Pushing Computers As Far As They Can Go With @Party

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If you’re not familiar with the demoscene, “a lot of times things may seem like music videos,” says Val Grim, founder and lead organizer of @party, the computer art demonstration hootenanny this Friday and Saturday, June 14 and 15, at MIT’s Stata Center in Cambridge.

But demos, which after decades still remain a relatively obscure geek subculture, might also be described as mind-blowing, psychedelic digital demonstrations of audio-visual programming running in real-time. Early demos of the 1980s were often simply a series of effects. These days they can include plots, but they continue to occupy an in-between category, clearly showing a family resemblance to films and video games, “but they’re not,” Grimm says.

“It runs the range from abstract and arty to science fiction film to drifting across a landscape,” Grimm explains.

“It actually came out of the cracking scene,” Grimm says. “People would crack games and put things at the front of them.”

These digitally animated signatures or intros—sometimes called “cracktros” (the scene is fond of nicknames and abbreviations)—added to software in the 8-bit, personal computing era after its copy protection was cracked evolved into standalone demos to showcase the machine’s abilities, even exploiting hardware errors, in the cause of, as Grimm says, “pushing your hardware as far as it can go.”

Demo parties emerged in the late 1980s as meet-ups and skill-shares and competitions.

@party comes out of this tradition. Talks Friday evening and all day Saturday range from how-tos to Pete Dilworth presenting the “3Doodler,” a 3D-printing pen he helped develop at Somerville makerspace Artisan’s Asylum, to MIT professor Nick Montfort addressing “Remarkable One-Liners,” namely one-line programs. One of the core traditions of demo programming, as Grimm notes, is “how people try to condense and optimize and squeeze so much down into a particular space.”

Saturday evening is devoted to competitions (or “compos”) in music, graphics, games, manually manipulated overhead projector, and “wild,” an “everything goes” category that Grimm hopes will attract makers.

The rules for the “wild” competition helpfully advise, “Please do not use fire, spill fluids, or generate unguarded arcs of electricity or potentially hazardous wavelengths of light.” Grimm mentions examples of “wild” demos on BlackBerry and Arduino, as well as a legendary team in Norway that produced a “frigertainment system,” a refrigerator converted to play music and video games as well as keep your beer chilled.

“The real focus is learning stuff and making stuff in a more concentrated fashion,” Grimm says.

“If you’re less technical, there are so many demos that are just awesome to see and awesome to listen to,” Grimm says. If you’re more technically inclined, it’s, “Wow, look what this guy did!”

@party, MIT Stata Center, Room 155, 32 Vassar St., Cambridge, June 14 and 15. Use the discount code WBURARTERY for 25% off ticket prices.

This article was originally published on June 11, 2013.

This program aired on June 11, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Greg Cook Twitter Arts Reporter
Greg Cook was an arts reporter and critic for WBUR's The ARTery.