The Art of Warez: Oliver Payne and Kevin Bouton-Scott on ANSI counterculture


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

Oliver Payne’s latest project explores the virtually unknown world of the ANSI art scene and its potential 

A thirty minute collaboration between artist film-maker Oliver Payne and former ANSI artist Kevin, Warez takes us back to a time before the internet, when a little known computer art underworld rose to prominence during the era of dial-up modems, known as BBS. Computer users would communicate with each other using telephone lines to leave coded messages for one another using these systems.

ANSI refers to the graphic display of these messages, usually simple coloured blocks. Towards the 90’s, an entire ANSI subculture community of people trying to outdo each other by constructing the most creative displays until it was rendered obsolete with the rise of the World Wide Web, with surveillance being embedded into the way the internet is now accessed making this no longer possible.

The film traces this movement all the way back to the phone phreaking phenomenon of the 1960’s, and also references the physical changes that the areas of tech industry boom underwent, including the transformation of Silicon Valley from an agricultural working class space to a powerful tech hub.

The film’s title Warez, refers to the illegal software pirated by hackers. Only the most obsessive and patient personality types thrived in these conditions, when “Macs were just something your mom’s uncle Fred accidentally got talked into buying at a store”.

I catch up with the two collaborators to talk hacking, copyright and bro-curators:


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

Tell me more about your decision to collaborate on this film. Oliver, did you know much about the ANSI scene before this project or did you rely on Kevin’s experience to inform yourself?

Oliver Payne: I had encountered them on pirated software and understood their purpose but had absolutely no idea how deep the culture went and what a wild scene it was. This collaboration was an entirely educational experience for me.

The film depicts ANSI as a nerd sub-culture but also an important anti-authoritarian counter culture which in today’s Instagram era appears particularly radical. Why do you think something so powerful remained so unknown?

Oliver: It’s quite mysterious .The lack of public knowledge of ANSI created a space that allowed something as conservative as Rock And Roll to masquerade as anti authoritarian for decades .

Kevin Bouton-Scott: Tech’s focus is always on innovation and the next thing financially, there’s no value whatsoever in anything that already happened so it’s very different to how something like an art world operates. Art needs its entire past to stay valuable from an investment standpoint, so we are normally seeing new work that is a call-back to various pasts in some way. ANSI is a little part of a much bigger BBS history that has been forgotten, there were millions of people on BBSes. Most of what we all do today online can be linked back there, and you can see early examples that foreshadow some of the really large-scale problems we as a civilization are now having to deal with as device-based communication has become the dominant form of idea exchange. 

The concept of pre-hacker graffiti as copyright theft is an interesting one. What are your thoughts on copyright protection for artists? Do you think it’s something that should be abolished?

Kevin: I think the creative experiments of artists should have protection from businesses and entrepreneurs posing as artists, yes. In terms of overall copyright and fair-use, our collective identity is now that of consumer, taste and fandom play such a strong role in who we are, so artists need to be able to make work from this position utilizing the common-ground materials that construct our reality. With the ansi scene, based on context, re-drawing Spawn comic books is a much more revolutionary act than what most political art positions itself to be. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter memes affect elections and political strategists have Elizabeth Warren tweeting about how bad the Game of Thrones finale was. This is where we are as a civilization.

Oliver: Copyright laws and the people that uphold them are the enemies of art. 

Would you say there is an equivalent of an ANSI counterculture movement today, or is that impossible because of the way the internet works? Could blockchain art rise to become something similar if hacked for example?

Kevin: It’s possible, but unlikely, not so much because of how the internet works, but how employment works. This generation’s shift to a freelance gig-economy has put people unskilled to work in tech in a position of needing to try to capitalize financially on whatever they have at their disposal. Even if a creative counterculture itself has a strong anti-commerce ideological component, it will just be a matter of time until the aesthetics are being emulated for-profit, which will re-define the culture itself. As for blockchain art, I’m still way more interested in the Magic: The Gathering Online eXchange.

Oliver: As niche as ANSI is, I think a lot of people can get something from a drawing of Spawn or a Wizard smoking a blunt. But nobody on earth is interested in Bitcoin sculptures apart from the jocks that make them and bro-curators who put them in their internet themed art shows.


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

Watch Oliver’s film below:

About Oliver Payne:
Oliver is an artist-filmmaker, represented by Herald St Gallery, London and Gavin Brown Enterprise, New York.
He has shown work at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and The Hammer Museum, Los
Angeles. His work in collaboration with Nick Relph received the Golden Lion award at the 43rd edition of the
Venice Biennale and has shown at the Serpentine Gallery (2000), the Institute of Contemporary Arts (2001)
and is included in the permanent collections of the Tate Britain in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New
York, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
He has made films for various skate brands, including films for Supreme, as well as a thought provoking film
for Cav Empt which premiered on Nowness.

About Kevin Bouton-Scott:
Kevin is a painter and recently graduated from Art Center’s MFA program where he briefly studied under
Oliver. It was during this time that Kevin introduced Oliver to the world of ANSI.
His work has featured in galleries across the USA, and looks at our contemporary culture with a specific focus
on fan-art – from text message screenshots printed on T-shirts, to human sized cutouts of characters from
the 80’s B-Movie ‘Summer School’.
Together, Kevin and Oliver collaborated on this film from research to delivery – resulting in a truly synergetic
piece.

About Ksenya Blokhina

Hailing from Switzerland with Russian origins, Ksenya has lived in the UK for ten years. She has experience in the commercial art world as well as artists rights management. Currently working as Copyright and Licensing officer at Art UK, her writing interests include exhibitions of contemporary art around London and post- Soviet archive and memory.