Towards a Free/ Libre/ Open/ Source/ University

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Towards a free/ libre/ open/ source/ university: shifts in contemporary models of art and education by Paula Roush


There is currently a significant amount of interest in the relationship between free and Open Source practices in art and the aim of this report is to map out some of these shifting relationships in contemporary models of education both online and offline. The recent expansion of so-called ‘free culture’ has contributed to placing the debate over authorship, ownership and licensing of the artwork at the centre of artistic production. Crucially, the transformation of art in the age of global culture and the consequent move from autonomous art objects into cultural artworks and services, has resulted in the emergence of three visible tendencies: 1) free/Open/Source software as artistic-pedagogical method, 2) the critical emancipation of the self-education movement and 3) the digitisation of art education practices into Open Source packages of cognitive labour.

[1] Floss as artistic –pedagogical method

One possible way to navigate this complex ideological terrain is the conciliatory term free/libre/Open Source software (floss), seeing it as “part of an emerging transdisciplinary field that deals with different forms of openness.” [1] At the heart of the debate is the political distinction between the Free Software Foundation[2] and the Open Source Initiative.[3] The ‘copyleft’ attitude (free software movement) asserts four freedoms for software: free from restriction, free to share and copy, free to learn and adapt, free to work with others.[4] The Open Source definition,[5] on the other hand, in spite of apparent similarities, has developed into flexible arrangements such as the Creative Commons licenses[vi][6], some of which restrict these freedoms when applied to media/cultural works and publications, not allowing for derivative artwork or its commercial use under specific license combinations.[7]

A number of projects, such as the pure:dyne[8] - GNU/Linux operating system for live audio visual processing and teaching – are, however, fully identified with the principles of free software. They have emerged from artists’ collectives whose relationship to art education is informally associated with sharing spaces, the hacklabs and free media labs where they run workshops and introduce participants to the use of free digital art tools. [9] Their mode of production is centred on ‘live code’ and feature two essential characteristics: 1) collaborative- relying on large-scale public participation and 2) distributive- offering the tools and the process notes (notation) to empower the others to carry on the work on their own.[10] This philosophy implies that the artistic performance of the work is complemented by a set of pedagogical approaches associated with the enabling of production by others. [11]

[2] Self-organised and self-managed art education

The movement for free education has gained greater relevance as a result of the global financial crisis and the battle for control of university fees.[12] In this context, art education has been developing into an artistic project while also providing an emancipatory movement reacting against dominant forms of institutionalised knowledge production. Within this movement, the role of free/open technology has been central in the mediation of self-education as a social movement.

On the one hand, artists –freelancers, sometimes temporarily/precariously plugged into educational institutions whilst working as teachers, others times as workshop facilitators in free access spaces– have opened up their classrooms to the environment of the read/write web, and with their students-collaborators, have produced and shared in wikis, blogs and Second Life, art and education resources that make an increasingly significant contribution to a larger body of knowledge that is the web. [13] Wikiversity is a model of this confluence of self-education movements and open online education.[14]

In parallel with the above-mentioned tendencies of online systems, numerous critical projects have appeared that are associated with the reclamation of space that occurs as artists have found themselves at the forefront of self-organised and self-managed self-education projects.[15] Some have happened side-by-side with the reclamation and occupation of spaces such as the Temporary School of Thought[16] and the Really Free School.[17] Part of these groups activity is the establishment of a free programme of workshops on topics that can range from free software tools to Ivan Illich and Deschooling Society.[18] Others that make opportunistic incursions into the artworld such as the Bruce High Quality Foundation University,[19] the Future Academy[20] or Unitednationsplaza,[21] are platforms for experimental art as research, investigating the production of knowledge that occurs when art education itself becomes artwork or exhibition.[22]

[3.] Open Source Repositories

While the debate on free education has been enjoying significant visibility, the Higher Education sector has also joined in. A few recent initiatives have supported universities of the arts developing virtual learning environments and providing access to open education resources (OERs). This is the case with the JISC Practising Open Education Project (2010-2011)[23] with six art, design and media departments in UK universities. A number of these OERs include art work (photographs, drawings and videos), but the majority are art theory, mostly research papers, dissertations and art education research documents produced by artists-teachers-researchers as part of their continuing professional development. These are distributed with Creative Commons licenses with varying degrees of freedom, but rarely have the ‘copyleft’ attitude that has been associated with the free software.

Such an enterprise can be interpreted in the light of current debates in the fields of immaterial labour and cognitive capitalism revealing that whilst (digital) art becomes postproduction, art education is being packaged into open resources that circulate as part of the capitalist system, and become central to the new eLearning/networked economies. In addition to filling a gap in subject-specific open resources, this raises the question: why is the free and the open so popular in contemporary art education? A cynical hypothesis is that art education, by declaring itself as a type of production of knowledge, attempts to gain a new legitimacy, in the bureaucratised global knowledge market. The other possibility is that in the face of such a doomed scenario, art education searches for new possibilities beyond pure commercialism, reclaiming access through “contingencies of opening and mobility of cognitive packages beyond confines of ownership.” [24]


[1] Floss as artistic –pedagogical method

The Digital Artists Handbook The digital handbook, published by the arts organisation folly and artists’ collective GOTO10 in 2008, aims to give artists information about the available tools and the practicalities related to Free/Libre Open Source Software and Content such as collaborative development and licenses.

FLOSS+Art This book edited by Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk in 2008 reflects critically on the growing relationship between Free Software ideology, open content and digital art. With contributions by: Fabianne Balvedi, Florian Cramer, Sher Doruff, Nancy Mauro Flude, Olga Goriunova, Dave Griffiths, Ross Harley, Martin Howse, Shahee Ilyas, Ricardo Lafuente, Ivan Monroy Lopez, Thor Magnusson, Alex McLean, Rob Myers, Alejandra Maria Perez Nuñez, Eleonora Oreggia, oRx-qX, Julien Ottavi, Michael van Schaik, Femke Snelting, Pedro Soler, Hans Christoph Steiner, Prodromos Tsiavos, Simon Yuill. Available both in print and as torrent download

Technology Will Save Us The project by Daniel Hirschman & Bethany Koby  is a haberdashery for technology and alternative education space dedicated to helping people to produce and not just consume technology.

Openlab Openlab Workshops was started by artist and educator Evan Raskob in mid-2009 to fulfil the need for practical education about digital art and technology.  Floss workshops are developed and taught by working artists and media practitioners, giving participants direct access to practical experience.

GOTO10 GOTO10 is an artists’ collective that organises floss workshops on subjects such as Pure Data, Linux audio tools, physical computing, SuperCollider, puredyne, RFID, Audio Signal Processing, and other related areas of practice.

UpStage UpStage is an Open Source platform for cyberformance and education: remote performers combine images, animations, audio, web cams, text and drawing in real-time for an online audience. Initiated by the globally dispersed performance troupe Avatar Body Collision, it runs the annual Upstage festival, open to proposals.

[2] Self-organised and self-managed art education

Really Free School Free school based in a squatted London pub. “Amidst the rising fees and mounting pressure for ‘success’, we value knowledge in a different currency; one that everyone can afford to trade. In this school, skills are swapped and information shared, culture cannot be bought or sold. Here is an autonomous space to find each other, to gain momentum, to cross-pollinate ideas and actions.” (Communiqué #1)

Bruce High Quality Foundation University A free university project set up by NY-based artists’ collective The Bruce High Quality Foundation. “We believe in the artistically educational possibilities of collaboration. Collaboration, as we mean it, means a group of concerned people come together to hash out ideas, try to figure out the world around them, and try to take some agency within its future. That’s the why and how of The Bruce High Quality Foundation. BHQFU is an attempt to extend the benefits of this collaborative model to a wider number of people.”

Unitednationsplaza A temporary, experimental school in Berlin, initiated by Anton Vidokle following the cancellation of Manifesta 6 on Cyprus, in 2006. Developed in collaboration with Boris Groys, Liam Gillick, Hatasha Sadr Haghighian, Nikolaus Hirsch, Martha Rosler, Walid Raad, Jalal Toufic and Tirdad Zolghadr, the project travelled to Mexico City (2008) and, eventually, to New York City under the name Night School (2008-2009) at the New Museum. Its program was organized around a number of public seminars, most of which are now available in their entirety in the online

FOSSter creative Learning. Lesson plans that can be used in the art classroom, developed by The FOSSter Creativity Team, a group of students of the University of the Arts (USA)

[3.] Open Source Repositories

University of the Arts institutional OER repository

University for the Creative Arts institutional OER repository

VADS (Visual Arts Data Service) A collection of over 100,000 art and design images that are freely available and copyright cleared for use in learning, teaching and research in the UK. The Designing Britain project

OER Commons A repository of materials about teaching, technology, research in the emerging field of Open Education. Art materials at OER commons:


  1. For a detailed introduction see Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk, 2008. “Preface.” In FLOSS+ART. Available at:
  2. The Free Software Foundation was established in 1985 by Richard Stallman to support the free software movement. Both the GNU operating system and the GNU General Public License (GPL) are examples of this.
  3. The Open Source Initiative was founded in1998 by Bruce Perens and Eric S. Raymond to promote the open source software and represents a corporate orientation that is at odds with the copyleft attitude advocated by the free software movement.
  6. The creative commons licenses can range from Attribution CC BY (the most accommodating of the cc licenses offered) to Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) (the most restrictive of our six main licenses See the six main licenses at the creative commons site:
  7. See Richard Stallman Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software.
  9. Access Space setup by James Wallbank in Sheffield in 2000 using redundant technology and free software is the UK's longest running free and open access media lab. For a more detailed account see Paula Roush, 2005. “Re-Programme. Time Space and Low Technology: The 5-Year Out-of-Date Trash Media Lab. Sheffield: Acess Space. Also online:
  10. For more information on working with others using free software see Simon Yuill, 2008, Collaborative development: theory, method and tools. Digital Artists Handbook
  11. These participatory and distributive formats are explained in Simon Yuill, 2008. All Problems of Notation Will be Solved by the Masses. Mute magazine. Available at: [Accessed March 30, 2011].
  12. As documented in Edufactory, 2009. Towards a Global Autonomous University. New York: Autonomedia. And discussed in the issue 14 of the Journal / e-flux (14), Theme: Education and Bologna. (2010) Available at: [Accessed March 29, 2011].
  13. Will Richardson, 2006. Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, Thousand Oaks: California: Corwin Press. Available at:
  14. Norm Friesen, Janet Hopkins, 2008. Wikiversity; or education meets the free culture movement: An ethnographic investigation. First Monday, 13(10). Available at: [Accessed March 27, 2011].
  15. This “self-organized and self-managed self-education” is described as “a disposition towards production of alternative and emancipatory models of ‘authority-free’ education within complex and traumatic processes pertaining to cognitive capitalism and its transitional reconstruction.” in Miško Šuvaković, 2008, Epistemology Of Art. Belgrade: Available at: [Accessed November 8, 2010].
  16. Paul Cox, 2009. Temporary School of Thought. Londonist. Available at: [Accessed April 8, 2011].
  18. Dougald Hine made a presentation on Ivan Illich and 'Deschooling Society' at the Temporary School of Thought blogged about it at
  22. Anton Vidokle writing “From Exhibition to School: Notes from Unitednationsplaza,” distinguishes between curator-led exhibition models and artist-led education platforms, in Steven Madoff, ed., 2009, Art School (propositions for the 21st century), Cambridge: MIT.
  23. The project’s objective is “to encourage engagement with openly accessible teaching and learning resources providing opportunities for widening participation in higher education. Through the processes of the project partners will collate and create, making openly accessible, and repurposable licensed resources available through institutional portals and the Jorum Open website.”
  24. Such processes of ‘democratisation’ of ‘access to knowledge’ in the context of cognitive capitalism are articulated in Miško Šuvaković, 2008, Epistemology Of Art. Belgrade: Available at: [Accessed November 8, 2010].

As part of the Furtherfield collection commissioned by Arts Council England for Thinking Digital. 2011