The Ascii Art Ensemble

The Ascii Art Ensemble consists of Walter van der Cruijsen (founder of Desk.nl), Luka Frelih and Vuk Cosic (both Ljudmila Media Lab, Slovenia). They develop freeware for moving ascii images and create artwork with it, but also related work like a flip book. Their efforts will be presented at the World Wide Video Festival (WWVF), which will be held in September of this year in Amsterdam, as part of Vuk Cosic's presentation.

Josephine Bosma interviewed them at their last day of collaborative work at the WWVF's office, with a local tv team breathing down our necks. As a first example of their possibilities the Ascii Art Ensemble has taken the 1972 porn movie 'Deep Throat' and converted it into moving ascii. Advertising their work they have provided the 'entire' Amsterdam new media community with t-shirts with an exemplary still from the movie in ascii. They manage to completely deconstruct the movie and have plans to offer their software as a means to approach any possible images, the entire worldwideweb included. Connecting the ascii text to speech software (only possible with one frame at a time, a movie has about 30 frames per second), the abstract text sounds like Laurie Anderson next generation.

You started three years ago?
AAE: (Walter van der Cruijsen) Ascii started a long time ago, when ascii was first used as a set of characters to program, to communicate with computers. Ascii as a movement is very recent, very new. Since four years we have the web and everyone is thrilled with large binary objects. This movement tends also to fast and compact communication. It is not just about representation of images and ideas, but it is also a sort of toolbox to communicate on the internet. The Ascii Art Ensemble is the group that develops the toolbox by creating tools, applications, output, content to the internet. It is also a way of creating content.
Let's go to 'Deep Ascii' first, as we are now at this WWVF. What is 'Deep Ascii'?
AAE: (Luka Frelih) It is a movie. It is a version of 'Deep Throat' that is entirely in ascii characters. The way it is displayed now it is a 175 megabite textfile which one can view on a text terminal. We have now developed a java player so you can play it on a pc or a mac.
Why did you choose 'Deep Throat'?
AAE: (Vuk Cosic) First the decision was made to work on a pornofilm because of the close ups. Ascii rendering of an image does not allow you to use a lot of noise. You can use an image with a lot of detail, but it will not render well in ascii. Close ups in the porn industry are about 75 percent of the visual content, or 55, 95, I don't know. They are good for ascii. Then of course: which porn movie? That was pretty clear. Firstly Deep Throat is the only well known porno movie really. Secondly it is a twentyfive year old film so there is this history thing to it, like to commemorate things. Then also there is this whole thing about pornography that it is a hidden industry, nobody really talks about it, it is not for kids, it is not for decent people, but actually: the economy of pornography is so serious. And even in the internet pornography is 50 percent of contents and traffic.
'Deep Ascii' has been included in an exhibition in Slovenia about pornography. It is going to be displayed within a gallery context. There I had this line of thinking: I decided not to put it in an office situation, like they did in Kassel (Documenta X) last year, where they made an office with computers on the tables where you could watch computer art. I think that is insane, or lame, or unalphabetical, you choose. The other option would be to do a projection, but that seemed a little bit exclusive, and I somehow think that this stuff is more intimate, a 'man to computer-thing'. It does not look good. We have projected this 'Deep Ascii' to a wall, it is pretty amazing, but it is not what we wanted.
I started checking history and a very beautiful coincidence appeared. You probably know of the game 'Pong'. It is the first computer game. Similar to Deep Throats position within the porn industry, Pong is the first commercially successful mass product that triggered the entire industry. The game industry in America earns more than the film industry, for three, four years in a row now. It just outgrew cinematography. Still, it is slightly hidden. It is put out in the open, it is not immoral, but it is not treated as art or anything serious. Economy makes it pretty serious in my perception. Here comes the coincidence: those two things, Deep Throat, the film, and Pong, the game, were launched the same month of the same year: June 1972. I put this Pong hardware and Deep Ascii software together to underline the June 1972 birth of a new civilisation.
What is the connection between the Ascii Art Ensemble and other ascii art practicioners?
AAE: (Walter van der Cruijsen) We aim at different things. The whole ascii art as it was so far, in usenet and email, was a lot based upon the idea of media being streamed and distributed. It was more like: "I have a idea, this is an image, I want to present it."
Hobbyism?
AAE: (Walter van der Cruijsen) I take it very serious. It is like sending poetry through the internet, in a way it is almost the same. In this case we try to make real objects out of it, concrete things.
AAE: (Vuk Cosic) What is interesting, what Walter did not articulate in such blunt terms, is that simply ascii art is not net.specific. Ascii art comes from the deep paleolithic of computers, if anybody remembers that stuff.
AAE: (Luka Frelih) It is not known yet what we do. This week we first prepare the public tools that we intend to give out. We have one unknowing collaborator, which is a guy from Silicon Graphics who made a small converter that works in realtime on a Silicon Graphics machine, like an Indy for instance. We use that to convert our Deep Throat file. When we put out the stuff we also intend to make a version of this converter for other machines, so that it is not any longer so exclusive, so it is not that commercial. When you want to do realtime animation you don't have to buy a Silicon Graphics machine then. When we are finished with these pieces we just put them out on the web and hopefully other people will take it from there and become members of the Ascii Art Ensemble.
The 'free-aspect' also is very important to you, isn't it?
AAE: (Walter vd Cruijsen) Not only that it is free. We have been talking about, if I may say so, redundant technology, about low key solutions. Next year Next5Minutes 3 (n5m3) is coming up and one of the themes is: "How Low Can You Go". We adopted this and we turned it into "the lowest of the low".
AAE: (Vuk Cosic) There is this group in Sheffield, called Redundant Technology Initiative. What they basically do is collect old computers and they have like thousands of them right now. They are mostly artists, so what they use these machines for is some type of art-output. We had a discussion recently during Artservers Unlimited in the ICA in London. With them we came up with the idea to create a video wall, possibly for N5M 3, where we would show some ascii animation.
What is interesting is that now you have pentium machines showing up in the dumps, and pentium is a rather important piece of equipment, you can really do interesting things with it. It is a potent machine, a beast.
What about your idea of getting moving ascii into for instance the IRC environment?
AAE: (Walter vd Cruijsen) That is one of the things we have to think about and have to work on. The internet is very complex and only less than one percent is actually being used as technology, so we have to learn and experiment a lot. We also try to convert the actual use of the internet. One of the ideas is that basically any webpage can be converted into ascii. That it is a sort of filter on top of every page and scans all the images on the webpage and turns them into these beautiful green TTY terminal images.
AAE: (Vuk Cosic) Maybe we could do an ascii plug in for Webstalker. Or for the Opera browser. We like these marginal and non dominant technologies. That is maybe one more term to use here. It is not only about high tech or low tech, it is not about todays or yesterdays technology: it is also about marginal technology. We think everybody should make tools. We are not testpilotes for somebody elses hardware or software. Why should we be? It is like moving the artists' jurisdiction a little bit more to the roots of where things come from.
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