ONE LOVE: How FLOSS Can Make True All the Promises of the Avantgarde (yet would kill 'art' by doing so)
In his essay All problems of Notation Will be Solved by the Masses, Simon Yuill claims that the emergent practice of livecoding 'most directly embodies the key principles of FLOSS production into the creation and experience of the work itself.' Unfortunately this claim is supportet by an argumentation which is elitist, draws on the criterium of virtuosity and thereby stands in stark contrast to the culture of particpation that FLOSS has engendered. While his central argument is not supported, the piece offers enough food for thought to be considered interesting reading.
On re-reading Umberto Eco on the openness of artworks1 and while thinking about the problem of the relationship between media art and Free, Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) as I had it outlined in my original text The Next Layer it suddenly became clear to me that FLOSS makes true all the promises of the avantgarde yet kills art by doing so.
FLOSS has already realised some of the most important demands of the avant-garde of high modernity: it killed the author, or better, replaced him or her with a collaborative model of collective authorship - thereby making true the utopian demand by Isidore Ducasse and the Surrealists that 'poetry should be made by all'; it realised the demand by Walter Benjamin, who was himself inspired by the Russian Productivist Tretiakov, that the author should create the conditions for others to become authors as well, by creating a culture of particpation on a massive scale. (please note the difference between 'participation on massive scale' and 'the masses'; this is not about the 'masses', a derogatory term used by the bourgeoisie, but about the people.)
Seen from any possible angle FLOSS comes close to ideally representing key demands that have been raised about the ideal of artistic production by avant-garde movements in high modernity and the 1960ies. Yet at the same time the vast majority of the output of the FLOSS community is not art. The FLOSS community does not reference its products as art. FLOSS production is not linked to the canon of modern and contemporary art as it emerged from the artistic movements of high modernity; it is not part of the art system of museums and festivals. (On a more philosophical level I postulate that the full realisation of the demand of the avant-garde that 'poetry should be made by all' would automatically spell the end of art as we know it. More about that towards the end of the article.)
In recent years a small part of the art world tries to find ways to enlist FLOSS into the service of fine arts. Usually they get it very wrong as there are unresolvable differences between the ways FLOSS communities think and work and how the art world thinks and functions. Sometimes seemingly more convincing arguments are made about connections between FLOSS and art.
One such example has been the award winning essay All problems of Notation Will be Solved by the Masses by Simon Yuill. Although it is generally a very knowledgeable piece which contains some very important insights about both FLOSS and art, Yuill gets it all wrong in one central point: he bases his argument on elitism and virtuosity. As I will show, although FLOSS culture contains elements of both, elitism and virtuosity, those criteria stand in stark contrast to the central tenets of FLOSS culture: to foster a culture of enabling, facilitation and participation on a massive scale.
Under paragraph one of his text Yuill states:
"Of all the artforms supported and enabled through FLOSS, ‘livecoding’ has emerged as the one which most directly embodies the key principles of FLOSS production into the creation and experience of the work itself." (page 2)
Livecoding is an emergent practice whereby performers on stage type code into a computer which gets executed as they type it and produces sound and / or images. Main proponents of the practice are the group with, among others, Alex McLean, Amy Alexander and xxxxx. It is a very interesting practice and I have a lot of respect for the skill of the artists involved. It may also be true that livecoding shares some characteristics with forms of avant-garde music involving improvisation and open notation schemes. But what I find highly disagreeable is that livecoding ideally embodies the key characteristics of FLOSS and the way that this argument is made.
Simon Yuill places livecoding within a context of Post-Webernian avantgarde music, from Berio to Stockhausen and others (the same artists who are quoted by Eco), African American avant-garde music of the 1960ies ('Free Jazz') and MIT hacker culture exemplified by the educational software project LOGO for children which was promoted by Seymour Papart, also in the 1960ies. Yuill gets mixed up between the character of lifecoding as an 'open' artwork in the sense of Umberto Eco and the participatory character of FLOSS. If Yuill is right that livecoding indeed shares important properties with avant-garde music both from the Western European and the African American tradition and the MIT hacker culture as well, then it is by definition one of the most elitist activities that can be thought of. This elitism stands in stark contrast to the mass participatory culture which FLOSS has facilitated. Moreover, although Yuill states that livecoding embodies the principles of FLOSS, he relies on a definition of art which in an unquestioning way continues a typification of art which is based on the old paradigm of genius and virtuosity. If FLOSS practice can be art, then the definition of art must change significantly as well.
FLOSS is for all
FLOSS is the product of often widespread collaborations between geographically dispersed individuals and communities who use the internet and certain communication tools such as versioning systems, forums, wikis and mailinglists to coordinate their efforts and produce works of huge complexity. Although in those collaborations the individual does not vanish and the projects often have decision making and organising structures which are neither flat nor decentralized but on the contrary, sometimes highly centralized (such as the 'benevolent dictatorship' allegedly exercised by Linus Torvalds over the Linux project), FLOSS nevertheless stretches the concept of authorship until it breaks. Free Software projects such as the Debian distribution have thousands of authors and maybe, if all the contributed 'packages' are counted, even millions. The number of 'participants' rises even further if we also take into account the people who use the software and write bug reports and who populate the forums and exchange tips about installation and usage.
If we consider different levels of engagement, from master/expert to average programmer to someone who can tweak a few lines of existing code to, finally, the 'end user', the boundaries between producer and consumer are not simply blurred but the dichotomy is wholly replaced by a field of relationships. Last not least, all those various types of production happen in a vast gift economy whereby the code, following the 'law' of the GPL is exchanged freely just as if communism had been realised within the heart of the capitalist high-tech industry. Classically only art had the status of a non-commodity (loosely following Bordieu on this subject matter who stated that the field of cultural production constituted a non-economy because all the laws of the economy proper had been reversed). Now software has acquired that status too. Such similarities should not mislead us about the profound differences. I would go even so far to propose that there is a fundamental incommensurability (in the sense of Paul Feyerabend) between FLOSS and art.
Simon Yuill claims that 'the fundamental act of friendship among programmers is the sharing of programs.[footnote 64]' 2 However, in FLOSS culture code is not just shared between 'friends'. FLOSS has spawned a mass participatory culture which is based on a very clear set of rules embodied in the GPL. The central tenet of FLOSS, if there is such a thing, is that code is not just shared between friends but between millions of strangers who in the vast majority never ever meet face-to-face. The main motivation for sharing is not friendship but a whole set of different motivations which are in the majority non-altruistic3
Schoenberg vs Sid Vicious
Another area in which Yuill's thesis leads itself ad absurdum is that he links livecoding with virtuosity. Indeed, when I heard first about this practice some years ago, I found just the thought of it intimitating. Programming is something very difficult, to do it live on stage and generate aesthetically interesting results surely is something that only a small minority of elite hackers can do. Drawing on Paulo Virno, Yuill states that 'improvisation exemplifies virtuosity'.4 Yet virtuosity is generally linked with an obsolete bourgeois concept of art. The key characteristic of emancipatory forms of art and culture in the 20th century has not been the focus on virtuosity but on the contrary, on the inspired dilettante: from Duchamp's signing of industrially produced objects to Warhol's reproduction of mass media images to the three chords of Punk music. The same with hacking. You can enter hacker culture at all levels as I have shown above. It is something that does not just benefit and give gratification to the virtuoso but also to the bloodiest newbie struggling to install Ubuntu5
At the core of Yuill's thesis is the idea that software is a form of notation (which is something that itself can be disputed, but maybe at another time). He places livecoding in the proximity of Post-Webernian composers who use 'open' notation schemes. In those works the notation does not determine the final output, it leaves a lot of space for interpretation. I am not saying this in any denunciatory way, it is a matter of factly statement that at the time when those experimental techniques first came up, they were recognized, practiced and appreciated by an elite only. They came from a background of 'serious' music in the Western tradition. This sort of elitism is deeply embedded in the Eurocentric system of art. In his text Yuill offers the best (or worst) example of what happens when aesthetic avantgarde-elitism becomes politicised. His most important British example is the Scratch Orchestra founded by Cornelius Cardew. Yuill writes:
"It was through the Scratch Orchestra that Cardew was to acquire a profound political self-awareness, applying an explicit Maoist perspective to his own practice, and leading to his involvement in founding the Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist). "
(Yuill 2008, page 9)
By 1970 (when Cardew got so politicised) the horrors of Stalinism and Maoism were well known in Britain. It is unfortunate that, following his elitist instinct, Cardew would openly associated himself with politicians who promoted and practiced the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' (i.e. genocide of peasants and workers) whereby with proletariat they did not refer to 'the people' but to the party. The sad end of the Scratch Orchestra as told by Simon Yuill is just another illustration what an elitist mindset leads to.(pages 13, 14, 15)
Yuill gets himself even deeper into an elitist quagmire by slightly misquoting Adorno when he writes:
"The performance may simply become the regurgitation of old cliches and formulas like that of the amateur jazz musician described by Adorno, unable to stray from the existing models to which he has adapted and subordinated himself."6
In the passage that Yuill refers to Adorno does not talk about an 'amateur' jazz musician but dismisses the whole genre of Jazz because it was, in his understanding, tainted by the fact that it emerged from a commercial culture industry and therefore engendered a fetishisation of music accompanied by a regression of listening. Adorno's critique of Jazz can at best be considerd that of a Eurocentric art snob, yet actually it may be outright racist. I can only utter surprise by seeing Adorno being quoted in this way. The economic conditions of the creation of an art form do not necessarily determine the artistic qualities of an art form.
Livecoding as practice and the virtue ethics
If everything until so far sounds like I am out to do a hatchet job on Yuill's essay I must clearly state this is not my intention. It is really unfortunate that he gets it wrong in that most central point regarding elitism and vistuosity. There are also some very good points. What Yuill says about the practice of livecoding can be extended to a statement about many participatory practices:
"The notion of practice that they exhibit is one which is consciously linked to, and helps define, particular practitioner communities. They are groups defined not by a common aesthetic, style, nor even in some cases common collection of cultural references, but significantly by commitments to shared practices." (page 8)
I also find very useful for my own FLOSS research and can subscribe to the notion of the virtue-ethic:
"In contrast to an ethics of duty based on obligation to a set of external standards to which the individual must aspire, virtue ethics arise from and are directed towards forms of practice. They are defined and realised through action rather than regulation or law and aim towards a general ethic of self-actualisation.[footnote 61] " (page 9)
It is really unfortunate that, rather than following those clues about practice and a 'virtue ethic', Yuill falls into the trap of various elitisms.7
Avantgarde groups and social context
Sometimes the references in Yuill's essay just do not go together well, maybe because everything is explained from a viewpoint of artistic immanence and not via sober and cool social analysis. An example: The proposed proximity between the Sun Ra Arkestra and MIT hackerdom in the 1960ies, is a very doubtful connection, as by all means Sun Ra's 'science' was a caricature of and directed against Pentagon supported Yankee WASP egg-head culture. Yet Yuill uses the trick of writing about those without any separation of paragraph, through this stylistic trick implying they are closely related practices. The free jazz of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Colemen and other was/is important not just because of the use of dissonant tonalities and the method of free improvisation but also because of the social context of black consciousness and the radicalisation of the civil rights movement. It was also the first time that African American jazz musicians started their own labels and created independent distribution channels. The virtuosity of free improvisation alone without black consciousness and empowerment can create really dire results. I have been exposed to so many 'free improvisation sessions' in my student yeras in the late 1970ies and early 1980ies, that this drove me directly into the arms of punk, disco, rap and reggae. To claim any similarity between livecoding and the high point of free jazz is a bit far fetched indeed. What the world maybe needs is not to find the next John Coltrane of FLOSS (or more clones of RSM) but rather a Bob Marley of Open Source.
Another good point in Simon Yuill's essay is the recognition that FLOSS is an 'endless' project:
"Whereas commercial software production emphasises the creation of distinct software products, hacking emphasises code as part of a ongoing dialogue between practitioners."
"Free Software is an ‘activity-without-end-product’ not in the sense of having no output, but rather in the sense of constantly creating the capacity for production elsewhere." (both quotations page 11)
This relates to Umberto Eco's definitions of openness about the never ending art work. While the notion of the artwork as a somehow open, aleatory and auto-poietic system, a work which keeps being recreated and recreated and thereby changes, is a beautiful one, the reality is that this does not go well with the current art market. The success of the commercial art market as exemplified by the growth of art fairs in recent years has been based on a regression towards ever more commercial forms of art placed firmly on the notion of the sellable object with discrete forms.
At the same time digital artists have a more fundamental and philosophic al problem exactly because of the openendedness of the world of FLOSS. Any work based on FLOSS by its very nature has no beginning and no end and no single author. This becomes most obvious in the case of internet based artworks, such as the participatory work 9Nine by Mongrel/Harwood. "How can you cope with a situation where nothing every stays the same," the artist Harwood sighed in an interview with me8, where, paraphrasing him now, everything changes all the time and nothing is ever fixed? This is the world of FLOSS and how would anyone claim that this has anything to do with art as we know it? The artist can at best ride on a wave created by the multitude of FLOSS developers and make comments on the current state of the art and society, but this is not art as we knew it, based on a clear distinction between the 'work' and the 'author'.
The demand that 'poetry should be made by all' is in the process of being realised by open source culture. The desire of the most interesting elements within the Western art world that art should leave behind the bourgeois phase of aestheticism and become part of the praxis of life (Bürger 1974), that art should become radically democratic, that the barriers between producers and consumers should be removed and that all humans should have the chance to fully realize their potential by being engaged in creating beauty has never been come closer to than at the beginning of the 21st century with the rise of a huge wave of participatory cultures in music, in writing, in software, in hardware. Within those areas, FLOSS is in my opinion a priviliged area as it is not only another form of expression but also an enabler of DIY cultures. The fear that this gets turned into a 'spectacle of participation' through Web 2.0 is justified. However, the mass media success of venture capital supported 'social software' platforms should not obscure the fact that there is still a thriving and rapidly growing FLOSS culture which exists separately from that and which gives millions of people a chance to learn and educate and express themselves. As Simon Yuill rightly says in his opening remarks, there has been a disillusionment regarding 'openness' but not with Open Source Culture but the way some parts of the art system have tried to claim it and recuperate for an artistic praxis which adheres to bourgeois values. Yuill writes:
"Not all artists working with FLOSS and livecoding necessarily share the politics of the hacklabs scene, nor do all hacklab participants necessarily look upon their own activities as art-related, and some are, sometimes rightly, sceptical of artistic involvement in what they do."
Unfortunately he does not elaborate on those differences because that would lead to a very fundamental aporia. Artists who now claim to be working on the basis of FLOSS principles do so within an art system which works inside the capitalist system. Their success as artists and the economic viability of their careers is based on them gathering symbolic capital as individual artist geniuses. If the demand that poetry should be made by all would be fully realised that would mean almost by necessity that all people would have to be freed from the slavery of work to be able to fully devote themselves to the making of art. However, only a utopian society can support such a situation where everybody truly 'is an artist' and in such a society the word 'art' has no separate meaning anymore. Until that society is realised we will always be partly unfree and areas of freedom such as FLOSS will have to exist as islands - however vast and growing - in an ocean of unfreedom. Under current conditions, if FLOSS realises the demand that poetry is produced by all, it does so by an act of devaluation says Peter Bürger9p 52. Bürger then suggests to step back from the avantgardistic demand that art should become part of the praxis of life and stay 'autonomous' in the classical sense - as a distinct system within the existing society with its own values. This sudden turn is hard to follow. Instead, if we still believe in any form of progress, then we can join FLOSS with a non-elitist ethos of art. One Love.
- 1. .
2006. The Poetics of the Open Work. Participation. :20-41.
- 2. page 9 quoting Richard Stallman in: Richard Stallman, ‘The GNU Manifesto’, Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman, 2nd edition, GNU Press: Boston, 2004, p.35.
- 3. this has been well researched and evidenced by magazines such as First Monday; cf for instance Altruistic individuals, selfish firms? The structure of motivation in Open Source software by Andrea Bonaccorsi and Cristina Rossi. First Monday, volume 9, number 1 (January 2004), URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue9_1/bonaccorsi/index.html.
- 4. page 10 quote from: Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, translated by Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito and Andrea Casson, Semiotext(e): Los Angeles, 2004.
- 5. a Linux based operating system which is said to be very easy to install). Part of the attraction is that there are seemingly no rules and that you can start through try and error.
- 6. page 7 misquoted from Theodor Adorno, ‘On the fetish character in music and the regression of listening’, in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Cuture, edited by J.M. Bernstein, London: Routledge, 1991, p. 48. I am not exactly sure what Yuill refers to on page 48, but those pages belong to the most problematic what Adorno has written; for instance: "mass music [...] not only turned them away from important music but confirmed them in neurotic stupidity" page 47. it goes on and on inn that style)
- 7. To an extent, that same criticism can be applied to one of Simon's own works, Spring Alpha. Although in principle, conceptually and aesthetically, thjs is a perfect FLOSS art work, a game whose rules can be changed by the players, it limits participation to people who can code in PHP. If participation is so technically defined, it becomes the opposite, a method of exclusion. The audience can only stand in awe about the virtuosity of the live-coders whose performance turns into a spectacle.
- 8. published, in an unedited format, here Interview with Harwood / Mongrel: Between Social Software and the Poetic
- 9. Bürger in
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