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Free software art

By yaxu in Culture
Wed Oct 05, 2005 at 08:59:14 PM EST
Tags: Software (all tags)

Many artists are finding their place within contemporary F/OSS (Free/Open Source Software) communities. This is a chance for creativity to flourish unbound by the entrenched commercial software model. Here I use the term 'artist' fairly broadly, including visual artists, experimental musicians and those making software-based installations among others.

Closed vs Open

The designers of commercial software are anonymous behind their brand, faceless boffins creating features, tools and plugins for a hungry market. Here artists are constrained within a manufactured, closed environment, reduced to paying for new possibilities, buying software to be creative for them. It's too easy to be flattered by the fantastic results achievable with a minimum of effort, knowledge or understanding. In reality the creators of the software have encoded so much of an artistic process that the user is merely guiding it. The more creative users scratch around the edges trying to push the software somewhere it doesn't want to go, but still, those edges are defined by an invisible, anonymous force.

When we come to the F/OSS communities, we find that programmers have no strong desire or financial imperative to flatter their users, and it shows in the software. Beyond a couple of clones of commercial applications, F/OSS artistic software is remarkably open ended. Whereas closed software packages plugin automatons to generate your art for you, free software focuses on providing expressive, open ended tools for artists who want to get their hands dirty.

Some examples

Examples of F/OSS applications thriving in the digital art world include Processing, Supercollider and Pure Data. There are others including many general use tools, but these three are comparatively new examples designed specifically with artists in mind.

Processing (originally known as proce55ing) is a simplified java-like language built atop of java, providing an environment for creating visual art. It is startlingly easy to pick up with with tremendous scope for those willing to put time in to master it. A tour around its extensive examples provides many 'wow' moments, where a beautiful visual effect is created by an algorithm elegantly expressed in a few lines of code. Processing is not only an excellent entry into programming for a visual artist, but also an excellent introduction to creating visual art for the experienced programmer.

Supercollider is designed to make music. At its heart is a smalltalk-like language but with c-like syntax. It has a comprehensive library of unit generators for synthesising and processing sound, and powerful higher level libraries such as BBCut, which provides an API for automated breakbeat cut-ups. Previous versions of Supercollider were released as commercial shareware, but the latest version 3 has a fully open source license. One of the most exciting aspects of Supercollider 3 is the provided livecoding abilities, allowing the musician to change their software while it is running, hearing the changes they make immediately without any break in sound. Livecoding allows fully engaged authorship of software-generated music as well as some very live performances. More information about livecoding can be obtained from the organisation for the promotion of live algorithm programming. For more specific information about livecoding with Supercollider, consult its JITLib library.

My final example is Pure Data. Unlike the previous two examples, Pure Data is not a textual language, but it is just as open ended. In Pure Data you create 'patches' rather than programs, by connecting together boxes, each of which carries out an operation on the data that passes through it. The result is a graph through which data flows. The final destination is most often an audio output, however Pure Data is also increasingly popular among visual artists and VJs, using libraries such as GEM and pdp to create live visuals. Although Pure Data doesn't require you to learn a programming language as such, the operations it allows are very low level. Luckily the examples are excellent, but to fully understand and go beyond them you'll need to pick up some understanding of sound synthesis or visual models.

If you want to make the most out of the any of these applications you have to invest some time and effort into learning them. Initially this requirement seems old fashioned and unnecessary, until you compare them with traditional instruments such as a paintbrush or violin. The mixing and use of painting oils, or the bowing and fingering of a violin both take years to master. Similarly, you wouldn't expect to express yourself fully in a foreign language until you had properly learned it. But with mastery of a medium comes the possibility of richer artistic expression.

Application programmers vs end-user programmers

Who makes the software for the artistic user? In truth I think it's false, even insulting to suggest that the creators of software are less creative than those who use it. If both those who create software and those who use it are to some extent programming, then the line between them blurs. One creates an environment, another creates an environment within it; an operating system contains a programming language that hosts a computer program that creates a piece of music. The only reason that we might be more likely to call the final step art is because it has entered the realm of our physical senses.


Voxel dot net
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Related Links
o Processing
o Supercolli der
o Pure Data
o the organisation for the promotion of live algorithm programming
o Also by yaxu

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Free software art | 44 comments (21 topical, 23 editorial, 0 hidden)
hmm... (1.20 / 5) (#1)
by creativedissonance on Mon Oct 03, 2005 at 08:33:03 PM EST

rewrite of previous dead story. gotta head home before I read enough to be snarky.

ay yo i run linux and word on the street
is that this is where i need to be to get my butt stuffed like a turkey - br14n
Let me guess (1.25 / 8) (#4)
by AlwaysAnonyminated on Mon Oct 03, 2005 at 09:31:15 PM EST

you go to Starshmucks, write haikus, and think you are a cool artist. Nice try, but that latte in your hand makes me vote -1.
Posted from my Droid 2.
haiku (2.33 / 3) (#26)
by creativedissonance on Tue Oct 04, 2005 at 02:12:51 PM EST

this post is not first
please consider suicide
sadly I fail it

ay yo i run linux and word on the street
is that this is where i need to be to get my butt stuffed like a turkey - br14n
[ Parent ]
what we really need (1.25 / 8) (#5)
by minerboy on Mon Oct 03, 2005 at 10:17:23 PM EST

Is software for flinging poop.

Here you go (3.00 / 7) (#6)
by qiq on Mon Oct 03, 2005 at 10:20:44 PM EST

Poop-flinging software.

[ Parent ]
I think that (none / 1) (#31)
by AlwaysAnonyminated on Tue Oct 04, 2005 at 07:34:27 PM EST

this is poop-flinging software.
Posted from my Droid 2.
[ Parent ]
FLOSS is just another religion /nt (1.25 / 4) (#7)
by fleece on Mon Oct 03, 2005 at 11:03:01 PM EST

I feel like some drunken crazed lunatic trying to outguess a cat ~ Louis Winthorpe III
It's not a dental hygiene tool? $ (3.00 / 2) (#8)
by buck on Mon Oct 03, 2005 at 11:25:00 PM EST

“You, on the other hand, just spew forth your mental phlegmwads all over the place and don't have the goddamned courtesy to throw us a tissue afterwards.” -- kitten
[ Parent ]
It's not for those who preach OSS stuff. NT (none / 1) (#10)
by The Amazing Idiot on Mon Oct 03, 2005 at 11:32:05 PM EST

[ Parent ]
wowza (2.66 / 6) (#21)
by creativedissonance on Tue Oct 04, 2005 at 12:14:14 PM EST

"software-based installations"

does this mean my IT dept is full of artists?

con artists, maybe.

ay yo i run linux and word on the street
is that this is where i need to be to get my butt stuffed like a turkey - br14n
-1nsulting, -1gnorant, -1gnoble, -1rrelevant. n/t (1.12 / 8) (#25)
by fyngyrz on Tue Oct 04, 2005 at 01:03:36 PM EST

Blog, Photos.

-1 F/OSS (1.00 / 8) (#30)
by unknownlamer on Tue Oct 04, 2005 at 05:10:54 PM EST

Anyone who uses that word is a tool.

Free Software hates Open Source because Open Source is the little sell out movement that doesn't give a fuck about the ideals.

It's like True vs. Nu metal. Stop associating Free Software even remotely with Open Source because those of us in the Free Software movement probably hate you.

<vladl> I am reading the making of the atomic bong - modern science
Richard Stallman disagrees with you... (none / 0) (#35)
by yaxu on Wed Oct 05, 2005 at 04:47:42 AM EST

Richard Stallman, who I consider more of a spokesman for the free software movement than yourself, seems quite accepting of such terms.

"There are many people, who, for instance, want to study our community, or write about our community, and want to avoid taking sides between the Free Software movement and the Open Source movement. Often they have heard primarily of the Open Source movement, and they think that we all support it. So, I point out to them that, in fact, our community was created by the Free Software movement. but then they often say that they are not addressing that particular disagreement, and that they would like to mention both movements without taking a side. So I recommend the term Free/Libre Open Source Software as a way they can mention both movements and give equal weight to both. And they abbreviate FLOSS once they have said what it stands for. So I think that's a ... If you don't want to take a side between the two movements, then yes, by all means, use that term. Cause what I hope you will do is take the side of the free software movement. But not everybody has to.The term is legitimate."

From an interview in 2004

[ Parent ]
officially disagrees, and he's a tool anyhow (none / 0) (#36)
by boxed on Wed Oct 05, 2005 at 05:44:56 AM EST


[ Parent ]
Richard Stallman hide his opinions? (none / 1) (#42)
by yaxu on Thu Oct 06, 2005 at 09:59:04 AM EST

Stallman is not the kind of person to hide his opinions.  He does not value tact.

[ Parent ]
software - art? (1.50 / 6) (#38)
by manojar on Wed Oct 05, 2005 at 07:19:49 AM EST

Software can never become art, unless it is created by just one person, just for the heck of it, and is sold only after he dies. Art never allows for collaboration (except maybe a tiny group), and software for public consumption can't be made based on the idiosyncracies of a single person. Even the OSS guys do some kind of rudimentary market research -- think of the discussion forums as a focus group --, get their specifications out of it. The specs are written only to transfer the idea from the designer to the coder. Since the designer/coder might be the same person or on the same wavelength, there are no explicit docs, but specs still exist!

Interesting points (none / 0) (#39)
by yaxu on Wed Oct 05, 2005 at 07:53:19 AM EST

But are you disagreeing with the article?  I'm not sure if you are, I don't think it argues against the definition of art that you're using here.  It does make a claim that writing software is a creative process, but tries not to make contentious points about what software or art is or isn't.

Personally I write software that I consider to be music (which I think of as an artform), and don't collaborate with others on the software apart from when I perform with it.  

I disagree that art suddenly stops being art when someone sells it, although I would be more sympathetic to the view that art shouldn't be made in order to sell.

runme.org is a repository of software art, would you not define any its contents as art until the authors die?

[ Parent ]

bullshit. do you have any idea what art is? (3.00 / 4) (#41)
by hardcorejon on Wed Oct 05, 2005 at 06:57:48 PM EST

You have chosen to define art in some of the narrowest terms I have ever seen. That is ridiculous.

Based on your post, I'm guessing you believe that art is (something) produced by one person (or maybe a tiny group) that holds no functional "real-world" purpose.

Regarding "one person" or "tiny groups" -- is a motion picture "art"? Do you give full credit for a finalized work to the director? The author of the screenplay? The actors? Or is it just "not art", despite the fact that it may be the product of so much creativity and imagination.

What about the graffiti wall in St. Louis, a combined work of dozens of graffiti artists? What about mixed media compositions, where the totality of the "art" is in fact an overlapping experience of music, film, sculpture, and other elements. I could go on.

I won't even go into your bogus claim that art that involves market research is somehow not art. Let's not forget that the painting on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel was a contract job for Michaelangelo.

Many people, myself included, adhere to a much broader definition that encompasses anything that contains an expression of creativity.

Yes, pure art exists, but there is a huge, broad spectrum beyond it that you completely ignore. There is "art" in the design of a coffee table, in the graphics of a monster in a video game, in the smell and taste of a prize-winning apple pie.

- jonathan.

[ Parent ]
Software can definitely be art (none / 0) (#43)
by nizer on Sun Oct 16, 2005 at 04:15:35 PM EST

My background is art, I have a degree in painting, have taught art at university and exhibited art around the world. I also write songs and play music. My day job is web design and marketing. Ten years ago I had the pleasure of being introduced to a species I'd never met previously - software programmers. When I heard them talk about "ugly code" I realized they were making art, although many denied it. I'm not going to try define art - that's an infinite rathole - but code is just another medium.

[ Parent ]
my prediction (none / 0) (#40)
by creativedissonance on Wed Oct 05, 2005 at 05:18:46 PM EST

this post will resign itself to its fate - section.

ay yo i run linux and word on the street
is that this is where i need to be to get my butt stuffed like a turkey - br14n
Art or Technology ? (none / 0) (#44)
by alexidoia on Wed Nov 09, 2005 at 10:07:35 AM EST

What is the real question here ? Is designing a piece of software an artistic process ? Although I mostly agree with yaxu here, this question will always be a subject of discourse and IMO will depend on the context. What I found more interesting is that once again, we seem to question the limits between Technology and Art. Back to the Greek Drama or even further back to the prehistoric times, Technology and Art were only one and the same social process. The Greek dissociated them into two activities and we funded our Western communities on their reflexion. Some of us see the end of a natural cycle in which we might need to redefine our roles. Others think that Technology is a race evolving along with human beings and that Art is simply a common process or expression. I like that last one. :)
...witnessing the robotic breed.
Free software art | 44 comments (21 topical, 23 editorial, 0 hidden)
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