Free Software pushing the frontier of art

Free software is a widespread tool in contemporary practice. A good way to tap into these technologies is to attend a training workshop at LABoral.

Published: Jul 23, 2015

By Nati Guil Grund (@musas20), Musas20

The fact that an art and technology festival such as Ars Electrónica awarded in September 1999 the Jury Award to the OS GNU/Linux (developed by a community of programmers working together) made it a piece of art right away.

This fostered the relationship commonly established between avant-garde art practice and the production of free software. This article focuses on the use of free software in contemporary art and the importance of training projects like those offered at LABoral Centro de Arte.

In recent years artists have approached digital technology in different ways: With the purpose of exploring new aesthetic possibilities, changing its original use and hacking them for their own purposes. Also to unveil the ideologies that lie behind its interfaces and open a debate about its political function. All this would not be possible, or would be much more complicated without free software.

A good example is the acclaimed work made with these technologies Naked on Pluto, developed byAymeric Mansoux, Marloes de Valk and Dave Griffiths a very funny online game that revolves around the privacy issues on the Internet and the (improper) use of personal data, where seven artificial intelligence robots interact with the player who tries to get away from a disturbing environment known as Elastic Versailles while the system constantly requests information.

Image of the web site of the game “Naked on Pluto”

In order to understand what free software can offer to the artistic practice, we must understand its nature, as it can be used for the same purposes (in principle) that its private equivalent. The concept of free software is related with freedom, not in terms of price or functionality: Freedom of use, freedom to study it and modify it, freedom to copy, freedom to redistribute enhancements.

The fact of being open and without limitations fosters experimentation when it comes to create new projects. We have discussed this with David Pello and Luis Díaz, of fabLAB Asturias. Who are in charge of providing advice for the development of artistic projects, like in the case of residencies and work with free software and hardware.

They say that – Everything that we make in the lab, both the software and the design are published with free licence, for example, in the case of designs we use Creative Commons-, meaning that anyone can use it for other projects, whether they are creative or not, and modify it. This is new compared to the world of conventional art as it makes innovative artistic tools that are “more transparent and accessible".

One of the works, a 200 metros by Andy Gracie was carried out in an artistic residency called by the Centre and the Port Authority of Gijon. This project is about placing a probe 200 metres underwater along the Aviles Canyon, equipped with a camera and sensors to obtain data (light, sound…) in the frontier between sea and deep sea, between a place inhabited by sea plants and animals and an unknown and uninhabitable.

Boat with ecoprobe developed at fabLAB Asturias for Andy Gracie's '200 metros'. Image: LABoral

So, free software poses several challenges to contemporary art, like the aforementioned licences and could this fit in the art market. A work like this can be sold, but may be a change in the mindset of gallery owners and collectors should be necessary, as well as the will to accept new paradigms of joint authorship and property.

David thinks that there should be no problem because everything that is developed at the fabLAB is published as free software, however, often is just a small part of the project, so there is usually no conflict, most times it is even a prototype and the artist has the chance to close it or not.

One of the main advantages of free software is that it is usually very well documented and there is a large community behind that can help us solve problems or doubts, in addition it uses open formats which makes work easier and saves effort, although sometimes the tools is not as powerful as proprietary software, in most cases it is enough...

But this is not only a practical question, there is also an important philosophy related with sharing and community work. Open code communities reduce access barriers thus creating ecosystems where users tend to share and present their creations as a way to return to the community what the community has given them.

These type of relationships within the community generates synergies among artists, technicians and engineers. In addition it makes the artistic discourse more powerful, a will to experiment in public and a collective ability that makes complex projects easier to carry out.

In this sense, training is very important. David says that official education offers a wide range of training programmes related with engineering, electronics or programming, however, in terms of an approach based on doing, not so theoretical, about doing small useful things, there are currently many books, documents or videos on the Internet.

In this sense, the workshops of LABoral are an opportunity to discover these tools first-hand and with a practical approach of learning by doing. The aim is that participants get the basics so that they can continue working on their own. There are two free software workshops, one on Rasperri Pi an one on Arduino. The next WinterLAB will offer a course on Creative programming with processing.

For those of you who are not familiar with this device,  Rasperri Pi is a low-cost small-size computer (around 30€) developed at Cambridge University with the purpose of fostering the teaching of computer science to children. It is a very functional device and, due to its size, it can be used for many purposes, however, some knowledge about programming and computing is necessary.

It is divided in two blocks (Advanced level November 7-28, 2015) and in addition to getting an insight of the Raspberry Pi environment, students will learn the programming language Python (used to create computer programmes for any environment, it is a good way to get started).

We have all heard about Arduino, it seems it can do anything, Arduino is a free-software platform based on a board with micro-controller designed to facilitate the use of electronics in multidisciplinary projects. It is the size of a credit card and the price is around 60€.

It is basically a mini-controller (some kind of a small computer found in many appliances and devices -from television sets and microwaves to remote control vehicles). These chips are not as powerful as a processor (like the ones in a PC or a Mac) but they can perform most of its basic functions, from running simple programmes to controlling devices such as engines or sensors that detect temperature and movement. Arduino has become a basic infrastructure for the current artistic practices.

The advanced arduino workshop will take place from December 5 to 19, 2015.

Processing is a programming language and environment designed to support the learning of programming in a visual context.  Quoting and article of Nick Bilton in the New York Times “Two of the most important introductions to art over the last 20 years have been Arduino and Processing”, and Processing can interact with Arduino and with a traditional computer.

Image: Lali Barrière Source: LABoral

This workshop will take place in the framework of the programme Winterlab on November 14 and 15, 2015.

Anyone can take part in these workshops, there is no specific profile and no previous technical knowledge or specific qualification is needed. So, no matter if you have a specific idea of something you want to do, or if just want to experiment with these new tools and explore their possibilities, these workshops are an excellent option.

In summary, free software has become a great ally art. The use of tools like  Arduino, Rasperri Pi or Processing is widespread. As David says “the fact that it is an open tool, developed in a collaborative way, meeting the needs expressed by the users and at the same time the members of this community share their work, and how the do things is a clear example of the contribution of free software for the artistic practice-.

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