Connective Software, Open Code

A report on the Creative Kernel's workshop (DEAF00) by Sandra Fauconnier.

Open source software and media art: these two fields with conceptual common ground and potential for cross-pollination were the subject of a workshop organised by V2_Lab and ENCART (European Network for Cyberart). Approximately 10 artistic software development initiatives demonstrated their work in an informal session where visitors were personally guided and informed about the specifics of the projects. Also before and after the presentations, some more formal presentations and a panel discussion took place which clarified the participants' positions versus the dilemma of releasing, opensourcing, GPL'ing (General Public Licencing) the source code of their software.

However, is there really such a sharp dilemma? During the presentations and demonstrations the strong conceptual, and especially artistic qualities, of many projects became apparent: it turns out that artistic software development has become an important sub-area of media art during the last few years, with often a refreshing, original and socially relevant outcome. It also turns out that for projects which focus mainly on artistic and intrinsically aesthetic or conceptual qualities, questions about open source, publishing and releasing source code become less relevant. Perry Hoberman was not invited as a speaker for the workshop but attended out of personal interest; he commented that principally he would not oppose against publicly releasing the underlying programming code for his projects and installations, but that he doubts if it would be in any way relevant or interesting to anyone. A similar principle applies to Crack, a project created by Knowbotic Research (presented by Christian Hübler and Alexander Tuchacek). This work consists of a piece of software that was widely distributed in the city of Hamburg, intending to involve a large group of people into the act of password cracking and intruding into servers, raising discussions about issues of encryption and security. Soon, the software was adapted by "real" hackers, defying the original intentions of the work. The people from KR+cF do not perceive this incident as a problem or failure; but it illustrates how originality or uniqueness still play a discernible (although modified) role, even in the field of media art where an object-focused approach towards artworks is becoming obsolete. The issue of copyright was, surprisingly, only sparingly addressed by the artists present in the workshop; most of them have an open and "this-is-no-priority" attitude towards re-use and inspiration emerging from their work. The internal economics of the art world have always evolved around building upon other people's work and research, and gaining recognition because of the degree of originality of one's work. However, people tended to be much more protective when it came to commercial re-use, reproduction and exploitation of a software project's code.

The issue of open source seemed to be more relevant for a second group of software projects, namely, the more utilitarian "tools" developed by and for an artists' community. These tools are to be used in the production process of artworks, as opposed to being artworks by themselves. KeyStroke, Geert Mul's Epic Generator, nato.0+55, V2_OS and MMBase all fit into this category. They have different approaches towards the issue - partly depending on how and by whom the software is developed. V2_Lab, the initiator of both Epos Generator and V2_OS and a user of MMBase, is a strong defender of opensourcing its products. As a publicly funded institution it considers one of its tasks to feed back the productions by its in-house team of dedicated developers into the public sphere. For the same reasons VPRO decided to release MMBase under the GPL, but also because this decision would positively affect the growth, quality and development of the project. The latter is a general argument in favour of the typical open source "gift economy" models of production. Other projects, developed by artists who choose to be self-sustaining (for example the applications developed by the noteable Netochka Nezvanova - aka "antiorp", highly valued by a dedicated and well-informed user community) are known to be closed source (and expensive) due to almost purely economic reasons. This distinction seemed to be pretty obvious to everyone, and was unable to generate a sufficiently vivid discussion at the end of the workshop. There seemed to be much agreement about the intrinsic value of the open source model and about the reasons why many artists don't choose for it. For some participants the concept of open source was mostly still an unexplored path ("yes, why didn't we think of it?"). However, the workshop fell short of expectations since not too many new insights or conflicting viewpoints were revealed.

Sandra Fauconnier
Nov 17, 2000




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