[module 1] demoville
Amsterdam and Rotterdam (the Netherlands)
January 2004 - April 2004
Talk event with Simon Yuill, Chad McCail, Matthew Fuller and Francis McKee
13th April 2005
Simon Yuill: introduction
Chad McCail: background to the "Spring" drawing
Matthew Fuller: the image and self-reflexive software
Francis McKee: cultural contexts to Open Source practice
Simon Yuill: introduction
spring_alpha developed out of my interest in the ideas of open, collaborative development processes represented by Free Open Source Software practices, along with my interest in the ways in which software systems and structures often mirror and replicate forms of social structure - we are now living in an era in which software forms or supports many of the social structures we engage with. A third aspect was my interest in Chad's drawings. His drawing "Spring", and the series "Evolution is Not Over Yet", providing the basis for spring_alpha. The title of spring_alpha derives from the title "Spring" combined with "alpha", a term relating to software development. "Alpha software" is early developmental or proof-of-concept software in which ideas are first tried out and tested. In spring_alpha, this idea of developing a piece of test software becomes a form of critical practice in its own right and a means of exploring the relationships between software systems and social practices.
The drawing "Spring" adopts the visual style of an architectural plan depicting a high-density housing estate in a small industrial city. Within that plan, Chad has created a narrative in which the inhabitants of that estate stage a revolt and attempt to take over the running of the estate and create their own utopian society. "Evolution is Not Over Yet" is a series of fifteen colour works. These take the form of billboard displays, and Chad has described them as "propaganda posters" created by the inhabitants of "Spring". Each depicts scenarios from the story, or possible future situations in the society, along with a slogan expressing the desires and ambitions of the community.
When I started working with spring_alpha the basic idea was to take this story and its visual style and turn that into a gameworld like SimCity, the Sims, or Japanese "communication" games. It's not a competition or combat game, therefore, but rather one which creates a form of open-ended narrative. The gameplay being about ways of creating and developing new forms of social order within the simulated world.
The project is being developed over a series of small projects, or modules, each of which represents one self-contained aspect of development. This module, which is the first, has been the creation of a prototype. In other modules we are looking to develop the content of the game further. If you like, Chad's original drawing creates an outline of a possible narrative, and in these modules we will be working with groups of people, living in situations similar to those of the drawings, and developing the characterisation and scenarios of the narrative in greater detail, so that the gameworld reflects the real world issues that the wider themes of the project lead into. Following from this, we will be developing a release version of the software and making it publicly available.
This process is intended to embody an Open Source approach in two ways. On the one hand, the software itself that we are making is released as Open Source, and we are drawing on existing open Source projects, such as the 3D game development tool, Blender, to create it. We are drawing on these and feeding into them, for example, through the development of the hand-drawn rendering style from Chad's drawings that Stefan has created through re-coding the graphics engine of Blender. The second stage of the project also treats the content of the game in an Open Source fashion, taking the narrative as a kernel that other people then build further narratives around.
One of the things that drew me to Chad's drawings was their use of a visual vocabulary that derives from architectural planning, government information booklets and educational diagrams. The visual vocabulary also relates, therefore, to the idea of social development that goes through the game. One of the sources that Chad used were government booklets, originally developed in the Netherlands, which looked at how to maximise the use of space in designing people's houses. They, in turn, reflect a notion of how people should live, embedded into the architecture and represented through the ways in which spaces are constructed. This idea of embedding behaviour, of expectations of how we should behave, into the space around us, has a very nice echo with the ways in which simulation gameplay software, such as the Sims, works. One of the main ways of creating these games is by embedding character behaviour into the objects of the environment. In this example, we can see a bar in a pub with boxes on either side. When a character walks into the position of one of these boxes it acquires the behaviour assigned to it. So if the character walks into a box behind the bar it acquires the behaviour of a barman, if it walks into one in front , it acquires the behaviour of a customer. So in that sense, the gameworld has roles and social structures embedded into its physical structure.
What we are looking at with spring_alpha is that, rather than these behaviours being fixed in advance, they will remain open during gameplay so that players can program new behaviours into them as the game evolves. Player characters could then be encouraged to use the new forms of behaviour and thereby stimulate new forms of social interaction within the gameworld. So the idea from the original narrative of creating a new social structure within the existing environment is reflected in the mechanics of the game itself, social change is related to code change. In the public projects, we will be looking at how this can be used as a way of reflecting on real world social issues that concern the groups that we will be developing the game with. So the use of software is really aimed at the idea of seeing software development as a form of social process and using the game development as a form of social enquiry.
Chad McCail: background to the "Spring" drawing
I wanted to talk about how I got to the position in which I made the "Spring" drawing. I made "Spring" in 1998. In the early nineties I made a series of similar drawings, except they were side-on views, and they tried to show complex social conditions. They showed factories and people having their energy sucked out of them. They were pretty grim drawings and I made a whole lot of them and they just got worse and worse and less satisfying to make. They also got out of hand as well, and became more a sort of science fiction. Tornadoes began to appear in the background, dams were bursting and volcanoes, and I really lost what I was originally trying to do with them.
At that period I had three quite weird dreams in the space of about two years towards the end of the period in which I was making these drawings. In the first of these dreams I am driving through the Russian forest on a mobile missile launcher. We come to a big clearing amongst huge trees. One of us gets into the missile, which is a sort of piloted missile, and it does a test run. It loops-the-loop three times going above the tree-line and lands back on the launcher again. Then we get back in and drive on through the Russian forest and onto the tundra. Then the missile launcher gets detached from the tractor part and the driver goes off. I am left sitting in this missile waiting for an order and it just ends there.
I had another one. Walking across the hills in Scotland, I get to the shore and I walk along the shore for a bit and I come to this deserted village. The houses are all falling down except for one house - a weather boarded wooden house of three storeys. I cross this little bridge and I go into it and it's all clean inside and swept. I go up to the next floor and it's the same. There's a little stair going up to the third floor and as I am about to climb this little stair I am overcome with dread. I climb up it anyway and I open a door, and in the room there's a skeleton sitting on a rocking chair, holding a gun. I go up close and I look and it's got a tiny hole in its head. I look around the room and in the wall on the other side of the skeleton there is a little hole in the woodwork. As I look into the hole, this little silver bullet wriggles out of the hole and drops at my feet and wriggles there.
In the last one, a friend of mine had done up a house outside Edinburgh, near the motorway. Me and three friends drive out to look at it, and we go around admiring it, as he has done it up and he is going to sell it and it's worth something. I am the last one to leave the house. I go into a room on the ground floor, and there's an old sideboard there with a big, leather-bound book on it, something like an old family bible. I reach out my hand to touch this book, and just as I am about to touch it, it sweeps out from under my hand and twists round and smashes through the window behind my head. That was so frightening that I didn't even open my eyes, you know when you lie in bed like that but you know that it's finished.
So I had these dreams, and I had read some psychoanalysis stuff, and it was obvious that something was wrong somewhere. So I made this picture of something that happened when I was about three or four, and I had looked up my Mum's skirt and I got a slap for looking up it. I had this picture in my mind for months and I couldn't give myself a justification for doing it. It was interesting in terms of this resistance towards something that you really ought to do. I did it in the end and it was quite liberating to do it. I thought: "yeah, maybe it was something to do with that." Then I remembered something else that had happened a few years later when I was about six or seven. I had contrived to get locked in the bathroom with Margaret Ellen, who was this little girl that I played with across the road. We locked ourselves in and then we sort of explored each other and we had a look at everything. I got quite excited but I didn't know what to do and so I slapped her hard on the bottom. I am sure that was because before I had got excited and I had been given a slap so I had thought that that was what you did when you got excited.
So all this was like a holiday from the heavy political work I had been trying to do before, and then I went on and made four or five other drawings. I showed them to other people and other people had had experiences that weren't necessarily the same but had similar issues involved in them. The next one was from when we were about seven or eight and we used to play Japs and Commandoes. I used to contrive to get locked in the shed, again with Margaret Ellen. But by this time there were little toy guns involved and her hands got tied up with bits of rope. I made about eight of these kinds of pictures, up to the age of twelve. It was really liberating to do these pictures and I then went back to making these political pictures which were about trying to express the anger about this situation that I felt trapped in, in having to make a living, in the way things were organised.
Having done these pictures about my own childhood I suddenly found it possible to make these pictures where there was a positive outcome. Where people were successfully overcoming what had previously been obstacles that were insuperable. I think that what was happening before was that my anger about the political thing was getting mixed up with my own rage about things that I didn't understand about myself. By doing these pictures about my own background I managed to separate these two things out. I think that it made me much clearer about what I was really angry about and that made it possible to realise what had to happen to overcome it. Since then I have been interested in making pictures that present some kind of possibility rather than some kind of dire nightmare.
"Spring" is about these people on a high-density housing estate. The two places where they work in the picture are a slaughterhouse and an arms factory. They have really had enough of these places. There is a sort of fantasy element, because the government has instituted this new policy to try and create a more obedient population. They start to test school leavers.
I don't know if you know the Migram Obedience Experiment? Milgram did these experiments in the 1960's. He put up adverts asking people to take part in experiment to see whether punishment increased people's ability to learn - so if somebody got something wrong and you hit them, would they learn quicker afterwards? But that was not really his interest. People would come along to his lab and they would meet the experimenter in a white coat and they would be introduced to another person, who they were told was also a volunteer, but in fact wasn't a volunteer but was an actor. They are told that they are going to take part in this experiment and they would draw lots to see who was going to be the learner and who was going to be the teacher in the experiment. The lot was always rigged so the genuine volunteer was always the teacher and the learner was an actor. The way the experiment worked was that the teacher would ask a question and every time that the actor got it wrong, he would have to give him an electric shock. These electric shocks increased in intensity by 15 volt intervals up to 450 volts. So at 200 volts the actor was screaming his head off and at 300 volts he talks about his heart condition. The only thing the experimenter would say to the teacher, when he said that he couldn't go on, was that "you must continue". Basically, Milgram found that a horrifyingly huge percentage of people were willing to go right up the scale and give enormous voltages just because someone in a white coat told them to. He drew conclusions about how people would conform and be obedient from that.
In my story I turned the experiment around and I made it into a loyalty test. The person who gives the shock is actually considered a good citizen, because his loyalty to his peer group is weaker than his loyalty to the state. So it became a kind of test that school leavers had to take before they found a role in the workplace. In the story that is a policy which had just been introduced by the government. The child that fails this loyalty test, who refuses to give the big electric shocks, is punished. He has to put on a dogmask and live in a middle-class suburban home in a cage in the back garden where he is supervised by a domestic robot. This domestic robot makes him do all the manual tasks around the home. After he has done that for a while he is re-tested. This new authoritarian policy has provoked the inhabitants of the estate to disengage with the authoritarian society around them. They grow their own food and organise a revolt with other people. What is happening in the story at the moment at which it is drawn in the picture is the moment of their carefully planned strategic rebellion starting.
From my point of view that picture was interesting but completely failed in terms of what I wanted to do, because nobody could tell what on earth is going on in there. You have to study it for hours to get the story out of it. I wanted to make it blunter, so I tried to imagine the propaganda that the protagonists in the story would make. I made this series of what, I hoped, would one day become billboard posters which would appear around cities. These are really just a series of idealistic propositions partly about how this revolution would take place and partly about the values it might have. Some of them follow direct representations of a side-on view of the picture, some of them aren't. I think the things that work best are the ones that say things like: "People take turns with difficult jobs," because it's much more simple. It's funny when you see it in museums because the guard and the curator look at it together and you can see this discomfort going on.
I have just finished this epic, multi-panel story, called "Snake". It has a different kind of cartoon figure altogether. Each figure has a kind of kundalini-type snake, which can also be a kind of familiar. It's a long comic story about people's relationship with their snake and it has a three-tier class system: zombies, robots and wealthy parasites. It shows the inter-relationships between the different groups and their sexuality. I am interested in this link between sexual repression and violence, and how sexual repression creates conformity.
Simon: One of the things that attracted me to your drawing was the way you create these little social nuclei, little mirror-worlds within your work.
Chad: I am a figurative artist, I believe that you talk to people by telling them a story and I make narrative. I try to draw people into a story, and for them to consider the issues in the story.
Simon: Could you say something about the way you distribute your work and the way you like people to engage with it there?
Chad: The way I would like to distribute my work is to make it quite publicly available, but I have completely failed in that largely, and I am hoping that Simon is going to rectify it. It's difficult, you've got to make a living out of it, so you end up selling things and they end up in somebody's private collection and with luck in a museum, and really what I ought to be doing is making mass editions of them, but that takes a bit of funding and time, and reduces the time you have to make other work, and I haven't managed to organise myself in such a way to do that.
Audience: Could you talk a bit more about the relationship of your dreamworld to the work. You tell us these stories form your dreams which are so intense and how at the same time you are doing that quite desperate work, has that been something which has been throughout your whole practice?
Chad: Well I never had dreams like that again. I had three like that in a short space of time and I don't dream like that usually. I think I got myself into a pitch of despair with these other ones, I got pretty tense about doing them and something else slips out the other side. I don't dream in stories like that. They were odd because they were so coherent. It might have been a period when I was writing them down anyway. You know how, if you write dreams down, then you automatically start to remember them more, if you get into the habit of doing it.
Audience: I was a bit confused about you saying that you wanted to create a utopian world where people would manage successfully to live. I expected that it would be illustrated with positive images but then you showed these punishments with the dogs and these awful things?
Chad: There's lots of things I would like to see happen in the world, but things do get more totalitarian, these divisions between the rich and the poor, these things do get broader - the Americans and the British are engaged in this war in Iraq at the moment. But at the same time you want other things to happen so I don't know if it's any good to just depict a fresh, gleaming vision of how great it could be. I was trying to set up an antagonism between the two different forces in that picture and to suggest that one group of people could want one thing and another could want something different. The colour ones are more idealistic, they present things in a less conflictual way, they present things as if they had happened already, whereas the "Spring" picture presents something in a state of "it might happen, but we don't really know who is going to win", as it were.
Audience: I have a question for Simon, what were your motivations for taking on the project, I mean in working on the software, how were you interested in encapsulating these ideas in the software?
Simon: In terms of encapsulating what Chad's just been saying, the way we plan to develop the software, particularly in the modules where we are going to work with local communities, is the means of looking at some of these issues. In designing a gameworld you have to draw your material from somewhere, so we will draw that material from the local environment, local issues, and the desires and ambitions of those people. Having this kind of gameworld gives you something slightly removed from that reality, you can project those ideas into it, test them out. It becomes a way of enquiring into how your life currently is and how your life might be. Making the game and playing the game becomes a way of re-evaluating some of those issues in your own life.
Chad: It means it can be both an analytical and aspirational thing, so you can see the possibilities for how these things are, but hopefully also to take some of them on board.
Audience: Are you happy to see it go out in this way, because it seems like something very personal and particular to yourself?
Chad: Oh that's just because I'm a fruitcake, but I don't mind! You have an idea and it will always be singular, but the more people who take it on board, the more personal idiosyncraces get ironed out, or other people add theirs, and it begins to reflect a more general thing.
Audience: Have you had any feedback on it already, I mean the content, have you had people develop it already?
Simon: We had a group today who chose some characters and developed what those characters' lives could be within the game, looking at how they would interact with one another. That was very revealing and quite rewarding, just how much depth people could get into. There is something quite concrete there already, and quite provocative, and what we found in the workshop today was that people can really get their teeth and imagination into that.
Audience: I was thinking in terms of the way the change happens, for the people playing the game, as well as these scenarios developing, is the change within the person themselves, is there a possible form of feedback in that way as well?
Simon: In working with the local groups, we will spend quite a long time developing these new stories, and in doing that also looking at the environments where they live and learning about that, asking questions such as, if they were to genuinely make the kind of leap that the story portrays, to take responsibility for how their society is run, or how their local community works, then what would be the real practical issues, and the real skills and stuff you would have to learn and to get people to talk about that kind of stuff. I can't impose change on people but, hopefully, that group will be opened up to some kinds of resources and ideas that could possibly lead to that. The game is a way of envisioning things, and being able to envision things is a step towards changing things.
Chad: There's scope within the game for people to actually create institutions of their own and develop new kinds of institutions which might offer the opportunity for broadly personal transformation or where people can address particularly pertinent issues. If people engage with it in anything like the level the people we were talking with today did, and they begin to apply their imagination to it in that kind of a way then it might offer that opportunity.
Audience: How far are you planning on taking it in regards to the autonomy of the game characters? As you've described it so far it seems like the characters only do what the players tell them, and the program takes on the role of a state, but how much would the characters be able to make their own decisions?
Simon: That's one of the things I want to expose. In creating a piece of software like this, the code is the state, in a sense. The way I see it running over a long duration is that the characters would have their own behaviour. A player steps into that character's shoes for a while, make decisions for them and guide them, but then the player steps back out and the character continues as an autonomous entity. In playing with the character you have a degree of dialogue with the character.
Matthew Fuller: the image and self-reflexive software
I want to look at the software side of this project, but also to look at how it deals with that in relation to different traditions of image-making and representation.
The Wave Book, 1825
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This is an image from a German scientific text from 1825, "The Wave Book", an analysis of waveforms, and it is the first image to describe the interference of waves - such as sound waves, waves in water, waves in light and so on. The way they did this, was to take a dish of mercury and add one drop at a time to it. They would do this over and over again and each time try and trace different parts of the drawing. In the pattern that you see, the drop is in the middle, the "o" shape. You can see the first set of ripples, the ripples that bounce back from the edge, and then the ripples as they interfere with each other in various stages. I want to look at this idea of how you make multiple interactions in one image. You can see this as a question of narrative, as in a lot of Chad's images, but also as a question of software. So this is a scientific image, it tries to look at something as accurately as possible. It tries to represent structure, it tries to represent identifiable processes. It is different from a narrative image or an art image in that it's primary purpose is to identify a particular set of processes. In science, images are used to identify named elements in a composition and to understand and isolate a process. In art, the question is more of how visual material actually generates such processes and embodies powers - the imaginal quality of art. At the same time art also tries to acknowledge, and use, processes of perception within the work.
What would this drop in the focal point be in relation to a social system? What constitutes an event, what constitutes an occurrence? What constitutes something that has to be acknowledged as an event within the software of the gaming system?
Clifford Harper, Terrace, 1971
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Now I want to look at some images from a slightly different tradition. From the radical technology, or alternative technology, tradition. These are by Clifford Harper, a London-based illustrator, and are from 1974. They take very standard Victorian terraced houses and look at how you could reconfigure them, how you could "hack" the buildings. These are from a series of seven drawings called "Utopian Visions". The style of drawing he uses is the cut-away like you get in 1950's comics, such as images of ocean liners and trains, which cut these enormous constructions open and show you what is inside, showing the engine room and people working and enjoying themselves inside the ship, for instance. But Clifford Harper says of these images: "All the time I was uneasy about what I was doing, because I was worried that my visual style was reactionary because it was realist, I was leaving nothing to the imagination."
Clifford Harper, The Media Centre, 1971
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This is a picture of a church which has been taken over, it's called "The Media Centre". You can see old computers, a printing press, TV studio, sound studio, banners and so on. The style he uses is one of images constructed from dot stippling. Harper is self-taught, he has no art training. He uses photographs which he then traces over into these images. But I think there is something in the woodenness of these images, that is so enormously realist, so reactionary, in the way in which he uses this dot style, that they flip over into something different. They are like a computer manual, an illustration of how you might do something, but you also find these little tricks. In this image you have some feet on the floor as though someone is either asleep, or has been killed, in the dark room. They are not explained. The more you look at them the more you see these little tricks. They probably come from spending hours, dotting away with a pen, making these images and then getting bored of the revolution. But, in terms of the context these images come from, some of the questions we have had just now, such as: "Is this something you would want to happen?", "How might you want people to react to Chad's images and the game?", "How might people learn from them?", I think if we are asking these questions we have somehow had a bit of our history erased from us. For instance, in 1971 in the UK, at the same as these drawings were done, there was a general strike, in Northern island, there were estates that were declared "free zones" by Republicans over several years in which these processes did occur. They took over schools, became semi-independent in terms of food and so on. So to see these images as somehow fantastical, as somehow shocking or as utopian, is a result of how our historical memory has been erased.
There is the tension, here, between this realism, this instructional quality of the images, a kind of fixing the future in advance, that both Simon and Chad have talked about, but there is something interesting about the spring_alpha images is that they do take things a little bit too far. In the same way that there is the dead feet here, there is the introduction of the Milgram Experiments, the figure of the dog-people, embodies a kind of theatricalisation of this social conflict. This fictional quality is brought in that also allows the images to go beyond simply being prescriptive models for a utopian future. the more fictional the work becomes, the more psychotic the work becomes, the more accurate it allows the user of the images to be. The more precision the work takes up, the more it can be seen to be making choices, constructing mechanisms of its own accord, and thus, not speaking on anyone else's behalf. These images of Chad's are a game, they are a fiction, and they are precisely not a simulation because simulations always get trapped in a reality principle. They are always an over-exact model of the world.
Hans Haacke, Schipolsky, et al, real estate holdings, a real-time social system, May 1971., 1971
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This image, also from 1971, is from a series by Hans Haacke. It is a chart showing the exchange of mortgages within the Schipolsky Group, which is an investment group based in Manhattan. The title is: "Schipolsky, et al, real estate holdings, a real-time social system, May 1971." This is a piece which comes from a systems art tradition, and to a certain extent, a conceptual art tradition, but it is also very similar to the style of representation used by some of the action groups - if you look in the Museum of Social History in Amsterdam for example. The residential neighbourhood action groups of the '70's in the Netherlands, in cities like Amsterdam, used public displays to explain and educate their fellow citizens about urban processes. It is also the kind of knowledge that is embedded in the squatters movement. If you go to the Kraakspreekuren, for instance, you will find documents which prove these kind of relations between property owners in this city. What I want to look at is how, this, as a representational strategy, is very similar to the drawing with the drops of mercury. It's an art strategy, in the way it is reflexive. It is self-consciously adopting a particular mode of representation but it is also trying to establish very precise, dated information. If you look at the sides you can see a table of names, the lines indicate that a mortgage was given from one person, or body, to another, and it also gives the amounts and the type of mortgage. It is a very precise mapping of social relations but it can also be seen as being quite close to a software diagram. Something that shows a formalised, structural, very concrete and identifiable relation between elements in a composition. In the way in which we see fictionality achieving precision in its extreme difference from reality, this uses another way of looking at things, a scientific mode of presentation to also map social relations. It's a data structure, a set of relations between information.
In moving into software, what I am trying to look at is the relationship between images in software. I think that in particular media art areas, or contemporary art in general, there is a difficulty in understanding how software is important, how it structures image production, how it allows different kinds of art-making to occur. I want to look at how images, on the one hand, can be used for establishing precise relations between elements in a composition or a system - the scientific function of an image which is to isolate and name - and also as an imaginal resource, materials, as the education of desire. In these images a power is made, is invented, is something that is set in play. In terms of software, how these potentialities in images are changed. For a lot of artists involved in working with software, the question is: how to make a self-reflexive piece of software? That is, a software that reflects and experiments upon its conditions as software at the same time as it operates. In relationship to the first term, that is scientific imaging, imaging that tries to establish precision, it allows us to think through the way it constructs objects and processes. A lot of the work in the last few years, in software produced through art methodologies, or a lot of software that has an overt, and intended relationship to political work, tends to work on data as a political act. In the same way as the Hans Haacke diagram works on data, reveals data, makes data palpable and sensible, a lot of the software that is working in this area does the same thing. It takes its capacity to act and sees data as a politicised form, the way data is ordered, the way data is gathered and structured, as a political context in which to act. For instance, you have the General Public License, under which spring_alpha is released, but also specific projects which try and trace relations, particularly relations between different types of data objects. In Amsterdam, for instance, you have people like govcom.org, and things like the ZNC browser by Peter Luining. In Delhi the Opus Commons project. there is a whole set of work that deals with precision and looks at how you can map data and its inter-relations. In software, and in digital media generally, the technicity of the work, its own technological form, demands that this first quality of scientific imaging - that it is precise, that it identifies in a concrete fashion what it is talking about - needs to fuse with this second quality of the production of imaginal powers, the production or education of desire. The two characteristics of these imageries need to be joined, characteristics of dreaming and characteristics of naming. The problem here, then, is how does software acknowledge what it is, how does it experiment with its own properties at the same time as making something happen? How does it acknowledge its state as software? One of the ways that some kinds of software do this is by looking precisely at the material qualities of software itself, of data processing, its inter-relation with hardware and with its construction as a process.
The von Neumann Machine, 1945
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This image here, is a basic diagram of what a computer is. It's called "The von Neumann Machine" from 1945. It maps out the basic hardware structure of any computer, except for a few odd variants such as parallel processors. This is from the first draught of a report on the EDVAC computer dated June 30th 1945. It divides the computer up into memory, the control unit, and the arithmetic logic unit. It divides the computer up into a set of discrete functions which involve the processes of fetching, decoding, executing, cycles of programs arranged in a linear stream. If you compare this to the diagram of the ripples, within this image there is also a very tight structure of inter-relations between elements, and between events in a system. There is no way of sensing what your computer does, software is this totally abundant, totally fast form. One of the things which I think a lot of software art does is to start defamiliarising us with software as a cultural form, it makes the code palpable as it runs. You could say that it produces software that is interrogable, software that has a capacity to be tested as it runs. One piece, for example, by a London-based artist and programmer, Alex MacLean, is a text editor for writing programs in, which allows you to run the program in the editor as it is being written so you get this enormous chained chaos of a program running on its self. One thing this does is allow you to feel precisely into the structure of the von Neumann machine. It allows you to feel the gaps between the elements, between the memory and the control unit, between the input and the output. In computer science this gap, which is a kind of slowness, is called latency - the time lag between the computer being instructed to do something and the time it takes to do it. This latency, the time it takes for the messages to be created, transmitted, received, decoded and written to all parts of the system normally has to be kept low enough in applications as diverse as games and financial systems in order to keep the illusionary quality of software up, the feeling that we are dealing with a reality rather than a set of calculations. What this means is that, because of latency, symbolic divisions - objects within a program, an element within a picture - actually become concrete objects, even if only at the level of electrodes or elements within a microprocessor. One of the things that is challenging about a lot of artists working in software over the last few years is precisely this mixing of symbolic elements in scripts and languages and in images, and the actual structure of the computer.
In terms of how this relates to spring_alpha is that, I think one of the ways that the work uses these diagrams that Simon showed, for the construction of objects and changing the use of objects and how objects grow and develop over time, how they change their capacities, is looking very much at this level of how an object within software is acculturated, how it grows, how it has specific properties and how those properties are changed in the way that they are read and the way that they are used by different users. I am interested in how this project takes on its material context, of software, of computation and networks, and allows that to mesh with this very rich vocabulary of desires, this rich vocabulary of revolt that it takes on. How it balances these two capacities of images: the capacity to name things and the capacity to inflame desire.
Chad: One of the more fantastical elements, the dogmen, also make a bit of space. Once the dogman has gone into a home and is being supervised by this domestic robot, this pairing of the dogman and the robot becomes a little bit like the description of a job you don't want to go to: you're a dog and you have to drive yourself to do these things that you don't want to do. It splits you in a way. If you can create little imaginary devices like that, that have a kind of fantastic element to it, then that is what leaves the little nick where somebody can exercise their own imagination into it, and the thing becomes fantastic. Although there is a strong element of reality in there, it has this fantastic element which allows the whole thing to become a kind of dream and then the thing becomes a possible transformative thing. On an imaginary level, it offers the ability to think about yourself, to externalise yourself in different terms and perceive yourself differently and possibly come back with a different image of yourself.
Simon: For me, the leap between what you are calling self-reflective software and making the bridge into wider social issues is one of the key questions of the project. I would say that this project is partly trying to find an answer to that. I don't have the exact answer right now, I have certain approaches that I am testing out through the project. For me, one of the things that ties up with the Free Open Source Software approach, is really emphasizing the social nature of software creation, and that software does not come so much out of mathematics but rather from a rich metaphorical language that is drawn from existing social structures. For example, a common way of programming nowadays is to break that task down and imagine a group of people doing that task. Then you build code that mimics, or metaphorically works, in the way that that team would work. Software is based on a rich social metaphor, so I think you can tie the loop back, the reflection on software is also reflection on social process. So it is through running those metaphors back into the real world that the development of the game will happen.
Francis McKee: cultural contexts to Open Source practice
I don't really know that much about Open Source, I am just beginning a project where I am researching it for myself as I am really interested, so I have worked out my own weird history of Open Source which is probably really dubious. I started asking where does Open Source come from? There were a lot of different things that had interested me and I realised that they all had some connection. One of the first connections was my interest in a guy called Mario Savvio who was one of the free speech leaders in Berkeley in the Sixties. He made a very famous speech: "There comes a time where we must throw ourselves on the machinery and the gears and the levers of the state and destroy the state." This was really his only speech. After he made this great speech he went silent for the rest of his life and he never spoke again. Partly this was because when you make a good speech that changes society you don't want to blow by saying something stupid in the 1980's when you've got a really bad haircut and a stupid suit. So he very sensibly stood quiet for the rest of his life and is now, fortunately, dead having not spoilt the speech, and so it remains one of the key speeches.
That kind of speech and that kind of movement was really a vital moment in Western society and the twentieth century, that stand for free speech and that stand for civil rights. From that I got interested in Hippies and interested in the Diggers, who were the more wide- awake, proto-activist Hippies. They were the people who, when the Haight Ashbury scene began to become involved in San Francisco, they realised it was starting to become chaotic and messy and collapse as a society. So they began to organise free clinics and free food and swap shops where you could come and leave stuff you didn't want and take away anything else in the shop you wanted. They also made the first organic bread and started some of the first communes. There were soup kitchens which are still going in San Francisco. They began to create a whole society. They also wrote a series of very interesting manifestoes, which are all on this site - some of them are still alive and they have this really good website with everything on it. They did one called "Trip Without a Ticket", 1968. They said things which are now terribly cliched but they said them first: "Everything is free, do you own thing." They came up with the peace sign, which wasn't a peace sign. One of them was being arrested because they were trying to have a radical free theatre in the street and the police arrested them and they were taken away. So they were giving the finger to a press photographer and the next day everyone started doing this because they had misread it and started using it as the peace sign, but actually it means "fuck off and die". They fought a lot and gradually the older ones started moving away and forming communes, and they were instrumental in forming the first Hippy communes and the spread of the commune in California and across America. People coming out of that include Stewart Brand, who weaves his way from there into new media early on, founding the Well, the first online community in San Francisco, and continuing through to today with these new houses - which connects back to what Matthew was saying - these new ways to make houses. He founded the Whole Earth catalogue which came out in 1974, very similar to the stuff we were seeing from London. So all those kind of things were coming out of the Diggers as well.
The next thing in my history is the Grateful Dead. I really like the Grateful Dead. It took years to get me to like the Grateful Dead, but now I do. Just as nowadays we have things like Napster, peer-to-peer, and file swapping, in the Seventies the Grateful Dead set up a system where they gave you a special tapers ticket if you were going to their concert. If you wanted to tape the concert, rather than tape it illegally, they would give you a ticket to come in and their sound engineers would help set you up with a good sound system, so you could tape the concert and take it home for free. There are maybe 30 people who did this for every concert, so from 1967 on there are at least three tapes for every concert in existence and there are now websites where there are hundreds of these tapes online, where you can download the whole Grateful Dead concert. They are all totally free and have been free since the late Sixties. These people are multi-millionaires. They are much richer than Moby will ever be, or Madonna, or any of these whinging whining pop stars today. They made a lot of money, but they made a lot of money realising that the more you give away the more loyalty you could create and they realised that there was a different kind of mixed-economy system you could create through giving things away rather than keeping things. They were by no means not capitalists, they loved money but they also loved the freedom of giving things away and they realised you could do both and worked out a system for doing both.
At this point I have to say that most of what I am talking about barely comes under the rubric of Open Source but as I began to look at Open Source I realised that there is a very strict definition of Open Source to do with software and the creation of software collaboratively, which is then given to people for free as code so they can recode it as they want. But even in net.art circles there are debates about Free Software versus Open Source, and beyond that there are a whole series of things that are developing out of Open Source that have only got a tenuous connection to Open Source that are actually very interesting and important and do connect to it somehow, even if they are based on mis-readings of the definition of Open Source.
So from there I tried to work my way through the Seventies and the Eighties, and I kind of skipped the Seventies except in Berkeley where they developed UNIX. UNIX was developed in a way that was shared with everyone at the time, it was shared freely with academics, it was shared from university to university and it laid the foundations of Open Source and Free Software. The developers themselves said that it wasn't actually that what they did was so radical, it was how they did it. How they did it was they had a small number of supervisors who supervised larger volunteer teams of coders and those coders would then create the software, and put it together. They would pick the best bits and create the software and keep adding to it. So it was a collaborative, distributive model that set a precedent for making software in the future. You see this later in the nineties, when Linus Torvalds, this kid in his bedroom, asks people to help him make a new operating system, and fifty-thousand, hundred-thousand, people start responding and you get this huge wave and a new operating system that has started taking over from Microsoft. You can begin to see the roots of that in Berkeley, and I think it is no coincidence that those roots were set amongst the climate of free speech, the Grateful Dead and the Diggers movement. There was a lot of interaction between those people.
The other thing that often gets ignored in this, is that there is a long tradition of academic freedom, in which the footnote is the place where it really comes out. The footnote has been Open Source for centuries. When you do something academic you publish your sources in the footnotes, so that everyone else can see where you got it and everyone else can share it and everyone else can do what they want with it, and they can argue with you because you give them that same information. There is that basis in the free sharing of information in academia so that people can make their own arguments against you with the same information. That is a very precious tradition that often gets ignored in Open Source because it is often so invisible but it is actually getting threatened at the moment.
Moving to the Eighties, I have been interested in a guy called John Oswald and Plunderphonics. What he has been doing is using a whole system of being able to copy tapes and reconstitute elements from other recorded pieces to make new pieces of work. He did this with a lot of famous artists work, such as Dolly Parton and Michael Jackson, all of whom sued him eventually. There is only one work of his you can really get now easily, and that is his version of "Dark Star" by the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead gave him 200 copies of this song, and let him layer them over each other so you get 200 versions all playing at once. Contrary to a lot of received opinion that recorded sound and the recorded document was killing off things like folk tradition, or the exchange of knowledge, because you suddenly had a definitive version, what Oswald argued instead was that the recorded version was a new form of folk transmission. You could take these recorded versions, you could manipulate them and begin to create something new from them. So he was saying that the recorded document, the recorded analogue tradition, is actually the foundation of a new archive, that can be shared, changed and mutated as you want. This goes against what a lot of other people are saying about folk music, that once you've got a definitive version on record you kill the tradition. He is saying the opposite and I think this is now beginning to prove true as you are beginning to see the use of sampling becoming so standardised now.
From that I began to look at where else Open Source has had an impact. One of the things that inspired me to get involved in this was that I work in art schools sometimes. One of the key issues in Open Source are attitudes towards Intellectual property, and one of the places that should know about that are art schools. So I became interested in how you could investigate that within art schools and came across Lawrence Lessig - a lawyer from America who is investigating the whole thing. He has been saying things similar to what was mentioned earlier, that software develops not only in terms of society, but as it develops so too does the legal system and law changes, and so does the notion of what is Intellectual Property, and I think that becomes very important for artists. It becomes very important for the foundation of what kind of culture you have. A very obvious, and perhaps glib example, is that, at the moment, films all remain under copyright. There are very fews that are outside copyright. In America, every time copyright comes up for legal review it is extended further and further. They are trying to keep all of the early Hollywood films within copyright. Copyright used to be 30 years, and it's extended to 40 years, 50 years, 60 years, 70 years, 80 years. As that copyright is extended Europe simply follows suit and extends their copyright. What happens in this environment is that you have less to play with within a culture, there is less you can watch freely, there is less you can mess around with, there is less you can toy with. If you think of Kathy Acker, and you think of copyrighted books, there is almost nothing she could do now, people would put her in prison and throw away the key. It limits what you are allowed to play with, what you are able to think about freely and mess with in your society. If you can't do that, you can't do anything. So that comes into Open Source as well.
Another thing which is becoming important is business - which is perhaps boring. Capital has taken to Open Source like a fish to water because they have realised that, unlike Microsoft which isn't Open Source and so there are very few people developing for it or trying to debug it, something like Linux is really much more stable. So, for business, it is much more practical to use something like Linux, it is also cheaper and you have much more control over it yourself, which is where forking comes in. With any Open Source product, you can take a product and you can manipulate it the way you want, and when you do that you end up with something different from what someone else got when they got the original package as well. Businesses are doing that all the time. I think that one thing which is interesting with spring_alpha is if the game will begin to fork, if you get a copy of this game, you will all be able to create different games from this. So in five years time you might all be sitting here with different versions, some might be very utopian, some might be very S-and-M. I think that is one of the good things about Open Source. This works on a national level as well. Brazil, Ireland, Israel, in the last few months, have all gone over to using Open Source in their governmental software. This sounds great, it sounds like the revolution has taken over, but actually, I think all these countries think "well, this is much more efficient, and it's cheaper." But I think that does have an impact, whether they have taken it over for commercial reasons or not, once countries and governments begin to take on Open Source then it begins to mutate and change society in some way.
The other area, which follows on from Matthew's comments about science, is that one of the most exciting things in terms of Open Source is the fate of science. In the Twentieth century scientific research became more and more closed down. there is a beautiful book about the history of laboratories in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries by Simon Schaeffer, called "Euclid and Leviathon". It argues that in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries laboratories for science were open and they always demanded an audience. They were almost a theatrical performance in which a scientific experiment was put forward and verified. But Twentieth century laboratories began to be closed to the public because the scientific results were too expensive, too dangerous, too precious to share with anyone. So you didn't invite the Japanese to the Los Alamos tests because if you wanted to drop the bomb on them you didn't want them to know what it was. You didn't invite the Russians, you didn't invite the Germans, you didn't invite the British. This continues with biological warfare, with the closure of scientific research. But what the Wellcome Foundation are doing know is funding scientists to publish their results in an Open Source format, so that they are open to everyone and everyone can get access to them. This can only happen because the Wellcome have so much money that they can afford to subsidise this. But in doing this, they are going back to the early principles of academic research and the principles of Open Source and trying to open up academic research again. At the same time, in the arts at least in Britain, artistic research is being closed down. There is a new system that you get points as a researcher, and if you do research, or a PhD, in an artistic field, you get points. This is all leading towards a keeping to yourself, not sharing atmosphere in Britain which is exactly the opposite of what is happening in science. You are getting this closure of artistic research, and closure of academic practice within academia, which I think is very dangerous for the future.
The other scientific thing coming out of Open Source was the race for the human genome map. Cellera, a commercial company in America, wanted to map the genome and patent it. The Wellcome Trust helped fund a team of "Open Source" researchers who raced Cellera and managed to map the human genome faster than they did, and to publish it on the web. You can't think of a better Open Source project than saving the human genome for public access rather than patented research.
There are periods of time when there are windows of opportunity for different kinds of revolution. Not many in art, because art is the most traditional, conservative, hidebound business in the world. People are operating on Seventeenth century principles based around how you buy a painting. That is how the artworld works, and that is how the economy of the artworld still works. With any new artform, or new media, they deal with it very badly - dealers and galleries. They know how to deal with it but are threatened by it. One window of opportunity came and went with video art. With the emergence of video you got something which is infinitely replicable, and very cheap to produce, sell, and distribute as any highstreet video shop in the world proves. You can go to your local shop and buy or rent almost any video, but you can't do that with Bruce Nauman. You have to go to a gallery and pay fifty thousand pounds for an edition of three which are signed by the artist. This is ridiculous for some lump of tape in a plastic cassette, but it was a way of protecting the capital and the economy value of the artist. What this means if you are teaching video in an art school is that you can't - you can show a few stills from a Bruce Nauman work from 1966 but you can't show people the complete video because you can't afford to show them the video, yet it is one of the most infinitely replicable forms in the world. So there have been some gains, but mostly losses. Certainly if you go to somewhere like the ICA today there are very few artists' video works that you can buy, which is not the case for someone like, say, Bruce Willis.
Now there is another window of opportunity with digital media with which there are many ways of distributing art so that lots of people can get their hands on it. It is a window that is still open, but what happens in the very near future is going to be fascinating to see because again, galleries and dealers want to deal with this. A beautiful example is when the purchasing committee for the Tate Modern came to Glasgow, when the CCA were exhibiting JODI's "untitled game", because they wanted to buy a copy. They didn't know anything about this, and they came and said "oh, can we see it?" I was able to give them free CDs of the game and was also able to say "you can download it from the web if you want." There they were with their cheque books, dying to buy it, and they couldn't figure out how to buy it. They want to know how to buy it, they want to be able to have an edition of three which they own and nobody else owns. They want scarcity, they want uniqueness. From their point of view, they are trying to economically tie it down.
There are lots of interesting models, such as downloading, such as CDs, such as shops where you could distribute and sell works, that you could produce a video and you could produce five thousand copies and sell them for five pounds each, rather than producing three at ten thousand pounds each. It will be interesting to see which model works. I would suggest that there is an argument for a mixed economy model on the Grateful Dead basis, that if you are, say, Pippolotti Rist, you could produce some one-offs for a fiver each in an edition of twenty thousand, and you could produce other works that are installations, or whatever, at fifty thousand pounds each. In a mixed economy you could do both. The Grateful Dead made you buy their albums which were produced in the studio but they let you have everything else for free, and people are pretty happy with that. It also gave them a wider distribution. When they didn't produce an album for twenty years people were still listening to them. So I think there is the possibility for that kind of mixed economy to operate in the artworld, but it needs artists to begin thinking about it, and more importantly, it needs a really strong distribution system. That is where everything always falls down. If you look at artists' books, people produce beautiful artists' books, but the distribution system for artists' books are mostly rubbish. I have worked in an artists' books publishers, it's terrible. You just can't get to them like you can get to ordinary books. Distribution is the key to everything. What we need is somebody to create a really good distribution system for these things, and then it would work. The artworld isn't famous for that kind of activity, but that is what it would need to change things.
The one last thing I was interested in was, that the Diggers took their name from a seventeenth century group called the Diggers in England. It was Cromwell's army, and after Cromwell had his revolution he disbanded his New Model Army. The New Model Army were a pretty theoretical lot, they always had debates when they were the New Model Army, so afterwards they had another debate. They decided that they would take the common land, and they would farm the common land and work on it, because it was common to everyone. So they did this and called themselves the Diggers, and they founded communes on the common land. Cromwell and all the people in the surrounding villages kicked them out, and they were ransacked and destroyed. So it was a kind of revolutionary moment, but then destroyed entirely. Chad is reading the book about the defeat of the movement at the moment, and I am reading the book about the glorious moment. I am trying to get my hands on the book about the defeat, however, because I think that is where it is going. With Open Source as well, I think that is where it is going. I think that we are in the revolution at the moment, this is the Open Source revolution now. It might get better, but eventually it's going to get worse. I think that the game that they are devising has both elements in it, has the dark element of suppression but it also has these colour images of people trying to set up their own society. I think the Open Source movement is trying to do that, and inevitably, it will be destroyed, but other countries like Ireland, Israel, Brazil will have taken on board Open Source principles. I think a lot of the principles will go into the industry and the utopian ideal that is behind the whole thing will dissolve and die, but in the same way as you come to Amsterdam and you see the remnants of a lot of the Sixties revolution, and you see it in San Francisco as well, you see the bad bits that withered and died and you see the good bits that became mainstream as well. It doesn't change everything, but it does change something.
Simon: Chad, do you feel that as a traditional artist, that this concept of Open Source has relevance to and feasibility within your practice?
Chad: Oh yes, I do, a lot, it's only due to my own weakness that I haven't made anything for mass distribution. As Francis says, if you want to distribute something on a mass scale and you try to do it yourself, you are never going to make another piece of work because it is going to take you your whole life to go around and be your own salesman and your own marketing agent. Like he says, dealers and buyers are stuck in this idea of the artist's signature and these single blue-chip articles but artworks are not really this at all.
Simon: Matthew, you are running a course which teaches artists and has adopted an Open Source approach, where do you see this window of opportunity?
Matthew: One thing is this issue of distribution. I think that mass distribution is not the only viable form of distribution. If you go to an artists bookshop, for instance, you see stuff that is there precisely because the distribution is terrible. You get this stuff which is kind of washed up, these tidal waves that have sat on these shelves for years. That kind of slow, specialist distribution, the stuff that hides precisely because it is difficult to find, because no-one really wants it except for a few people to whom it speaks, is very important. So this idea that mass is good and that, somehow, small is horrid is not so useful. I think, in terms of its relevance to institutions, that they should deal with issues of Intellectual Property. In most art schools, when you sign up as a student you sign away your copyright on your own work for the period that you are there. I think that for anyone who is an art student or an art teacher, you should look at the contracts that students have to sign. Within institutions, I would say try and break the ownership that the academy has on students' work. In terms of public institutions, like Montevideo, if you look at the Wellcome Trusts, the interesting thing is not that they decided to spend more money on stuff for the public domain, it's that they just decided to move their budget and spend it in a slightly different way. What they were doing was funding a number of learned journals and there has been a long debate about the funding of journals and how to make journals available that has gone on over the past five years. The challenge is not to spend more money on stuff but to look at where you put your energy, whether you publish something that only goes into library shelves and costs £250 for an annual subscription, or whether you publish stuff and insist that it goes into the public domain. So the question for people in institutions is how you make yourself available and a lot of that is not just about licenses but also about public interfaces, addressing different communities, and so on. It's part of a wider spectrum and the public domain, Free Open Source Software is not going to do it on its own. It's a question of where resources go.