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How Open Source Is Disrupting Visual Art

Open source practices are turning the art world on its head. Here’s the long and short of what that means for today’s artists.

Golan Levin and Kyle McDonald, Rectified Flowers.

If you've seen an unbelievable interactive projection or a mind-blowing piece of generative video art, odds are you've come across openFrameworks, an accessible programming platform that has helped create projects like Arturo Castro and Kyle McDonald's Faces, a real-time face-substitution project, the EyeWriter graffiti headset from F.A.T. Labs, and Chris O’Shea’s playful, Monty Python-inspired Hand from Above, among many other works of technology-based art. What makes openFrameworks and similar coding tools like Processing so powerful in an artistic context is that they are open source, free for any artist to use and hack to their own ends, and are made by artists, for artists.


Evan Roth, Graffiti Analysis: Sculpture.

"Open source is about sharing your process," Kyle McDonald, an artist who has worked with openFrameworks since 2008 and now contributes to its core code, wrote in an email. "That could mean explaining how you mix your paint, writing out your 12-tone row, or posting your code." This open, democratic philosophy immediately separates technology-based art from the greater art world, where secrecy is a byword and the last thing commercial galleries want to do is show how their sausage gets made. But what if open source ideology could disrupt (in the start-up sense) the confines of the contemporary art scene? Everything would change, from the solitary nature of art making to the lack of support infrastructure for artists and the entrenched gallery economy.

Traditionally, iconic artists are upheld as innovators of the visual language of their time and we celebrate their genius because the myth goes that they came up with it alone, locked up in their garret studios (think Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Picasso). Modernist painter Mark Rothko was so protective of his arcane process that he never showed one single studio assistant the entire method. This "solitary genius" myth largely holds to present day, but it’s a fundamentally dangerous assumption that causes artists to be analyzed outside of their social context and one that is getting harder and harder to maintain in the age of the internet. Open source dismantles this notion, demonstrating more than ever that artists never work in a vacuum.


Petro Vrellis’ adaptation of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

The free sharing and teaching of open source is "incompatible with the notion of the solitary genius," said Golan Levin, software artist and director of Carnegie Mellon University's STUDIO for Creative Inquiry . Artists work together in the constant chatter of online social networks and listservs, often contributing or tweaking each other's projects. Open source is also antithetical to the entrenched idea of the single author. In the tech art community, work is made so collectively that it can become difficult to tell who contributed what aspect to what project. The standard museum label, with its one name and single date, is an outdated concept in a time when work is rarely made alone, and often changes over time. The concept of authorship thus becomes dynamic and fluid, making work more interesting, not less.

Artists working with open source technologies form a "community of tool-builders as well as tool-users," Golan Levin explained, helping each other solve logistical and artistic problems. This process is sped up by online social networks like Github, a site that helps programmers adopt and rework pieces of open source code, as well as by physical meet-ups and conferences that community figures like Levin organize.

McDonald sees the open source nature of his work and the collaboration that follows as part of what makes his art appealing to others. "When people see something exciting from me… they see that they can run and modify the code," he wrote. "In the arts, demystification is usually seen as a bad thing, but in this case it keeps people coming back. There’s a special joy to seeing behind the curtain, and knowing that you can have a go at pulling the same levers."


Arturo Castro and Kyle McDonald, Faces.

Under this mentality, contemporary artists could be set free to work together and share ideas openly rather than pretend to embody the past cliché of the suffering loner. Fortunately, websites and social networks are arising to help this sea change take place, allowing more artists to publish and share their work than ever. Tumblr (perhaps the Github of image-making), Pinterest, and Facebook present brand-new visual media to be explored, and venues for visual artists to both discover their own voices and find support within a like-minded community.

Ownership and Economy
Open source holds a variety of challenges for contemporary art. If the techniques are completely public and the work collaborative, how can artists hope to sell their own work, or protect it from undue co-optation? Open-source work can still sell, but it requires an adjustment in the mindset of dealers and collectors, and a willingness to accept new ideas of joint authorship and ownership. A collector might have to understand that a work might be easily replicated and lack protective scarcity, or accept the possibility that a piece's software will eventually become out of date and lack an accountable update system. But open source could also help artists find new streams of support outside of selling work, seeking out foundation or crowd-sourced funding for collective projects that develop ideas benefiting the entire world, as great art always has the potential to.


There's also the issue that open-source artistic endeavors could bleed into the commercial world. "The interaction between the monetary economy and open source can sometimes lead to uncomfortable kinds of appropriation," wrote McDonald, citing how the extremely popular (and profitable) smartphone game, Angry Birds, incorporated the Box2D open-source physics engine, a use that some (including the engine's creators) were uncomfortable with. There's an ambiguous line between fair use and theft, especially when the end product is a money-making endeavor rather than an artistic pursuit.

Is it ok to use open source tools for commercial projects? Angry Birds cashes in off the Box2D open source physics engine.

One of the most challenging aspects of open source in relation to the mainstream art world is that it makes innovative artistic tools "more transparent and approachable," as James George, a developer and artist known for his work in 3D imaging, described. "There's always this fear of selfishness when you're making art that 'I'm doing this for me,' and it's true, to a degree, that it's all about making your thing," George said. "But if in the course of my work I see that I created a useful tool, then those parallel lines are very satisfying." McDonald echoed the sentiment: "When you share your process, there is a kind of loss of ego, and a loss of ownership… At the same time, this is incredibly liberating: you’re forced to constantly reinvent yourself, and let go of old work and ideas," he wrote.

James George and Alexander Porter’s DepthEditorDebug depicts fragments of candid photographs captured with a Kinect and an SLR camera and placed into three dimensional space.

The current structure of the contemporary art world is largely invested in the production and the protection of “signature” ideas, which doesn’t have quite the same sense of selflessness as the idea of giving it all away. As George and McDonald point out, open source requires a certain amount of zen, a willingness to participate in the ebb and flow of cultural discourse and be okay with the give and take. Not only does this philosophy allow for a stronger community of artists and creative workers, it also infuses a greater energy into the artistic discourse, a willingness to publicly experiment and a collective capacity that makes larger projects easier to undertake and accomplish.

And perhaps, this is the most powerful benefit of open source for art: It could turn a fractured group into an empowered one.