saul.albert on Mon, 29 Mar 1999 23:14:47 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> OS Tactics for Collective Art Practice

Open Source Tactics for Collective Art Practice 


1). Re-mix of  some ideas put forward on Nettime.
2). Application of ideas about the gift economy and collective practice
and Open Source applied to the art world. 
3). Attempt to develop OS derived strategies for collective art
4). This text is a response to talks given at Expo Destructo, London
20/3/99 by Volker Grassmuck,(Mikro - Wizards of OSS), and the CAE.
5). length: approx 4000wds. 


        "CAE believes that artist's research into alternative forms of
social organization is just as important as the traditional research
into materials, processes, and products." (*1) 

        In their 1997 paper on Collective Cultural Action, the Critical
Art Ensemble state their intention to develop their collective practice
through the study of what they term "micro-sociology". I intend to
develop a system for engaging with collective practice based on research
into one of these "alternative forms of social organization". 
        This text will be in two sections. In the first I will try to
contextualize collective practice within the art world. In the second
part I will outline some strategies for collective practice that I am
using, with reference to the Internet as the site for part of that
practice. For the sake of clarity, each part will be divided into titled
sections that will be arranged with bullet points. 

Part 1. 

The Art Gift Economy (*2) 

        Before any discussion of collective practice it must be made
clear what is at stake for each member of such a practice, and what is
to be gained through this form of collaboration. Rather than perform an
exhaustive analysis, beyond the scope of this text and of my ability, I
will present a limited account of how value is constituted in the art

¥       In some areas of collective cultural production, such as in
advertising it is very clear what is at stake for practitioners: money
and little else. In the art world I believe this is also true but since
the valuation of art is based on a complex series of institutional and
social interdependencies, some of which are discussed below, this link
is less explicit (*3). 
 The art world has practitioners far in excess of the number of
commissions or residencies it can sustain. Therefore, in order to
survive on the proceeds of their work the artist must gain a strong
reputation within the art world to attract enough lucrative commissions
and residencies. 
        There is therefore a direct incentive to allow artwork to be
seen without asking for payment from the proprietor of the gallery or
from the professional art public (*4). It is even more likely (even
inevitable) that these people will attend if there is free alcohol too.
The fact that this gift giving is common practice at private views, and
also that for these events invitations are sent to
select lists of the "right" people(*5) , demonstrates that this "gift
economy" is robust enough to command investment and trade in reputation

¥       The aim then of the artist in the gift economy is to have their
work shown, to the betterment of their reputation, and to receive
feedback so that they can improve on it. The problem is that in order
for their work to be appreciated, they must squander resources of money
and energy providing these "gifts", with no guarantee of return. The
commercial gallery may provide for this, but only in return for
extortionate shares in any profits, and contractual restrictions on
copyright(*7) . In any case, hardly any artists, even extremely well
known can survive on sales of their work
        With pressures of the day job (teaching part time in art schools
for the lucky and successful) and financially motivated pressures from
the gallery, a high quality of work is difficult to sustain.
By high quality, I mean quality as assessed by the gift economy in which
the artist functions. This relies on maintaining a novelty value for the
media, satisfying critics, and impressing the professional art public. 

¥       With this analysis of the art gift economy, I do not mean to
de-value the notion of good craftsmanship, and the satisfaction gleaned
from the completion of a good project, but it is the word "good" which
makes this a troublesome notion. 

"It appears that any craftsmanship culture ultimately has to structure
itself through a reputation game" (*9) 

        Eric S. Raymond argues that, assuming that good craftsmanship is
the ultimate aim of the craftsman, the incentive is to maximize
opportunity for craftsmanship and the quality of the results. He shows
that this in no way conflicts with the idea of a "reputation game" as
the currency of a gift economy.
"How can one maximize quality if there is no metric for quality?"(*9) 

        If market forces do not determine the value of an artwork
(supply of artworks is far in excess of demand) then what other metric
is there other than peer review? This peer review is again subject to
the difficulties of an art gift economy regulated by distribution,
exposure, and finance. 

¥       Following Raymond, I am not going to deal with the subject of
altruism as an incentive to make art. Nietzsche asserts in Beyond Good
and Evil that altruism is a collection of unacknowledged forms of
self-interest. He argues that incentives are derived from a human "will
to power", rather than any God-given worthiness. 

"A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength - life itself
is will to power" .(*10) 

        Raymond expands on this with a more anthropological grounding.
He ascribes all human activity to an evolutionarily determined attempt
to gain social status. I don't agree with this reductive assessment
entirely, but find it useful for simplifying this discussion of the art
gift economy. 

¥       Another feature of this gift economy is the (small amounts of)
funding available from the Arts Council of Great Britain. However, to
access these funds the artist will have to 'rise' through the commercial
gallery system. Also, government funding has always been recognized as a
difficult area, particularly for non-media specific practitioners, as
grants still tend to be attached to media category.
 "We have become foot soldiers in our own movement, answerable to
officers in funding agencies and local government recreation
departments". (*11) 

        Owen Kelly in "Community Art and the State" condemns government
funding of art organizations and artists. He argues that Arts Counsel
funding hindered the development of the "Community Arts" movement of the
60's and 70's. The Arts Council demanded definition of the styles, aims
and methods of the nascent Community Arts movement, which were
(according to Kelly) incompetently assessed in the Baldry(*12)
commission report and then ossified into inflexible boundaries beyond
which the movement(*13)  could not grow without losing it's funding. 
        Having laid down this necessarily simplistic model of the
incentives and rewards underlying artistic activity, and the
difficulties of solitary practice, it is now possible, within this
model, to assess the effectiveness of different models of collective

Why Collective Practice? 

        "The epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology has attached
the greatest importance to the 'person' of the author" (*14) 

        "Financial support certainly favors the individualÉ The
individual's signature is still the prime collectible, and access to the
body associated with the signature is a commodity that is desired more
than ever". (*15) 

¥       Roland Barthes was writing in 1977 when he attacked the academy
of literature for positing the site of artistic merit and capital value
in the person of the authorial genius. Twenty years later, the Critical
Art Ensemble argued that in the world of mainstream art funding, the
same is still true. Despite any advances in critical thinking, in terms
of grants and awards, group artistic practice is financially difficult
to maintain. However, as the CAE assert in their paper, there are
significant advantages that serve to balance this. 

¥       The group has a pooled knowledge, probably encompassing more
areas of cultural expertise than would be possible for an individual to
command. This increases their potential circulation in events or shows
which address some current cultural issue, as there are more areas to
which they might be invited to contribute. 

¥       The collective has a wider distribution base because their
production skills and resource are also pooled. They can apply for
photographic awards, "new media" prizes and film competitions, rather
than being limited to only one medium and therefore one section of the
national budget for the Arts. 

¥       There is also the security derived from being in what Edward
Lucie-Smith describes as the "Mutual Support organizations known as
artist's groups" (*16). However, he shows that the motivations of these
groups can be flawed: 

        "Any group of young artists carries within it the seeds of it's
own destruction. Nothing undermines an ad hoc organization of this type
more swiftly than it's own success."(*17) 

        This notion of the artist's group as a vehicle for individual
success rather than an end in itself is how the last wave of successful
'new' art in Britain seems to have approached the idea. The much vaunted
"Young British Artists" totally disbanded as a group (if they ever were
one), as soon as rewards for individual achievement differentiated them
in terms of success. 

        The models of collective practice I will present in part 2 seek
to avoid both this situation and the financial disincentives of
collective practice in a variety of ways. 

Part 2. 

The Open Source Model of collective practice 

        Open Source Software programming (OSS) is a form of collective
practice that is relevant in many ways to other areas of society and
culture, and a valuable source of ideas for the development of
collective art practice. 

What is Open Source?   

(for an exhaustive definition try 

¥       Open Source is a term originally used to describe a software
engineering principle. Briefly, this principle advocated the development
of computer software by a group (at first within a geographically and
institutionally determined boundary) working on the project
collectively. The software was saved on a shared computer disk along
with its source code(*18) , often plus the tools and the information
necessary to use and change it. The members of the group could use the
software, determine it's deficiencies, and amend them before putting it
back on the disk in it's updated form, along with a note of what they
had done. 
        This technique was used in software labs and universities at a
stage when timesharing of expensive computer facilities was necessary,
long before the introduction of the personal computer or proprietary
software. However, it was with the growth of the infrastructure of the
Internet that Open Source Programming really took off. Now thousands of
"Open Source" projects constitute a complex gift economy of programmers,
that is inspiring a burgeoning sociology. There has recently been a lot
of media attention directed towards the Open Source world, and the
software multinational Microsoft has admitted openly that it has a
worthy competitor (*19). 

¥       I cannot, in this short text even begin to outline the roots and
texts of this young area of sociology. However, where it is relevant to
my development of a model for collective practice I will bring up Open
Source programming and it's sociological literature as useful examples.
My observations rely to a large extent on research gathered through
belonging to Nettime. 

Infrastructural determination 

        "The position of the artist and the nature of his products were
fundamentally changed by the shift from script to print." (*20) 

        Elizabeth Eisenstein argues that the technology of print was a
primary determinant in the development of culture since the 15th
Century. Print is currently undergoing another massive transformation
into digital text, with all the implications to communications
infrastructures that this entails. 
        While the principles underlying Open Source, (sharing
information resources and tools, de-centralising authorship, gift
economics, and applying communal effort) have been part of many creative
strategies; it is only with the growth of the Internet that the
potential of this combination of approaches has been realized. However,
as Eisenstein shows, it is important to see how "off-line" cultural
production is radically effected by this change in infrastructure,
especially in an investigation of a collective practice that uses this

¥       It is tempting to make analogies and metaphors, allying Open
Source practice to those other areas of cultural production that have
shared some of it's principles; (the Community Arts Movement of the 60's
and 70's, and the Community Radio movements of the 80's). However,
comparisons are difficult to uphold, as it is hard to tell whether
changes are due to material and technological conditions or to conscious
management and policy. 

        "The cooking-pot market [of the Internet] is not barter, as it
does not require individual transactions. It is based on the assumption
that on the Net, you don't lose when you duplicate".(*20) 

¥       One of the main differences shown here by Rishab Aiyer Ghosh
between conventional distribution methods and those of the Internet, is
no-cost duplication. This takes a financial limit off the scale of
operations to which a practice can stretch which has been a serious
limitation for many practitioners, for example for the Community Art

        "This [Community Art] work has never been coordinated as part of
a uniform strategy. Local gains have remained local. "(*22) 

        Owen Kelly points out that the lack of communication and
coordinated solidarity within the Community Arts movement was one of the
reasons that the British Arts Council was able to dismantle its radical
agenda so easily. With the infrastructure of the Internet in place, a
geographically distributed campaign is far cheaper to set up and
maintain than previously. This is demonstrated by organizations such as
Reclaim the Streets who are helping to organize a day of protest in
13(*23) countries  simultaneously, on 18th June 1999. Their slogan: "OUR

        "When some rappers approached Frequence Libre(*24)   about the
possibility of doing some programmes, the station refused to let any
hip-hop crews on-air until their lyrics had been politely vetted!" (*25) 

¥       Barbrook cites some radical attempts at forming a "bottom up
post-media" using technologies such as the Parisian minitel, and
community radio. Unfortunately the minitel proved to expensive to
maintain interest, and the inappropriate broadcast model of radio
technology allowed even such radical de-centralists as Felix Guattari to
use the opportunity of being on air to "lecture the audience rather than
engaging in discussion with them" (*26) 
        Community radio failed because it was based on a broadcast
infrastructure derived from a defunct hierarchical military command
structure. Therefore, the Internet might provide a more appropriate
infrastructure for radical cultural campaigns, having originated in a
distributed military network(*27)   that was developed for the
expediency of high-tech and nuclear warfare. 

¥       This origin is, of course problematic. Though it may be useful
for collective practices to organize their activities through the
infrastructure of the Internet, it is worth commenting that the sword
cuts both ways. Current legislation is in place banning strong
cryptography and making data privacy impossible, and the infrastructure
is well geared towards nefarious uses by law enforcement agencies and
commercial/industrial interests. 

The OS advantage: distribution, promotion and evaluation 

        The infrastructure of the Internet with the possibility of
instant and no-cost large-scale communications does make the
distribution and promotion of OS products very cheap. However, that is
not the main reason that OS distribution/promotion models are so
effective. The strength of OS distribution promotion is that the
audience is specific, and they often have a vested interest in the
success of the project 
¥       If, as in the OS model, each user of a product (reader of a
text, viewer of an artwork) is involved in its creation and formation on
a satisfyingly deep level(*28) , they have a stake in the project's
reputation. They might join a mailing list to keep track of updates and
developments, they tell their friends and colleagues. 
        As the number of users of the project grows, it develops faster
(as more people are working on it), but there is not necessarily a huge
increase in administrative work required for distribution/promotion.
This is because it is largely done by word of mouth and using an
administrative staff recruited from the user base. 
        The Infocentre , a curatorial experiment by Danish artists
Henriette Heise and Jakob Jakobsen, is a project that manages its
promotion in this way.  "We are looking for a quality of viewer, rather
than wasting our time and money on a PR campaign." (*30) 
        As soon as I arrived at the Infocentre (on the recommendation of
an aquaintence) I telephoned three friends of mine to tell them to come
along. In the end they were slightly underwhelmed by the place after my
excitement on the phone, so the word of mouth promotion campaign stopped
there, but it could have continued to grow exponentially. As the centre
has now been widely reviewed I can only guess that this did indeed
happen, as Jakob told me that they had not sent out a single press

¥       Perhaps the most important effect of this distribution/promotion
model is the effect it has on evaluation. By being invited to be a
"quality" viewer(*31) , or by contributing to the project in some
way(*32)  , the point at which peer evaluation takes place is also
distributed amongst the participants. The traditional filtering
mechanisms of the art gift economy, such as journalism and commercial
gallery scouts become irrelevant to the formation of a reputation value. 
        Within the art world gift economy evaluation is dependent on all
the conflicting, and often constricting networks of economic
interdependency. The group that experiences the OS project constantly
evaluates it, and are more likely respond with constructive suggestion
because that will increase their stake in the reputation of the project.
Each project effectively forms a functional reputation micro-economy

¥       These advantages of the OS model are well worth adopting in the
formation of a group practice. However, they all rely on the one most
vital element of OS production, the distribution of
authorship that gives users some authorial status and a stake in the
reputation value of the project. In the following section I will discuss
how this is achieved and why it is so vital. 

Scattering the ashes of the Author 
        "The dominance of the author/artist is first questioned when we
recognize that all art is collectively produced."(*34) 

¥       As Woolf argues, in her Barthes-inspired essay Death of the
Author it is not as if the 'individual' artistic producer has any choice
in the matter of whether or not to work in a group. The work entailed in
the production of an artwork is never carried out exclusively by the
artist. The artist will usually not manufacture their materials, or if
they do, they certainly won't have developed the techniques and tools
used to do so themselves. 
        Whereas Barthes hails the death of the author and the resultant
birth of the reader, Wolff shows the process to be far more of a

        "The de-centring of the subject must not be made equivalent to
its disappearance." (*35) 

        In quoting Giddens, Wolff shows that rather than being
annihilated, the author is seen as being constantly constructed and
re-constructed by social and ideological factors. This understanding of
the construct of the author seems to permit a flexible assessment of the
ways in which authorship can be distributed in the existence of an
artwork, between conception, production and reception. The artwork can
have varying levels of de-centred authorial privilege; the death of the
author is not an absolute. 

¥       In Open Source culture, assignment of authorship is still
vitally important. Each product bears the names of all its authors. A
summary of how they have changed the product is included in a text file
that accompanies the product. There are varying degrees of authorial
status expressed in the document, distributed according to how much
effort is perceived to have been made on the part of the
contributor(*36). Obviously, if there were no markings of authorship,
how would the OS product be a valuable item in a gift economy? 

        "To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to
furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing" .(*37) 

¥       By substituting an "Author" with "authors" the privilege is
distributed in an OS model. Even though the rights of the authors (to
reputation stakes in the product) must be maintained, the OS text is
never assigned a finite subject. The user is offered an opportunity to
contribute, and to understand the text by changing it. The offer is
never retracted, and the text remains open ended. 

        "Balzac remarked that one of the principles of art was to
'avoid' giving readers the impression that they could do it just as well
themselves". (*38) 

¥       It was this tradition that Joseph Beuys sought to undermine in
the early 70's when he exhibited his piece "Economic Values" (1980)
which consisted of his studio shelves laden with the materials he most
famously used: fats, wax, polish, and paraffin. 

        "He was inviting us back into his shop, revealing his secrets up
front, implicitly beckoning: these products are accessible, help
yourselves! It's your turn now, keep up the good work" (*39) 

        Beuys' invitation and the use of readily available domestic
products in his work can be seen as a similar gesture to the OS strategy
of offering of the tools and information necessary to make the product
along with the product. However, the practicalities of doing this in
Beuys' case are problematic. The artwork is still inextricably linked by
signature to the fetishized body of the author. "Economic Values" has
probably become far to valuable as a physical mark of the body of the
author to be torn apart and used as raw material. This is not to say
that the idea is not still available for use, and the materials
inexpensive, but the piece has been assigned a subject, and has no
further space for distribution of authorial rights. 

The user/author 

        "A text's unity lies not in its origin, but in its

¥       Barthes was writing about authorship and agency in a way that
took into account the subject position of the viewer as well as the
death of the author. He saw the site of artistic meaning in the point of
reception. His reversal of the modernist trope of looking through the
artwork to the author was a reactive and political action directed
against the established infrastructures for the production, assessment
and reception of art. 
        By combining the positions of author and user, the conventional
flow of meaning Barthes was assaulting (author > artwork > user), and
its inverse (user > artwork > author) both disintegrated. What is left
is a mutually dependent dialogue: user/author <--> artwork. 

¥       This position of user/author could facilitate a beneficial
situation for artistic production, one in which both the positions of
user and author are seen as secondary to the artwork itself. By this I
mean that the artwork is the site for development and dialogue between
people of potentially equal standing. The artwork is not used as a
channel to a fetishized author, or implanted on a perceived "community"
by an outside organizational force(*41)  . Rather, the artwork gathers
around it a community (*42)  of user authors who have vested interests
in its development. 


        The insights into collective practice gleaned from this
investigation can be summarized as follows. Within "Open Source"
collective art practices, which function in a gift economy, collective
projects reach fruition by distributed effort, and are circulated and
promoted and most importantly evaluated within the collective. This
independence from traditional forms of validation means that the
user/authors involved are not wholly reliant on commissions and
residencies for the satisfactory development and success of their
projects. These projects can take place within a community that is
focused on the artwork. 
        I am aware that many of the concepts I use in this text, such as
the art gift economy(*42)  and the open source paradigm are flawed. I
have not had the time to read as extensively as I should have in order
to be able to condense them into this text with rigor. However, for the
purposes of deriving some ideas as to how to organize collective art
practice (rather than laying down a historical or sociological analysis
of those concepts), I feel that the explanations offered were

Saul Albert 23/3/99 

(1.) Critical Art Ensemble, (1997) 

(2.) A "gift economy", is also known as a "Reputation economy", or "Fame
economy" in sociology and economics, or as a "Potlatch economy" or a
"Cooking Pot" economy in ethnography and anthropology. Briefly, it
entails the replacement or augmentation of a market economy (based on
scarcity of goods), with a system of barter, of tangibles or intangibles
that replaces currency. These economies tend to coalesce in situations
of abundance, when scarcity does not create needs and desires that could
constitute market demand. "In gift cultures social status is determined
not by what you control but by what you give awayÉThus the Kwakiuti
chieftain's potlatch party Thus the multi millionaire's elaborate and
usually public acts of philanthropy, and thus the hacker's long hours of
effort to produce high-quality open source code." (Raymond, 1998) 

(3.) Rather than writing another essay here, I am assuming that the art
object has no intrinsic value, and that its meaning and value are
dynamically constructed by its political and social context. I am
relying on the work of Janet Wolff in The Social Construction of Art to
uphold this statement. 

(4.) I am referring here to people who go to art shows who speak about,
write about, and make documentaries about art that attract exactly the
kind of attention and funding that "free" art shows are looking for. 

(5.) People on whom the gifts will not be wasted in terms of converting
reputation to currency. 

(6.) The gift economy of art can here be seen as symbiotically linked
with free market economies within which the beer industry, or the vodka
industry (the sponsors of private views) function. 

(7.) The gallery may also control the visibility and therefore
reputation of the artist, and can effectively bully them financially
into producing work that conforms to the most saleable image of the

(8.) "Homesteading The Noosphere" - Eric S. Raymond, (1998) 
(9.) Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil , Section 13, line 329-330 

(10.) Kelly, (1984) pp.27 

(11.) This was the 1973 Arts Counsel "New Activities Committee"
initiative to find out what "Community Arts" were, and fund them.
Unfortunately as Kelly says, due to the commissions eagerness to
convince the Counsel that Community Arts was worth funding, the
commission fudged the report, excluding the radical elements and
contentious practices of the Community artists, defining it instead as a
movement which "Worked with children" and "disadvantaged elements of
society". This definition, of course pigeonholed the movement and,
according to Kelly, prevented it from developing. 

(12.) Kelly huddles many aspects of 60's and 70's art under the banner
of "Community Arts", including Stuart Brisley's pioneering performance
and Joseph Beuys' radical art practice. He argues that the low status of
the phrase "community art" and misguided notions of "community" are
results of government mismanagement and political rhetoric. 

(13.) Roland Barthes,(1984), pp.143 

(14.) Critical Art Ensemble, (1997) 

(15.) Lucie-Smith, Edward, (1998), pp.56-57. 

(16.) Ibid., pp.53 

(17.) A distinction must be made here between software and code.  Code
is the instructions written by a programmer in a computer programming
language. The computer can only use these instructions as software once
they have been converted into machine code (binary). This process is
called "compiling". It is difficult and illegal to de-compile and edit
proprietary software. 

(18.) Microsoft's obvious concern about Open Source projects which
distribute freely products for which Microsoft charges extortionate fees
has helped to define the movement. In a leaked report dubbed the
"Halloween Document" Microsoft's panic in this leak is reaches the point
of hysteria: "The ability of the OS process to collect and harness the
collective IQ of thousands of individuals across the Internet is simply
amazing". The Halloween Document, (1998) 

(19.) Eisenstein, Elizabeth L., (1979), pp. 254. 

(20.) Ghosh, Rishab Aiyer, 1996 

(21.) Kelly, 1884, pp.19 

(22.) Australia, Canada, The Czech Republic, France, Germany, Indonesia,
Israel, Scandinavia, Korea, Nigeria, UK, Thailand, and the USA. 

(23.) The "Community Radio" station headed by Felix Guattari in the

(24.) Barbrook, The Holy Fools: The Moment of Community Radio, 1998. 

(25.) Ibid. 

(26.) ARPANET, the first internet was designed as a distribution of
communication lines along autonomous cellular hubs that could re-route
communications and access de-centralized information to prevent a
communications blackout in the advent of nuclear attack. 

(27.) This involvement and the sliding scale of access to authorial
rights of a work is discussed in the later section: Scattering the Ashes
of the Author. 

(28.) The Infocentre is at 123a Mare St. running until April 1999. 

(29.) Jakob Jakobsen, when I interviewed him informally at the
Infocentre, 15th January 1999. 

(30.) This works in a similar way to inviting "the right people" to a
private view, and plying them with alcohol, except the show operates in
this way throughout, and the viewer is offered the privileged position
of being "invited", and valued. 

(31.) At the Infocentre this was performed in the subtle medium of
conversation. Jakob had prepared a choreographed 1-minute guided tour of
the show, and then to each visitor that arrived that they could chat to
him and Henriette if they wanted to. 

(33.) Wolff, Janet, 1981, pp 118 

(34.) Giddens, Anthony (1979) Central Problems in Social Theory: Action,
Structure and Contradiction in Social Analysis (London: Macmillan),
quoted  in Wolff, 1981 pp. 138

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