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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Software Development as Artistic Practice: How Open Source Is Changing the Way Art is Made

Artists are notoriously secretive about their processes. Rothko never revealed the complex formulas behind his diaphanous color fields. Picasso gave his famous dictum, “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal,” which may have been why Brancusi was so loathe to let the Cubist into his studio. But what about when sharing becomes a fundamental part of the artistic practice? For new media artists, whose work embraces the latest innovations in computing technology and digital imaging, being transparent with their working process is a fundamental part of being a member of the creative community — everyone copies and adapts from each other, sharing strategies, tools, and techniques.

Rather than locking their studio doors, media artists are in a constant, open dialogue over how, and how best, to make use of the technologies that drive their work. It’s not just about making use of pre-existing platforms, but inventing new ones. Groups of media artists are constantly developing original software tools that are made free to use and adapt, under the same open source banner that drives the well-known Linux operating system, among countless other projects.

Though these open-source creative tools were developed by artists, they don’t need to be considered works of art in and of themselves. They are, however, allowing more and more artists to begin working with code to make art. The most widely used examples of artist-directed custom software development are Processing and OpenFrameworks, two open-source creative programming environments created to be accessible for computer-shy artists and experienced coders alike. The platforms have been integral to projects ranging from Marius Watz’s generative graphics to James George’s depth-sensing Kinect videos.

The difference between a media artist creating a tool like OpenFrameworks and a painter developing a new admixture of oil paint, for example, is that the coding tools are designed to be functional and public, a provocative quality in the traditionally covetous art-world context. “It’s the difference between something that represents and something that operates,” said Golan Levin, a media artist and director of Carnegie Mellon’s STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, in a recent conversation with ARTINFO. “When people do this propositional tool-making, even if there’s only two or three people who ever use it, it actually works — it’s part of its rhetorical force.” Levin teaches OpenFrameworks and Processing to visual art students in a now-mandatory class in Carnegie Mellon’s art program called Electronic Media Studio Two.
Creative programming environments are functional by necessity, especially with utilities like Processing and OpenFrameworks. “The moment they get widely used, you have to think about issues of functionality more than you have to think about provocation,” Levin continued. But this openness hasn’t always been the hallmark of creative software development.

In 1998, John Maeda, the director and founder of the MIT Media Lab’s Aesthetics and Computation Group, developed a programming environment called Design by Numbers. Created for “anyone who likes to pick up a pencil and doodle,” the private environment was intentionally minimal, a 100-by-100-pixel square that only displayed greyscale, its output determined by simple commands. It was a “level zero teaching tool,” remembers Levin, who was a student of Maeda’s. Two other students, Casey Reas and Ben Fry, decided that Design by Numbers didn’t go far enough — they wanted a bigger digital canvas, and full color. They developed Processing, which was made public in 2001.

OpenFrameworks also came in reaction to Maeda’s work. While working at Parsons, artist Zach Lieberman wanted to teach Maeda’s environment and his ACU code library to students but couldn’t because the earlier system wasn’t open source. Lieberman worked with his student Theo Watson and developer Arturo Castro (the only contributor with a background in computer science, rather than art) to create OpenFrameworks, which was released in 2005. The platform continues to evolve with the work of a core group of artists and developers, and is constantly being added to with new plugins and capabilities by the OpenFrameworks community.

When asked if he minded that businesses were using his software to create commercial projects, Lieberman told The Creators Project, “My theory is that putting better tools out there means that people can make better projects and then companies and institutions will see those projects and take more risks, and in that way everybody’s work will be able to improve. There’s just more opportunity.” The radical sharing of the open community source has helped companies and artists alike — and sometimes both at the same time.
Developer and artist Jonathan Vingiano, along with Internet artist Ryder Ripps, are the founders of OKFocus, a creative agency that has produced a slew of provocative Web-based projects in the last year, including Art or Not and Tug of Store. They also periodically release the Javascript plugins and tools that they develop in order to execute their work, and have even made their entire Web site design public. “What we’ve done is open source our aesthetic,” Vingiano explained. “We use a lot of open source tools. It’s the nature of being a part of this community,” he continued. “The second that you use something that’s free, you’re part of it, and it makes sense to give back to it.”

For OpenFrameworks and Processing, having a large number of contributing developers and users — more cooks in the kitchen — is a good thing, but the downside is that it can get messy. Cinder, a C++ library for creative coding, is led by a single developer, Andrew Bell. It’s still open source, but it was designed for a more professional, expert group of users familiar with the strictures of software engineering. In the right hands, it’s a powerful tool, but it doesn’t provide the same educational experience that makes Processing and OpenFrameworks accessible to larger audiences.

Rather than as artworks or tools, it might be best to think of these software platforms in terms of the community of creators and users that they bring together. Artists develop new methods for working and share them, connecting with and enabling their audiences. The audience, or the user base, then takes the new software and runs with it, moving it in directions its architects may have never considered. It’s an open model for innovation and creativity that challenges many of the traditional values of the entrenched art world, emphasizing transparency over opacity and interconnection over secrecy. Isn't it about time we moved beyond the closed-door policy?

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