FLOSS Art

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Book: FLOSS+Art, edited and compiled by Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk. London: Openmute, 2008

URL = http://people.makeart.goto10.org/

Preface at http://people.makeart.goto10.org/preface.html


Description

"FLOSS+Art critically reflects on the growing relationship between Free Software ideology, open content and digital art. It provides a view onto the social, political and economic myths and realities linked to this phenomenon." (http://people.makeart.goto10.org/)


Review

Tony D. Sampson:

"According to the blurb, FLOSS+Art aims to critically reflect on the growing relationship between free software ideology, open content and digital art. Its objective is to provide a view of the social, political and economic myths and realities linked to this phenomenon. Along these lines, editors Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk set out a familiar narrative in their preface in which the field of new media has come to understand the tragedy of interactive software. That is, where once most software was published online on an open and free to use basis, the corporate realisation that vast profits can be reaped from the seemingly boundless consumer passion for digital tools has functioned to close down the work (and play) environments of software creatives. Mansoux and de Valk remind us that the software industry no longer sells software: it sells licences. More than that, digital content consumption, once open to the free hack, is now increasingly limited to playback only mode. So, on the one hand, the new media producer is predetermined (from education to work) by the distribution and consumption of corporately defined creative tools. On the other hand, the user festers in the passivity of a range of ‘interactive' experiences evermore linked to indirect consumption opportunities. FLOSS+Art therefore sets out an alternative vision intended to return production and consumption of digital art back to the values of the free software and open source movements: the principles of free use, free access to source code, and freedom to share, customise and distribute software.


The editors of FLOSS+Art are fully aware of how the corporatisation of software has turned the digital creative into a consumer. Propriety operating systems (Mac and PC), alongside the nurturing of user passions for the latest Adobe version updates, ostensibly monopolise and organise education and workplace environments. As Michael van Schaik's contribution notes, most creatives seem not to care. Indeed, educators are often complicit in the production of obsessive Flash and Photoshop users. After the University, the Adobe tool-chain (as van Schaik calls it) stretches out to the ‘creative' job market where specific skill requirements in certain applications determine future careers. FLOSS+Art is, in this context, a valid attempt to think through an escape route out of the confines of the Adobe Creative Penal Suite.


But what exactly does FLOSS offer as an alternative? Well not free beer exactly.

Instead of buying a glossy box and access to Adobe's helpline, FLOSS software comes packaged with a community of users and producers. The FLOSS creative is not therefore a slave to Adobe, but part of an open social network that enhances the freedom to create. This is an interesting proposition put forward by the editors, but referring back to the first question posed above, how does FLOSS distance itself from the rhetoric of freedom? Well, Julien Ottavi's article, ‘The Free and New Creative Practices', argues that the open movement is confronting the concepts of property. He rallies behind the governance of new open source and free software licencing. For him, ‘[t]he "free" unlocks the doors of fear and ignorance, of one-way economics'. The software author is ‘liberated', enabled to share code and freely modify it. But beyond this admirable reverie, there surely needs to be a degree of cynicism expressed over the extent to which there has been a historical turn towards free collective authorship. Indeed, despite the promises of freedom in open collaborative networks, the ‘fictional' conversations between Femke Snelting et al expose artists still apparently clinging to notions of authority. Copyleft licences, we are told, like the Creative Commons, provide an ‘interesting alternative to the traditional copyright system, but the individual author still remains the starting point'. One proposed alternative to the macro-economy of the blockbuster killer application is, it seems, a micro-economy of open file sharing and longtail niche programs. But isn't this ‘new' economy already colonised by the corporate arena? The empty spaces in between the rhetoric require further scrutiny. What does openness really add up to in political terms? In his recent book, Nigel Thrift attempts to answer this question by pointing to the open source movement's uncomfortable association with the corporate trend to ‘free reveal'. The ‘democratising of innovation' is part of a strategy to tap into the ‘enthusiasms and pleasures of consumers'.ii There is not, arguably, a simple opposition between the open source movement and the closed supply chains of the corporation. The alliances between software production and social power are endemic of late capitalism's drive to extract profit from anything that moves on the network.iii


FLOSS+Art does not, however, persist with the rhetoric. There is much probing of what openness is all about. In no particular order, Pedro Soler, for example, points out that great works of art have never been produced in isolation. Despite the focus on the end product of the creative genius, he argues that great art develops through social movements. He sees a continuum here between the socialities of art movements and the open and collaborative networking of digital art, and its potential to stimulate new movements. He rightly notes that the problems facing these novel movements - mainly funding and the intellectual appropriation of programming skills - are yet to be solved, though. Similarly, the artist Simon Yuill interrogates the entire notion that collaboration is a form of resistance. He offers an alternative perspective on the corporate ‘harvesting' of collaborative practices as a mode of organising the digital economy. The contribution of the already mentioned van Schaik engages further with Adobe's grip on education. He argues that the tragedy of interactive software could be addressed by introducing clone packages like Scribus and Gimp as alternatives to Photoshop and Illustrator. But to what extent has Adobe already become the medium of ‘choice'? Can these software clones really break the Adobe supply chains that link education and workplace institutions together?

Inevitably, the utopia of openness is disrupted by the concrete and contested realities of copyright law. This is, not surprisingly, a major theme that keeps cropping up in FLOSS+Art. After all, digital creatives are authors - in collaboration or isolation. The struggle for control over ownership rights with publishers and copyright owners is part of their world. It is interesting, then, that Han Christoph Steiner concludes his article by suggesting that in an ‘ideal world' the disintermediation processes of new media would do away with the need for copyright law and publishers altogether, with all this brought about, apparently, by the erosive forces of free culture. Again, the looping logic of the open/closed argument makes a slight return, before Florian Cramer, in his contribution, ‘The Creative Common Misunderstanding', soberly points out that the negotiations over the Creative Commons Licence, intended to lessen the grip of the corporation, have nonetheless functioned to reserve the rights of the corporate copyright owner over artists and their audiences. Digitality proves to be a less than ideal world in which debates about copyright law are mostly framed from the perspective of ownership.


Many of the contributions in FLOSS+Art tend to open more than the shrink-wrapped boxes in which we consume software. They open up to a new space of thought. 0Rx-qX, for example, responds critically to what is ‘free' by recognising that this new space will not be made by the self-organisational properties of the network per se. Democracy is not a given in collaborative network environments. As 0Rx-qX argues, file sharing provides anonymity for both pirates and the corporate spies from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Moreover, freedom networks do not simply grow on code alone, but require people to develop them. The social media model of Web 2.0 clearly demonstrates how the ‘people first' dynamic has become a function of corporate-determined software markets. It also shows how the people can wittingly and unwittingly get sucked into what 0Rx-qX calls the ‘elaborate addiction pyramids of corporations'. It is useful then that Olga Goriunova pursues the whole notion of what is ‘free' with regard to immaterial labour on a network. Her piece includes, as such, a helpful reference to Tiziana Terranova's (apparently rare) work on how ‘freeness' features in advancing developed forms of capitalist production in network culture. Beware the utopia of open autonomy.


What I got from reading the contributions to FLOSS+Art is a sense that the new space of software is one that needs to be continually reclaimed, over and over again. As Sher Doruff concludes (following Guattari), software is not just open, but is becoming open and consequently attaching itself to novel assemblages. That is what makes the inside of software free: its capacity to affect and be affected by an outside." (http://www.metamute.org/en/content/turning_software_inside_out)