Q + A with Jon Ippolito and John Bell on Open Source Art

July 28, 2008

In preparation for tomorrow's luncheon, "Can Creativity Be Crowdsourced?" with Jon Ippolito and John Bell, Berkman intern Zachary McCune posed some questions about art, networked society, and the shape of artistic collaboration in the digital age...

What does "open source" mean to art? is art something to be open sourced, or does it come from a tradition of openness?

JB: Mechanically, open-sourcing art is just making all the parts of an artwork available to others for their own use.  Given the characteristics of a digital medium, I see the effect as similar to the effect of replaceable parts on the industrial revolution--with many of the same strengths and drawbacks.  The major difference is that a sprocket is just a sprocket, chosen only for its mechanical properties, but most artworks will have a host of cultural, philosophical, and intellectual associations attached to them.  Of course, if an artist wants to reuse an element from another work, they will have to make all of those associations interconnect with their own ideas, so maybe the element isn't that different from a sprocket after all.

JI: American composer John Cage foresaw a relationship between sharing art and sharing computer programs back in 1969. And most indigenous cultures have traditions of co-creation that go back tens of thousands of years. Nevertheless, as our Still Water colleague Joline Blais has pointed out, the way Native creators share their creations is quite different from just posting an MP3 online. The Malanggan sculptures of Papua New Guinea exist for the sole purpose of tying those who share their creation into lifelong bonds of kinship. By contrast, a musician who lets others remix an MP3 on her Web page or make it into a video soundtrack via a Creative Commons license has virtually no way to discover who's re-using it and get to know them. The same for a programmer who posts JavaScript licensed under the GPL.

The first three generations of open license have emphasized a social dynamic of detachment rather than connection. This "free-for-all" ethic may have been useful for the early Internet, but it does not serve the long-term sustainability of artistic and electronic networks, which rely on meaningful social ties rather than hit-and-run mashups. That's one reason U-Me students and faculty created The Pool, and why we added a default license that asks creators to register any re-use back in The Pool.

How has the internet changed art? How about artists? Is there a diversification of art forms, places, practices, and theories that has accompany the rise of the net?

JI: Joline Blais and I argue in our book At the Edge of Art that the Internet helped bust art out of the white cube and onto the street, the courtroom, and even the bedroom. More important than this geographic dispersal, however, have been the new kinds of creation enabled by this shift--from autobotography to artificial life--and the newfound powers their creators command in today's networked world. No longer content just to represent reality, digital artists and designers now wield a power Joline calls "executability." In a world whose most important currency is information, executable artworks have crashed computer networks, tanked a corporation's stock price, and swayed court cases.

In 1936, Walter Benjamin wrote about the ways in which mechanical reproduction had altered the very idea and spirit (aura) of art. To re-imagine that essay, what is the work of art in age of digital reproduction and global networked culture?

JB: When form becomes a class rather than a unique characteristic, function has to take over as a way to make one work stand out from another.  A mass-produced piece of art can still be unique, it just requires the participation of the viewer/actor/player/consumer.  This may be in the form of actually interacting with the piece or just looking at it through the lens of their personal history, but building the sort of hooks that will draw in those external references becomes more important when the work itself can be infinitely reproduced.  Ultimately the result is a work that can be more easily abstracted because it is more than just a physical object, which is lucky since the short expiration dates on digital works force more emphasis on variable media translations.

Digital art critic Mark Tribe has argued that new media artworks often thematically consider appropriation and collaboration. Do you think this is true? Why would digital art be inclined towards these themes?

JB: I think this is kind of like asking why paintings often consider color and form; it isn't strictly necessary to do so, but the medium has certain built-in characteristics that beg for attention.  One of the defining characteristics of digital art is infinite, flawless reproduction, and a natural application of that is collaboration (voluntary or not--I think they are the same for these purposes).  When an artist can reference an existing artifact by simply borrowing the original they can easily make statements about the concepts associated with that original work.  You gain the entire history of the original piece as a tool to use for expressing yourself, and in a digital medium the reward-to-effort ratio is too high for most people to ignore a tool that powerful.

Your work argues that artists require unique networked spaces to "find the Leonardos among the LOLcats." What kind of network can do that and how does it change the way networks work to accomplish this task? 

JB: I don't think these tools really change the way networks work, they mostly just change the context and scale of existing human networks.  For instance, The Pool is an online translation of an art community.  Everybody comes in, talks about their work, forms opinions of other peoples' work, and maybe helps each other out if they feel like it.  The contextual difference is that the focus is on the work, not on the individuals producing the work.  If a user only knows what is in The Pool, the effect would be to remove the superstars and laggards and give each work a fair shot based on only its own merits.  The key to doing this well is a bit of a balancing act; you have to show on-screen what the community as a whole thinks about a work, but not so bias the display that works with poor initial reviews never get the chance to get out of the gutter. But again, this is a problem that exists offline as well, and the job of the system is to try to smooth over some of these issues.

What differentiates your "ThoughtMesh" project from other tagging softwares like del.icio.us or technorati? How does it enable the evaluation of art and artists?

JI: Del.icio.us's global folksonomy of tags is great, but it only indexes entire pages, which is less efficient for finding relevant passages in long academic papers. ThoughtMesh helps trace thematic connections between particular sections of online essays. And ThoughtMesh's tags and the meshes that connect them are determined (or at least validated) by the authors of the pages.

ThoughtMesh is really designed to ferret out and evaluate scholarship rather than artwork. That said, ThoughtMesh's onboard rating mechanism is based on John's RePoste software; RePoste also powers Re:Paik, which offers a way to find and evaluate creative or critical projects that reflect the influence of Nam June Paik, the so-called "father of video art."

As a follow-up, would you consider "ThoughtMesh" to be itself an art project? Is it a curatorial project? Or is it electronic literature?

JI: Because there's no ".art" domain on the Internet, it's hard to tell if a project you stumble upon online happens to be art. This forces viewers to decide for themselves whether something is art or not, instead of relying on a gallery label to tell them--which I think is all to the good. Conversely, as soon as you force viewers to define art outside of context, then works we used to think of as art *because* of their context may no longer qualify if another role they serve eclipses their function as art. So a big red sculpture plunked down in a building courtyard may occupy the place of art, but probably serves the role of decor instead.

The absence of traditional signposts for online art has spurred a number of Do It Yourselfers to roll their own ways to recognize their fellow creators--a process referred to in At the Edge of Art as "reweaving community." ThoughtMesh is one of these recognition networks, as is The Pool. I think these examples of social software fulfill a role that's more utilitarian than artistic, which is the main reason I see ThoughtMesh as design rather than art--though obviously my collaborator Craig Dietrich and I believe it is innovative design, or we wouldn't have built it.

That said, some of the more perverse recognition networks, such as Olia Lialina's Last Real Net Art Museum, reveal less about the artworks themselves than they reveal  about the whole enterprise of recognizing creativity. I believe these recognition networks are art. But they're not in a gallery, so you can decide for yourself!

In "The Pool" you create a sort of artistic social network, but instead of individuals at the heart of the interface, you place ideas, themes, and projects. It is an open incubational network. What does your space give artists that they could not find elsewhere?

JB: It's not that The Pool is an absolutely unique environment; as I said earlier, it's largely a translation of offline environments.  However, beyond just the scale and relatively low barrier to entry compared with human social groups, there are some points of emphasis in the system that don't exist in human networks.  I think the project history features are particularly useful.  The development process of a work is often opaque to the outside world, especially after it is complete.  The Pool tracks that history and allows others to see the early, rough stages of a work, and how it has changed between initial conception and final execution.  This is useful not only for those who want to learn by example, but also for anybody who wants insight into what is really the core of the final work.  What early pieces were considered expendable, and what concepts stubbornly refused to be thrown aside?  Were the details really significant to the artist, or just artifacts of the production process?  These are the the kinds of ideas that are captured and made public in The Pool, but would often be lost or hidden outside of it.

Do you think "The Pool" will produce a specific breed of artist? One who finds collaboration and open sourcing their work not only healthy but necessary?

JB: I would say "attract" rather than "produce", but yes, there will be a bias there.  The system is designed to encourage collaboration, and so those who are looking to collaborate will find it most useful.  It may enable some artists to become over-specialized and dependent on others for support but that is a trend that's inherent to the increasingly complex digital medium, so The Pool isn't what's actually producing the pressure to collaborate.  That being said, there's nothing in the system that explicitly requires collaboration; I can list a work as all rights reserved and still use The Pool's systems for project tracking and criticism without opening my work to reuse or collaboration.  It's just that the people who are inclined to protect their work will find the system less valuable than those who want to share it, by design.

JI: Margaretha Haughwout published a study in the journal First Monday suggesting that prolonged use of The Pool may encourage its users to take more open approaches than traditional copyright. So I'm a bit more sanguine than John about The Pool's ability to inspire sharing, if not collaboration per se.

Western art has a history of individualism. modern art in particular seems to privilege the idea of an individual genius working in isolation. Will crowdsourcing art kill independent innovation? how will the culture of art production need to change alongside the development of interfaces like "The Pool" ?

JI: The paradigm of the solitary genius toiling away in isolation is pretty much confined to the 19th and 20th centuries, and even during that period it was usually a myth. That said, the history of Euro-ethnic art has consistently betrayed a tension between individual and collective sensibilities--as when the Pope hired Daniele "breech-painter" da Volterra to cover up the private parts of Michelangelo's Last Judgment.

Networked media resolve this tension in a powerful way, by emphasizing the seemingly contradictory ethics of collaboration and Do It Yourself. From a hierarchic mindset, these two modes could not be more divergent. From a network perspective, however, they suggest a minimum prerequisite for distributed creativity. DIY technologies provide the requisite autonomy, and the distributed architecture of today's electronic networks makes point-to-point contact possible. 

In the broadcast paradigm of a classical orchestra or Hollywood studio, a creator in an entry-level job can communicate with her direct superiors but no higher up the food chain; this treelike structure of communication is the defining protocol of hierarchies. Furthermore, specialization in a hierarchic context prevents a creator from adding a puzzle piece without dozens of co-workers adding theirs; just look at the myriad compartmentalized jobs rolling by in the endless credits for a contemporary Hollywood flick.

Distributed creativity, by contrast, requires first that each node has sufficient autonomy to contribute to a collaboration. So Joe Average can shoot a video, edit it, and post it on YouTube with nothing more than a MacBook. Second, distributed creativity requires that any node can communicate with any other; we all know organizational hierarchies that have been turned on their heads as soon as peons could email the boss. Here in the first decade of the 21st century, the organizational hierarchy of art is starting to turn upside down as well.

Jon, in your c.v. you write that you were fined as a student at Harvard for painting a mural in your dorm room. What was the subject of the mural?

JI: It was a harmless abstraction. But a snitch informed Buildings & Grounds, and despite my promise to then Dean of Harvard College John Fox to paint it over by end of term, I was fined $40. To add insult to injury, the B&G staff did such a lousy job painting over the mural that I had to buy another $40 of wall paint to finish the job myself.

Dean Fox, if you're still there, I want my $40 back!

Last updated July 29, 2008