what if performance were distribution?

A few days ago we announced the release of Field and Loops under open source licenses (both the choreography and performance by Merce Cunningham, and our new digital artwork of the same name). Was this altruism on our part? Not completely, there’s a plan: we’re trying to change the eco-system of digital art and performance in our favor.

For a long time now we’ve been frustrated with how digital art is taught and thought about, and I’ve come to believe that part of what’s gone astray is the very thing that we are trying to address in this “preservation project”: that is preservation itself.

scholarship and preservation

Three things are almost constant in our field. Firstly, if you read any criticism about a digital artwork, it’s been written by someone who has been unable to study the object they are writing about in depth, hold it in their hands, take it apart, see how it works. Often they are reduced to guessing, to making things up (while defending making things up as a valid critical approach). Secondly, if you read anything interesting about an artwork, it’s almost impossible to track it down and see it for yourself. Photographs with captions in books are our canon, in a way that’s almost unbearably ironic for a field that often touts its ground-breaking multimedia nature on the very same page. These books are vital, but they are the botany, not the physics of our understanding of this art. And finally, should you locate the artists responsible, there’s a good chance that the artwork will have stopped working or be prohibitively hard to put back together again for installation. At best, all they will have is a wider range of photographs and captions for you to look at.

This isn’t the situation with painting or music; but it is a condition that digital art shares with dance. And these three things severely limit the quality of teaching and criticism in general and the size and complexity of the objects that students and critics can study in particular. Ultimately they damage the art itself. Our large-scale, complex, and fragile artworks don’t fit well within this environment. Something has to change.

We’re not the first to care about the preservation of contemporary art (or dance). On the contrary, there has been considerable discussion, and funding for discussion, over the last decade. It’s amounted to, as far as we can see, very little that’s concrete and even less that’s interesting. It seems driven by either an academic desire to talk about a fascinating and fashionably interdisciplinary subject or an economic desire to transform digital artworks into something that can be bought and sold like a painting. Frustrated by this, we approached the Mellon Foundation, for funding for Loops, with a strong desire to indicate how we thought it should be done by actually doing it.

Digital artworks cannot be bought and sold like a painting — and all the talk and free conference food in the world will not change this. Our new strategy of open-sourcing everything we can find an excuse and the funding to open source, leads then to a different place, frankly, a more moral place. One where the theory (scholarship) and practice (pedagogy) of our field stands to be transformed by the possibility of “close reading” and deep understanding of the artworks themselves; where digital art, and dance scholarship, are no longer starved of actual, useful, stable, share-able examples.

open-source software and open-source art

That was the practical argument for “giving away” an artwork as open source, but are there deeper connections between the morals of software-making and art-making?

To readers arriving from the software-, rather than the art-, world, the previous section will sound very familiar. This is in fact nothing more than the philosophical goals, and the economic realities, of the open-source movement. The philosophical goals are often obscured today (given the success of the model, some have come to suggest that open source strategies are justifiable more simply, and less politically, in terms of the quality and cost of the software it produces). But, to my eye, the original point of this was both clear and extremely radical: that the attendant, moral price of giving somebody a piece of your code was that you also had to give them the ability to understand it, change it, and share it.

This is a different reading of the philosophical tenants of free software than most, but let’s rewrite this argument for the art-, rather than the software-, world: the price of having strangers come and look at your art in a gallery (or in a theatre, or especially on a street, in public), the price of putting your art in their head, is that you have to give them also the means of understanding, transforming and sharing it as well. Oliver Sachs’ most recent book, Musicophilia, hints at the psychological stakes of this exchange with a stark image, calling music that sticks in your head to the point of irritation an Earworm. Perhaps the cost of being in the Earworm distribution business should be that you have to allow your worms to be dissected, understood and shared. Perhaps, the self-confident Earworm maker might hope to get back more from a now flourishing community of Earwormologists than they lose from their more limited control over their ear-market.

My overview of “free software” here is backwards from the usual presentation of the open software’s core ideas: it’s typically given in terms of preserving the freedom of the recipient (of the software) to “tinker” with what they receive. I believe this (perhaps deliberately) downplays the heavy moral dimension of the life of the software creator in favor of underlining the wonderful freedoms to-be-enjoyed by the software consumer. Fun as “tinkering” is, it just doesn’t capture what makes software special. Software is simultaneously just like a screwdriver (in that if you sell me a screwdriver, you shouldn’t try to tell me what I can and can’t screw with it) but it’s also nothing like a screwdriver (in that your screwdriver doesn’t become a transformative extension of my brain with the moral responsibilities that entails). Software is in a special class of things, a class shared only by a few other things, including, perhaps, art.

what is “distribution” ?

But both perspectives can exploit the same strategy, and the third revision of the open source movement’s main tactic, its “core text”, the GNU Public License, was formulated quite recently. This is the very legalistically magic document that aims to maintain these freedoms (and codifies these responsibilities). Simply put: if you distribute software under this license, you must distribute the source code to it, in a way that allows understanding, modification and subsequent redistribution of those modifications under this very license in turn. Version 3 of this document updates the highly successful version 2 to defend this vision against new attacks, imagined and real, conducted by forces in favor of closed-software. (For example, some consumer product manufacturers, most notably Tivo, are dedicated to making hardware that, while having freely modifiable software, from other people, on it, won’t actually run any software that’s been modified, even by those people).

One attack (and defense) that was presumably deemed to be too radical, even for GNU, is being posed by web-based software. Should, say, Google turn out to be based on modifications of open software, should they be bound to release their code to me, an avid google-r, or is there something special about using a web browser that prevents this interaction counting as “software distribution?” If it works at all, my perspective, and my moral argument, still work despite the prophylactic Firefox and cable modem: Google is in the process of transforming not just society and scholarship, but individuals, and yet we are unable to study how it works, talk about it in any deep way, or change our own versions of it. Regardless of its intentions, can this ever really be morally acceptable?

Seeing this issue arising, but perhaps unwilling to demand that everybody play hardball with Google, the Free Software Foundation (the force behind the GNU Public License) worked on an optional addition to its license that would cover this: the confusingly entitled Affero GPL. Works distributed under this license explicitly count web-services as distribution and providing such services automatically triggers the legal responsibility to distribute the underlying code. If Google incorporate this code into a web-service, the whole service becomes “tainted” and requires the distribution of its source-code.

This will, of course, never happen, but the existence of this license shows that the very nature of what “distribution” is is transforming, and up for debate.

distributing loops?

Which brings me to an utterly hypothetical, but intriguing point back in the (digital) art world: what if performance (or installation) of an artwork counted as distribution? What if works made with tools under GPL-like licenses triggered the code distribution clauses of the GPL as soon as the doors to the gallery opened? What if the audience had to be able demand a CD of the source code for the piece on the way out of the auditorium? Critical thought about digital art would be transformed, new forms of scholarship would appear, the techniques of digital art, poorly taught right now, would practically teach themselves in self-assembling online forums.

Fantasy, perhaps. One thing is for sure, we are sufficiently tickled by this idea that Loops, when it is installed “for real” in a gallery (rather than a press conference), will be accompanied by a stack of DVD-Rs. Like the Loops preservation project itself: a small gesture, but one that we hope becomes exemplary.

And with that, back to cleaning up Loop’s source code, so that I can post it all online.