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This piece was originally conceived as an artistic statement: a plain representation of the four characters that have been arranged in millions of different ways to produce countless examples of ANSI art. When it was released, the only people viewing it would have already been well-versed in the technicalities of the medium, so it appeared as it would in a gallery, without any kind of elaboration. Considering most DA users have no idea what ANSI is all about, I am using the description of this piece to explain what it takes to make this kind of computer art...

ANSI is a very unique medium for creative expression. 16 predetermined foreground colours and half as many background colours form the palette. Shading is accomplished with the four characters depicted in the center of this piece, while shaping is made possible by four more "half blocks," each occupying a vertical strip left and right, or a square-like horizontal space up and down. These blocks are uneven; the long and skinny strips differ in width by a pixel's breadth, as do the top and bottom squares. These perturbations in the overall symmetry of complimentary characters has profound implications for the artist with a keen eye for detail, although such attention to subtlety is often overlooked (I digress).

The canvas is a grid 80 characters in width that varies in length according to however much time and effort the artist feels like investing. Traditionally, screen size has limited the way in which ANSI artwork is appreciated. When viewing a piece in DOS, only 25 lines of a piece were seen at a time. If an ANSI exceeded the dimensions of the screen, one would have to scroll up and down to get the feel of a piece, or flip to "VGA mode" to take it all in. This is akin to peering through a small window in order to examine a piece of art, or stepping back to view a painting through a telescope. Now that most ANSI viewing is done on the web, this facet of the text-mode tradition is almost completely overlooked.

Every block must be set by hand, in most cases. There are a few basic copy and paste functions in most ANSI editors, but they are not particularly useful for much more than basic outlining. Think of the effort required to individually select the colour and character of every block in one of the larger ANSI pieces. In a typical 200-liner there are 16000 blocks! Even if there is a lot of blackspace (our medium's natural equivalent to whitespace), it is a lot of work. Making ANSI is exhausting, time-consuming, and incredibly difficult, not unlike creating a floor mosaic with thousands of tiny ceramic tiles using a mismatched pair of chopsticks. No wonder most of the great works of this obscure medium were made by young artists in their teenage years--who else has the time for this kind of thing?

The ANSI specification has been around since the early dawn of the telecommunications era, but pre-Internet systems (BBSes) often maintained an austere and utilitarian appearance due to bandwidth constraints. Viewing a full-bodied ANSI on 2400 baud is excruciatingly slow, and completely unthinkable on the 300 baud modems typically used throughout the 1980s. As transfer rates increased, and user interface design became a selling point or source of prestige, the systems began to use ANSI art for menu design, loader screens, login matrices, and other such elements. Consequently, demand grew for elaborate full-scale ANSI art, and this spurned the development of the creative underclass.

In the period of 1991 to 1993, pioneering artists organized themselves into groups such as ACiD, iCE, and DARK, publishing regular (often monthly) "packs" collecting their work, which were almost exclusively advertisements for the selfsame Bulletin Board Systems that distributed their creations. Each subsequent year brought rapid innovation in style and content, from the "comic rips" of the early years to the complicated abstract creations that artists like myself pioneered in 1996 and onward. What had begun as an idle past-time and means to participate in the illicit warez trade rapidly became a highly active underground art scene. 1994 and 1995 were big years for ANSI art, although the medium was still restricted to advertisements and generally bereft of genuine originality. 1996 ushered in an explosion of creative experimentation that marks it as the peak year for the ANSI underground. After that, it was all downhill. Think of the history of computing as a continuum. The BBS era was made possible by the increase in transfer rates and proliferation of technology, but damned by the very same forces. It was a window of opportunity seized by tens of thousands of people all across the world, and summarily dismissed as the world moved on.

With the rise of the internet in the late nineties, BBSes began to die out en masse. In the process, the once thriving ANSI scene entered into a rapid period of decline. It was as if the entire movement had lost its purpose when the bubble burst. There had not been enough time for the medium to mature; it was still rooted firmly in the BBS realm. People that once lived and breathed blocky text-mode characters turned their interest towards other pursuits, trading in the frustrating difficulties of the ANSI medium for new practices beyond the borderlands of the underground digital art scene. By 2001, many of the old masters had disappeared entirely, prestigious groups had stopped releasing ANSI or were nowhere to be found, and it seemed as if this blinding phase in the history of digital art had been swept away by the rapid institution of constant change.

Since then, there has been a small revival of the medium by artists new and old. The IRC channels, once flooded with the spastic chatter of unruly teenagers, now ebb and flow with the resigned serenity of adulthood. It has become less serious in a way... no longer an adolescent proving ground for the social challenges of life ahead. There are those that still love the medium, but they are few and far between. Nubile notions of fame and prestige no longer drive the masses to produce. The only reasons left are abstract and obscure fragments of a divine ideal. Passion runs thin in the digital outback. Hobbyists will continue to dabble... some of us old-timers might lay down a block or two every now and then... but you really have to respect the amount of time involved in making these strange and peculiar creations. In the "golden era" such a commitment was never questioned; it was expected. To see that someone far removed from this entire history might make the effort is truly impressive...

And so, while the past history of ANSI is mainly inscrutable to all but the veterans, the future is sure to slowly bring out styles in an archaic medium which had never been imagined, back in the day. ANSI is a happy accident... the joys of which can only be understood after undergoing the grueling labour necessary to create a great work within its limiting confines. So, with that in mind, I greatly encourage the hobbyists of DA to give it a whirl :)
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© 2004 - 2024 Nootropic
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Nice work. You're very talented.

... however. :-)

ANSI (the American National Standards Institute) had nothing to do with the those block character you're referring to. That was IBM, with its Code page 437 (CP437, a.k.a. "extended ASCII") introduced with the IBM PC.

Also, those 16 predetermined colors you referred to, again, not ANSI. That was IBM with its Color Graphics Adapter (CGA).

And Microsoft, with its MS-DOS console driver, "ANSI.SYS", stuck with the CGA limitations when it came to text mode attribute (color) control. Even later, when there were much more capable video controllers in every PC, Microsoft stuck to those 16 colors and limited attributes (i.e. blink). The ANSI X3.64 terminal control protocol is capable of vastly more color combinations and text attributes than those imposed by Microsoft's ANSI.SYS.

Indeed, much modern "ANSI artwork" really doesn't involve ANSI at all. The popular "Binary Text" (and related XBin) file formats further embrace the IBM CGA limitations and eschew ANSI escape sequences altogether by codifying the video memory layout of the IBM CGA hardware and (with XBin) the VGA color palette and font formats.

I love "ANSI Artwork" and have a great deal of respect for the artists (new and old), but most of the art, especially the newer pieces, should be called "IBM-PC Art" or "Block Art". The "ANSI" part is just a misnomer. 

No disrespect intended, I just wanted to get the technical nits picked. :-)