description of them. Other recent works have included a series of 51 paintings incorporating apparently naïve textual self descriptions or reflections.

I describe and contextualise these works as artworks, led by my fancy rather than any research programme, but I also attempt to summarise some provisional lessons learned (or perhaps better and more modestly insights gleaned) from making them, about the relationship between image as image and the textual glossing of it, a question given particular sharpness since the rise of conceptualism.

To scaffold my discussion I draw on some of my own recent writing on questions of art and knowledge, Frank Sibley’s classic contribution “Aesthetic Concepts” as well as a forthcoming paper by the philosopher Constantine Sandis “If an Artwork Could Speak” on art and meaning.

prolegomenon

In what follows I am going to introduce and meditate upon three of the text related artworks—one a digital image, one a video and one a series of themed paintings — which I have been making over the past few years and try and make some observations about how they might illuminate, in some sense, the relationship between text and image and the nature of each of these.

I will justify discussing a set of paintings in a journal devoted to matters ‘audio-visual’ on three grounds. The first is that paintings are unarguably visual, the second is that I regard my work, which straddles the digital and the material, as indivisible and the third is that the paintings would not have existed in the form they do without the precedent of all sorts of networked/remix/moving image related practices.

The three pieces might be thought of as ‘stress tests’ of text, asking it to do jobs not normally associated with it, or placing it in an unfamiliar or counter-intuitive context, though I want to insist that the pieces under discussion and their companions do not constitute a conscious ‘research programme’ of any sort. It seems to me it is not the business of the artist to subordinate artistic practice to this end but rather simply to allow the free play of conscious and unconscious mind, of the body, of feelings and interests in a sort of grown-up playtime, leading where it will. That’s how these works came to be. I did not know completely in advance either what I would end up making and whether the pieces would be aesthetically successful or not (and this uncertainty seems to me, following Sibley (1959) to be a defining feature of all art making).

What I can safely say is that the legion of ambiguities around word and image and meaning are things that interest and engage me—I have always loved puns, for example—and they have constituted an important part of my personal intellectual and affective formation, never far from the surface of my unconscious. Indeed it is precisely the possibility of their presentation as paradox or puzzle, that make them, for me, interesting as subject matter for art.

Leaving Sibley to do the heavy lifting for rejecting the possibility of articulating a successful aesthetic strategy before one actually gets stuck in and makes, I want to cite a second, for me foundational, notion about the artwork and that is the rejection of the idea that artworks—visual, literary, musical—have something that we can term a ‘meaning’ or even a set of ‘meanings’. For a long time I have felt this ascription to be a category error:

…works of art are not messages but objects. They don’t say things nor ask questions, nor assert, nor investigate. Neither do they as objects have messages somehow encoded or embedded within them. To assert otherwise is a massive category error. As objects they may of course be brought in evidence, copied, become conversation pieces, be described well, be described badly, be described perversely, be seen, be half seen, be missed, be lost, be found, be written about, point to things, be compared and many other things, some of which have not yet been imagined. (Szpakowski 2012b)

and I was pleased to read recently a more rigorous and lengthy setting out of a similar position by the philosopher Constantine Sandis (2017):

Neither understanding nor communication is reducible to the acquisition of new facts. There is a difference between understanding the words a speaker has said, and understanding the speaker–understanding the ’why’ as well as the ’what’. Wittgenstein states that ‘if a lion could talk, we could not understand it’, not because of any insurmountable language barrier, but because we wouldn’t know what it was aiming to do with its words. We need to free ourselves from approaching communication as something geared towards the transmission of information. In the case of aesthetics this involves a rejection of the supposition that the meaning of a work of art is whatever the author intended to communicate with it, and that to understand this work of art is to understand this meaning; an old chestnut in a new fire. (Sandis, 2017)

If artworks cannot be said to have ‘meanings’ then in what sense can they assist us in any project of clarification of ourselves, the world and the things we do in it?

In (Szpakowski 2016a, 69–92) I make an argument for artworks in general as creators of a very specific kind of knowledge, which I call ‘knowledge-with’ and I also begin to sketch a mechanism by which this might happen. My concept of knowledge-with is related to but not reducible to notions of empathy, fellow feeling and understanding what a thing or situation or person is ‘like’. I propose that this kind of knowledge is intimately and inextricably entwined with the aesthetic charge of any work. A term in the argument towards this is my attempt to show that it cannot be said that it is a necessary condition of being an artwork to engender knowledge in the form of true facts about the world—what traditional epistemology deals with, and what has been termed ‘knowledge-that’ (Fantl 2016). I will not recapitulate my original argument here. The interested reader can find and follow it for herself, but it is important to mark the caveat that it does not exclude that as a by-product some artworks might on occasion offer us some measure of knowledge-that, an example being the use of artworks as secondary sources in history—how people carried themselves in certain situations, what certain institutions looked like, how people dressed for different activities &c.

Together these positions radically undermine any possibility of art practice as research in any sense analogous to how research in the sciences or social science is generally understood. I believe this undermining to be a wholly positive thing since it allows us to understand how art works might help us towards a different sort of clarity about things, people, practices and institutions in the world.

This will resemble much more a secular version of a koan (Fisher 1978) within the Zen Buddhist tradition than any increase in our repository of true facts. That is, a sudden realisation that ‘this is how things are!’ or ‘Ah, this is how things are connected!’. Neither is this sort of idea without precedent in the Western philosophical tradition—a preference for seeing things in their place and context over an attempt at scientific explanation can be found in the work of the later Wittgenstein, principally in the context of philosophy itself ‘Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything.—Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain.’ (Wittgenstein and Anscombe 1989, 50), but in aesthetics too and also in relation to psychology and the history of religion (Cioffi 1998).

I want to make one final conceptual/methodological point. Elsewhere I have written of my sense of the artwork as not only the artwork proper but all the epiphenomena that spring up around it.

Just where and when is the actual art object? …Think of the physical object itself at any point in time as the visible section of the iceberg… Or think of it as casting a penumbra in time and space; this, not the physical object but nonetheless inseparably of it. Object plus ripples—critical commentary, the references in other media: advertising, stand-up comedy, song; the popular image—jokes retold at work or in the pub, references to these—echoes of echoes… So we should think of the artwork as a sum over time: of all its moments, all its sources and all its consequences—and though this totality will never be accessible to any single human being it is nonetheless a real thing, theoretically observable and enumerable, not ideal or mystical. (Szpakowski 2010, 24)

It is my strong feeling—and its fleshing out requires much more detailed future argumentation—that it is precisely in this dialogic extension of the boundaries of the work and in this eclectic rag-bag of practices and responses that our ongoing engagement with and absorption of ‘knowledge-with’ continues to develop ie. that there is an inescapably social dimension to it. I will try offer some evidential support for this hunch in my discussion of the third work.

I will discuss each piece in turn by describing its format and appearance as impartially as I can. I will also talk about my own process of making it. I will attempt, too, to step outside my authorship and put myself on the ‘receiving end’ of each work. Because I am the same person in each case I will inevitably fail to maintain this distinction with any real rigour.

1. a photo I didn’t take today

This was chronologically the first in this group of text related pieces.

The facts of the piece are these. It consists of a short text which I wrote simply as a text, being on one level an attempt to describe straightforwardly and accurately something that happened to me and the way it made me feel. I wrote it in Word and pasted the text into Photoshop to create a 4×3 ‘image’. I even gave it a small black border to emphasise its existence in a defined format and space. Close examination of the image will reveal ‘imperfections’—irregular left-alignment of the text, what appear to be anomalies of spacing, some incorrect punctuation—all easily correctible in a file encoded as text but frozen into place by the image–nature of the piece.

I then posted the ‘image’ to the photo sharing site Flickr under the title a photo I didn’t take today (“a photo I didn’t take today” 2011). The image posted to Flickr is 300dpi and approximately 30X58 inches, matching the high resolution original on my computer. This means that it would be quite possible to produce a good quality print at over a metre wide for gallery or other display. This sense of the physical potential of the piece was important to me in the same way as selecting a digital format—the jpeg—intimately associated with image files. I wrote above that on one level the piece was simply the description of something that happened and my response but it is, of course, much more. As soon as I began to write the question of style arose. I realised that to an extent I was channelling a favourite author, the late German writer W. S. Sebald, and producing a pastiche or perhaps even a gentle parody of his style. I opted to accept that this was the case and so I continued, consciously offering more and more carefully observed (or at least carefully recounted) minutiae, much of which was not strictly relevant to the incident (or lack of incident) itself but which built up a perhaps slightly comic picture of me as a somewhat clumsy, bemused and indecisive protagonist. Towards the end of the piece I further picked up steam as I inserted a quote from a Sinatra song and finally turned a sharp corner into a short coda with a terse but (it seemed to me) poetic account of another frustrated attempt at imaging something.

I felt that this slightly over-keen embrace of literariness rendered the writing more ambiguous, perhaps to the extent of casting doubt upon the facts of my over-fussy account of the original incident, and that this doubt somehow mirrored or rhymed with the wilful perversity choosing to present the whole thing in a visual format on a photography site.

I dislike the word overdetermined. It usually signals bullshit on the horizon but here I feel I really want to use it. I want to say that I set out to make something that was as overdetermined as possible.

I very recently learned that the year after this piece was made, the photographer and writer Will Steacy (2012) published a book entitled Photographs Not Taken in which a number of photographers write about a photograph they failed to take for one or another reason.

I want to assert that despite surface similarities my feeling is that the two projects are qualitatively different. My assertion would be that a photo I didn’t take today is positioned as a work of art and as such, in line with my initial arguments, carries no specific meaning and whose principle force would be aesthetic. This, with the qualification that I argued above that the ‘aesthetic’ is closely entwined with the kind of knowledge I have called knowledge-with. Clearly the presentation of Steacy’s project as a non-fiction book (where texts, if you like, belong, or at least are often accustomed to find a home) means that its reception is more straightforward. We can read about the technical, ethical and other scruples of professional photographers focussed through the prism of images they had hesitations about. In doing so we might then feel we can take away straightforward lessons in these matters.

It is entirely true that the textual a photo I didn’t take today contains references to some of these ethical and technical issues but they are contained, as it were, within the ‘inverted commas’ that characterise the artwork. A construct, a thing, not message or messages.

2. Stavanger Street View

The second piece I want to consider is a video entitled Stavanger Street View. I made the piece specifically to submit to a festival in Stavanger, Norway, where work was to be projected on outdoor screens in the city centre. I had never visited the town although I had previously visited Norway and I do speak and read Norwegian to a limited extent.

I decided to scope-out the town using Google Street View. I had used this as an input to artworks before, particularly for paintings, where I “transcribed” screenshots that particularly interested me as paintings, mostly in fairly thickly impastoed oils (an exercise, it might be said, in translation). I had also made a number of stop motion animations of my virtual passage through a place by means of Street View, the most fully developed of which is Shit Happens in Vegas (Szpakowski 2012a).

I suppose that precedents of both a photo I didn’t take today and the Vegas piece were still somewhat fresh because their conjunction, in the idea of describing rather than presenting, or perhaps presenting-through-describing-in-words images from Street View that I found particularly of interest, came to me quickly.

I found several such resonant images (although, for some reason, I didn’t take screenshots or URLs but remembered, with one exception, the ‘in-real-life’ addresses. I have not been able to find the location for the fifth, final section again.) and I wrote text about them in a mixture or English and Norwegian. Where my Norwegian let me down I used a dictionary or Google translate to fill the gaps. (I later asked a friend who is a native speaker to correct my text. She spent time talking me through her corrections so I could be sure that the final text corresponded as nearly as possible to my original intentions.)

Once I had a final text I created the video. There are five sections of text and each has its own title. The text for both occupies a line loosely along the horizontal centre from the top and bottom of the frame but slightly closer to the top. It is quite large, occupying approximately one sixth of the vertical space. The titles, both of the piece of a whole and the sub-sections, are motionless at the dead horizontal centre of the frame. The substantive texts move slowly across the screen appearing at right and exiting left and pass at a comfortable reading speed. Each text is divided up into subdivisions by two adjacent forward slashes. The texts resemble poetry both in their division into ‘lines’ and in their diction, which is heightened, though the vocabulary is simple. Once again I was mindful of the ambiguity of presenting a set of words which described (or related to) images in a format which would normally be used for something closer to what we normally think of as images.

Coming back to the piece, trying to see it ‘from the outside’ the first thing that hits me is the language. At the time of making the piece I understood every word of the text (since I had been through even the alterations to my original Norwegian in some detail with my language helper) but returning to it I had to refer to the English translation that I had posted online with the video (“Scenes of Provincial Life – Post #455” 2013). The stark and clearly intentional ‘designedness’ of the visual presentation elicits a frisson even prior to any attempt at understanding but feeling a degree of linguistic uncertainty reminded me what the experience of the piece would be for a non-Norwegian speaker and it became clear that understanding the words matters and is a key part of a full experience of the piece. (Something that is not always immediately apparent when one views work involving text in one’s own language, especially for native English speakers where so much of the world accommodates itself to us.) Nevertheless, the experience also led me to believe that the piece could be approached by a non-Norwegian speaker by carefully matching the English translation to the Norwegian text. This opens up interesting questions about what constitutes the limits of the work. Do we insist that properly it is constituted by the video alone or do we allow its extension into an accompanying translation? Would this render irrelevant or somehow artistically offensive making a ‘translation’ of the piece as a new moving image piece, for even into a close language such as English this would alter its appearance and rhythm? Languages with syllabaries rather than alphabets, and/or with logograms would take us much further away visually, as indeed would languages read from right to left (or, as in some literary traditions, up-down). The further thought occurs that for those speaking English or another Germanic language there are glimmers of understanding to be had even prior to having an accompanying translation, in that a number of vocabulary items will trigger associations (and this understanding will be almost total in the case of Danish and near total for Swedish speakers — one could perhaps assemble a ranking of linguistic distance in this way).

Hus, delikat blomst, plante, døren, dyp, bakgrunnen, vindu, vegetasjon, tre.

There is an interesting supplementary comparison to be made here with calligraphic traditions in languages whose writing is constructed with logograms, where calligraphy has both symbolic and visual content and where the interaction between the two gives rise to an affective power which could be said to be more than the sum of the constituent parts. Here is Sturman (1997, 134-5) discussing an eleventh century poem attributed to Yu Xin and written in so called ‘wild’ cursive Chinese calligraphy:

This roller-coaster movement is emphasized by some noteworthy conceits in the calligraphy, especially the manipulated placement of the poem’s directional words to prompt awareness of the writing’s physical dimensions. Dong (east) begins the poem at upper right, while bei* (north, part of Bei Zhu’s name) is found at the opposite end of the column. This can hardly be coincidental, since the fourth and fifth columns open, respectively, with the characters shang (up) and xia (down). Conscious intent probably also underlies the writing of the character chu (emerging) with a thick charge of ink that quickly fades into a paie feibai (flying white) effect in the next character mo* (disappearing) at the bottom of the third column.

Of course the minimalist design on the page in Stavanger Street View is massively different in degree from the case cited above, but that it is a question of degree in the conscious visually oriented arrangement of symbols, and not a qualitative break, is underlined by Sturman’s subsequent observation that within the Chinese calligraphic tradition Yu Xin would be regarded as a ‘vulgar fellow’ and the poem discussed above ‘fit only for wineshop walls’ (ibid), and his further observation that the central calligraphic tradition discussed by him is much more a matter of ‘…understatement: characters play off one another through subtle balance, creating movement that might be likened to a stately dance’ (ibid).

For someone who does not experience the language in Stavanger Street View as a barrier in any sense, to whom it is transparent, I think there is, or, at least, I find there is, a sense of mystery, of strangeness, in how the language is both descriptive of quite precise images, enabling us to conjure up a mental picture of some definiteness, whilst all the while being aware that the relationship of this ‘picture’ to the Street View original (and indeed to the actual place imaged by the Street View vehicle) is highly problematic, not just on the chalk and cheese basis that one is an actual image on a computer screen and the second is a mental image (and the third is something of a completely different order, a real place allowing an infinity of possible imagings).

Let’s allow the deftest of court artists to make a serious attempt to transcribe the words as image. With the best will in the world this could not be but radically different from its ‘original’. I feel a strong tension between the different sets and formats of information, a tension arising from the fact one must work to convert the words to mental image or physical sketch to replace a fully detailed image which we know to exist somewhere other than in the movie and further that there are an infinite number of possible ‘solutions’ to this. An added tension arises from the fact that all of this process is implied within a format, moving image, which might ordinarily be the carrier of that ‘lost’ actual image. A further layer of complexity arises when we consider the process, almost algorithmic, certainly one remove away from full intentionality, by which the original Street View footage was captured.

3. 51 paintings for children and adults

From 51 paintings for children and adults. Left: Painting #36, Right: Painting #14.

My final example is a set of 51 paintings, largely in oil and all on the same size canvasses — 14X18″ (although the pieces vary in orientation) — of which I made the first 50 in an intense burst of activity between Sept 2014 and January 2015. They are entitled 51 paintings for children and adults (Szpakowski 2016b) and were made with the idea that they might prove to be of interest to both groups. I conceived of them, almost from the beginning, as a single large scale cycle but I have exhibited individual pieces separately. With two exceptions they feature some kind of text—usually, but not always, capitalized—in addition to their image content, although ‘in addition’ traduces the process since there is no set location across the series where the text is located on the paintings. The text is painted on in the same materials as the rest of the painting, with varying degrees of prominence in relation to the image content ‘proper’ and usually in a way which makes it an integral part of the overall visual design. (I quite consciously had in mind Chinese and Japanese calligraphic traditions referred to earlier where the visual as well as the symbolic aspect of the text carries affective force.) In all cases my intention was to make individual paintings which were of a piece, where the viewer would feel constrained to absorb both image and text together as a unity and furthermore to flit back and forth between symbolic and visual ‘reading’ of the textual component. Having said this, there are pieces in the series where one could argue that the image ‘proper’ is dominant (and there are also two pieces entirely lacking text) and other pieces—particularly where the text occupies the greater part of the painting—where the eye is drawn first to the text’s symbolically conveyed ‘meaning’, though it is important to note that even in these pieces subsequent examination yields a surface full of painterliness.

The subject matter of the pieces was fed by my biography and interests, including my fondness for wordplay, my childhood memories and enthusiasms. The meaning content of the text ranges from simple description of its ‘partner’ image, to ruminations on/contextualisations of the image, to puns, jokes and occasionally flat ‘contradictions’ of what we see. The texts are almost all in English although Russian appears in two pieces too.

From 51 paintings for children and adults. Left: Painting #29, Right: Painting #48.

I deliberately set out to encompass a wide range of topics and tone within the series. Humour is present—#48 lists the names of the days of the week vertically and in a right hand side bar the words ‘Those were the days’ is written vertically, a joke of sorts in English when delivered verbally, its freezing in ‘painting-time’ doing something further odd and teasing to it—but so, too, is high seriousness. #29 contains a verbatim section of an account by my late father of his trial as an ‘Enemy of the people’ in the WW2 Soviet Union and the figurative component is a rendering of a photograph of a guard tower from one of the Gulag camps. The final piece, #51, was made the day after the Bataclan atrocity in Paris with the simple text ‘I know that somewhere there is light’ against a dark background suggestive of a barrier or wall. An indecipherable symbol, resembling a started and abandoned letter follows the word ‘that’.

#14 offers a variant on Magritte’s Le Trahison des Images with an image of a pipe (here of the sort used for transporting fuel or water) together with the text ‘THIS IS A PIPE’. #43 is a loosely painted transcription of a webcam screenshot of countryside near to where I grew up, whose text is simply the webcam data for the day and time I looked at it and #36 is a reworking in oils of a drawing I made when I was six years old, with misspellings—‘a map of a robery’—retained. #31 recalls an episode from Gogol’s absurdist short story ‘The Nose’ , # 11 a late poem by Wallace Stevens and #7 places a small copy of Christopher Wood’s painting ‘Zebra and Parachute’ onto a gallery wall with spectator and the prominent text:

‘ON THE WALL OF THE GALLERY HUNG A STRANGE* PAINTING BY CHRISTOPHER WOOD *AND MARVELLOUS’

The interested reader can consult high resolution images of the whole series in the online archive referenced above but I hope I have said enough to indicate that the 51 paintings are intentionally heterogeneous in tone and subject matter and are drenched in appropriation, reference and remix. They look out into the world. They stir the pot. They confuse what it is to write, to speak and to make images.

I showed all 51 of them in early 2016 in a group show at the 20-21 Visual Arts Centre in Scunthorpe, UK. I was fortunate to have the writer Teju Cole write a catalogue piece for them. When he accepted the task I had no idea what would be forthcoming. I want to mark here again my scepticism about art and conventional knowledge and to underline my sense of the artwork as something with expansive and fuzzy borders in both space and time, for what did emerge was not theory nor description nor commentary but a work of literature that echoed the structure of my sequence, sang its themes back to it in variant forms and in a sense completed it (although further ‘completion’ is by my account entirely possible).

Cole’s piece is entitled 51 Thoughts for Children and Adults (Cole 2016) and is a work of great density but also concreteness. The connection between his piece and my work is a complex and rich one. The 51 Thoughts… do not match, sequentially at least, the 51 paintings and their content only rarely includes an easily discernible address to a particular painting in the sequence which even then is dense, opaque and heightened:

6 Sometimes 6 is 8.

17 “Well?”: the ambiguity is ground-breaking

40 “Jailbirds”: More than a one-liner because, as we all suspect, punning lives next door to music, and might well be used for divining. (ibid)

There is great learning at play here—sometimes it feels as if a skein of careful links is being constructed from the painting sequence out to the world and to other writers and imagers of that world, mediated all the while by Cole’s humanity (by which I mean his being-in-the-world-as-a-human, not some vague compliment on his views or feelings or decency).

42 Félix Vallotton’s portrait of Gertrude Stein in 1907 was made methodically from top to bottom, as though he were lowering a curtain.

46 Toni Morrison said, “I am interested in what prompts and makes possible this process of entering what one is estranged from.” But what is just as astonishing, I find, is to enter what one seems to already be intimate with.

34 De Chirico, after the war: “Every object has two appearances: one, the current one, which we nearly always see and which is seen by people in general; the other, a spectral or metaphysical appearance beheld only by some individuals in moments of clairvoyance and metaphysical abstraction.” (ibid)

At other times Cole’s curiosity or interests or train of thought takes him far away from my initial concerns and he spins so far off into personal associations and recollections that I lose my sense of my own work, which is, I think, as it should be.

48 In one or other of the cities I know, I once saw children full of the light that their closeness to one boundary of life brings, and I saw their adults full of another light, the light of closeness to the other boundary of life. The children and their adults helped each other along, unconfused by the variations in what they knew. (ibid)

Cole’s text is a virtuosic exercise in tone and voice. Myth, humour, darkness, anecdote, the commonplace, ventriloquism, the list, the question… All these and many more are present. The breadth of tone and address matches that of the painting sequence and that is is a sibling work only the most wilfully blind or churlish could deny, or that this siblinghood proves to be a powerful and fruitful way of apprehending an artwork. (I cannot, of course, prove this. I can only say: “Look, think, feel. Do you not sense this too?”) I take this as confirmation that my starting points outlined at the beginning of this piece are not entirely misconceived.

A concomitant of some of those ‘scene-setting’ positions is that not only is art practice a problematic instrument for research as generally understood but that the central core of artworks might be more resistant to scientific dissection or explication than many might think. (This is not to dismiss art history, a different kettle of fish altogether, with procedures that can be perfectly well be included under the broad rubric of ‘science’.) What Cole’s lyrical response to the 51 paintings suggest to me is that we might learn more about an artwork from responses that are themselves in some sense works of art. This suggests that the exclusion by the academy of journalistic or belles-lettres responses to work as somehow not properly scientific or academic (as in, for example, and altogether shamefully, in the UK Research Excellence Framework) in favour of a model drawn from 19th and early 20th scientific discourse, is mistaken or at least that it draws an entirely arbitrary line.

In his piece Anti-Art as Cognition (2005, 82) Thomas McEvilley argues that ‘…the presence of language within the frame of the visual artwork does not need justification; it is not a radical break with established art practice but reflects a tendency which has been present for centuries…’ He goes on to list examples, spanning the centuries, from the Western canon to which he could have surely added entire traditions like the Chinese and Japanese where it is the separation of text and image which is the exception. He argues that with the advent of the twentieth century it is simply that the foregrounding of text/image combination and interaction gathers pace and assumes a much greater prominence (and indeed, one might suggest, then presents itself for the first time as a problem requiring a solution) and in this he is surely right.

I want to note this because it is important to stress that the presentation and thinking through of three of my own works here involves no claim to pioneer status, to originality or even to aesthetic value (although this last would be the single judgment from others I would most savour).

Many artists have made work with a family resemblance to mine, and well before I did so. Hollis Frampton, in particular, stands out as someone who, in films such as Nostalgia and Poetic Justice from his Hapax Legomena (2012) cycle, sets up some of the tensions between word and image I have discussed here in works of signal originality and luminous beauty.

It would be interesting to develop some of the ideas sketched here in connection with those masterpieces, but that is for another occasion.

References

All links verified 14.6.2017.

“A Photo I Didn’t Take Today.” 2011. Flickr. July 20. https://www.flickr.com/photos/szpako/5958365139/.

Cioffi, Frank. 1998. Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cole, Teju. 2016. “51 Thoughts for Children and Adults.” In We Are Not Alone (Catalogue), edited by Michael Szpakowski, 14–20. Furtherfield. http://furtherfield.org/WANA/wana-catalogue.pdf.

Fantl, Jeremy. 2016. “Knowledge How.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/knowledge-how/.

Fisher, John F. 1978. “An Analysis of the Kōans in the Mu Mon Kwan.” Numen 25 (1): 65–76.

Frampton, Hollis. 2012. A Hollis Frampton Odyssey. DVD. Criterion.

McEvilley, Thomas. 2005. In The Triumph of Anti-Art: Conceptual and Performance Art in the Formation of Post-Modernism, 1st ed, 82. Kingston, N.Y: McPherson & Co.

Sandis, Constantine. 2017. “If an Artwork Could Speak.” In Wittgenstein on Aesthetic Understanding, edited by Garry Hagberg. London: Palgrave Macmillan: 355–382.

“Scenes of Provincial Life – Post #455.” 2013. http://www.somedancersandmusicians.com/vlog/ScenesOfProvincialLife.cgi/2013/10/28#post455.

Sibley, Frank, “Aesthetic Concepts” Philosophical Review 68 (1959): 421–450.

Steacy, Will, ed. 2012. Photographs not taken: a collection of photographers’ essays. Hillsborough, US: Daylight Community Arts Foundation.

Sturman, Peter Charles. 1997. Mi Fu: Style and the Art of Calligraphy in Northern Song China. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.

Szpakowski, Michael. 2010. “The Little Artists.” In “The Little Artists”: John Cake & Darren Neave ; Works 1995-2010. London: Group Of.

———. 2012a. Shit Happens in Vegas. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlAm4WKLGqU.

———. 2012b. “‘Training for a Better World’ by Annie Abrahams.” http://www.furtherfield.orghttp://www.furtherfield.org/features/reviews/training-better-world-annie-abrahams.

———. 2016a. “Scenes of Provincial Life: An Online Video Sequence and Commentary.” (PhD by publication commentary, Westminster, 2016). http://westminsterresearch.wmin.ac.uk/17210/1/Scenes%2520of%2520provincial%2520life%253A%
2520an%2520online%2520video%2520sequence%2520and%2520commentary.pdf
.

———. 2016b. “Paintings for Children and Adults.” http://michaelszpakowski.tumblr.com/?og=1.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, and G. E. M. Anscombe. 1989. Philosophical investigations =: Philosophische Untersuchungen. 3nd ed., Repr. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell.

Kategoriat
1–2/2017 WiderScreen 20 (1–2)

“If You Can Read This…” – The Evolution of the Scroll Text Message Within the Demoscene

crackers, demoscene, kinetic typography, scroller

Daniel Botz
daniel.botz [a] lmu.de
Lecturer
Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich

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While moving typography in general had been a creative scope since there were moving images, as a vital part of the graphic design of commercials and movie titles, the scrolling “ticker” rarely received the praise of artistic adaptation. It served merely as a workaround for printing long messages using the limited space of a computer monitor, to wrap a one-dimensional line of text around a two-dimensional screen medium and, to this day, is associated with cheap closing credits of tv shows and stock market data on a news channel. This article traces the evolution of moving text as a stylistic element of “crack intros” and “computer demos” between 1984 and 1992, from a simple line moving from left to right at the bottom of the screen to massive 3D letters free-floating in space. Until the early 1990s, when text messages began to disappear from demos, the demoscene turned out to be the most explorative and innovating culture ever to use the scroll text as an artistic device.

Introduction

The computer demoscene has received quite some attention among scientific researchers in recent years. Many investigations concentrate on the origins of the movement, the software cracking scene of the 1980s and base their argumentation on the analysis of the artifacts of these cultures, so-called intros, which were placed in front of pirated computer games, and demos, independent audiovisual presentations running as executable computer programs (Polgar 2005). It has become an accredited belief to regard these productions as both communication media and artistic statements of the scene, which seems obvious regarding the nature of cracker intros and early demos as works combining text, image, and sound (Reunanen, Wasiak, and Botz 2016).

But still the demoscene is considered as a marginal underground phenomenon of the home computer age and especially the visual output of the scene has rarely been the subject of academic studies, which is remarkable when dealing with a subculture that clearly defines itself for its creative productivity and has done so for over 30 years now. It seems that in most cases, the visible elements of style and artistic expression of a subculture are only examined in detail when they reach popularity outside the scene and surface in mainstream fashion. And in the case of the demoscene, this never happened.

Like in many “deviant” cultures, the artistic innovations of the demoscene do not originate from nowhere. They are mostly based on subcultural appropriation, sometimes transferring the aesthetics of popular movies, graphics or video effects to the limited capabilities of the common household computer hardware and combining them in a specific way into an audiovisual presentation for real-time operation (Reunanen, Wasiak, and Botz 2016, 813). In some cases, however, stylistic devices develop a life of their own when adopted by a subculture. They can evolve from a marginal supporting role to a leading motive, from a simple communication tool to a fetishized object.

This overview traces the evolution of the scroller, a text line moving across the screen, inside the demoscene, from a technique for displaying text generally disregarded for its poor aesthetic appeal to one of the most complex artistic forms of moving typography, a development unparalleled in the history of computer graphics. It will try to answer why scrollers came into existence, how they changed over time and why they disappeared all of a sudden, showing that the fate of this form of moving typography was mainly depending on five factors:

  1. The rise and decline of the cracktro/demo as a communication device.
  2. The competitive character of the cracker- and demoscene, which demanded higher visual complexity and more spectacle in each new production.
  3. The technological progress of hardware platforms, which allowed for more flexibility to create computer graphics.
  4. The development of the pictorial space in computer demos.
  5. The changing forms of presentation and perception of demos.

The Scroller as a Communication Device

On looking through various texts about demoscene art, the scrolltext or scroller is regularly mentioned among the “classic” stylistic elements of cracktros and demos (Reunanen 2010). This is indeed noticeable because this specific way of displaying information neither developed any design traditions outside of the cracker-/demoscene nor has it ever received considerable recognition as an artistic element in general. On the contrary, while shifting a large text page upwards at least qualifies as “big movie ending”, the rolling single line at the bottom of the screen seems to have a bad reputation altogether. Game designer Richard Rouse III complains about the inconvenience of reading scrolling text in the mission briefing for computer games (Rouse 2005, 209). German media art authority Peter Weibel compares it to annoying non-stop-music rushing past the ears (Weibel 2000, 159). It is a known resentment even in contemporary web design: The “Marquee” tag in HTML is considered to be one of the most notorious usability faults. And up to this day, the rolling text line at the bottom of a tv screen is unanimously identified with 24-hour news, weather or home shopping channels displaying stock market data.

With this in mind, the question arises: How became this unpopular mode of text display one of the key features in the products of a digital subculture? Like most of the basic style elements, crackers borrowed the principles of text organization for their intros from the title screens of early computer games (Reunanen 2010, 58). But when the cracker scene adopted the scrolling text, there was actually no big tradition to draw on. The arcade machines used to deliver the usually scarce game instructions by unraveling pages of text letter by letter like a typewriter and resorted to flashing words to indicate demand for action, like “Player one get ready!” Home video game consoles like the Atari VCS rarely wasted time for introductory screens and started the game right away when switched on. On early home computers like the Apple II graphical but usually static splash screens were used in front of the games (Scott n.d.).

The emergence of scrollers eventually resulted from a new technical feature – the hardware scrolling abilities of the 1980s generation home computers like the Atari 8-bit series or the Commodore 64. The Atari 400 Version of Taito’s Space Invaders from 1980 is possibly the first game to feature a scroll text displaying the copyright message and it was the American software house Synapse Software which made regular use of the smoothly crawling text line at the bottom of the game’s title screen, becoming a trademark for the company. In games like Protector II, Sentinel or Shamus, this line was used to display the credits for the game, the assignment of keys as well as announcing more forthcoming software titles in the fashion of “Coming soon from Synapse”. Like the early crackers used to deface the game’s title screen by substituting text elements with their own handles and messages, it did not take long until some of the first cracking groups on the Commodore 64, German crews JEDI and Antiram, occupied the scroller, not only claiming responsibility for the copy protection removal but also shamelessly absorbing the advertisement which was altered to “Coming soon from JEDI”, thereby announcing that every Synapse game published will be cracked by the group (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Slamball, C-64 Game by Synapse Software, cracked by JEDI, 1984.

The proud advertising inside the Synapse scroller and its détournement by the crackers revealed a vital potential of the rolling text: The chance to communicate to the viewer beyond the standard information about the game at hand. While most of the essential instructions for the product appeared as static text to be grasped at a glance, the scroller could be used to grow the corporate image.

Crackers on the Commodore 64 did not limit themselves to mess up the title screen of games like the Apple II scene did. In 1984 the first cracker intros, or short, cracktros, appeared, transferring the crack message into a separate page before the actual game title screen. They consisted of simple – sometimes animated – logotypes and small static text elements. The first cracker intro to feature a scroller is probably the Danish Crackers intro for the game Ghostbusters dating from 1984 (see Figure 2). Alongside the close resemblance to title screens of contemporary computer games, it shows the new communication needs: The scroll text displays the member list of the cracking group, an information task which will remain important in the future.

Figure 2. Cracker Intro by Danish Crackers, C-64 Cracktro, 1984.

As the scene transformed into the well-organized business of software piracy, scrollers took on various additional jobs. Sometimes a cracktro featured multiple scrollers simultaneously, each delivering another dedicated content (see Figure 3). The first scroller could be a short message containing the name of the cracked game, the release date plus the enhancements the cracker attached to it like for example an “unlimited lives” function (Wasiak 2012). The second would often contain the greetings list, which recites the names of respected and befriended groups inside the scene, often in preferential order, or would be used for news, invitations to copy parties, comments on other cracker’s releases or ranting at disliked other cracking groups.

Due to this partitioning into multiple independent text elements, cracktros had become modular pieces of software which could be easily edited for use on different cracked games. In this regard, the scroller became the key feature to turn the cracker intro into a communication device for an evolving subculture. It also helped to establish the cracktro as the ideal medium for self-expression within the scene, and it became the best solution for displaying large amounts of information while keeping the graphic layout of the screen intact. At the same time, the cracker’s specific use of the scroller revealed a basic characteristic of moving type: The “news ticker”-like volatility, the short time span between the appearance and disappearance of the words implies that the message is new, fresh and relevant, like a telegraph output. On top of that, the scroller forces its own mode of reception upon the reader. The constant flow of letters dictates reading speed and reading rhythm and does not allow for breaks. You cannot take your eyes off the streaming message. A reading experience like watching a movie.

Figure 3. Cracker Intro by Hotline, C-64 Cracktro, 1988 – two simultaneous scrollers.

The Scroller as an Artistic Challenge

Due to the competitive nature of the cracking scene, crackers not only had to be fast at delivering the newest games, they also had to come up with innovative and unique visuals for their cracktros, like skillfully drawn graphics or colorful effects. Cracktros had to look “sophisticated”, new and individual in the way they presented information. In the first place, this included everything which set the design of an intro apart from the standard text output of the Commodore 64, which was 25 lines of text, each containing 40 square characters while one character cell consisted of 8×8 pixels. It was possible to generate individual fonts by drawing own characters and combining multiple adjacent character cells could be used to double or triple the size of the letters (see Figure 4). But the greater aim of intro coders was to make scroll text rendering more flexible instead of just moving a single line from right to left. The numerous tricks involved shifting the vertical position of letters according to a sine curve to generate a “swinging line” or applying color cycling to the letters, whereby an animated color gradient causes the scroller to flash up and fade out again.

Figure 4. Crack intro by Crack Force Omega, C-64 Cracktro, 1988 – scroller enlarged by using 3×3 character cells for each letter.

Good design was not the only consideration while creating intros. Intro programmers on the Commodore 64 tried to test the limits of the machine by coding effects that seemed impossible by then. Flash Cracking Group and 1001 Crew were the first to navigate their scrollers through the border of the C-64, a monochrome “safety” area around the screen initially designed to prevent the screen content from distortion near the edges of the monitor tube. Placing text where it was not supposed to work qualified as a true achievement. This technical gimmick provided enough sensation to distribute the borderletter as an independent production, not longer attached to a cracked game and later to be called a “demo”. But just as scrollers were instrumental in creating the demo format, they were also at the heart of competitive demo programming. Coders aimed at producing the largest letters (megascroller, see Figure 5), the greatest number of simultaneous scrollers (multiscroller) or the largest amplitude of a scroller following a sine wave path (mega-DYCP).

Figure 5. No Limits by The Supply Team, C-64 Demo, 1987 – megascroller.

As scrollers are given such creative names, it can be concluded that they are consciously perceived as design elements. The question remains, however, what defines a “scroller” within the demoscene in contrast to its “news ticker” antecedent. Here, the scroller serves as a good example of the concepts of genotext and phenotext as popularized by Julia Kristeva. Inke Arns uses these terms to describe the multiple levels of text involved in digital works of the net.art movement (Arns 2004). The genotext is what generates the phenotext. While the visible screen content is described as the phenotext, the executed program code is the genotext. In the case of a scroller, the genotext can again be divided into three different texts: The character code containing the written content, the font bitmap defining the shape of the letters and the program routine used to display the text controlling speed, path, and transformation of the scroller. As the labeling of scrollers rarely refers to content or typography but almost always to the way of movement across the screen, it can be assumed that the display routine is the most defining element for a demo scroller.

Figure 6. Megademo 2 by Vision, Amiga OCS Demo, 1989 – chrome scroller and distorted scroller.

During the second half of the 1980s a new generation of home computers established itself and, year by year, the activity of crackers and demo artists shifted onto the new platforms among which the Amiga series and the Atari ST were the most popular. With the graphical capabilities of these computers, graphical quality, variety, and flexibility of scrollers increased. The Amiga demoscene gave birth to at least three new types of scrollers: first of all, the improved color management of the Amiga allowed for seamless gradients, which led to the infamous “chrome” style of the late 1980s, where letters featured a mirroring surface, beveled edges and all kinds of metallic gloss. The second innovation consisted of mostly monochrome scrollers being bent and twisted in many ways (see Figure 6). This resulted in letters winding around a horizontal or vertical axis (tubescroller), being partially magnified as if seen through a glass lens or wavelike distorted as if projected onto a water surface. The Amiga scene was very ambitious about challenging the convention of the reading direction with the innovation of scrollers rolling on a circle-like track (circlescroller) or following an arbitrary path across the screen (snurklescroller, see Figure 7).

Figure 7. Supersnurklescroller by Fairlight, Amiga OCS Demo, 1989.

The third and most noticeable invention of the amiga scene was the expansion of scrollers into three-dimensional space. Proceeding from simple vector-based line drawings to solid letters, scrollers became increasingly involved in the perspective design of the pictorial space. In Hunt for 7th October by Cryptoburners (1990) the words rush past the viewer like a fast train (see Figure 8). After six years of development, scrollers finally appeared as architectural formations, making the reading process a spatial experience.

Figure 8. Hunt for 7th October by Cryptoburners, Amiga OCS Demo, 1990 – first scroller made of non-convex solid three-dimensional letters.

The End of the Scroller Era

When scrollers entered the virtual three-dimensional space, they had discarded their initial communicative purpose long ago. The distribution of pirated software via BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) began to replace postal shipping of disks and the file_id.diz text file took on the tasks of the cracker intro scroller (Reunanen 2010, 10). When demos left the context of the “illegal” software piracy scene behind, the communication needs of the demoscene changed, and so did the contents of scroll texts. Some parts remained, like the greetings list, announcements for – now legal – demo parties or bragging about programming skills. But according to the self-reflective nature of demos, scrollers increasingly tended to comment on the circumstances of their own production. Coders provided explanations of programming methods they used and even excuses for bugs they could not fix in time (Bader 1990, 184). Various demos feature two scrollers, the first commenting on the artful deformation of the second. Sometimes, the text is aware of its own transformation – “Yeeeaaahh Bouncing!!!”, as it reads in Legalize It by Vision (1988) – or hints at its own illegibility: “If you can read the following text you are an alien!!!”, as in the Circle Twist of the Red Sector Inc Megademo (1989).

Until the early 1990s, demos followed cyclical patterns. Like the first cracktros, a demo part was an endless loop, in which all graphical and textual elements repeated itself until being terminated by mouse click. The viewer would decide how long to read the scroll text and when to proceed to the next demo part, or, in the case of a cracktro, to the game. But with the increasing popularity of demo parties, where demos are screened to a large audience rather than being watched on a computer monitor by a single viewer, this format was abandoned in favor of linear structures where short segments follow each other without user interaction. In this fast-paced sequence of effects, long scroll texts not longer worked (Botz 2015b, 315). Additionally, typography was a useful style element within the two-dimensional compositions of early demos but did not match with the consistently three-dimensional pictorial spaces of demos in the mid-1990s. When the demoscene emerged on the PC platform, it inherited most of the style elements of the Amiga scene, but one of the unique characteristics of the PC scene consisted in the dismissal of the scroller, as the catchphrase “scrollers suck” from the demo Panic by Future Crew (1992) became a popular slogan (Botz 2011, 353).

Conclusion

In the three-decade history of the demoscene, scrollers occupied a short time span only. For a long time they had been unanimously identified with the “oldskool” phase of the demoscene (Tasajärvi 2004, 65), often disdained as an old and boring demo effect. Today it is possible to comprehend why the scroller had been appropriated by the cracker scene and developed into an artistic category as well as a technical challenge. In a world where digital communication is a daily routine, the scrolling messages of the demoscene appear as an obsolete and romantic format, like decorated letters, which, more and more, detached themselves from their communication function and turned into artistic exercises.

Figure 9. The Wooow Demo by Spreadpoint, Amiga OCS Demo, 1989 – scroller running on a vectorball display.

Finally, in the 2010s, scrollers returned to the Commodore 64 scene. Their comeback on the first demoscene platform, however, is not completely accidental, as almost all of them appear to be further stages of the low-resolution scroller, a variant predominantly developed on the C-64 and later on the Amiga (Botz 2011, 352; see Figure 9). This type of scroller functions as a coarse display matrix where each pixel is represented by another graphical element like a bitmap object or – again – a text symbol. If this matrix is being deformed and distorted, the text appears to be rolling on a twisted LED ticker display (see Figure 10).

Figure 10. Scrollwars by Fairlight, Offence, and Prosonix, C-64 Demo, 2013.

This marginal return of the scroller, however, reminds us of one of the core concepts of demoscene art: To this day, demos are executable programs which are passed on to the computer as code, as linear text (Botz 2015a, 103). This is what sets them apart from movies. Thus, in very simplified terms, one could say that even if we don’t see a scroller on the screen, if watching a demo, we can always imagine a single line of alphanumeric code running inside the machine.

References

All links verified 14.6.2017

Arns, Inke. 2004. “Texte, die (sich) bewegen: Zur Performativität von Programmiercodes in Netzkunst und Software Art.” In Inke Arns et al. (eds.): Kinetographien. Bielefeld: Aisthesis-Verl (Schrift und Bild in Bewegung, 10), (pp. 57–78).

Bader, Roland. 1990. “Elektronische Graffiti.” In Schindler, W. (ed.): MaC* – Reloaded: Perspektiven aus der Skepsis für *Menschen am Computer. Berlin: RabenStück Verlag, (pp. 182–93). Retrieved from http://www.josefstal.de/mac/days/2004/buch/bader_elektron_graffiti.pdf.

Botz, Daniel. 2011. Kunst, Code und Maschine—Die Ästhetik der Computer-Demoszene [Art, Code and Machine – The Aesthetics of the Computer Demoscene]. Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript Verlag.

Botz, Daniel. 2015a. “The Enhancement of Punch-Tape: Moving Type in the Computer Demoscene.” In Bernd Scheffer, Christine Stenzer, Peter Weibel, and Soenke Zehle (eds.): Typemotion. Type as Image in Motion [ZKM, Museum of Contemporary Art, Karlsruhe, November 16, 2013 – March 2, 2014, FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), Liverpool November 13, 2014 – February 15, 2015]. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, (pp. 101–3).

Botz, Daniel. 2015b. “Commented Archive. Schriftfilme from 1897 to Today: Computer Demoscene.” In Bernd Scheffer, Christine Stenzer, Peter Weibel, and Soenke Zehle (eds.): Typemotion. Type as Image in Motion [ZKM, Museum of Contemporary Art, Karlsruhe, November 16, 2013 – March 2, 2014, FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), Liverpool November 13, 2014 – February 15, 2015]. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, (pp. 308–21).

Polgar, Tamas. 2005. Freax: The Brief History of the Demoscene (Vol. 1). Winnenden, Germany: CSW Verlag.

Reunanen, Markku. 2010. Computer Demos—What makes them tick? Helsinki, Finland: Aalto University School of Science and Technology.

Reunanen, Markku, Patryk Wasiak, and Daniel Botz. 2015. “Crack Intros. Piracy, Creativity and Communication.” International Journal of Communication, 9(1), pp. 798–817.

Rouse, Richard. 2005. Game Design: Theory & Practice. Plano, Texas: Wordware Publishing.

Scott, Jason. n.d. “Apple II Crack Screens.” Retrieved from http://artscene.textfiles.com/intros/APPLEII.

Tasajärvi, Lassi. 2004. Demoscene. The Art of Real-Time. Helsinki: Evenlake Studios.

Wasiak, Patryk. 2012. “‘Illegal Guys’. A History of Digital Subcultures in Europe during the 1980s.” Zeithistorische Forschungen/Studies in Contemporary History 9/2012. Retrieved from http://www.zeithistorische-forschungen.de/site/40209282/default.aspx.

Weibel, Peter. 2000. “Chronokratie. Ein Gespräch mit Birgit Richard.” In Kunstforum International Vol. 151 (pp. 152–9).

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Keys of Fury – Type in Beyond the Scrolling Horizon

Commodore 64, demoscene, slöjd, teletext

Raquel Meyers
raquel [a] raquelmeyers.com
Artist
http://www.raquelmeyers.com/

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We live in a time where hardware and software become obsolete before most of the users have learned how to use them, or they disappear into the obedience to standards that made us passive observers and consumers. Keys of Fury is brutalist storytelling about technology and keystrokes, and an artistic statement based on the concept, research and practice of KYBDslöjd, which I define as “drawing and crafting by type in”. It is based on the text-mode, where the grid is the framework and the character set is the instructions, using the Commodore 64 computer, teletext system, typewriter, mosaic and cross-stitch as media. I claim that old technologies are an unravelling force, a critique of the parasitic abuse of technology by postmodernity and capitalism, instead of a case for nostalgia. A new understanding, a message in an unknown language that we are still learning. Keys of Fury (Les Clefs de la Fureur) is also the name of the ‘Artist in Residency Le Shadok & Strasbourg European Fantastic Film Festival’ exhibition, curated by Esté-elle Dalleu and Arnaud Reeb in September 2016.

I am ready to burn. I am ready to shine. No fear, just text. You will see the mistakes and the wonders. Nothing is to be hidden, everything is to be typed. Brutality itself. Because type in is the noise of my ♥.

In 2010 I started to research the concept and formats of the text-mode, a computer display mode in which content is internally represented in terms of characters rather than individual pixels. In collaboration with Goto80, we started the Tumblr site called http://text-mode.tumblr.com (2012–2014), where we collected all kinds of media related with the term. But my interest was not only on art research: it was, as well, a starting point for my own epistemological practice. As Mersch and Radosh (2015) pointed out:

Like the process of writing, it has no end, it collapses in on itself and despairs of ever achieving closure. The artistic experiment has no utilitarian result. It is content with the adventure of finding the paths that can taken (meta hodos), and their endless labyrinthine branches are a source equally of agony and enjoyment.

I had been working with pixels since 2004 to create animations and designs, but it was just the beginning of the lo-fi adventure. When I changed pixels to characters, the joy of the text-mode began. The path I was looking for. The origin of KYBDslöjd, which stands for keyboard dexterity.

To be more precise, for drawing and crafting by typing, using just a character set provided, in this case, by the Commodore 64 computer, the teletext system, and typewriters. KYBD is the acronym for keyboard, on which a drawing or an animation is typed in by using different keystrokes for each mark on the screen or the paper. Slöjd means dexterity or skill. A complete method of craft stored in text. KYBDslöjd uses keys, references and applied media instead of Manovich’s (2010) concept of new media, “When new media objects are created on computers, they originate in numerical form. But many new media objects are converted from various forms of old media.” The following sections define the whole spectrum of what it is and what it stands for. They are: ‘Slöjd’, ‘Demoscene and PETSCII’, ‘Teletext’, ‘Brutalism’, ‘Typewriter, Cross-Stitch and Mosaic’, ‘The Language’, ‘Myopia for the Future’ and ‘Talk Is Cheap’.

Slöjd

Slöjd is a Scandinavian system of handicraft-based education from the nineteenth century. Hoffman & Salomon (1982) noted on the origin of the word:

The word Sloyd (Swedish, Slöjd) is derived from the Icelandic, and means dexterity or skill. In old Swedish, we find the adjective slög (artistic or skillful). In the Low German dialect, the word Klütern has a similar signification.

They also wrote about handicrafts’ need for attention, physical powers and perseverance, which are in clear contrast to the basic, fast knowledge that creates emulation of a skill, of art. Handicraft is dependent on bodily labor through the dexterity of the hand and requires training and cultivation of our bodies and our senses:

Slöjd has for its aims, as a means of formal instruction-to instil a love for work in general; to create a respect for rough, honest bodily labor; to develop self-reliance and independence; to train to habits of order, exactness, cleanliness, and neatness; to teach habits of attention, industry, and perseverance; to promote the development of the physical powers; to train the eye to the sense of form, and to cultivate the dexterity of the hand. (Hoffman & Salomon 1892)

But slöjd was also gender restricted, all forms were not accessible to everyone. The system of slöjd “established manual schools in which spinning, sewing, and weaving were taught to girls, wood-work to boys, and gardening to both”, asserted Hoffman & Salomon (1892). Nowadays these definitions are not as binding as they were in the past, but they still have a strong effect on the Scandinavian society, close to what Rodríguez Carrión (2013) declared:

The word “craft” brings to memory the “handmade” object. It is generally associated with manual dexterity, skilled artistry, and the art of making (process), but can also express cultural identity (such as folk art) and past traditions.

Considering that I did not grow up in the Scandinavian system, I do not have the same relation with the word as they do. Bauman (2000) noted: “To create (and so also to discover) always means breaking a rule; following a rule is mere routine, more of the same – not an act of creation.” In my opinion, nowadays the definition of slöjd is connected to what Dormer (1997b) wrote: “It is not craft as ‘handcraft’ that defines contemporary craftsmanship: it is craft as knowledge that empowers a maker to take charge (assume control or responsibility) of technology.” Responsibility rather than control, or even better, commitment. As Sennett (2008) pointed out: “The craftsman represents the special human condition of being engaged.”

In the long battle between art and crafts, low and high status, slöjd opens up an opportunity to take back the concepts as honest and rough labor, like the statement by Walter Gropius in the Programme of the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar 1919 (quoted by Conrads 1970): “Let us then create a new guild of craftsmen without the class distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist.” A mixed medium between craft and technology. A challenge, as Dormer (1997b) noted, “Computer technology now provides craft with its most serious philosophical and practical challenges.”

Demoscene and PETSCII

George Borzyskowski (2000) defines demoscene as: “[…] the subculture which survives on the basis of liberty and cooperation in the absence of coercive or cohesive structural influence”, and presents an overview of the ‘demo’ genre form in terms of function and audio visual syntax. In regard to demos, Borzyskowski continued:

Demos are not made without a cost. The amount of time, patience, knowledge and skill development required are far from trivial. To make a competent production in this genre, graphic, musical and programming ability must be integrated and the work can occupy from a few hours for an intro by a veteran group, to several weeks or months for a major demo release, as is often recollected in included texts.

AcidT* is my C64 demoscener name, and my first demoparty was Datastorm in February 2011, Gothenburg, where I started to work with PETSCII, one of the key media of KYBDslöjd. I learned the software and drawing technique at several demoparties along the years. PETSCII, also known as CBM ASCII, is the character set used in Commodore Business Machines’ (CBM) 8-bit home computers, starting with the PET from 1977 and including the VIC-20, C-64, CBM-II, Plus/4, C-16, C-116 and C-128. The character set was largely designed by Leonard Tramiel and PET designer Chuck Peddle.

Rodríguez Carrión (2013) noted:

We are seeing a new craft-resurgence in the figure of the digital craftsman within the subculture of hacking and tinkering (crafting) the algorithm (code) or the conception of parametric constrains. These computer enthusiasts are passionately pushing the boundaries of their work and are determined to investigate design boundaries within the virtual world.

This could also be related to Barbrook and Pit Schultz, who in their 1997 ‘Digital Artisans Manifesto’ propose the concept of a ‘digital artisan’, whose autonomous work is made possible in the manner of past craft workers (quoted in Cox 2010).

KYBDslöjd uses a particular way of working with keystrokes and PETSCII on the Commodore 64 with software developed by Mathman (Johan Kotlinski) called Nop. The program consists of two parts: a block of data statements containing the instructions where all the keystrokes are recorded and a section of code which reads in the data and outputs it as an animation and speeds it up. There is no menu, so all the instructions, like color, position and character shape, are typed on the keyboard. Only a black screen with just a blinking character is waiting for you to do something. This is the starting point, like a blank sheet where you are alone and no one else is to blame. Not even the technology for being obsolete. Sennett (2008) noted: “Getting better at using tools comes to us, in part, when the tools challenge us, and this challenge often occurs just because the tools are not fit-for-purpose.” In KYBDslöjd, hardware and software are a challenge, they are not decorations or sources of nostalgia. There is a narrative, a dialogue with the technology. I use the screen as a canvas, a rectilinear grid on which, one keystroke at a time, I build graphics and animations character by character, like crafting or the typewriter technique as Saper (2009) described: “In terms of the procedures to make your own typewriter poem, you should know at the outset that you cannot make corrections, so any unintended strikes force the artist to start over.”

It seems obvious to me how the notion of “skillfully executed” applies to the demoscene and KYBDslöjd, building the connection with craft and the link to typewriter art. The canvas and the characters are common to all, with the exception of hardware and software. As Saper (2009) noted:

Instead of looking to painting, drawing, or even typesetting as an analogy for typewriter poetry, one might look to a traditional folk art, embroidery on canvas, because both use a rectilinear grid on which to build the design one keystroke or stitch at a time.

Alan Riddell (1975) agreed, “One traditional craft has a similarity to typewriter work: embroidery on canvas. This has a rectilinear grid on which the design is built up one stitch at a time.” You cannot make corrections, so any unintended strokes force you to start all over again. This software is not meant for generative graphics. One special feature is that you can scroll up, down, right and left. As Hawking (1988) pointed out, “Imaginary time is indistinguishable from directions in space.” But when you go backward, the black blankness appears again. What you do is what you get. Straightforward. No shortcuts.

“The solitude of the draughtsman before the page is a way of understanding life… Enjoying the creative process is a unique privilege of the author. A pleasure-almost-exclusive for which it is worth to lose oneself”, as stated by Crespo (2015). I lose myself and I type.

Figure 1. Keys of Fury: Type in Beyond the Scrolling Horizon (Le Shadok + FEFFS Strasbourg, 2016). Courtesy of E.P. Baron.

Teletext

In 2016 I wrote a chapter called “Is it Just Text?” in the anthology Teletext in Europe: From the Analog to the Digital Era, edited by Hallvard Moe and Hilde Van den Bulck. The chapter looked at teletext from the perspective of an artist and of its artistic value:

It is argued that teletext is not just news on demand provided by television networks or a character set, and that it is about much more than nostalgia, profit, constraints, domesticity or zombie technology stored in a garage, because teletext performs in ways we have not fully designed it for and not yet fully understood. (Meyers 2016)

“Basically, what teletext did was make it possible to transmit digital text and graphics in color simultaneously with normal television programming… The viewer simply pushed a button on a remote keypad to switch from the network or locally originated video program to the main menu screen of the teletext service”, noted Graziplene (2000). By definition:

Teletext is a news and information service in the form of text and graphics, transmitted using the spare capacity of existing television channels to televisions with appropriate receivers. What the viewer sees on the screen of his teletext TV is a page of characters, 40 in a row, 20–24 rows, 800–960 characters per page. These characters can be presented in a limited number of colours, including coloured backgrounds, and the character set contains all the letters of the alphabet (both uppercase and lowercase), numbers, punctuation marks, special symbols, and graphics. (Meyers 2016)

Teletext is a means of building text and simple geometric shapes from mosaic blocks, and the second key media in KYBDslöjd. In 2011, when I got in touch with the teletext engineer Peter Kwan, who had developed an open source USB teletext inserter (VBIT), we started to work together in a long-term project for teletext live visuals. Teletext is not a physical object; it is the dark band dividing pictures horizontally on the television screen, used by the PAL system. Vertical blanking interval lines are like REM (rapid eye movement) saccades, a door to unlock the imagination. In the aforementioned chapter “I propose to look at teletext as techne, i.e. as knowledge of techniques and knowledge of a skillful or artful use” (Meyers 2016).

Teletext itself is free, a free technology. Business interest from television broadcast companies is long gone thanks to the internet – hobbyists took over as in the late 1970s. “The earliest users were home electronics enthusiasts who had built their own decoder units as add-ons to their television receivers using plans published in a popular electronics and wireless hobbyists’ magazine”, as Graziplene (2000) pointed out. Nowadays you can create your own teletext inserter with a Raspberry Pi and make your own teletext pages with an open source software called edit.tf, created by Simon Rawles. In late February 2017, at the “Block Party 2017: Teletext is the Future” event held at the Centre for Computing History in Cambridge, Dan Farrimond, Kieran H.J. Connell, Jason Robertson, Peter Kwan, Carl Attrill, Peter Fagan, Julian Brown, Alistair Cree, Steve Horsley, Simon Rawles and myself began to work as a collective to combine our skills, practice and knowledge with a technology that still has much to say. As Sennett (2008) claimed: “In technology, as in art, the probing craftsman does more than encounter mess; he or she creates it as a means of understanding working procedures.” Teletext, as well as PETSCII, become arousing tools that awaken the challenge between craft and technology. The future is not obsolete.

Figure 2. Thread of Fate (2014). Award: Teletext Art Achievement Award / International Teletext Art Festival ITAF 2014, Berlin, DE.

Brutalism

As Yuill (2004) wrote:

Brutalism, more properly known as New Brutalism” in its heyday, is arguably one of the most unpopular and least understood architectural styles of the 20th Century. It is mostly associated with rough-cast concrete buildings where its name is linked with the beton brut” casting technique used by Le Corbusier.

I claimed that KYBDslöjd is brutality itself. The character set, provided by PETSCII and teletext, is used unadorned and rough cast, like concrete, which connects it to the Brutalist architecture. Both capture the spirit of their time and contradictions, like in the novel High-rise by Ballard (1975): “An architecture designed for war, on the unconscious level if no other.” – an uncontrollable force. A message in an unknown language, which reveals what it is and what it does without adornment. Brutalism has the unfortunate reputation of evoking a raw dystopia, and old technologies, in general, easily become “objects of nostalgia”. But nostalgic‬, ‪retro‬, obsolete or ‪limited‬ are rhetoric qualities earned by constant repetition. Barthes (1989) observed: “Rhetoric, grandiose effort of an entire culture to analyze and classify the forms of speech, to render the world of language intelligible.”

But, most of the time, rhetoric is used to persuade rather than to argue. As Muckelbauer (2008) pointed out, “First, because of rhetoric’s traditional concern for persuasion (rather than communication), it has been intimately involved with questions of force rather than questions of signification or meaning.” A supplement where nothing else can be said. Hila Becher declared: “[Brutal architecture] is honest, it is functional, and reflects what it does. That’s why we like it.” KYBDslöjd and Brutalism are alike because their raw aspect and unpretentious honesty are ethical rather than aesthetic. Allison and Peter Smithson claimed that “up to now brutalism has been discussed stylistically, whereas its essence is ethical”. Both quotes appeared in the book This brutal world (Chadwick 2016). Yuill (2004) went even further:

It would be more precise to state that they are machines capable of manipulating binary patterns which simulate aspects of human mathematics. It is in those areas of coding that deal directly with this pattern-making process that we encounter a kind of Brutalism.

The rawness of old technologies made KYBDslöjd a brutal medium.

Figure 3. Vladijenk II (The corroded mainframe at Tartarus edition) (2015).

Typewriter, Cross-Stitch and Mosaic

Typewriter is a reference medium in KYBDslöjd, while cross-stitch and mosaic are media applied from PETSCII and Teletext. “Although pictures have been ‘drawn’ on typewriters for many years in the past, a written pattern for reproducing a picture is something entirely new. They can also be reproduced on many types of computer”, noted Neill (1982) on the program for the Commodore PET micro, written by Nick Higham, which produced a printout of a Prince Charles portrait, included in the book.

I started to work with typewriters with the project Secretary Part I (2014) and Noise My Txt (2016). Both are live ‘type in’ performances that mixed the Commodore 64 and typewriter. I have been using typewriter as an ironic link to the secretary subject. For me the word secretary has more to do with the late medieval English meaning, “person entrusted with a secret”, rather than the “female work-force”, which originated at the end of the nineteenth century, as mentioned by Riddell (1975): “More than taking the drudgery from writing, it has transformed business and created the largest female workforce in history, the monstrous regiment of typists.” The typewriter “was instrumental to the emancipation of women” noted Tullett (2014). Typewriter is the machine of modernity and standardization, the reference media whose development “broke the male hegemony in text production and thus completed our modern trinity of the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic”, quoting Kittler (2013).

Figure 4. Secretary Part I. TYPE IN workshop & exhibition (LOVELACE + C4, Copenhagen, 2014).

Cross-stitch refers to counted-thread embroidery and is a medium applied from teletext in KYBDslöjd. A craft that uses the X-shaped stitches in a tiled, raster-like pattern to form a teletext page rather than a picture. It takes KYBDslöjd out of the screen and makes it analog. The example below is a teletext page called Monster Girl (2015) selected for the Museum of Teletext Art (MUTA), broadcast on the Finnish teletext Yle page 805 and at Der Teletext im Ersten / MUTA im ARD Text pages 884–5 (2016).

Figure 5. Monster Girl / *.TTV-file. (MUTA im ARD Text, 2015). Monster Girl,
cross-stitch (2016).

During the residence at Le Shadok, Strasbourg, in September 2016, I laser cut several text characters from the Commodore 64 character set into acrylic (PMMA) objects. A PETSCII drawing was produced by arranging together the PMMA pieces. The result was a mosaic built off-the-grid, shown at the exhibition Keys of Fury (Les Clefs de la Fureur). Mosaic became a medium applied from PETSCII in KYBDslöjd.

Figure 6. PETSCII mosaic (Keys of Fury / Le Shadok + FEFFS Strasbourg, 2016).

As well as with the mosaic, I made several rubber stamps with some of the Commodore 64 characters. During a workshop I conducted at Campbelltown Arts Centre in March 2017, the participants used the PETSCII stamps to create patterns and designs – another example of applied media in KYBDslöjd.

Figure 7. KYBDslöjd workshop (Campbelltown Arts Centre, 2017).

Lord (2014) noted: “Ancient Greek potters saw the clay bodies of their vessels as surfaces that could be painted initially with geometric patterns, but then increasingly with imaginative narratives.” The geometric patterns included in the Commodore 64 character set do the same. It is how you connect them together in an additive way, where one character follows the other, that builds the imaginary using the grid or off-the-grid canvas.

PETSCII and teletext give redundancy and practice economy in construction, like Arnheim (1971) observed on a child’s drawing that represented a skyscraper:

He has recognized the redundancy of the window pattern and has practiced economy by a shortcut in communication. If his procedure strikes us as amusing, it is because we realize that to display structure to the eyes is the very purpose of a picture. […] In dealing with structure, as is constantly done in the arts, regularity of form is not redundancy. It does not diminish information and thereby diminish order.

The shape of the characters and how they are combined is like crafting, but in the sense of how Greenhalgh points out that the phrase “’the craft’ had (and still retains) the meaning of power and secret knowledge”, as cited by Dormer (1997a). Imagination is shaped into characters, a new language to be learned. Based on what Saussure (1959) said: “Language is a system that has its own arrangement.”

The Language

KYBDslöjd is not only a type in method, but also a system of text characters (signs). It is a language. Saussure (1959) noted: “Language is a system of signs that express ideas, and is therefore comparable to a system of writing, the alphabet of deaf-mutes, symbolic rites, polite formulas, military signals, etc.” Its arrangement uses them as instructions on the grid. “The grid as a controlling principle in the form we know it today still remained to be invented”, noted Müller-Brockmann (2008). The grid is the ethos, the system of order. The character set is the narrative for technical knowledge. Like Rodríguez Carrión (2013) describes:

In the context of the digital medium, craft exploration refers to the circumstance where designers apply specific technical knowledge (skill) in an undetermined and open exploration of form, constrains, and limitations that they establish to guide the form generation that is their unique expression.

It is not arbitrary that part of the character set is based on basic geometrical shapes. As Frutiger (1989) pointed out:

It appears from archaeological evidence that humankind has an innate feeling for geometry. Traces of primary signs of the same form are found in many regions of earth, and it may be assumed that they expressed similar meanings for the most varied races at widely different times. This survey is deliberately restricted to a small number of characteristic figures: the square, triangle, and circle among the closed figures; the cross and arrow among the open ones.

The character set is now the property of everyone, control over it is lost. In the case of Teletext, VBI is on the PAL signal, and in the case of PETSCII, Commodore International, defunct in 1994. As Saussure (1959) noted:

The prescriptions of codes, religious rites, nautical signals, etc., involve only a certain number of individuals simultaneously and then only during a limited period of time; in language, on the contrary, everyone participates at all times, and that is why it is constantly being influenced by all.

It is a straightforward language based on keystrokes. Like in ‘tangram’, you have to use your imagination to assemble the characters. Frutiger (1989) stated:

We form one complete sign from the basic signs of the square, triangle, circle, and cross already mentioned in our considerations. This piling up of the different elements produces such a complex and opaque expression that it can no longer be called a sign, but rather a schema with thousands of possibilities.

It is not a task of management or boredom. On the 50th anniversary of BASIC, in the article Thank you, Basic: Developers remember 50 years of creative coding (The Guardian, 2014), Bellis claimed “It felt like magic, learning a secret code”.

At this point it is important to admit that I am just a mediator, even if I learnt the basics of the (not so) secret code. As Barthes (1977) put it: “In ethnographic societies the responsibility for a narrative is never assumed by a person but by a mediator, shaman or relator whose ‘performance’ – the mastery of the narrative code – may possibly be admired but never his ‘genius’.” I am a KYBDslöjd shaman, a performer who fights the absence of meaning in emerging media technology.

Figure 8. Keys of Fury (2016).

Myopia for the Future

THIS IS A STORY OF THE FUTURE – NOT THE FUTURE OF SPACE SHIPS AND MEN FROM OTHER PLANETS – BUT THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE

Written prologue for Michael Anderson’s film 1984 (1956).

The hypersensitivity to reward in decision-making has been termed by Damasio (2006) as “myopia for the future”. To be “oblivious to the consequences of their actions and guided only by immediate prospects”, argued Bechara et al. (1994). Some political scientists apply this concept to society as the tendency to choose that which rewards us now, regardless of the damage it may cause in the long run. I claim that immediate satisfaction can be applied to technology as well.

We hunt and are hunted by fear in our cellphones. Quoting Steyerl (2012): “Your life condenses into an object in the palm of your hand, ready to be slammed into a wall and still grinning at you, shattered, dictating deadlines, recording, interrupting.” As well as Leader (2016): “People complain of being too attached to their phones and tablets, as if their hands just can’t stop touching them. The hand, symbol of human agency and ownership, is also a part of ourselves that escapes us.” We are trapped between autonomy and self-determination. Fuck the long run! Long live myopia for the future!

We live in a time where modern technology does not seem to challenge us, or as Svendsen (2005) noted: “The problem is that modern technology more and more makes us passive observers and consumers, and less and less active players. This gives us a meaning deficit.” Convenience is king and apathy arises. He also mentioned that

Technology involves the dematerialization of the world, where things disappear into pure functionality. We have long since passed a stage where we could keep track of technology. We scurry along behind, as is perhaps particularly clear in IT, where hardware and software have always become obsolete before most of the users have learned how to use them.

There is no quest for knowledge and imagination, only a new order of speed, escape and passivity.

There is a misconception in regard to old technologies, thanks to media archaeology and Bruce Sterling’s Dead Media Project (1995). They are not “unrealized dead media” or “a recurring pattern of media activity is the use of electronic or technological media to bridge the divide between the living and the dead”, as claimed by Huhtamo and Parikka (2011). They are not zombies to be reanimated or kept stored, they are meant to be used. They are not souvenirs from the past or a nostalgic cliché. As Graburn (1979) pointed out: “Souvenir gift objects can become visual clichés, conforming to the consumer’s popular misconceptions.”

We are now in a future invention nightmare originating from the late 1970s’ computer utopias in California and their propaganda on how computer networks could create order in society shaped by neoliberal wisdom. Simply put, economy is the king. Anything that goes against it must be neutralized (destroyed). Bauman (2007) emphasized that

Progress, once the most extreme manifestation of radical optimism and a promise of universally shared and lasting happiness, has moved all the way to the opposite, dystopian and fatalistic pole of anticipation. […] Instead of great expectations and sweet dreams, ’progress’ evokes an insomnia full of nightmares of ’being left behind’ – of missing the train, or falling out of the window of a fast accelerating vehicle.

When I started to work with old technologies in late 2010, it was clear to me that it was a responsibility, not an aesthetic choice, not a pursuit of self-identity, not an ego trip, not an idle occupation to pass time. It is an unrevealed force, which tests me every time and it has always been there. I just did not know the language, so I learned it. It makes me free and my imagination awakes like an earthquake. There are no constraints, only possibilities. I am free and I get out of the “fast accelerating vehicle”, to quote Bauman.

The distorted and oversimplified vision of freedom does not help either. “If you allow individuals too much freedom you will get anarchy”, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011). But anarchism is not this egoistic primitive concept of doing what you want no matter what, like Ayn Rand’s libertarian vision and rational/ethical egoism that doomed us to the Californian ideology. For an anarchist as Daniel Guerin, as noted by Chomsky (2005) “freedom is not an abstract philosophical concept, but the vital concrete possibility for every human being to bring to full development all the powers, capacities, and talents with which nature has endowed him, and turn them to social account.” Virilio (2012) goes even further:

Speed, the cult of speed, is the propaganda of progress. The problem is that progress has become contaminated with its propaganda. The computer bomb exploded progress in its materiality, its substance in the sense of reality, geopolitics, temporal relationships, rhythm.

It does not matter what we do. We retreat and do not hope for the future. Curtis rubbed salt in the wound with HyperNormalisation (2016):

Even those who thought they were attacking the system, the radicals, the artists, the musicians and the whole counter-culture, actually become part of the trickery. Because they too, are retreated into the make belief world which is why the opposition has no effect and nothing ever changes.

I do not retreat. I am wearing my glasses. I use old and free technologies. I do KYBDslöjd.

Figure 9. Myopia for the Future (2016).

Talk Is Cheap

Taken from Bold’s song from the album Speak Out (1988). Bold is a late 1980s’ New York youth crew hardcore band. I was born in 1977, the year of punk, but also as Steyerl (2012) noted: “In 1977, human history reached a turning point. Heroes died, or, more accurately, they disappeared. They were not killed by the foes of heroism, but were transferred to another dimension, dissolved, transformed into ghosts.” The DIY and hardcore scene is part of my background. Photocopies, collage and analog photography, not computers. That is why I have no nostalgia for old technology – I never had it. When people were at home doing data and learning machinery, I was screaming in a basement with my band or lost in a polluted town with a tripod and a 35mm camera on B exposure. In my opinion, the 1980s were wild and the 1990s sober-minded, at least in Spain. I grew up surrounded by Hammer Horror Monsters and “fake advertising spots meant to ridicule real ads and propose alternatives to the consumer society” (Rico 2003). One of the several spots declared: “Use the machine, don’t be the machine.” This idea stuck in my mind and never left. Not only as an anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist and anti-authoritarian message, but as a quest for freedom through knowledge, imagination and creativity (Meyers 2016).

To borrow Cohen’s (1996) terms, “we live in a time of monsters”. But these monsters do not hunt our imagination anymore. “We are all hunters now, or told to be hunters and called or compelled to act as hunters do, on penalty of eviction from hunting, if not (perish the thought!) of relegation to the ranks of the game”, noted Bauman (2007). We are the hunters, the monsters, the zombies. Not the technology. “Your shell is hollow, so am I”, from Under The Surface (Neurosis, Times Of Grace, 1999), roars in my head. There is a void in front of us and we do not want to look inside. We keep avoiding it. At some point, it will eat us once and for all. It is irremediable. My modest social account to stand against it is my artisan imagination and KYBDslöjd. As pointed out by Gordon (2016): “It’s like the famous distinction between art and craft: Art, and wildness, and pushing against the edges, is a male thing. Craft, and control, and polish, is for women.” I will ride and stand along the “male-genius-artist behavior” (Steyerl 2012), wild and free. Fighting with the only weapon I have, my work, even if I fail or burn. I will rise from the ashes because accommodation and domestication are not my place. Type in Beyond the Scrolling Horizon. The Keys of Fury. The disobedience.

Figure 10. Ambush aka. Acecho (2016).

Conclusion: What the Hell for?

Quoting the writer (Stalker, 1979), “A man writes because he is tormented, because he doubts. He needs to constantly prove to himself and the others that he’s worth something. And if I know for sure that I’m a genius? Why write then? What the hell for?”

Keys of Fury is an artistic statement about KYBDslöjd, which leaves and transverses the discourse of old technologies as nostalgic–retro–dead media–archive for the future. They are not a souvenir from the past for purely aesthetic amusement. It is brutalist storytelling about technology and keystrokes, where I am merely a narrator who builds imaginary on and off the grid, shaped in text characters raw and unadorned. A type in artisan, a secretary entrusted with a secret code, a brutal language without CRTL-Z I keep learning. A tacit knowledge where there is no immediate satisfaction or gratifying closure. An open-ended form of defiance against the unbearable boredom and simplicity that reassure us behind our screens.

Figure 11. KYBDslöjd visual essay (2016).

Figure 12. Poster, Keys of Fury: Type in Beyond the Scrolling Horizon (Le Shadok + FEFFS Strasbourg, 2016).

References

All links verified 14.6.2017.

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Kategoriat
1–2/2017 WiderScreen 20 (1–2)

From Currency in the Warez Economy to Self-Sufficient Art Form: Text Mode Graphics and the “Scene”

ANSI art, ASCII art, Bulletin Board Systems, text art, warez scene

Gleb J. Albert
gleb.albert [a] uzh.ch
Postdoctoral researcher
University of Zurich

Printable PDF-version

It is relatively seldom that the contemporary computer user comes across text mode graphics. Apart from occasional frames and boxes in a Linux shell, it would most likely be an “infofile” from a pirate group with which a user would be confronted. In recent years, though, the aesthetic of text mode art has experienced a rebirth: one can buy ASCII logos printed on t-shirts, ANSI art gets featured on album covers, and some of the most proficient artists from the 1990s are making impressive comebacks. Yet all this mostly takes place outside text mode graphics’ natural habitat: the screen of a text-only operating system.

The history of character-based art is much older than that of the home computer[1]. However, one of the most influential and prolific breeding grounds of text mode art in North America and Europe has been the array of home computer subcultures that is known under the umbrella term of the “scene”, a term usually employed by the subcultures themselves[2]. The “scene” has its root in “cracking” proprietary software’s copy protection and circulating such “cracked” programs in the 1980s and early 1990s – an activity that found its form in a distinct subculture (often referred to as the “warez scene” in the US-American context) with own rituals and value systems, and later on gave birth to creative digital subcultures such as the demoscene or the music tracking scene[3]. Characteristics that unite these cultures, apart from their historical roots in the heyday of home computing, are their forms of socialisation (individuals taking on pseudonyms and banding together in groups that compete with each other in a particular field of computer activity), their approach to proprietary data authorship and ownership (the concept of cracked or self-programmed software constituting a “release” that is not to be altered and re-appropriated by other scene members) (Vuorinen 2007), their attachment to particular computer platforms (Reunanen and Silvast 2009), and last but not least, their affinity for artistic text mode graphics which they used for the digital “packaging” of their output as well as for the design of their pre-WWW communication channels. It is in this context that text mode art could gain traction and seep into ordinary users’ everyday encounters with their machines.

The aim of this short piece is to take a brief look at the history of text mode art as it developed within the scene. Text mode art has attracted only little attention from historical research, and even less when it comes to its history within the scene. Apart from brief mentions in standard works on demosene history (Botz 2011, 345–47; Polgár 2005, 121–22), a short general history has been presented by Anders Carlsson and A. Bill Miller (Carlsson and Miller 2012), while the text mode art scenes on the PC and the Amiga respectively have been dealt with in the qualification theses by Michael Hargadon and Heikki Lotvonen (Hargadon 2010; Lotvonen 2015). While Lotvonen roots the history of the art form in the subculture only very briefly and puts his focus on the aesthetics of ASCII art, Hargadon delivers an in-depth analysis of both the technical preconditions of PC ANSI art and its rootedness in subcultural practices, focusing his analysis on the early- to mid-1990s PC warez scene in North America. Hargadon’s research was recently taken up by Kevin Driscoll, who embedded ANSI art into the history of the North American culture of Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), the latter being a pre-WWW medium of communication and file exchange based on data transfer through telephone landlines and operating through text mode interfaces (Driscoll 2014, 191ff).

My perspective is a twofold one: on the one hand, of a historian working on a global social history of software piracy in the early days of home computing; on the other hand, of someone who had followed the developments of text mode art in the scene as a participant/observer for nearly two decades. The second perspective is not employed merely to delve into nostalgia, but is a necessity given the problematic archival situation of digital subcultures, especially concerning the history of BBS culture: While the files exchanged through the systems are often archived, the BBSs themselves, in terms of their functionality, outlook and textual content, are usually not (Driscoll 2014, 22–24).

The present thematic issue provides an opportunity to embed Hargadon’s findings into a multi-platform history of the scene, and to bring up a few general points regarding the history of scene text mode art which will hopefully stimulate further discussion and pave the way for further research in this area. Leaving aside the embedding of text mode art into art history and/or the history of aesthetics, and instead taking a perspective of media and social history, the points to be raised here concern the technological determinism behind the rise and fall of scene text mode art and, even more importantly, the internal subcultural dynamics that profoundly shaped the development and usage of text mode art within the honour and barter economies of the scene (cf. Rehn 2004).

The arguments I will make are limited not only in terms of geography[4], with the subcultures in question developing in Europe and the US, but also in terms of the hardware concerned. While certain forms of text mode graphics existed on virtually all home computer platforms that were relevant for the early scene’s development, it is on three of them where one can observe elaborate subcultural practices based on text mode creativity: the Commodore 64 (C64), the Commodore Amiga, and the IBM PC. While scene graphics using the C64 character set (PETSCII) have already received their own treatment[5], I will focus on the traditions and developments on the latter two platforms, since text mode art on both of them a) developed under similar circumstances in terms of communicational infrastructure, and b) share the same standard (ASCII/ANSI) with a high degree of inter-platform compatibility (despite peculiarities in the respective system fonts).

To explain the technicalities of text mode character sets on both platforms would exceed the frame of this paper, but a few introductory remarks are necessary. Both platforms shared the ASCII standard, featuring letters, numbers, punctuation marks, and a limited set of special characters. Also, both platforms supported ANSI escape codes, making it possible to choose 16 different colours for the characters and their background. The default character set of the IBM PC, however, known as “code page 437”, additionally featured a number of line and block characters (Driscoll 2014, 191–96).

This had implications for the range of possibilities for using these character sets for drawing. While the additional “high-ASCII” characters of the PC, particularly the “blocks”, allowed for figurative “drawing” focused on form-filling and shading (Fig. 1 and 2),[6] the limited ASCII character set of the Amiga did not provide such possibilities, leading artists to focus mostly on logo-type graphics based on outlines, not unlike graffiti “throw-ups” (Fig. 3). Drawing ASCII on Amiga, however, also had its advantages since Topaz, the standard Amiga font, had much more narrow spacing than the default MS-DOS font – thus, one could form almost seamless lines using slashes, backslashes and underscores.

Figure 1. Example of PC ASCII art: Closed Society by Roy/SAC, 1995. http://pc.textmod.es/pack/sac0995/roy-csa.asc.

Figure 2. Example of PC ANSI art used in BBS design: Hazard/2 BBS main menu by Avenger/BM, 1997. http://pc.textmod.es/pack/bmbook13/ave-h86.ans.

Figure 3. Slave New World, Amiga ASCII logo by Desert/Dezign, 1993. http://amiga.textmod.es/colly/dezignuc/.

Another consequence of the different character sets was the way text mode graphics were created. Since Amiga text mode artists used merely characters that were accessible through the keyboard, they did not need special software for creating their artworks and could use simple text editors. Text mode artists on the PC, however, could not access the “high-ASCII” characters by just pressing one keyboard key. This caused the rise of ANSI drawing programs for MS-DOS, with which artists could not only use different block characters via the function keys, but also assign fore- and background colours to characters.

Text Mode Art and the Scene Economy

The first point to be made about scene text mode art is that despite its seemingly self-evident aesthetic genealogies, it developed “organically” and independently, without any continuity from earlier forms of text mode art. The development of text mode art on both Amiga and PC is bound to the practices of data exchange and social bonding over modem-facilitated connections – this thesis, convincingly worked out by Hargadon for the PC scene, is in fact true for both platforms. Up to the late 1980s, when the predominant means of data transfer within the scene was via floppy disks through the post, text mode art played only a peripheral role in the scene’s communication. While on the C64, PETSCII graphics were used to design disk directories, there was no technical necessity to employ text mode graphics on the Amiga or the PC. Moreover, in the C64 as well as the early Amiga scene, most of the scene’s artistic self-expression, apart from the actual coded productions, happened through “old” media. The age of “mailswapping” was a flourishing period for paper art, with skilfully designed disk sleeves, letterheads and paper magazines.[7] However, when BBS became the scene’s standard medium for both communication and data exchange, artists were restricted to the limited set of characters transmittable over modem.[8] Thus, text mode graphics found their natural habitat.

Character-based graphics proved useful and meaningful to several actor groups within the BBS-based warez scene. On the one hand, it was the system operators (sysops) of “elite” BBSs who created the demand for text mode artworks – an argument which Hargadon developed for the case of the PC underground, but which holds true for the Amiga scene as well. The standard design of BBS software was simple and dull; to give their “boards” (as scene participants casually called BBSs) an individual look and let them stand out against countless competitors, sysops needed individually crafted design for their BBSs – and text mode graphics were the only technically feasible way to achieve this (Hargadon 2010, 128–34; Driscoll 2014, 191–97).

On the other hand, those users who supplied the BBS file areas with “releases” used text mode graphics for their own ends. Given the nature of BBS file listing, ASCII graphics were a way to make one’s uploads stand out (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Snapshot of a file list from the music file area of the Rebels Hideout BBS (Amiga, Denmark), 1991–1992 (private collection of Glenn Lunder).

Additionally, “trading” data through landlines was a cumbersome and slow process. As first-generation Amiga ASCII artist and cracking scene protagonist Rotox recalled in an interview, he “started doing ascii […] to pass the time while trading releases to boards because at the time you didn’t really have much else to do other than watch a ZModem progress bar.[9] […] When I was trading a new release I used the time it would take to upload/download to create the file description logo, so the times would vary but usually around 10 minutes.” (Dipswitch 2003)

Through this practice of drawing logos and then pasting them into the “file description” field, file description text mode graphics became a solid part of the “package” around a scene release, alongside the infofile and the filenaming scheme. Just as much as the crack intro (Reunanen, Wasiak, and Botz 2015), this package constituted the act of turning a “digital object into an artefact” (Vuorinen 2007, 29) and converting a commodity of the software market’s monetary economy into the barter economy of the scene.

It is hard to say when exactly text mode art gained its solid place in release packaging in both the PC and Amiga scenes. While cracking groups have often included text files with notes about their releases early on (Garrett 2004, 5–6), the infofile as a regular feature of a release, carrying the .NFO file suffix, was introduced by the US-based PC cracking group The Humble Guys around 1989–1990[10] and soon became a standard feature of releases on the Amiga as well. The FILE_ID.DIZ text file format, introduced around 1993–1994 by the shareware producers’ community (Holler 1994) and serving as a means for program authors to have the description of their programs to be automatically displayed by BBS file lists, was immediately picked up by the scene on both platforms (Polgár 2005, 121). The format’s limitations (45 characters wide, 10 to 15 lines long) posed a special challenge for text mode artists, yet it was a rewarding one: the FILE_ID.DIZ file description was the first thing a BBS user saw of a particular release, even before downloading it. As FILE_ID.DIZ files were displayed automatically by the BBS software right after the upload, this format provided the warez groups with a chance to gain monopoly over how their releases would appear in a BBS file list, denying the uploaders the chance to add their own (possibly critical) comments to the releases. At first glance, this development might seem as a stifling of ASCII artworks, since BBS traders such as the aforementioned Rotox could no longer add their own artworks to their uploads. However, since the release groups used the FILE_ID.DIZ as a kind of trademark, they needed skilled artists to provide them with appropriate logos, thus assigning them a fixed role in the process of creating releases.

Figures 5 and 6. Snapshots of file lists from The Edge BBS (Amiga, USA), 1991 and 1993 (private collection of Glenn Lunder). Fig. 6 features FILE_ID.DIZ logos from the cracking groups Digital, Delight and Anthrox. Notice the uploaders’ judgemental comments on the releases in Fig. 5 – a thing rendered impossible by the usage of FILE_ID.DIZ files.

A Respected Scene Profession

Through the demand of both sysops and release groups, the creation of text mode graphics within the scene turned from a spare time activity of BBS traders into a self-conscious scene “profession”, along with other scene-internal roles such as cracker, programmer, musician or original supplier. Text mode graphics became a commodity with an ascribed value in the scene’s barter economy, and a means for text mode artists to gain “subcultural capital” within the scene (cf. Thornton 2005). Text mode artists and release groups thus entered into a symbiotic relationship. Groups were interested in having custom-made ASCII art for their releases, since the first visible aspects of a release, its “business card” so to speak, were reduced to text mode: the FILE_ID.DIZ, visible for the BBS user while browsing the filelisting, and the infofile, visible between downloading and executing a cracked program. Text mode artists, on the other hand, could gain fame by groups using their artwork: the more active and well-respected a release group was, the more its releases circulated through the BBS networks, sporting the artists’ logos. The more popular a group’s first “trademark” – the FILE_ID.DIZ logo – became, the more other groups wanted to have logos in the same style, providing the artist with more requests and thus with more credit within the scene’s honour and barter economy. When asked about the ways his group acquired its ASCII art for release-packaging purposes, the leader of Skid Row (one of the most prominent cracking collectives in the early 1990s Amiga scene) described two means of acquisition: either he would request logos from artists he knew and liked, or artists would send logos to him out of respect for his group (Subzero 2016).

Even though text mode artists often fulfilled other roles in the scene, this development meant that individuals proficient in this art form could gain entry into the scene’s inner circles without having any other technical skills, and thus profit from the scene’s social and cultural capital (networks, access to recent software, fame derived from affiliation with a well-known group).[11] For some individuals, drawing text mode artwork was the only feasible entry point into the scene. As a PC ANSI artist recalled, “I had a slower modem and not a lot of time so the only way I could get any download credit was to do ANSI really.“ (Ashes of Gehenna 2016).

The demand within the scene for text mode art is also manifest in the way BBSs developed their own techniques for soliciting text mode art, such as “ANSI Request doors” – BBS add-ons through which users could get in touch with text mode artists and pass them their requests for custom-made artworks.[12] Also, text mode graphics soon became a commodity that was exchangeable for other scene “goods” such as the aforementioned download credits on BBSs.[13] Even remuneration in cash was not uncommon, at least in the PC scene where the larger investment of time needed to create ANSI graphics made monetary compensations more justifiable. ANSI artists would approach other scene members offering their services, or even advertise them – complete with a price list – in their artworks, while the monetary transaction would happen via cash-by-mail (Ashes of Gehenna 2016; Misfit 2016).

Soon, text mode artists within the scene would organise into their own collectives: both ANSI/ASCII groups on the PC and ASCII group on the Amiga would appear during the first years of the early 1990s.[14] The fact that these groups would use the same infrastructures as the warez scene (being listed as “affiliates” on the same BBSs etc.) shows that these groups were deemed useful and worthy by the scene peers. Their output – in forms of ASCII collections (“collies”) and ANSI/ASCII packs (“artpacks”) – were considered “releases”, that is digital commodities in the barter economy just like cracked software, which could be uploaded onto BBSs to gain download credits.

Art for Art’s Sake

In time, at least in the Amiga ASCII scene, this sort of organising began to be considered too easy a way of entering the scene by those who saw ASCII art as merely a pastime (no matter how well-respected) of people preoccupied with other “trades” within the scene. This can be seen in discussions in several ASCII collections made by established first-generation artists who thought the new generation of artists were gaining entry to the scene too easily.[15] This tension can be explained by the fact that in the Amiga scene, the split between “legal” and “illegal” activities (Reunanen 2014) did not manifest itself on the level of BBS infrastructure: “legal-only” BBSs were rare, and the pirate releases of commercial software were often uploaded in the same file areas as the ASCII art collections, the latter clogging up the file lists from the perspective of those merely interested in cracked programs.

On the PC, the scene underwent a more pronounced infrastructural differentiation: from the mid-1990s onwards a distinct “art scene” appeared, with its own bulletin board systems and other means of communication such as Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels.[16] Thus, when the PC warez scene moved its operations from bulletin board systems onto FTP servers during the second half of the 1990s, the “art scene” did not follow: It mostly remained within its own infrastructure of BBSs and IRC channels. Drawing requests for other scenes became less important for ANSI practitioners: aside from occasional requests by demoscene groups, the “packs” were dominated by pieces drawn either for “art scene” BBSs or simply for the sake of it. Those few PC art groups which remained closely connected to the warez scene and catered to its demand for text mode graphics, such as Superior Art Creations (SAC), were rather an exception. What was originally the standard mode of barter economy in the relationship between text mode art and the scene, was now to be found only on the periphery of the “art scene”.

With the enhancement of instant real time communication brought about by IRC (which could theoretically involve, unlike multi-node chat systems on BBSs, an infinite number of participants), artists’ competitions took a more predominant role in the scene – the most prominent of them possibly being Blender, where participants had to draw ANSI artworks based on certain topics within a limited time span.[17] Competitions which revolved around drawing artworks to be used in BBS layouts existed as well, but were less prominent.[18] The self-sufficiency of the PC art scene also became evident in that it began producing digital content other than text mode art, such as tracked music and even digital literature (on the latter, see O’Hara 2006, 112f.). Groups dedicated to these artforms rarely saw themselves as part of the (predominantly European) demoscene; they mostly appeared as sub-groups of existing ANSI groups, the bulk of which were located in North America. All in all, during the second half of the 1990s the PC art scene came to form a self-sufficient environment that had minimal interaction with other subsections of the scene.

On the Amiga, due to the reasons outlined above, this encapsulation from the rest of the scene did not take place in such a pronounced form. However, the sheer amount of ASCII artists and groups produced an oversaturation of the “market”, exceeding the demand for text mode art in BBS design and group release packaging. Major cracking and demo groups went on using the same infofile and FILE_ID.DIZ designs for years, which made perfect sense, as these served as well-tried group trademarks; newer artists, however, had less chance to see their works in circulation. As a result, the Amiga ASCII scene also experienced a turn inwards, although not to such an extent as the art scene on the PC: ASCII collections focussed less on the content than on design, requests took a back seat compared to gifts and logos drawn “just for fun”,[19] and several scene magazines focussed on the competition between ASCII groups and ASCII-related discussions than on catering the rest of the Amiga scene with artworks.

Death as Craft, Rebirth as Art Form

In the end, the same set of technological preconditions and subcultural practices that enabled the rise of text mode art as a distinct scene art form also proved its demise. In the course of the second half of the 1990s, bulletin board systems finally became extinct as the backbone of the scene’s infrastructure in favour of Internet-based means of communication. While the demoscene, both on PC and Amiga, began to conduct its communication over web-based forums, IRC channels, blogs and mailing lists, the PC warez scene moved its file exchange onto secure FTP file servers. The Amiga warez scene, experiencing its final peak during the third quarter of the 1990s, became extinct altogether due to the bankruptcy of Commodore and the subsequent dearth of commercial software that could be cracked; some of its BBSs, having gained a foothold into the Internet age by using the Telnet protocol, continued to remain online, but ultimately closed down due to the lack of users and new files.

For text mode art groups on both the PC and the Amiga, “art for the art’s sake” seemed to prove unsustainable at first. While there were at least 706 PC artpacks released in 1997, the number went down to 191 in 2000, 40 in 2005 and ultimately 4 in 2010.[20] As for Amiga ASCII collections, while at least 173 were released between January and September 1999, a mere 19 came out during the same months of 2003.[21] Text mode art lost its natural habitat within the scene, and while the art form largely failed to attract new practitioners doing it for the artistic aspects, seasoned artists, like the aforementioned Rotox, ceased to “see the point unless the logos are actually going to be used on a BBS, FTP site or by a Group” (Dipswitch 2003).

Only in recent years can a certain revival be observed. Fuelled by the new possibilities of instant long-distance communication through social networks, as well as the availability of new text mode graphics software enabling both cross-platform and networked drawing,[22] both old artists making their comebacks and even some new ones discovered text mode art in the scene tradition – including the tradition of forming groups and releasing art packages – resulting in 14 PC text mode artpacks in 2016.[23] A prominent trait of this new text mode art wave is not only the conscious breakdown of platform boundaries between PC and Amiga, but also experimentations with other text mode-based platforms such as PETSCII or Teletext.[24] These practitioners see platforms merely as different modes of expression, not any longer as habitats and objects of fandom – a development owed to possibilities of platform emulation and cross-platform software development. Also, contrary to the traditions outlined here, the new collectives, while being conscious of their roots in the scene, are not any longer part of a scene-internal digital barter economy. Instead, they act as self-conscious participants in the field of computer art, which even includes participating in offline exhibitions.[25] These artists take their skills, sharpened by their teenage scene experience, into a new context and use them as unique and valuable assets in the vast field of “grown-up” art.

Thus, one could say, text mode art in the scene tradition has only now evolved from an applied craft to a self-conscious, independent art form. However, while writing the history of this particular art form it is not enough to focus on its aesthetics; both the technical preconditions and the subcultural economies are crucial to understanding its genesis and development. Exploring these aspects in depth is a task to be taken up by future historians and media scholars.

References

All links verified 14.6.2017

Albert, Gleb J. 2017. ‘Computerkids als mimetische Unternehmer. Die „Cracker-Szene“ der 1980er Jahre zwischen Subkultur und Ökonomie’. WerkstattGeschichte, no. 74: in print.

Ashes of Gehenna. 2016. Interview by Gleb J. Albert. FB-chat, 24 December.

Botz, Daniel. 2011. Kunst, Code und Maschine. Die Ästhetik der Computer-Demoszene. Bielefeld: Transcript.

Cambus, Fredric. 2013. ‘Taiwanese BBSes and Unicode ANSi Art’. Fredric Cambus’ Blog. April 10. https://www.cambus.net/taiwanese-bbses-and-unicode-ansi-art/.

Carlsson, Anders. 2009. ‘The Forgotten Pioneers of Creative Hacking and Social Networking – Introducing the Demoscene’. In Re:live: Media Art Histories 2009 Conference Proceedings, edited by Sean Cubitt and Paul Thomas, 16–20. Melbourne: The University of Melbourne & Victorian College of the Arts and Music.

Carlsson, Anders, and A. Bill Miller. 2012. ‘Future Potentials for ASCII Art’. Paper presented at the Computer Art Congress 3, Paris. http://goto80.com/chipflip/06/.

Dipswitch. 2003. ‘Interview with Rotox/ART’. The Ascii Charts. October. http://files.scene.org/view/mags/the_ascii_charts/tac-0310.txt.

Driscoll, Kevin. 2014. ‘Hobbyist Inter-Networking and the Popular Internet Imaginary: Forgotten Histories of Networked Personal Computing, 1978–1998’. PhD diss., Los Angeles: University of Southern California.

Garrett, Ben. 2004. ‘Online Software Piracy of the Last Millennium’. http://pdf.textfiles.com/academics/online-software-piracy-of-the-last-millennium-1_0.pdf.

Gelder, Ken. 2005. ‘The Field of Subcultural Studies’. In The Subcultures Reader, edited by Ken Gelder, 2nd ed., 1–14. London: Routledge.

Hargadon, Michael A. 2010. ‘Like City Lights, Receding: ANSi Artwork and the Digital Underground, 1985–2000’. MA thesis, Montreal: Concordia University.

Holler, Richard. 1994. ‘FILEID.TXT v 1.9’. http://www.textfiles.com/computers/fileid.txt.

Irwin, John. 1977. Scenes. Beverly Hills: SAGE.

Lotvonen, Heikki. 2015. ‘Amiga ASCII-taide’. BA thesis, Espoo: Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture.

Meyers, Raquel. 2016. ‘Is It Just Text?’ In Teletext in Europe. From the Analog to the Digital Era, edited by Hallvard Moe and Hilde van den Bulck, 31–49. Göteborg: Nordicom.

Misfit. 2016. Interview by Gleb J. Albert. FB-chat, 24 December.

O’Hara, Rob. 2006. Commodork: Sordid Tales from a BBS Junkie. s.l.: lulu.com.

Polgár, Tamás. 2005. Freax. The Brief History of the Computer Demoscene. Winnenden: CSW-Verlag.

Ratliff, Brendan. 2007. ‘Why Did Freely Shared, Tracked Music in the 1990’s Computer Demoscene Survive the Arrival of the MP3 Age?’ MA thesis, Newcastle upon Tyne: University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Rehn, Alf. 2004. ‘The Politics of Contraband: The Honor Economies of the Warez Scene’. The Journal of Socio-Economics 33(3): 359–74.

Reunanen, Markku. 2014. ‘How Those Crackers Became Us Demosceners’. WiderScreen, no. 1–2. http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2014-1-2/crackers-became-us-demosceners/.

Reunanen, Markku, and Antti Silvast. 2009. ‘Demoscene Platforms: A Case Study on the Adoption of Home Computers’. In History of Nordic Computing 2, edited by John Impagliazzo, Timo Järvi, and Petri Paju, 289–301. Berlin: Springer.

Reunanen, Markku, Patryk Wasiak, and Daniel Botz. 2015. ‘Crack Intros: Piracy, Creativity and Communication’. International Journal of Communication 9: 798–817.

Subzero. 2016. Interview, Cologne. Interview by Gleb J. Albert. Audio recording, 6 January.

Thornton, Sarah. 2005. ‘The Social Logic of Subcultural Capital [1995]’. In The Subcultures Reader, edited by Ken Gelder, 2nd ed., 184–92. London: Routledge.

Vuorinen, Jukka. 2007. ‘Ethical Codes in the Digital World: Comparisons of the Proprietary, the Open/Free and the Cracker System’. Ethics and Information Technology 9(1): 27–38.

Wasiak, Patryk. 2012. ‘“Illegal Guys”. A History of Digital Subcultures in Europe during the 1980s’. Zeithistorische Forschungen/Studies in Contemporary History 9(2): 257–76.

Woo, Benjamin, Jamie Rennie, and Stuart R. Poyntz. 2015. ‘Scene Thinking: Introduction’. Cultural Studies 29(3): 285–97.

Notes

[1] A fascinating, ever-growing collection of examples spanning over centuries is maintained by Anders Carlsson at http://text-mode.tumblr.com/. I am very much indebted to him and the issue’s editors for comments and criticism of this paper, as well as to Brendan Ratliff for proofreading and Glenn Lunder for providing me with BBS file lists.

[2] For the historical roots of “scene” as analytical concept for subculture studies, see e.g. Irwin 1977; Gelder 2005; Woo, Rennie, and Poyntz 2015. For the (self-)usage of the term by home computer subcultures, see Reunanen 2014.

[3] For the cracking scene in the 1980s: Wasiak 2012; Albert 2017. For the demoscene and particularly its contested roots, see Carlsson 2009; Botz 2011; Reunanen 2014. For tracking music, see Ratliff 2007.

[4] Due to this geographical focus, this paper omits seemingly similar developments in other world regions, such as BBS graphics in Taiwan. Cf.: Cambus 2013.

[5] See the papers by Anders Carlsson and Raquel Meyers in the present issue.

[6] However, there are also text mode graphics on the PC that use “low-ASCII” characters, particularly the so-called “$-style” which makes use of the dollar sign for form-filling, and “oldschool style” inspired by Amiga ASCII, using slashes and underscores.

[7] For a constantly growing archive of these artefacts, see http://gotpapers.untergrund.net.

[8] As an exception, one has to note the curious case of the Polish Amiga demoscene, which relied on “mailswapping” until well into the second half of the 1990s and yet had a very prolific output of ASCII art.

[9] For Z-Modem and other BBS file transfer protocols, see Driscoll 2014, 226–30.

[10] Garrett mentions 1990 (Garrett 2004, 6), while the group entry for The Humble Guys at Demozoo gives a more precise hint at a particular release in 1989: https://demozoo.org/groups/7421/.

[11] For the application of Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of different sorts of capital onto the cracking scene, see Albert 2017.

[12] For an example from 1996, see https://files.scene.org/view/resources/bbs/food/foodmao1.zip. For BBS modding, see Driscoll 2014, 162f.

[13] For download limitations through ratio/credit systems on BBSs, see Driscoll 2014, 315.

[14] For ANSI groups, see Hargadon 2010, 136–37. For over 400 Amiga ASCII groups that existed in the course of the 1990s, see http://amiga.textmod.es/crew/.

[15] See e.g. Desert/Dezign, “28 Highlightz!”, 1995, http://amiga.textmod.es/colly/dezign28/; Rotox/Art, “Description Art Volume One!”, 1993, http://amiga.textmod.es/colly/art01/.

[16] For the phenomenon of “art boards“, BBSs solely dedicated to the text mode art scene, see Hargadon 2010, 150.

[17] For the entries of the competition, which was revived in 2015, see http://pc.textmod.es/crew/the.blender/.

[18] Such as the GO! ANSI Compo between 1997 and 1998, see https://demozoo.org/groups/38846/.

[19] On the composition and content of Amiga ASCII collections, see Lotvonen 2015, 19–24.

[20] Annual statistics at http://sixteencolors.net/Year.

[21] Calculation based on the release tables in the 1999 and 2003 issues of The Ascii Charts, https://files.scene.org/browse/mags/the_ascii_charts/.

[22] For PabloDraw, the most popular of such tools, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PabloDraw.

[23] http://sixteencolors.net/pack?year=2016.

[24] For the latter, see Meyers 2016.

[25] See http://blocktronics.org/exhibitions/; http://www.platine-festival.de/?portfolio_category=2013#platine-2013.