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Why Artwork Should Be Open Sourced And Revisited

Matt Pearson (aka zenbullets) explains why he created the app thom, based on Aaron Koblin and James Frost’s “House of Cards” video.

by Matt Pearson
01 March 2013, 2:10pm

Making apps is easy. Everyone and their kid sister is making apps these days. What’s harder, sometimes, is justifying why the app you have made deserves to exist—often it doesn’t bear thinking about because the conclusion may be simply that it… doesn’t. But that isn’t going to stop you uploading it to the PlayStore in the hope it becomes the new iFart.

Last week I made thom—an Android app reworking an old Aaron Koblin idea. It’s kinda pretty but ultimately rather useless, therefore perfectly fulfilling the criteria for the label "art". It took me about two days to make, but I spent a lot longer considering what had possessed me to make it and why it was worth doing. What follows is that reasoning.

The Experiment

In 2008 Radiohead got a lot of press attention following the release of the video for “House of Cards” (below), the third single off their In Rainbows album. The video, by James Frost and Aaron Koblin, was made using the latest LIDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging) technology—cameras which recorded 3D positioning data rather than conventional 2D images.

Radiohead’s "House of Cards

The band and directors earned extra nerd-kudos for open-sourcing a chunk of the data on GoogleCode under a Creative Commons license. This data was a rather messy 3D point cloud of Thom Yorke’s head singing a minute’s worth of the track. The download came with a simple Processing example of how to read the data, as well as a minute long version of the track to sync it to. They couldn’t have done much more to encourage creative coders to grab the baton and run with it, to take it somewhere new.

But not many did. Which was kinda sad. Why was this?

Maybe it was too early. In 2008 there weren’t as many “creative coders” (as they like to call themselves these days). It’s easy to forget how explosive this movement has been over the last few years. There wasn’t a shortage of techies working in imaginative and innovative ways then, they just weren’t thinking of themselves in those terms yet. But the point cloud aesthetic did have it’s day, it just wasn’t in the wake of House of Cards. It was two and half years later when the Xbox Kinect was released.

The Kinect was essentially entry level LIDAR tech for the living room. It made what was expensive and technologically novel the previous month suddenly both accessible and, more importantly, affordable. Anyone with $149 left in their R&D budget, and a day or two to get the (hacked) drivers working on their Mac, could experiment with their own versions of data similar to the Radiohead point clouds. And if they didn’t have an R&D budget they could just pretend they were buying it for their kids. (Sorry Rudy. Sorry Oz.)

The Kinect was initially, to Microsoft’s bewilderment, more popular with the interactive art community—which had grown considerably since 2008—than it was with Xbox gamers. Two and a half years is a long time in tech and if there was a contribution “House of Cards” made to the Kinect phenomenon, it was in building the appetite for what this tech unlocked.

Throughout 2011 the 3D point cloud was ubiquitous, and by the end of the year had become somewhat of a cliche. 2011 was the year I found myself with the job of creating live interactive visuals for Groove Armada’s tour and I relied heavily on the Kinect as a way of making two dimly-lit bobbing DJ heads into something worth watching. That summer I pretty much exhausted all my ideas of what to do with a mass of 3D point data. I’m guessing many others did too.

Screenshot from a 3D point cloud YouTube demo

But I believe this was not the only factor accounting for why the “House of Cards” data dump didn’t inspire much grass roots tinkering. Allow me to propose a further theory.

Open Source Art

A data dump of a 3D singing head is not your typical open source project. Typical open source projects are most often collaborations in the development of tools, not finished works. Open sourcing tools makes a lot of sense because everyone benefits—the users get better tools and the contributors become world leaders in the use of that tool. The culture benefits from getting more and better tools with more people using them.

This is why the open source movement has been so successful in software—a field largely made up of creative tools—but problematic in other areas such as publishing, music, film, industrial design, etc, which are more about digital commodities. Inspired by the business model proved by the tech community there has been an impetus to apply open source principles to everything, which is a noble aim, but sometimes hasn’t worked so well.

The data dump from the “House Of Cards” video was not just a tool, it was more than just a digital commodity too—it was an aesthetic. This was open source art. What was shared was the resource and methodology for creating a certain look. It could be regarded as a tool, yes, but a highly specific one. It may be seen as a commodity too, a data model, but if so it was a highly malleable one.

Sharing an aesthetic is not as straightforward as sharing code. Designers, for example, don’t (often) open source. There’s already shit like this happening all the time, unchallenged under old copyright law. Creative commons licenses wouldn’t make much difference in such cases anyway, the problem the art and design communities have to deal with is an old one: thieving bastards. The world will always have its fair share of them. They exist just to ruin things for everyone else.

You might argue that the “House of Cards” data was just that: data. It wasn’t an aesthetic in itself. But in 2008, when this technology was still novel, it was. Artistically, there were limits as to what could be done with the data and the limits of 3D rendering time/cost, and data compatibility with higher end 3D, are still being pushed five years later. Most bedroom hackers, without the cash to license a copy of Max or Maya, would have no choice but to work with points or wireframes, much like the look of the finished Radiohead video.

What I’m suggesting is this: maybe it wasn’t just timing, maybe it was also the case that the coders simply weren’t sure what they could do with the data. The “House of Cards” video, and the 2009 interactive piece Koblin made subsequently, were beautiful pieces of work. Too beautiful maybe. They had shared the data but they had failed to leave it with any room for improvement. There was nowhere to take it.

Screenshot from Radiohead’s “House of Cards”

Around the time of Koblin’s data dump I had started my own, slightly less significant, open source experiment. I was blogging at publishing weekly generative art sketches along with their source code, inviting visitors to take the code and try to take them further. The blog had traffic, earned a few write ups and got me some nice emails in response. But, like Koblin/Frost, I saw very few new works produced from my shared code.

In this case it certainly wasn’t because the quality of my sketches was off-puttingly high. So I can only conclude there might be a third factor involved. Not only were there fewer “creative coders” out there than tech utopians and Wired magazine might have us believe, but of those there were, they simply didn’t have any need for this kind of resource. They had no shortage of their own ideas to pursue. I was my own best example—I knew about the Radiohead project at the time but was too busy with my own experiments to have bothered with it.

The Point-Cloud That Time Forgot

Which is why I didn’t try anything with the “House of Cards” data until last week. An iTunes shuffle reminded me of Koblin’s old data dump and set me googling to find out what had been done with it in the last five years. I found the inevitable Lego version (below), impressive mainly for the dedication not necessarily the idea or execution. But little else.

Lego Version of “House of Cards”

This lead to an emotion I don’t think I’d experienced before. I somehow found myself feeling sorry for a chunk of data. The point cloud that time had forgot, it’s value dimmed by the glare of subsequent advances. This code that was so generously open sourced had been presented to a world that didn’t really appreciate it.

I don’t think we should underestimate the significance of this data. Yes, the look was ubiquitous within three years, but this was a FIRST. It was the first time a person had been captured and shared in this way. This wasn’t the same as taking a photograph or a video, it was a recording of the space around a person’s physical embodiment. Post-Kinect everyone was 3D modelling their cats, but Mr Yorke was the first person to have been captured (and, more importantly, shared) in this way. It was, like much art, a gift to the culture.

This alone ideologically justified my wasting of a few days, but there were a few other reasons I made "thom" too:

– It practiced what I preach. I was giving Koblin/Frost’s data the same kind of attention I’d like for my own shared work.

– It presented the challenge of improving, or at least putting a zenbullets twist, on something previously considered unimprovable (by my conclusions above).

– It paid tribute to Koblin, a brain I admire. It paid tribute by vandalising his work.

– It gave me an excuse to experiment with a new bit of tech (Processing 2.0’s Android capabilities), which is always a good exercise.

– It propelled the train of thought that produced these words you’re reading.

Neither the PlayStore or the iTunes Store have a category for useless art experiments. I wonder if they should. Not everything has to be a tool or a game. There are other forms of joy that don’t fit these classifications—like poking your fingers at Thom Yorke’s face for a couple of minutes. Try it—it’s kinda fun.

It accordance with the ethos of the original project I’ll share the code behind the app (as soon as I’ve tidied it up). Why am I bothering to do this after hinting at the potential futility of such a thing above? I’ll tell you…

Intelligent Theft

It’s important that we don’t allow open source to be dismissed as just a techie preserve, only applicable to the kind of major tool making exercises you see on GitHub. It also works as a more general concept. From writing up an idea on your blog, tweeting a great band name you’ve just thought up but will never use, or sharing a sketch on OpenProcessing—it all helps. The value of open sourced art, aesthetics, sketches, or concepts may not be obvious to you, but it is not for you to judge. The generosity of ideas that litter the floor of the internet is one of the things that make our post-digital existence so great.

Yeah, it’s irritating when someone takes one of your shared ideas and attempts to monetize it. But if we let the arseholes ruin the game, we all stagnate. We just have to learn to ignore them, and let arseholes be arseholes. Remember, the presence of parasites just means your shit is good.

The word "idiot", I recently learned, is rooted in the word “idios” (thx Joel) which means “private” or “alone”. Coding is, traditionally, a solitary activity which is why it tends to attract more introverted minds. But just because you need headphones to maintain your concentration that doesn’t mean you have to be an island. You don’t even have to overcome your inability to make eye-contact (the mark of a true geek), open source is a more civilized way of working collaboratively.

And if you don’t have anything to share, do not be ashamed to take. Pick a good idea and riff on it. Practice intelligent theft. Jump on the shoulders of someone you’ve never met and see what the view is like from up there. Make something, and then find their email to tell them about it. You don’t need to be any more extroverted than that. You don’t have to be their friend. They’re probably really tedious in real life anyway. But I bet they’d be flattered if you found a nugget of value in their work.

So this is what I did last week. Hope you like the app Aaron, James, Thom. It was a pleasure working with you.