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OPEN SOURCE, OPEN CENTRES

Alexandre Castonguay of Artengine

Faced with a modernist program of misguided belief in emancipation through technological progress(1), a strategy for artists, critics, collectives and artist-run centres to try to effectively resist such discourse could be two-fold. First, to adopt the content of the idealist modernist stance (good hype) but to denounce the way the software and hardware industry uses it as a screen while it actually increases the obstacles to its access and progressively limits the choices presented to its users. Second, to take concrete steps to limit one's dependency on the products of the industry. A point of view emanating from the modes of representation has to at least be informed -- if not superseded -- by a different discourse, one of the politics of the modes of production.

> The Hacker Alternative

An alternative exists to the commercialisation of the network and the tools that should stay or become public. The open source movement is an approach to technology that has its roots in the counter-cultural movements of the 1960's and 70's. The motivations behind its development are analogous to the ones which presided over the establishment of artist-run centres. How can we compare two seemingly dissimilar fields of activity, art and programming? Certainly, the two are merging in ways not seen before, often practiced by the same individual.

I would like to make the following propositions in order to bridge the gap between the workers of the two fields, the artist and the programmer. According to the mass media, programmers belong to their own distinct culture,(2) one that bears uncanny resemblance to the stereotypical representation of the artist. More importantly, however, the programmer is responsible for shaping the applications that artists, designers, advertisers and other cultural workers will use. It would be a mistake not to consider that this plays a significant part in the finished productions of the other workers.(3) The Hacker is someone who "hacks" software, who can create new programs or assemble new programs from preexisting ones. The hacker is an ethical programmer, one who invents, assembles and recombines software to fulfill his/her needs before redistributing the resulting work to others. These actions are strikingly similar to those practiced by the artist who borrow more or less tactfully from their peers and recombine ideas and methods into new works of art (the discipline of art history invented the terms appropriation and citation to describe this process).

> The Work of (Software) Art

The work of art as well as the concepts informing it (intellectual property) are believed to be the property of the artist and often hotly defended. Applying an open source model to art creation would go beyond the approved phenomenon of appropriation and the work structure of the closed collective. Originality and genius, the status of the artwork as a finished object and by consequence on the art market are all elements of the practice of art that would be deeply affected by working in such a manner. A work of art placed under the General Public License (GPL) would mean an end to copyright as it is practiced. All parts of the actual work of art as well as the reflections guiding it would enter the public domain. Free for others to learn from and react to with the only condition to also release the rights from any subsequent creation under the GPL.

Carol Duncan's analysis of art's power structures in Who Rules the Art world? puts into view how much the value of the work of art is predicated on the figure of the lone artist. "From this point on, the modern art market took shape as a haven for alienated, expatriated, and idealistic talent - But a haven whose freedoms would be limited by the needs of its adventurous capitalist supporters" (4). Individuality is the necessary condition to the art market acceptance of vanguard art forms. With this primary condition, it is difficult to see how situations of rich collaboration of plural authorship can be validated by an art market whose values are derived on the branding of an artist name, its signature.

> The Cult of the Individual

It is important to note that ongoing open source projects shaped by a number of collaborating signatures have their parallel in the history of art, performance art, land art, mail art, in situ practices, art collectives and others which all share a radical redefinition of the art object and authorship. An avenue of commonality that already exists between the practices can be seen in Suzi Gablik's article "Connective Aesthetics: Art After Individualism": "...comparing models of the self based on isolation and connectedness has given me a different sense of art that I had before and changed my ideas about what is important."(5)

Although the notion of another discipline's radical rethinking of its modes of production might be comforting to the artist seeking a way to establish freer exchanges and generosity in their own discipline, it is important to consider how much in practice, individuals are celebrated. Linus Thorvalds, Richard Stallman, Larry Wall, Miller Puckette and others are all the object of some acute reverence that bears an uncanny resemblance to that usually reserved for 'masters' of art history. The cult of the individual is often fueled by the protagonists abnegation of their merit and modesty. This disinterest for the self finds a parallel in another 'master narrative' introduced above, that of hagiography.

On a more whimsical level, hackers often are close to usurping the 'romantic' artist's behavior and position. As the artistic discipline enters a more conventional phase with stable institutions ensuring the formation and presentation of art, computer engineering drop-outs are working abnormally long hours into the night, supported by caffeinated drinks and often guided by highly creative intuition. The apparition of the 'geek' as a marketing target (Wired, thinkgeek) while resisted by the very constituency it tries to encompass, as posts on slashdot indicate, is nevertheless tangible. Master narratives are also self-fulfilling and demand that protagonists and public alike embody their determined roles.

> Artist-run Centres, Free Software, Same Struggle?

The best hacks start out as personal solutions to the author's everyday problems, and spread because the problem turns out to be typical for a large class of users. - Eric S. Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar

Artist-run centres and production centres appeared through the spontaneous coming together and the shared efforts of individuals sharing the same goals in the same locales. They were established in response to the lack of venues in which to exhibit. Commercial galleries were not interested or adapted to show a new genre of work concerned with the dematerialization of the art object as well as practices shaped by the belief in a democratization of art. For media production centres, these artistic goals were complemented by a shared desire to explore the creative and emancipatory potential of technological tools. It was a good idea like the one described by Eric Raymond that spread rapidly.(6)

Participative development is essential for the relevance and survival of both opens source software or an artist-run centre. It requires the constant involvement of its members. Improvements to open source projects require a critical mass of contributors, testers and users much like the subtle changes applied to artist-run centre structures that need to adapt to meet new criteria or the changing needs of the communities they serve. A major difference between the two is the structure of the artist-run centres where staff (usually underpaid and overworked) often become the locus of decision-making. This sometimes results in the disinterest of the community it serves by giving the impression of aloofness or distance. The progressive institutionalization of centres can result in a specialisation and concentration of the tasks of the centres in a few individuals. As Diana Nemiroff states in her thesis on artist-run spaces in Canada: "Very often, when a particular group becomes too entrenched, or a space seems closed to the wider artistic community [] the answer has been either a shake-up or a dual death for the centre, as it becomes increasingly irrelevant to the concerns of the artistic community."(7)

Similar concentration of knowledge and decision making occurs in the field of software development, where, as in the arts centres, individuals demonstrating an interest and capability of working on a project naturally tend to assume greater involvement in them. Authorizing and committing changes to communal software projects is one of the tasks of these project managers. If a software project strays from being relevant to the needs of many users, or if the managers maintain an architecture or style of coding that makes it difficult for others to contribute to it, then the software will slowly lose support and eventually become outdated and obsolete.

One major difference between artist-run centres and the open source movement is the absence of institutional funding for the latter. The Canadian and some provincial governments (through the post-war establishment of the Canada Arts Council and some provincial arts councils) proved to be solid partners able to provide means to structure the art centres. In some cases, funding from federal sources even initiated projects. Open source projects, on the other hand, can be said to be funded in-kind by the efforts of the programmers who choose to contribute to it.(8) Despite their different funding structures, both artist-run centres and open source projects emerged from a need for an alternative to commercial practices and share a similar dynamic of involvement of individuals.

> Counter cultural roots

The open source movement has its roots in the same counter cultural movement as that of the Artist-Run Centres. The network and its services (Internet) that we consider responsible for this current 'revolution of information' is running mostly on Free Software. The engineers that created the network were building the tools for communication on the premise of openness and sharing of information. The open source community shares the same disdain for the current commercialisation of what they believe should remain an open network. A number of open source and free software titles exist as a very practical solution for individuals or centres wanting to decrease their dependancy on costly proprietary tools.(9)

With the tools for the production and dissemination of art now being integrated, bandwidth (or access to the network) and hardware, are the only components that do not have a free alternative. The CRTC's decision to treat new media network as a service and not as a public resource has had some negative effects on the accessibility of bandwidth to all citizens. The service term is borrowed from an industry model of content delivery. Community web advocates uphold the notion of the web being a space for full exchange of information, that is, not a one way consumption but a healthy content creation activity that would go in hand with the reception of information and be a fully dynamic exchange model. However, Internet Service Providers and their content providing conglomerates seem to have an interest in imposing a one-way stream of communication where interactivity is little more than good old channel switching.

The current trends towards greater commercialisation, higher costs and discrepancy in access (10) should inform our actions. Advocacy for equal access to bandwidth from the arts will find a receptive and organized audience intechnology creators and users that share the artist's need for articulating a vision of a truly public electronic network as well as a democratisation of the means of production.

> A practical example: Artengine

The artist-run centre, Artengine was founded in 1996 to explore the potential of digital technologies for the creation and dissemination of art. It is one of the new centres that emerged in Canada over the last few years and I currently serve as its artistic director. Over the years, Artengine sponsored some projects that went beyond the scope of stand alone commercial software packages, such projects include greylands.com and digitalhermit.ca. Like elsewhere, a number of members and artists had interests in the creation of interactive installations, blending live audio and video with network connectivity and sensors. Flexible but costly and closed source software existed but the "hack" in this case consisted in developing GridFlow, a processing library for Ruby/jMax/PureData, specialized in image and video.(11)

The work of Mathieu Bouchard, the design of GridFlow emulates that of visual programming environments. Basic mathematical objects that permit operations on matrices are provided to the user. They can be combined and assembled in order to produce effects like blurs and cross fades but also perform motion detection and other more complex tasks. Dataflow graphical programming environments somewhat alleviate the complexity of prgramming for the non-programmer, or rather it can serve as an introduction to programming concepts to the uninitiated. But the openness of the design also follows the open source ideal of giving the user access to information should they choose to open the 'black box' and want to look inside at the constituting elements of the computer language.

The hope is that in turn, this openness can lead the user to a greater understanding of the technology, one that can meet their degree of interest and knowledge while providing wanted functionality. The modularity of the environment permits users to simply reuse existing elements, programs (patches) are shared among the community of users in order to facilitate each others work. Instead of continuously solving similar problems, the hope is that in the long run, artists and programmers can concentrate on content and more complex problems.

Notes and References

1. The end of which is probably signaled by the recent downturn of the 'new economy'. However, the crisis in the technological values will be not an opportunity for a truly more equal distribution of means and access to the network and digital means of production. We are seeing instead an increased gap between those who can afford high-speed access and those who cannot as over indebted telecommunications companies seek to offset their losses by distributing the burden to their subscribers.
2. A recent example of this is found in the movie "Hackers".
3. As important as ignoring technological determinism when examining technological artwork.
4. Carol Duncan, "Who Rules the Art World?," The Aesthetics of Power: Essays in Critical Art History, Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1993. pp. 169-188.
5. Suzi Gablik, "Connective Aesthetics: Art After Individualism," in Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, ed. Suzanne Lacy, Seattle, Washington: Bay Press, 1995. p. 85.
6. Diana Nemiroff, A History of Artist-Run Spaces in Canada, with particular reference to Vehicule, A Space and the Western Front, Unpublished Master of Arts Thesis, Concordia University, Montréal, 1985. Recent shifts at Rhizome and following exchanges on nettime indicate the acuity of this observation.
7. Diana Nemiroff, Ibidem.
8. Contrary to artists, programmers do have the means of earning revenues through their work and many fund their way by working as consultants, adapting free software to meet clients' needs. Others still are employed by corporations that innovate, support and repackage Free Software and charge for their products. See my notes on open source for more information.
9. See my links for a list of resources and sites for Open Source software.
10. In Canada, the vision of a public electronic network or a network of small independent Internet Service Providers has given way, partly because of the massive investments required to build a high speed backbone linking the various communities.
11. jMax is a visual dataflow programming environment for building interactive musical and multimedia applications maintained out of the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acosutique / Musique (IRCAM, France). jMax shares the same core as PureData which is still maintained by the original author, Miller Puckette. While other open source sets of objects exist for PureData (GEM, Framstein and pdp), GridFlow differs from the others in that it operates on matrices and is not limited to processing video. GridFlow was released a year before a similar but closed-source tool Jitter.


This text is a fragment adapted from a talk given as part of the Artist-Run Centres Ontario national conference held in Ottawa in April 2002. A longer version of the text is online at Art Engine.

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