Interview about Disclosures

undo.net: Since 29th March 2008 you have been presenting at Gasworks (London) Disclosures, a project that looks at the manifestations of Open Source methodologies outside of the Internet. Why do you think that the Open Source world can be related to art?


Anna Colin: To give some background to the project, Disclosures started with a two-day seminar on Saturday 29 and Sunday 30 March 2008, taking place off-site, in East London. During it, we talked about the extent to which Open Source methodologies find applications in fields of cultural production outside of the Internet. The topics that naturally emerged were that of openness – as organisational strategy and/or ethos; diffuse authorship and open content licences; and the limits of openness, the conditions of its existence and its economic reality, amongst other dominant themes. After the seminar, which included keynotes, presentations of current projects, roundtable discussions, readings, performances and a guided walk by artists, media practitioners and curators alike, we opened a film and reading library and have organised regular events at Gasworks.

The works included in the library relate to questions of open participation, multiple authorship, ways of sharing one’s creative outcomes and encouraging their appropriation while protecting them from abusive uses. They also share an interest in and commitment to building and maintaining networks. These works are not only artworks, they are documentaries, research projects by non-artists, books by fiction writers and open music tools for instance. So we are suggesting connections between Open Source methods and art practices at large. All the themes brought up reflect in many ways some of the questions that artistic and curatorial practices have been addressing in the last five to ten years. Yet, what is striking is that despite the increasing tendency for artists to work collaboratively and the multiplication of practices that require participation to become meaningful (i.e. discursive practices), the issue of who should be credited and how the collectively-produced knowledge should be distributed and re-used is still poorly addressed. A lot of artists still strictly copyright their films while the content is entirely based on other people’s knowledge, and don’t make them publicly available.

Mia Jankowicz: Broadly speaking, the functions and methodologies of Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) has informed ideologies shared in various spaces both within the FLOSS world and the art world. Accessibility of source materials, working collaboratively with such materials, emphasising the multiple and its widespread distribution, and making this production again accessible and available as part of a largely pragmatic process rather than as the development of a single, authored, finite piece – these are all processes shared with FLOSS and taken up, to varying degrees, across contemporary and modern artistic practice. Furthermore, making these processes the substance and value of the work itself (rather than the ‘backstage’ of the work) finds an increasing place in artistic and interdisciplinary practices. The recent workshop, organised by Armin Medosch and Adnan Hadzi in collaboration with Disclosures Taxi to Praxi (and back again) addressed this proliferation of research-led practices and their place within current art institutions.

This isn’t to suggest a shared history, however, or a perfect mirroring of practices. A majority of contemporary artistic practices continue to work in ignorance of, or only partial adherence to what could be identified as FLOSS-related ideas, and contemporary art and its consumption is still generally regarded as a bourgeois activity. However, Brian Holmes’ essay The Revenge of the Concept successfully argues for the unexpected and vital place of gesture, symbolism, and immanent meaning (all most successfully developed by contemporary art) within ideologies of grassroots self-organisation and networked resistance (arguably the activist field with the strongest ties to FLOSS).

undo.net: In what way have Open Source practices changed the present cultural production?

AC: – We are far from being an authority in that area, so the answer will be subjective and limited. Open Source practices go back to over twenty years and the work of some but not all media practitioners has been adopting this way of working for about the same time. In the case of Disclosures, we have been using the term Open Source as a metaphor for openness rather than solely referring to its technological underpinning.

If one talks about what about contemporary art, then the internet and Open Source tools have had a growing impact on artistic diffusion and, as a snowball effect, on production. Even though, as mentioned above, a lot of artists still stick to outmoded values as originality and single authorship, an increasing number of artists and art institutions take on board alternatives to these values. One significant illustration of that shift is the rising interest from artists, in the last five years or so, in constituting archives, digging old material falling into oblivion, preserving memory and presenting histories that have been out of civic knowledge for political, economical or bureaucratic reasons for instance. The sole idea of making material publicly available is already an act of openness. And the only (fairly) open tool that can reach large numbers of people is the Internet. Open online archives such as archive.org or pad.ma, or more mainstream circuits as youtube, are such platforms to diffuse information and knowledge widely.

MJ: – Following from the possibilities offered by digitisation and the internet for cultural production and its distribution, Open Source appears to offer a set of methodologies that artists seem keen to apply to their practices across analogue or traditional media, for example the project Philip organised by Mai Abu El Dahab and eight artists bears some of the characteristics of Open Source production; the artists decided to write a collaborative science fiction novel distributed via print-on-demand or free pdf. Practical and economic issues, however, often prevent Open Source methodologies from being transferred exactly, such as the economic structures that make it difficult for artists to contemplate free distribution of their work, and the premium on individual authorship that already appears in place of financial rewards in the art world. However, when artists cite FLOSS as an influence in addressing exactly such infrastructural problems, there seems to be a useful transfer of ideas, ethoses, and potential methodologies.

undo.net: Do you think the Open Source model can produce new curatorial attitudes and a new art platform?

AC: – Certainly and it already has. An example that is often cited is Kurator, a curatorial research project associated with the University of Plymouth in the UK and which ”links curating with programming, systems and software.” Taken in the more traditional, non technologically-driven art world, Open Source has had a low impact to date, but as intimated earlier, institutions are engaging more and more with those subjects. On rare occasions, some institutions use wikis as an open working tool, which is then visible to all (e.g. The Critical Practice research cluster at Chelsea School of Art and Design, London and Iaspis, Stockholm with Who Makes And Owns Your Work, 2007). Also, by now quite a few art institutions use blogs instead of websites, thus allowing for comment and feedback, and have starting sharing their archives (thinking for instance of the art magazine Frieze which until very recently only gave access to its archives to magazine subscribers).

What Open Source can teach curators is for instance to be more open and generous with one’s research, less secretive about one’s ideas and curatorial plans. In that way, Open Source introduces the relaxation of competitive behaviour. If curators, writers and institutions shared a third of their research, discourses and movements would advance at a much faster pace and change would not be such a remote possibility. But it is certainly getting closer to this utopia than it ever did before.

undo.net: With Open Source culture the traditional concept of authorship have radically shifted. What does it mean today to be an “author”?

AC: Perhaps it hasn’t changed meaning. The author has always appropriated imaginaries, formulas and theories that belong to others, taken them forward and put his/her name to the outcome. Open Source culture may only be another platform for the same exercise to take place.

We have posted a few quotes about the relationship between author and progress on Pipeline, a tool we commissioned ElectroNest to set up to share the research generated within Gasworks. Anyone can add more in the comment section.

MJ: – Through Open Source there seems to be a re-emergence of interest in pre-modern literary notions of authorship (if at that stage ‘author’ is the right word); one can argue that the history of printing tells us that intellectual property produced the ‘author’ as a by-product of protecting the income of the distributor. Prior to this, transparent attribution and inheritance, at least in literature, were not only common but natural ways of demonstrating the informed status of one’s work. In this sense, undoing the traditional figure of the author is not necessarily specific to high-tech applications.

Under the FLOSS ethos, even those producing individually authored works can’t claim full authorship – one of the Pipeline bylines Anna mentions above is a quote by philosopher Rodrigo Nunes: “Whenever you make an utterance without crediting someone, you are in fact quoting everything you ever heard, thought and saw.” It throws the lone practitioner out of the ivory tower and relocates him/her back within a quotidian network of influence. Indeed in this way authorial protectiveness is frequently cited as a negative, narcissistic or enclosing gesture.

Nevertheless, this is a very situated position; individual reputation, in the FLOSS world as much as in art, remains an important privilege that often comes in place of financial renumeration. Looking historically again, it also becomes clear that such authorship is a kind of territory, which for centuries has been the construct and preserve of white male bourgeoisie. While FLOSS and contemporary art discourse begin to unpick this position, it potentially reproduces the author as a white male straw man; yet those whose work has only recently been partially accepted into a canon of authorship may have an entirely different relation to it in the first place. There is space for a reinvigoration of what second wave feminism can contribute to considering authorship in FLOSS methodology.

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