OPEN SOURCE, OPEN CENTRES
Castonguay of Artengine
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-- if not superseded -- by a different discourse, one of the politics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
> 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Alexandre Castonguay >>