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||| Bare Code:Net Art and the Free Software Movement |||

Josephine Berry

||| [part 1] ||| [part 2] |||
In September 1999, the GNU/Linux operating system was awarded a prize by the jury of the art and technology festival Ars Electronica. This award--for the ".net" category--converted a computer operating system, developed through open collaboration, into an artwork.

Setting aside the question of the jury's Duchampian gesture of nominating a tool of production as a work of art, the event could be said to signal the popularization of the analogy, now frequently drawn, between avant-garde art practice and free software production. This analogy insists upon the recognition that the activities of making art and software are both defined by the necessarily collective nature of creative and intellectual production.

On the one hand, the individual genius is recognized as eclipsing the dialogic nature of cultural production behind the emblem of personal style or innovation, which in turn casts the nonartist as creatively defunct. On the other, closed or proprietary models of commercial software production can be said to ring-fence innovation by unfairly claiming individual or corporate authorship of the latest spin-off of a radically collective history of software production in the computer sciences. Copyrighting and closing the source code of a piece of software also artificially narrows its potential future adaptations and condemns it to the stifling monotony of a fixed identity (product), altered only by the strictly controlled modifications that will lead to its release as an upgrade: the illusion of innovation and difference in a regime of unwavering homogeneity.

The rigid controls imposed by intellectual property rights--dependent on the demonstrable origination and hence ownership of ideas--bury the "code" (artistic or technical) away from the scrutiny of potential collaborators and "defends" against the fecund chaos of uncontrolled invention. Whereas the coders slaving away at Microsoft are cut off and largely motivated by economic remuneration, the enthusiasts working in the free software community enjoy the benefits of the potlatch or gift economy where "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." 1 Likewise, where the artist locked into life on the gallery circuit is condemned to the permutation of a signature style that resembles the assembly-line production of software upgrades, the plagiarist artist, released from the burden of individual identity, surfs the riotous waves of ownerless creation into the unknown.

So the comparison between avant-garde art and free software does more than point out the collective nature of cultural production; it also points to the revolutionary effects this realization may have when the consumer and the producer become indistinguishable. This same dream of indistinctness also underpins the avant-garde wish to dissolve art into life or, better, to realize art as a practice of life. The division of (artistic) labor--the enemy of such indistinctness--is a crucial starting point for avant-garde engagement when conceptualizing a revolution in culture or beyond. To transpose a Marxist analysis of the means and relations of production onto culture: The individual artist has sometimes been compared to the capitalist who harnesses and thus alienates proletarian labor power into surplus value that can, as accumulated product or "oeuvre," be used to perpetuate the exploitation of the many by the few. The genius-artist, true to the "winner takes all" model of capitalism, is able to obscure the heteronomy of culture's production behind the singular expression or possession of a sovereign intellect and imagination. A radical realization of art, then, would be the deposition of the sovereign producer and a return of the shared wealth of creativity to its true owners: the multitude. For this reason, a reappropriation and transformation of the artistic means of production comes to the fore--an opening up of cultural source codes to an undetermined end.

An early articulation of this idea, and one that used the same language of political economy, was the German writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin's 1934 speech to the Institute for the Study of Fascism, titled "The Author as Producer." Combating the contemporary consensus among leftist thinkers that the work of art should express the correct political "tendency" in its content, Benjamin argued that the revolutionary author should move beyond the limited concern with the product to effect the transformation of the "apparatus of production." In order for the writer's work to have an "organizing function," he insisted, "it is also necessary for the writer to have a teacher's attitude. And today this more than ever is an essential demand. A writer who does not teach other writers teaches nobody. The crucial point, therefore, is that a writer's production must have the character of a model: it must be able to instruct other writers in their production and, secondly, it must be able to place an improved apparatus at their disposal. The apparatus will be the better the more consumers it brings in contact with the production process--in short, the more readers or spectators it turns into collaborators." 2

Although to the contemporary reader the notion of culture's didactic function might seem overly doctrinaire, the insight into the cultural product as a tool or apparatus that invites a collaborative appropriation and transformation seems remarkably modern. Where, in the case of writing, the apparatus and the product are indistinguishable--or only distinguishable as discrete functions of the continuous fabric of language--in the case of digital culture and, specifically for our purposes here, net art, the software that is used to produce the artwork is not similarly continuous or transparent. Using proprietary software for the production of an artwork when its source code is closed means either that the model character of the work must be understood as functioning otherwise or not at all. Or, alternatively, this idea can be formulated as the more open question: What is the model character of net art? If, as is largely the case, net artists use proprietary software to produce their work, to what extent can they be said to be transforming the apparatus of production?

Plagiarism Is for Life

Sticking with the generality that most net artists do not, in fact, produce their own software or even rescript existing free software in order to build their projects, it is important to note that net artists do, however, converge with the Benjaminian concept of "author as producer" in some crucial respects. For one thing, the centrality of plagiarism or intellectual property "theft" in this area of art production points not only toward the destruction of the proprietorial role of artist-as-genius and hence a collaborative model of practice, but also to a related principle of recycling, repurposing, or relocating ready-made cultural artifacts or "data objects" in order to release new potentialities and meanings. The transformation of the apparatus of production might therefore be understood as entailing a shift in consciousness that reveals the act of noninvention or relocation as transformative. Suddenly, with this bricoleur's perspective, the (virtual) world presents itself as one big production landscape, a massive building site heaped with raw materials, a self-replenishing machine of articulation, inflection, and affect. In his piece Own, Be Owned or Remain Invisible (1998), for instance, Heath Bunting took an article written about him in the Telegraph newspaper and hyperlinked nearly every word of it to a URL composed of the same word attached to the suffix ".com." Accordingly, the sentence "The potential for different possibilities is being diminished by money" becomes a sequence of URLs: "www.the.com; www.potential.com; www.for.com, www.different.com; www.possibilities.com," etc. The following year, the websites of "star" net artists such as Olia Lialina and Jodi were cloned and subtly altered by the net art collective 0100101110101101.org to reveal the inherent relationship between the information environment and (plagiarist) art. It is the cultural plenitude and potentiality that the plagiaristic "model character" of net art reveals that distinguishes it from postmodern appropriation art as exemplified in the 1980s by artists such as Robert Prince or Sherrie Levine. As Stewart Home explains in his book Neoism, Plagiarism and Praxis:
"Plagiarism enriches human language. It is a collective undertaking far removed from the post-modern "theories" of appropriation. Plagiarism implies a sense of history and leads to progressive social transformation. In contrast, the "appropriations" of post-modern ideologists are individualistic and alienated. Plagiarism is for life, post-modernism is fixated on death." 3
Extrapolating from Home, we can surmise that postmodernism's preoccupation with demonstrating the inertia of the signifying chain in a hyperreal world should not be mistaken for an advancement of the social role of art. Postmodern art moves such as appropriation, while concerned to point out the waning affect of images within a spectacular society, do not amount to a call for the radical transformation of those conditions or an attack on the fetish character of the artwork. This observation is confirmed by the paradoxical fact that artists are able to convert the programmatic neutering of images into a token of artistic insight and originality. In brutal terms, the possibility of creativity per se is shown to have perished in a strategy that aids the survival of the artist. Given the indebtedness of anonymous, plagiarist, and multiple-name-using art collectives such as 0100101110101101.org to the post-Fluxus antics of Mail Art, it is no coincidence to find that mail artist Tony Lowes was able to preempt this Faustian postmodern pact in his manifesto "Give Up Art/ Save the Starving":
"Fictions occupy our minds and art has become a product because we believe ourselves and our world to be impervious to fundamental change. So we escape into art. It is our ability to transform this world, to control our consciousness, that withers on the vine." 4
The postmodern refusal of originality resides closer to its supposed antithesis--the idea of artistic originality and the cultural calcification that this implies--than net plagiarism with its desire to mutate and transform preexisting, nonoriginal forms and ideas and release creativity from the shackles of ownership.

Immaterial Abundance and Artificial Scarcity

Extending the discussion of the production apparatus and its transformation beyond cultural discourse for a moment, it is essential to mention that the copying and "copyability" of information are both inherent to the functioning of computers. The computer's operation comprises three core information activities: the storage, transmission and processing of data, each of which requires that information be copied. Whenever a software program is opened, for example, the version stored on the hard drive must be copied to the random access memory, or whenever a site is browsed on the Web, what we actually view is a copy of the files on the server made by the browser. Furthermore, every copy that is made is indistinguishable from its "original" and serves equally well as the model with which to make further copies--as a result, the whole notion of the original becomes materially obsolete. The ease of digital reproduction is also such that making a thousand copies is no more demanding than making one. This pushes the marginal costs of production down to practically zero and demands an entire reformulation of surplus value within the information economy. Net artists' focus on plagiarism and nonoriginal production is therefore not only intrinsically a part of the processual logic of the net, but relates also to a drastic transformation of the production landscape in general as it learns to substitute an economics based on immaterial abundance for one based on material scarcity.

As the highest stakeholders in the economy maneuver to artificially impose scarcity onto the natural abundance of digital information and its innate replicability, the struggle for information's "freedom" has begun in earnest. In this struggle, the free software movement has played a core role in popularizing the ethic of nonproprietary software in a climate of rabid intellectual property registration. The free software movement was initiated by the Free Software Foundation (FSF), whose founder, Richard Stallman, saw the damage being inflicted on the programming community in the early 1980s by the privatization of software. He recalls working at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab in the 1970s, when sharing software was considered a fundamental part of the process:
"We didn't call our software 'free software' because that term did not yet exist; but that's what it was. Whenever people from another university or a company wanted to port and use a program, we gladly let them. If you saw someone using an unfamiliar and interesting program, you could always ask to see the source code, so that you could read it, change it, or cannibalise parts of it to make a new program." 5
By the 1980s, however, all this was beginning to change. As commercial companies were set up to produce software, the "hackers" at MIT were gradually poached away and their collective expertise converted into privately owned chunks of code. Programmers started to see this as an "acceptable paradigm," not realizing that the programming community and culture--not to mention the standard and innovation rate of code--were falling into decline. For Stallman, the issue is not so much that Microsoft has subsequently become the biggest owner of proprietary software and therefore the greatest "subjugator" of users to its laws; it is the paradigm per se that worries him. "I don't want to have a master. I'm not willing to accept the chains, no matter who is holding them," he has insisted.

To combat the rise of the master-slave relation in computing, the FSF started work on the entirely free GNU/Linux operating system, which spawned many other free software initiatives and products. The FSF's other radical innovation was the General Public License, which enshrines the principle of "copyleft"--the right to freely use, modify, and distribute software--ironically enough, by using copyright law. A classic act of detournement. It is on this latter issue of copyleft that the free software movement differs significantly from the "open source" movement with which it is often confused. The term open source, coined by Eric S. Raymond in 1998, defines only a piece of software whose source code has been left open. It does not, however, stipulate that this source code can thereafter be copied, adapted, and distributed by anyone at all. In many cases, open source describes a proprietary software, such as Netscape Navigator, whose source code can be viewed but not reused, modified, or distributed. For this reason, when in the wrong hands, what open source achieves is the deployment of the "enough eyeballs" principle for private ends. In the worst cases, it means that the user community is solicited to scrutinize the existing source code, detect bugs or improvements, and then advise the software company on how best to perfect its software. Here we have an example of the commonplace commercial tendency to disingenuously invoke community (the good old days at MIT and the fraternity of coding) in order then to convert free labor, or what Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt have recently called "affective labor," into private gain.

||| [part 1] ||| [part 2] |||

1 Eric Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar

2 Walter Benjamin, "The Author as Producer", 1934, republished in Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, eds. Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Blackwell, Oxford UK, 1992, p.484

3 Stewart Home, "Plagiarism" in Neoism, Plagiarism and Praxis, p. 51

4 Cited in The Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War, Stewart Home, (Stirling: AK Press, 1991), p. 77

5 Cited in "Free Software Is a Political Action", J.J. King in conversation with Richard M. Stallman, Telepolis, August 18, 1999
Josephine Berry is deputy editor of the culture and technology magazine Mute. This piece was specially commissioned for Open_Source_Art_Hack, part of the NetArtCommons site.
Also available online at the anti-copyright library, textz.com.


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