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You are here: Home Bulletins 2010 Fall 2010 Bulletin Free Software From An Artistic Perspective

Free Software From An Artistic Perspective

by Matt Lee Contributions Published on Oct 14, 2011 06:24 PM
On my travels north, I meet with Rob Myers, former GNU chief webmaster and one of the developers on GNU social. Rob is an artist who uses free software exclusively for his work. Previously, he had an exhibition of art created using free software in Zagreb, Croatia. Today, we meet in the less exotic location of Peterborough.

ML: GNU social is one of the latest round of free software social networks. What opportunies do you see for these networks in the artistic community?

RM: When I spoke about GNU FM at the Make Art conference in Poitiers, France, last year, I mentioned GNU social briefly at the end of my presentation, and everyone really wanted to hear more about it. Artists thrive on the ideas, critique, and publicity that Internet technologies can give access to, but are often concerned about the control that proprietary social networks give hidden actors over them. Free software social networking systems return the power to create your own virtual social space to the artistic individuals and institutions that participate in them. It's reminiscent of the email listserv era, which was very important for several different art movements in the 1990s and early 2000s. MySpace and Facebook really haven't replaced that -- they lack the focus and sense of community.

Artists can take control of their online social presence much more effectively with free software -- galleries, museums, artists groups, individual artists, can all have their own nodes in the distributed social network. Some of these will almost certainly be declared artworks in themselves by an enterprising conceptual artist.

ML: You previously made an art project out of bots that communicate with each other on networks like StatusNet and What work is happening with these, and how can other people use them for their own purposes, artistic or otherwise?

RM: They've been running for over a year now. Some post short, random, colour or shape descriptions for people to use for inspiration (or to be amused by). There's another group consisting of an artist, critic and collector who make up a simulation of precisely how the art world doesn't work called The Cybernetic Artworld. They don't pretend to be anything other than bots, so it's fun when people encounter them and still attribute personality to their output or suggest ways they could be improved.

I've also written bots to generate and post random recipes or random design project ideas for commercial projects. Having them as a stream in a social network makes people consider them differently. It can be a good way of introducing ambient information or entertainment into your social network feed. Because I like Lisp, the bots are written in Common Lisp, but people have said that the code is very readable even if you don't know Lisp so it's still worth looking at. And everyone should learn Lisp. I've never written a spectator bot for The Cybernetic Artworld, so maybe people could write their own using the microblog-bot library.

ML: To any artists who are still using proprietary tools, what advice would you give in their switch to free software?

RM: There are tutorials and books that can help you learn free software replacements for proprietary tools, but the best thing to do is to get involved in the community. If you can find someone who knows the software you want to use, then their advice can be invaluable. Free software tools can seem very different to proprietary ones, particularly if you've been using proprietary software for years or even for decades. But the differences are usually just in how the interface is organized, and the major difference is a positive one: you have the freedom to study and extend the software to better be able to achieve what you want.

The one thing that you will need to be patient about is CMYK support. Some tools support CMYK, most don't, but you can create CMYK print-ready art in GNU/Linux. For me the common thread to all this is the fact that despite the cliched images of the solitary hacker in their cubicle or the solitary artist in their studio, free software and art are both social activities. I'd love to see them come together more. Artists need the freedom to pursue their ideas, and they'll use free software in ways that will lead to interesting new possibilities.

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