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Free software art (Culture)

By yaxu
Wed Oct 5th, 2005 at 08:59:14 PM EST


Many artists are finding their place within contemporary F/OSS (Free/Open Source Software) communities. This is a chance for creativity to flourish unbound by the entrenched commercial software model. Here I use the term 'artist' fairly broadly, including visual artists, experimental musicians and those making software-based installations among others.

Closed vs Open

The designers of commercial software are anonymous behind their brand, faceless boffins creating features, tools and plugins for a hungry market. Here artists are constrained within a manufactured, closed environment, reduced to paying for new possibilities, buying software to be creative for them. It's too easy to be flattered by the fantastic results achievable with a minimum of effort, knowledge or understanding. In reality the creators of the software have encoded so much of an artistic process that the user is merely guiding it. The more creative users scratch around the edges trying to push the software somewhere it doesn't want to go, but still, those edges are defined by an invisible, anonymous force.

When we come to the F/OSS communities, we find that programmers have no strong desire or financial imperative to flatter their users, and it shows in the software. Beyond a couple of clones of commercial applications, F/OSS artistic software is remarkably open ended. Whereas closed software packages plugin automatons to generate your art for you, free software focuses on providing expressive, open ended tools for artists who want to get their hands dirty.

Some examples

Examples of F/OSS applications thriving in the digital art world include Processing, Supercollider and Pure Data. There are others including many general use tools, but these three are comparatively new examples designed specifically with artists in mind.

Processing (originally known as proce55ing) is a simplified java-like language built atop of java, providing an environment for creating visual art. It is startlingly easy to pick up with with tremendous scope for those willing to put time in to master it. A tour around its extensive examples provides many 'wow' moments, where a beautiful visual effect is created by an algorithm elegantly expressed in a few lines of code. Processing is not only an excellent entry into programming for a visual artist, but also an excellent introduction to creating visual art for the experienced programmer.

Supercollider is designed to make music. At its heart is a smalltalk-like language but with c-like syntax. It has a comprehensive library of unit generators for synthesising and processing sound, and powerful higher level libraries such as BBCut, which provides an API for automated breakbeat cut-ups. Previous versions of Supercollider were released as commercial shareware, but the latest version 3 has a fully open source license. One of the most exciting aspects of Supercollider 3 is the provided livecoding abilities, allowing the musician to change their software while it is running, hearing the changes they make immediately without any break in sound. Livecoding allows fully engaged authorship of software-generated music as well as some very live performances. More information about livecoding can be obtained from the organisation for the promotion of live algorithm programming. For more specific information about livecoding with Supercollider, consult its JITLib library.

My final example is Pure Data. Unlike the previous two examples, Pure Data is not a textual language, but it is just as open ended. In Pure Data you create 'patches' rather than programs, by connecting together boxes, each of which carries out an operation on the data that passes through it. The result is a graph through which data flows. The final destination is most often an audio output, however Pure Data is also increasingly popular among visual artists and VJs, using libraries such as GEM and pdp to create live visuals. Although Pure Data doesn't require you to learn a programming language as such, the operations it allows are very low level. Luckily the examples are excellent, but to fully understand and go beyond them you'll need to pick up some understanding of sound synthesis or visual models.

If you want to make the most out of the any of these applications you have to invest some time and effort into learning them. Initially this requirement seems old fashioned and unnecessary, until you compare them with traditional instruments such as a paintbrush or violin. The mixing and use of painting oils, or the bowing and fingering of a violin both take years to master. Similarly, you wouldn't expect to express yourself fully in a foreign language until you had properly learned it. But with mastery of a medium comes the possibility of richer artistic expression.

Application programmers vs end-user programmers

Who makes the software for the artistic user? In truth I think it's false, even insulting to suggest that the creators of software are less creative than those who use it. If both those who create software and those who use it are to some extent programming, then the line between them blurs. One creates an environment, another creates an environment within it; an operating system contains a programming language that hosts a computer program that creates a piece of music. The only reason that we might be more likely to call the final step art is because it has entered the realm of our physical senses.

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Related Links
o Processing
o Supercollider
o Pure Data
o the organisation for the promotion of live algorithm programming
o More on Software
o Also by yaxu

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Free software art | 42 comments (19 topical, 23 editorial, 2 hidden)
my prediction (none / 0) (#40)
by creativedissonance on Wed Oct 5th, 2005 at 05:18:46 PM EST

this post will resign itself to its fate - section.

"there is nothing I would want more than my mother in bed." - Insoc
software - art? (1.50 / 6) (#38)
by manojar on Wed Oct 5th, 2005 at 07:19:49 AM EST

Software can never become art, unless it is created by just one person, just for the heck of it, and is sold only after he dies. Art never allows for collaboration (except maybe a tiny group), and software for public consumption can't be made based on the idiosyncracies of a single person. Even the OSS guys do some kind of rudimentary market research -- think of the discussion forums as a focus group --, get their specifications out of it. The specs are written only to transfer the idea from the designer to the coder. Since the designer/coder might be the same person or on the same wavelength, there are no explicit docs, but specs still exist!

-1 F/OSS (1.00 / 8) (#30)
by unknownlamer on Tue Oct 4th, 2005 at 05:10:54 PM EST
(clinton [at] unknownlamer [dot] org) http://unknownlamer.org

Anyone who uses that word is a tool.

Free Software hates Open Source because Open Source is the little sell out movement that doesn't give a fuck about the ideals.

It's like True vs. Nu metal. Stop associating Free Software even remotely with Open Source because those of us in the Free Software movement probably hate you.

<vladl> I am reading the making of the atomic bong - modern science
wowza (2.66 / 6) (#21)
by creativedissonance on Tue Oct 4th, 2005 at 12:14:14 PM EST

"software-based installations"

does this mean my IT dept is full of artists?

con artists, maybe.

"there is nothing I would want more than my mother in bed." - Insoc
FLOSS is just another religion /nt (1.25 / 4) (#7)
by fleece on Mon Oct 3rd, 2005 at 11:03:01 PM EST

~ kuro5hin is a collection of people in various degree of mental instability ~

what we really need (1.25 / 8) (#5)
by minerboy on Mon Oct 3rd, 2005 at 10:17:23 PM EST

Is software for flinging poop.

Let me guess (1.25 / 8) (#4)
by AlwaysAnonyminated on Mon Oct 3rd, 2005 at 09:31:15 PM EST

you go to Starshmucks, write haikus, and think you are a cool artist. Nice try, but that latte in your hand makes me vote -1.
Using [n/t] since the trollocaust.
Free software art | 42 comments (19 topical, 23 editorial, 2 hidden)
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