Open Source Open Centres

This text is adapted from a talk given as part of the Artist-Run Centres Ontario national conference held in Ottawa in April 2002. First, I would like to thank Dermot Wilson and Nell Tenhaaf the moderator and co-presenter on the panel. Thanks also extend to the conference organisers Jewel Goodwyn of ARCO and François Dion of Artexte. I am indebted to François, who pointed me in the direction of the Foundation Daniel Langlois Research Centre as well as to the text 'Le prix de la liberté' by Luc Bourdon, an unpublished study on the early years of video production centres in Québec, to which Michel Desjardins of Vidéographe gave me access.

I would like to begin by discussing the commonly used term "cyberspace" as well as addressing received notions about new technologies, before venturing to suggest an alternative to the current state of our engagement with electronic media.

The following has been remarked by numerous commentators, but is worth repeating: there is an inherent problem in adjoining a spatial suffix to a medium that does not have any relation to tri-dimensional space. (Thankfully, we are still in the iconic stages.) The problem lies in the metaphors of conquest that often accompany such rhetoric. Our Internet Explorers and Netscape Navigators less than tactfully allude to this 'space' as a barren continent ready to be conquered. With such a mindset, it is not surprising that the 'information superhighway' has become a reality replete with advertising panels. Moreover, as an extension to its virtuality, the site of 'cyberspace' is understood as being egalitarian when, in fact, gender, economical status and age are ever present barriers to equal access. Much discourse about digital technologies represent it as constantly evolving, thus impossible to keep up with and comprehend yet alone criticize. When describing artistic practices online, the term "" would be more precise and appropriate than 'art in cyberspace'. also holds the advantage of rooting network art in an historical development of network based precursors to the web such as mail-art or Bulletin Board Services.

Are electronic networks free of material constraints?1
Anyone or any artist-run centre that had to pay for their network access knows the answer to this question. The cost of acquisition and maintenance of often fickle electronic equipment and software add even greater financial burden. Yet a pervasive notion about the 'net is that it is free of economic concerns.

Much of the discourse guiding the development and criticism of electronic media has the attributes of modernist thinking. Witness the emphasis on disembodied virtuality and the unspoken tenet that technological advancement holds the promise of a better future while not acknowledging issues of ethnicity, gender or social concerns resulting from the use (or inaccessibility) of the said technology. One would expect such discourse from those engaged in its manufacturing and consuming. As Margaret Morse remarks in 'What do Cyborgs Eat' "[?]Cyberspace is a largely male domain where gender constructs under critique in other spheres of contemporary society return with a vengeance". (Unfortunately, the lack of a critical point of view is also present in some writing emanating from the social sciences.)

Faced with a modernist program of misguided belief in technological progress2, 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 (the potentially good hype) but to denounce the way it is being used by the industry as a screen for the actual privatisation of the network and a progressive limitation of 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 a least be informed - if not superseded - by a different discourse, one of the politics of the modes of production.

An Alternative
There exists an alternative 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 60's and 70's. I will begin by discussing what comprises open source before showing how the motivations behind its development are analogous to the ones which presided over the establishment of artist-run centres. I will finish with a short (and incomplete) history of the establishment of media production centres to determine if the opportunities and challenges facing centres resemble that of their inception.

Question of methodology

How can we compare two seemingly dissimilar fields of activity, art and programming? 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.

First, we would have to consider the programmer as a cultural worker. Programmers are considered to belong to their own distinct culture by the mass media3, a culture 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 and 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.4

Second, 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. The artist can be considered as a hacker. The discipline of art history invented the terms appropriation and citation to describe the process of borrowing more or less tactfully from their peers and recombining ideas and methods into new works of art.

Free Software5

The ethos of the Open Source movement is summed up in the General Public License (GPL) that accompanies open source code. The following is an extract from the preamble of the GPL:

"The licenses for most software are designed to take away your freedom to share and change it. By contrast, the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change free software--to make sure the software is free for all its users."6

Open source advocates playfully substitute the suffix left from right in copyright to mark this reversal of the intended use of copyright law. The GPL license has far ranging implications for the normal production and distribution model of software.7 It stipulates that code derived from open source code must be freely distributed. "Copyleft is a general method for making a program free software and requiring all modified and extended versions of the program to be free software as well."8 In this way, knowledge is available and shared among individuals as copyleft finds its way through the corpus of available software tools like a virtuous virus.

In the Cathedral and the Bazaar, Eric S. Raymond likens open source development to the bazaar where exchanges occur spontaneously between individuals while the Cathedral stands for hierarchical proprietary software development.9 For the hacker, Free Software represents an alternative to commercial software and its closed architecture. Open Source is an example of what results when the technological becomes the political. Its politically charged potential can be understood through the older schemes of analysis, that of the modes of production rather than that of the politics of representation. Open Source poses a very real and radical challenge to the capitalist privatization of the network.

Artist-run Centres, Free Software, Same Struggle?

'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 throughout the country.

Participative development is essential for the relevance and survival of both a 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 gradual death for the centre, as it becomes increasingly irrelevant to the concerns of the artistic community.10

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 within a project often 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 away from being relevant to the needs of many users, or if the managers maintain an architecture or style of coding that is 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 councils) proved to be solid partners able to provide means to structure the centres. In some cases, funding from federal sources even initiated projects (At its inception, Vidéographe was an arm of the National Film Board). 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.11

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. It is when we look at the particular history of the inception of the media production centres that we can witness the greatest similarity between the ideals of the two domains.

New Technology: a Tired Salespitch?

The blinding speed of technological development is a notion of the technological discourse that seeks to disqualify the adoption of a critical stance towards it. To help us navigate through the hyperbolic comments surrounding new technologies it may be useful to look at how new technologies were introduced and received in the past. This type of discourse has been with us for at least 35 years in the case of video and even earlier if we look at the introduction of the radio and that of the cinema.12

Artist's and arts organisations reception of new technologies often gives rise to utopian visions. Marshall McLuhan has had an important role in creating this by articulating his view that an artist's main role is to act as guide to any new technology, that he suggested extends our bodies in the same way as would a new sense. Diana Nemiroff summarizes McLuhan's position: "the aspiration of our time for wholeness, empathy and depths of awareness [is] a natural adjunct of electric technology."13

From its introduction in 1965 and commercialisation in 1967, the portapak, a portable video camera, is heralded as a liberating tool.14 The climate of counter-cultural contestation of institutions and the perception that societies functions as 'systems' that can be influenced were key in ascribing emancipatory roles to the new medium.

It is with this backdrop that in 1969 the National Film Board (NFB) launched the project 'Société nouvelle / Challenge for Change' with the following objective: "to explore the possibilities of the documentary form produced in collaboration with citizens to address

social issues and propose solutions."15 In 1971, Vidéographe was founded as an arm of the NFB. Luc Bourdon explains its position:

"From the onset, and in an effort to avoid the NFB's meddling into its operation, the administrators of the project applied policies based on the principles of freedom of expression and the democratizing of the means of communication."16

In 1970, the NFB zealously bought all the portapaks available on the canadian market.17 In a context of public accessibility to the airwaves, the first experiment of video on demand was set up in 1972 with Vidéographe in partnership with community stations such as TVC 4 of Saint-Jérome.

But after these initial and far sighted experiments, broadcasting rights were attributed to private broadcasters. The particular socio-political context in Québec resulted in the cancellation of federal funding for Vidéographe in 1973. The resulting splintering of media production groups into Véhicule, Prim, Groupe d'Intervention Vidéo and a new iteration of Vidéographe with different visions for video art also meant the end of these experiments on a grand scale. On the occasion of a 1990 retrospective of Vidéographe a the National Gallery of Canada, Claude Forget expressed his view that artists at the time were being used by governments and corporations to figure out what to do with this medium and how to establish a broadcast policy.18

In a harsh but lucid account of the 30 year period following the establishment of Video Inn Paul Wong reflects on the results of the efforts artists have deployed to investigate and harness new media to reach more diverse and larger publics:

...Almost three decades later, alternative media and image makers continue to face almost insurmountable obstacles to reach audiences, develop public awareness and gain legitimacy. The history of video art is littered with hundreds of doomed attempts to break into the mainstream and influence global communications through broadcast.

The dream of an electronic revolution that would affect social change crumbled into the unprecedented worldwide consumption of electronic products. Access to information is equivalent to owning a television, VCR, computer and modem...With the introduction of each new technology we witness well-meaning artists clamouring to influence its great potential. Recent attempts to merge onto the electronic superhighway can be best summed up as little more than yielding on an unpaved road.

Faced with yet another 'new technology' that holds promise for a more democratic creation and dissemination of works, one can only be weary of repeating the errors that lead to the disillusionment of a recent generation of artists. On the other hand, that context also provided for creations that were often socially engaged, urgent, relevant, beautiful, critical, participative, experimental (and funded), fulfilling the goals that the creators had prescribed for themselves.

I contend that the prevailing situation of what is now awkwardly called 'new media' - namely the Internet and the widespread use of digital tools for content creation - might be different from that which presented itself when artists first ventured into video production.

The public debate of the mid to late 90's can hardly be said to be dominated by aspirations of greater equality and social justice as it was 30 years before. As I have tried to demonstrate, 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 as 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.20

With the tools for the production and dissemination of art now being integrated, bandwidth (or access to the network), is the only component that does not have a free alternative. When we examine accessibility issues, bandwidth is equivalent to the airwaves of the 70's. The distributed and international architecture of the web makes it unlikely that eventual governmental policies could be implemented coercively (unlike the case of pirate radio or television stations). The CRTC has already decided not to legislate on web content or attribution of 'bandwidth'21 as it was able to do with radio or television frequencies. Instead, the cultural agencies of all level of government are recognizing that there is a need for developing different models of investigation of the potential for creation and diffusion of content on the web. Witness the opening of grants, facilities and access to higher bandwidth to artists and arts organisations.

The current trends towards greater commercialisation, higher costs and discrepancy in access22 should inform our actions. Advocacy for equal access to bandwidth from the arts will find a receptive and organized audience in technology 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.

1 For a discussion of the material aspects of digital technology, see Immanence Online, by Laura U. Marks at This writing is excerpted from a longer essay, in her forthcoming book Touch: Sensuous Theory and Artists' Media, Minnesota University Press, 2002.

2 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 can not as over indebted telecommunications companies seek to offset their losses by distributing the burden to their subscribers.

3 A recent example of this is found in the movie "hackers", a thriller that features a group of programmers. For a more complete discussion of the similarities between the media construction of the artist and hacker figures and the possible exchange between them, please see:

4 As important as ignoring technological determinism when examining technological artwork.

5 See notes on open source for more information on 'copyleft', its main Operating System,available software and practical considerations at

6 Free Software Foundation (Richard M. Stallman), preamble to the GNU General Public License,, 1996, Boston.

7 A program is created from the compilation into an executable file (binary code understood by machines but not end users) of source code written in a programming language. In proprietary and commercial software only the binaries are sold. With Open Source programs, the source code is made available along with the executable binaries. This makes understanding and modifying programs possible for others.

8 Free Software Foundation (Richard M. Stallman), preamble to the GNU General Public License,, 1996, Boston (my emphasis).

9 Eric S. Raymond and Bob Young, The Cathedral and the Bazaar : Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, O'Reilly & Associates, 255 pages, 2000. The image of the Cathedral might not be so well chosen as a metaphor for pre-planned top down development since it bears the authorship of numerous authors and its (often) centuries long development spanning different architectural styles goes well beyond the normal release cycle of any software project ;-). Open Source emerges as a reaction to the work culture present in large corporations. Most software developers put in extended hours regardless of the type of structure in which they operate. For the open source developer, the motivation is found in pure research, the overcoming of challenges, in discoveries and altruism (but also competition and pride) rather than a hypothetical financial reward. Making the figure of the hacker resemble that of the artist some more.

10 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.

11 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. Free Software in this case refers to the availability of the source code and not to be free of costs to the user, although that is often the case. See my notes on open source for more information on 'copyleft', it's main Operating System, available software and practical considerations at

12 The canadian scene has a rich and diverse history with media production centres like Vidéographe, Video Inn, Vtape and Western Front to name but a few of the older centres. I will use as primary source the research conducted by Luc Bourdon in 1992 entitled Le prix de la Liberté, and commissioned by the Institut Québecois du Cinéma, that retraces the history of video art in Québec and in Canada

13 Nemiroff, Ibidem, p. 32

14 Nam June Paik first received a portapak a year before its introduction on the market. On the day he received it, he taped a demonstration and presented it that evening. It set the tone for the idea of empowerment through technology.

15 Bourdon, p.9, Le prix de la liberté "Ayant pour objectif d'explorer les possibilités du documentaire produit en implication très étroite avec les citoyens pour en arriver a inventorier les problèmes et a proposer des solutions."

16 Bourdon, idem p. 10 (my translation) "Dès le début et afin d'éviter l'ingérence de l'ONF, les administrateurs du projet appliquent des politiques basées sur le principe de la liberté d'expression et de la démocratisation des moyens de communication."

17 Engineers at the Vidéographe had developed an editing system for video that had NY artists coming to work in Montréal over night. The shooting and video editing suites were open 24hrs a day.

18 Bourdon, Idem p.14

19 Paul Wong, Making Video In: the contested ground of Alternative Video on the West Coast, Ed. Jennifer Abbott, Video In Studios, Vancouver, 1996

20 see for a list of resources and sites for Open Source software.

21 But 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. Whereas community web advocates uphold the notion of the web being a space for full exchange of information. Not a one way consumption but a healthy content creation activity that would go in hand with the reception of information. 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. (note) One of the direct consequences of this is the bandwidth limitations imposed on modems. The download speed is greater than the upload speed by a factor of 4 to 1 for telephone modems and 10 to 1 for digital subscriber line modems.

22 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, the architecture of the web is not as networked as the metaphor of the 'web' indicates, in a sense, the canadian network is modeled after its geography imagine a string of lines around the 49th parallel. to a privately owned network concentrated in the hands of cable and telephone companies trying to impose their own content.