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New Exhibit Celebrates the Lost Art of the Screensaver

You could turn your desktop monitor into an aquarium, but could you turn it into art?

Long before "let's play" videos had us watching someone else play a video game, we watched a Windows computer navigate a Wolfenstein 3D-looking maze. If you touched it, it would vanish. It was, after all, a screensaver, not something that you see often these days, and an artistic medium worth celebrating according to Dutch digital artist Rafaël Rozendaal.

"Screensavers are like a moving painting," Rozendaal told me in a Skype call from Utrech in the Netherlands. "It's almost as if they were made for a museum. They're purely digital images, so they're designed to show what a computer will do. They don't overdo it, they have very simple parameters. They aren't storytelling."

Rozendaal is curating a gallery of 27 screensavers in a way they've never been seen or appreciated before. The show is called Sleep Mode. Four of the oldest screen savers will be on their native machines, for context, but most will be blown up along the large space provided by Rotterdam's Het Nieuwe Instituut (New Institute). Rozendaal has also put together an audio tour and an online collection of interviews with the people who created the screensavers etched into the back of your brain.

One thing those programmers emphasized, according to Rozendaal, is that these screensavers are not films or animations, but procedurally generated design pieces, a living mobius strip created for the simple purpose of stopping your monitor from burning its own image into itself.

Image: Rafaël Rozendaal

The screensaver was created and coined by software developer John Socha. Socha was tired of having to turn his green-screened IBM off manually, so he wrote a simple piece of code, scrnsave, to switch the screen to black after three minutes of idling. This basic program is one of the four that will be on its original machine in the gallery.

Sleep Mode will feature a lot of classics. The 3D pipes. The flying toasters. As well as "Mystery," which I called haunted house and liked to use seasonally. Rozendaal believes screensavers became so popular in their day because for a while, and for so many, they were one of the few fun and creative things to do on a personal computer. Enthusiasm became momentum, and that momentum, according to Rozendaal, fuels everything in technology, from Apple products to social networks.

In the 90s, people got enthusiastic about what image would display on their computer when they left the room, and that's why they could buy virtual aquarium CDs in the same supermarket they bought milk.

Rozendaal's favourite screensaver is the "starfield." A randomly generated and constantly growing journey through cosmic lights. It's Star Trek sensibilities easily appealed to nerds of its time. Rozendaal likes its simple, elegant code, a few tricks of spatial light and script that made him feel like he was "being sucked into the screen."

"The limitations of these computers created a unique language," said Rozendaal. "Motion graphics and games are hyperrealistic, that's less interesting to me. I'm interested in forced abstraction. In painting abstraction is there as a luxury, but in computers abstraction was a necessity."

Sleep Mode will run from January 27 until June 25.