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Open Source and Collective Art Practice


  1. Re-mix of some ideas put forward on Nettime.
  2. Application of ideas about the gift economy and collective practice and Open Source applied to the art world.
  3. Attempt to develop OS derived strategies for collective art practice.
  4. length: approx 4000wds.


"CAE believes that artist's research into alternative forms of social organization is just as important as the traditional research into materials, processes, and products." (*1)

In their 1997 paper on Collective Cultural Action, the Critical Art Ensemble state their intention to develop their collective practice through the study of what they term "micro-sociology". I intend to develop a system for engaging with collective practice based on research into one of these "alternative forms of social organization".

This text will be in two sections. In the first I will try to contextualize collective practice within the art world. In the second part I will outline some strategies for collective practice that I am using, with reference to the Internet as the site for part of that practice.

Part 1.

The Art Gift Economy (*2)

Before any discussion of collective practice it must be made clear what is at stake for each member of such a practice, and what is to be gained through this form of collaboration. Rather than perform an exhaustive analysis, beyond the scope of this text and of my ability, I will present a limited account of how value is constituted in the art world.

• In some areas of collective cultural production, such as in advertising it is very clear what is at stake for practitioners: money and little else. In the art world I believe this is also true but since the valuation of art is based on a complex series of institutional and social interdependencies, some of which are discussed below, this link is less explicit (*3).

The art world has practitioners far in excess of the number of commissions or residencies it can sustain. Therefore, in order to survive on the proceeds of their work the artist must gain a strong reputation within the art world to attract enough lucrative commissions and residencies.

There is therefore a direct incentive to allow artwork to be seen without asking for payment from the proprietor of the gallery or from the professional art public (*4). It is even more likely (even inevitable) that these people will attend if there is free alcohol too. The fact that this gift giving is common practice at private views, and also that for these events invitations are sent to select lists of the "right" people(*5) , demonstrates that this "gift economy" is robust enough to command investment and trade in reputation (*6).


• The aim then of the artist in the gift economy is to have their work shown, to the betterment of their reputation, and to receive feedback so that they can improve on it. The problem is that in order for their work to be appreciated, they must squander resources of money and energy providing these "gifts", with no guarantee of return. The commercial gallery may provide for this, but only in return for extortionate shares in any profits, and contractual restrictions on copyright(*7) . In any case, hardly any artists, even extremely well known can survive on sales of their work alone.

With pressures of the day job (teaching part time in art schools for the lucky and successful) and financially motivated pressures from the gallery, a high quality of work is difficult to sustain. By high quality, I mean quality as assessed by the gift economy in which the artist functions. This relies on maintaining a novelty value for the media, satisfying critics, and impressing the professional art public.

• With this analysis of the art gift economy, I do not mean to de-value the notion of good craftsmanship, and the satisfaction gleaned from the completion of a good project, but it is the word "good" which makes this a troublesome notion.

"It appears that any craftsmanship culture ultimately has to structure itself through a reputation game" (*8)

Eric S. Raymond argues that, assuming that good craftsmanship is the ultimate aim of the craftsman, the incentive is to maximize opportunity for craftsmanship and the quality of the results. He shows that this in no way conflicts with the idea of a "reputation game" as the currency of a gift economy.

"How can one maximize quality if there is no metric for quality?"(*8)

If market forces do not determine the value of an artwork (supply of artworks is far in excess of demand) then what other metric is there other than peer review? This peer review is again subject to the difficulties of an art gift economy regulated by distribution, exposure, and finance.


• Following Raymond, I am not going to deal with the subject of altruism as an incentive to make art. Nietzsche asserts in Beyond Good and Evil that altruism is a collection of unacknowledged forms of self-interest. He argues that incentives are derived from a human "will to power", rather than any God-given worthiness.

"A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength - life itself is will to power" .(*9)

Raymond expands on this with a more anthropological grounding. He ascribes all human activity to an evolutionarily determined attempt to gain social status. I don't agree with this reductive assessment entirely, but find it useful for simplifying this discussion of the art gift economy.


• Another feature of this gift economy is the (small amounts of) funding available from the Arts Council of Great Britain. However, to access these funds the artist will have to 'rise' through the commercial gallery system. Also, government funding has always been recognized as a difficult area, particularly for non-media specific practitioners, as grants still tend to be attached to media category.

"We have become foot soldiers in our own movement, answerable to officers in funding agencies and local government recreation departments". (*10)

Owen Kelly in "Community Art and the State" condemns government funding of art organizations and artists. He argues that Arts Council funding hindered the development of the "Community Arts" movement of the 60's and 70's. The Arts Council demanded definition of the styles, aims and methods of the nascent Community Arts movement, which were (according to Kelly) incompetently assessed in the Baldry(*11) commission report and then ossified into inflexible boundaries beyond which the movement(*12) could not grow without losing it's funding.

Having laid down this necessarily simplistic model of the incentives and rewards underlying artistic activity, and the difficulties of solitary practice, it is now possible, within this model, to assess the effectiveness of different models of collective practice.


Why Collective Practice?

"The epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology has attached the greatest importance to the 'person' of the author" (*13)

"Financial support certainly favors the individualĆ’ The individual's signature is still the prime collectible, and access to the body associated with the signature is a commodity that is desired more than ever". (*14)


• Roland Barthes was writing in 1977 when he attacked the academy of literature for positing the site of artistic merit and capital value in the person of the authorial genius. Twenty years later, the Critical Art Ensemble argued that in the world of mainstream art funding, the same is still true. Despite any advances in critical thinking, in terms of grants and awards, group artistic practice is financially difficult to maintain. However, as the CAE assert in their paper, there are significant advantages that serve to balance this.


• The group has a pooled knowledge, probably encompassing more areas of cultural expertise than would be possible for an individual to command. This increases their potential circulation in events or shows which address some current cultural issue, as there are more areas to which they might be invited to contribute.


• The collective has a wider distribution base because their production skills and resource are also pooled. They can apply for photographic awards, "new media" prizes and film competitions, rather than being limited to only one medium and therefore one section of the national budget for the Arts.


• There is also the security derived from being in what Edward Lucie-Smith describes as the "Mutual Support organizations known as artist's groups" (*15). However, he shows that the motivations of these groups can be flawed:

"Any group of young artists carries within it the seeds of it's own destruction. Nothing undermines an ad hoc organization of this type more swiftly than it's own success."(*16)

This notion of the artist's group as a vehicle for individual success rather than an end in itself is how the last wave of successful 'new' art in Britain seems to have approached the idea. The much vaunted "Young British Artists" totally disbanded as a group (if they ever were one), as soon as rewards for individual achievement differentiated them in terms of success.

The models of collective practice I will present in part 2 seek to avoid both this situation and the financial disincentives of collective practice in a variety of ways.

Part 2.

The Open Source Model of collective practice

Open Source Software programming (OSS) is a form of collective practice that is relevant in many ways to other areas of society and culture, and a valuable source of ideas for the development of collective art practice.

What is Open Source?

(for an exhaustive definition try

• Open Source is a term originally used to describe a software engineering principle. Briefly, this principle advocated the development of computer software by a group (at first within a geographically and institutionally determined boundary) working on the project collectively. The software was saved on a shared computer disk along with its source code(*17) , often plus the tools and the information necessary to use and change it. The members of the group could use the software, determine it's deficiencies, and amend them before putting it back on the disk in it's updated form, along with a note of what they had done.

This technique was used in software labs and universities at a stage when timesharing of expensive computer facilities was necessary, long before the introduction of the personal computer or proprietary software. However, it was with the growth of the infrastructure of the Internet that Open Source Programming really took off. Now thousands of "Open Source" projects constitute a complex gift economy of programmers, that is inspiring a burgeoning sociology. There has recently been a lot of media attention directed towards the Open Source world, and the software multinational Microsoft has admitted openly that it has a worthy competitor (*18).


• I cannot, in this short text even begin to outline the roots and texts of this young area of sociology. However, where it is relevant to my development of a model for collective practice I will bring up Open Source programming and it's sociological literature as useful examples. My observations rely to a large extent on research gathered through belonging to Nettime.

Infrastructural determination

"The position of the artist and the nature of his products were fundamentally changed by the shift from script to print." (*19)

Elizabeth Eisenstein argues that the technology of print was a primary determinant in the development of culture since the 15th Century. Print is currently undergoing another massive transformation into digital text, with all the implications to communications infrastructures that this entails.

While the principles underlying Open Source, (sharing information resources and tools, de-centralising authorship, gift economics, and applying communal effort) have been part of many creative strategies; it is only with the growth of the Internet that the potential of this combination of approaches has been realized. However, as Eisenstein shows, it is important to see how "off-line" cultural production is radically effected by this change in infrastructure, especially in an investigation of a collective practice that uses this infrastructure.


• It is tempting to make analogies and metaphors, allying Open Source practice to those other areas of cultural production that have shared some of it's principles; (the Community Arts Movement of the 60's and 70's, and the Community Radio movements of the 80's). However, comparisons are difficult to uphold, as it is hard to tell whether changes are due to material and technological conditions or to conscious management and policy.

"The cooking-pot market [of the Internet] is not barter, as it does not require individual transactions. It is based on the assumption that on the Net, you don't lose when you duplicate".(*20)


• One of the main differences shown here by Rishab Aiyer Ghosh between conventional distribution methods and those of the Internet, is no-cost duplication. This takes a financial limit off the scale of operations to which a practice can stretch which has been a serious limitation for many practitioners, for example for the Community Art movement.

"This [Community Art] work has never been coordinated as part of a uniform strategy. Local gains have remained local. "(*21)

Owen Kelly points out that the lack of communication and coordinated solidarity within the Community Arts movement was one of the reasons that the British Arts Council was able to dismantle its radical agenda so easily. With the infrastructure of the Internet in place, a geographically distributed campaign is far cheaper to set up and maintain than previously. This is demonstrated by organizations such as Reclaim the Streets who are helping to organize a day of protest in 13(*22) countries simultaneously, on 18th June 1999. Their slogan: "OUR RESISTANCE IS AS TRANSNATIONAL AS CAPITAL".

"When some rappers approached Frequence Libre(*23) about the possibility of doing some programmes, the station refused to let any hip-hop crews on-air until their lyrics had been politely vetted!" (*24)


• Barbrook cites some radical attempts at forming a "bottom up post-media" using technologies such as the Parisian minitel, and community radio. Unfortunately the minitel proved too expensive to maintain interest, and the inappropriate broadcast model of radio technology allowed even such radical de-centralists as Felix Guattari to use the opportunity of being on air to "lecture the audience rather than engaging in discussion with them" (*25)

Community radio failed because it was based on a broadcast infrastructure derived from a defunct hierarchical military command structure. Therefore, the Internet might provide a more appropriate infrastructure for radical cultural campaigns, having originated in a distributed military network(*26) that was developed for the expediency of high-tech and nuclear warfare.


• This origin is, of course problematic. Though it may be useful for collective practices to organize their activities through the infrastructure of the Internet, it is worth commenting that the sword cuts both ways. Current legislation is in place banning strong cryptography and making data privacy impossible, and the infrastructure is well geared towards nefarious uses by law enforcement agencies and commercial/industrial interests.


The OS advantage: distribution, promotion and evaluation

The infrastructure of the Internet with the possibility of instant and no-cost large-scale communications does make the distribution and promotion of OS products very cheap. However, that is not the main reason that OS distribution/promotion models are so effective. The strength of OS distribution promotion is that the audience is specific, and they often have a vested interest in the success of the project

• If, as in the OS model, each user of a product (reader of a text, viewer of an artwork) is involved in its creation and formation on a satisfyingly deep level(*27) , they have a stake in the project's reputation. They might join a mailing list to keep track of updates and developments, they tell their friends and colleagues.

As the number of users of the project grows, it develops faster (as more people are working on it), but there is not necessarily a huge increase in administrative work required for distribution/promotion. This is because it is largely done by word of mouth and using an administrative staff recruited from the user base.

The Infocentre , a curatorial experiment by Danish artists Henriette Heise and Jakob Jakobsen, is a project that manages its promotion in this way. "We are looking for a quality of viewer, rather than wasting our time and money on a PR campaign." (*29)

As soon as I arrived at the Infocentre (on the recommendation of an aquaintence) I telephoned three friends of mine to tell them to come along. In the end they were slightly underwhelmed by the place after my excitement on the phone, so the word of mouth promotion campaign stopped there, but it could have continued to grow exponentially. As the centre has now been widely reviewed I can only guess that this did indeed happen, as Jakob told me that they had not sent out a single press release.


• Perhaps the most important effect of this distribution/promotion model is the effect it has on evaluation. By being invited to be a "quality" viewer(*30) , or by contributing to the project in some way(*31) , the point at which peer evaluation takes place is also distributed amongst the participants. The traditional filtering mechanisms of the art gift economy, such as journalism and commercial gallery scouts become irrelevant to the formation of a reputation value.

Within the art world gift economy evaluation is dependent on all the conflicting, and often constricting networks of economic interdependency. The group that experiences the OS project constantly evaluates it, and are more likely respond with constructive suggestion because that will increase their stake in the reputation of the project. Each project effectively forms a functional reputation micro-economy .(*32)


• These advantages of the OS model are well worth adopting in the formation of a group practice. However, they all rely on the one most vital element of OS production, the distribution of authorship that gives users some authorial status and a stake in the reputation value of the project. In the following section I will discuss how this is achieved and why it is so vital.

Scattering the ashes of the Author

"The dominance of the author/artist is first questioned when we recognize that all art is collectively produced."(*33)


• As Woolf argues, in her Barthes-inspired essay Death of the Author it is not as if the 'individual' artistic producer has any choice in the matter of whether or not to work in a group. The work entailed in the production of an artwork is never carried out exclusively by the artist. The artist will usually not manufacture their materials, or if they do, they certainly won't have developed the techniques and tools used to do so themselves. Whereas Barthes hails the death of the author and the resultant birth of the reader, Wolff shows the process to be far more of a compromise.

"The de-centring of the subject must not be made equivalent to its disappearance." (*34)

In quoting Giddens, Wolff shows that rather than being annihilated, the author is seen as being constantly constructed and re-constructed by social and ideological factors. This understanding of the construct of the author seems to permit a flexible assessment of the ways in which authorship can be distributed in the existence of an artwork, between conception, production and reception. The artwork can have varying levels of de-centred authorial privilege; the death of the author is not an absolute.


• In Open Source culture, assignment of authorship is still vitally important. Each product bears the names of all its authors. A summary of how they have changed the product is included in a text file that accompanies the product. There are varying degrees of authorial status expressed in the document, distributed according to how much effort is perceived to have been made on the part of the contributor(*35). Obviously, if there were no markings of authorship, how would the OS product be a valuable item in a gift economy?

"To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing" .(*36)


• By substituting an "Author" with "authors" the privilege is distributed in an OS model. Even though the rights of the authors (to reputation stakes in the product) must be maintained, the OS text is never assigned a finite subject. The user is offered an opportunity to contribute, and to understand the text by changing it. The offer is never retracted, and the text remains open ended.

"Balzac remarked that one of the principles of art was to 'avoid' giving readers the impression that they could do it just as well themselves". (*37)


• It was this tradition that Joseph Beuys sought to undermine when he exhibited his piece "Economic Values" (1980) which consisted of his studio shelves laden with the materials he most famously used: fats, wax, polish, and paraffin.

"He was inviting us back into his shop, revealing his secrets up front, implicitly beckoning: these products are accessible, help yourselves! It's your turn now, keep up the good work" (*38)

Beuys' invitation and the use of readily available domestic products in his work can be seen as a similar gesture to the OS strategy of offering of the tools and information necessary to make the product along with the product. However, the practicalities of doing this in Beuys' case are problematic. The artwork is still inextricably linked by signature to the fetishized body of the author. "Economic Values" has probably become far too valuable as a physical mark of the body of the author to be torn apart and used as raw material. This is not to say that the idea is not still available for use, and the materials inexpensive, but the piece has been assigned a subject, and has no further space for distribution of authorial rights.


The user/author

"A text's unity lies not in its origin, but in its destination"(*39)

• Barthes was writing about authorship and agency in a way that took into account the subject position of the viewer as well as the death of the author. He saw the site of artistic meaning in the point of reception. His reversal of the modernist trope of looking through the artwork to the author was a reactive and political action directed against the established infrastructures for the production, assessment and reception of art. By combining the positions of author and user, the conventional flow of meaning Barthes was assaulting (author > artwork > user), and its inverse (user > artwork > author) both disintegrated. What is left is a mutually dependent dialogue: user/author <--> artwork.


• This position of user/author could facilitate a beneficial situation for artistic production, one in which both the positions of user and author are seen as secondary to the artwork itself. By this I mean that the artwork is the site for development and dialogue between people of potentially equal standing. The artwork is not used as a channel to a fetishized author, or implanted on a perceived "community" by an outside organizational force(*40) . Rather, the artwork gathers around it a community (*41) of user authors who have vested interests in its development.



The insights into collective practice gleaned from this investigation can be summarized as follows. Within "Open Source" collective art practices, which function in a gift economy, collective projects reach fruition by distributed effort, and are circulated and promoted and most importantly evaluated within the collective. This independence from traditional forms of validation means that the user/authors involved are not wholly reliant on commissions and residencies for the satisfactory development and success of their projects. These projects can take place within a community that is focused on the artwork.

Many of the concepts I use in this text, such as the art gift economy and the open source paradigm are flawed and have not been examined rigorously here. However, for the purposes of deriving some ideas as to how to organize collective art practice (rather than laying down a historical or sociological analysis of those concepts), I feel that the explanations offered were sufficient.


Saul Albert 23/3/99



  1. < Critical Art Ensemble, (1997)
  2. < A "gift economy", is also known as a "Reputation economy", or "Fame economy" in sociology and economics, or as a "Potlatch economy" or a "Cooking Pot" economy in ethnography and anthropology. Briefly, it entails the replacement or augmentation of a market economy (based on scarcity of goods), with a system of barter, of tangibles or intangibles that replaces currency. These economies tend to coalesce in situations of abundance, when scarcity does not create needs and desires that could constitute market demand. "In gift cultures social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give awayĆ’Thus the Kwakiuti chieftain's potlatch party Thus the multi millionaire's elaborate and usually public acts of philanthropy, and thus the hacker's long hours of effort to produce high-quality open source code." (Raymond, 1998)
  3. < Rather than writing another essay here, I am assuming that the art object has no intrinsic value, and that its meaning and value are dynamically constructed by its political and social context. I am relying on the work of Janet Wolff in The Social Construction of Art to uphold this statement.
  4. < I am referring here to people who go to art shows who speak about, write about, and make documentaries about art that attract exactly the kind of attention and funding that "free" art shows are looking for.
  5. < People on whom the gifts will not be wasted in terms of converting reputation to currency.
  6. < The gift economy of art can here be seen as symbiotically linked with free market economies within which the beer industry, or the vodka industry (the sponsors of private views) function.
  7. < The gallery may also control the visibility and therefore reputation of the artist, and can effectively bully them financially into producing work that conforms to the most saleable image of the artist.
  8. < "Homesteading The Noosphere" - Eric S. Raymond, (1998)
  9. < Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil , Section 13, line 329-330
  10. < Kelly, (1984) pp.27
  11. < This was the 1973 Arts Council "New Activities Committee" initiative to find out what "Community Arts" were, and fund them. Unfortunately as Kelly says, due to the commissions eagerness to convince the Council that Community Arts was worth funding, the commission fudged the report, excluding the radical elements and contentious practices of the Community artists, defining it instead as a movement which "Worked with children" and "disadvantaged elements of society". This definition, of course pigeonholed the movement and, according to Kelly, prevented it from developing.
  12. < Kelly huddles many aspects of 60's and 70's art under the banner of "Community Arts", including Stuart Brisley's pioneering performance and Joseph Beuys' radical art practice. He argues that the low status of the phrase "community art" and misguided notions of "community" are results of government mismanagement and political rhetoric.
  13. < Roland Barthes,(1984), pp.143
  14. < Critical Art Ensemble, (1997)
  15. < Lucie-Smith, Edward, (1998), pp.56-57.
  16. < Ibid., pp.53
  17. < A distinction must be made here between software and code. Code is the instructions written by a programmer in a computer programming language. The computer can only use these instructions as software once they have been converted into machine code (binary). This process is called "compiling". It is difficult and illegal to de-compile and edit proprietary software.
  18. < Microsoft's obvious concern about Open Source projects which distribute freely products for which Microsoft charges extortionate fees has helped to define the movement. In a leaked report dubbed the "Halloween Document" Microsoft's panic in this leak is reaches the point of hysteria: "The ability of the OS process to collect and harness the collective IQ of thousands of individuals across the Internet is simply amazing". The Halloween Document, (1998)
  19. < Eisenstein, Elizabeth L., (1979), pp. 254.
  20. < Ghosh, Rishab Aiyer, 1996
  21. < Kelly, 1884, pp.19
  22. < Australia, Canada, The Czech Republic, France, Germany, Indonesia, Israel, Scandinavia, Korea, Nigeria, UK, Thailand, and the USA.
  23. < The "Community Radio" station headed by Felix Guattari in the early-Eighties.
  24. < Barbrook, The Holy Fools: The Moment of Community Radio, 1998.
  25. < Ibid.
  26. < ARPANET, the first internet was designed as a distribution of communication lines along autonomous cellular hubs that could re-route communications and access de-centralized information to prevent a communications blackout in the advent of nuclear attack.
  27. < This involvement and the sliding scale of access to authorial rights of a work is discussed in the later section: Scattering the Ashes of the Author.
  28. < The Infocentre is at 123a Mare St. running until April 1999.
  29. < Jakob Jakobsen, when I interviewed him informally at the Infocentre, 15th January 1999.
  30. < This works in a similar way to inviting "the right people" to a private view, and plying them with alcohol, except the show operates in this way throughout, and the viewer is offered the privileged position of being "invited", and valued.
  31. < At the Infocentre this was performed in the subtle medium of conversation. Jakob had prepared a choreographed 1-minute guided tour of the show, and then to each visitor that arrived that they could chat to him and Henriette if they wanted to.
  32. < There is no footnote 32
  33. < Wolff, Janet, 1981, pp 118
  34. < Giddens, Anthony (1979) Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure and Contradiction in Social Analysis (London: Macmillan), quoted in Wolff, 1981 pp. 138
  35. < As the recent rise to world wide fame of several Open Source Software project initiators (notably Linus Torvalds, initiator of the Linux Operating System project), the pole position as the initiator is the one that carries the most value in the reputation game.
  36. < Barthes, 1977, pp 145.
  37. < Honoré de Balzac to Bertall who related the conversation in Le Soleil, 12 April 1882. quoted in Borer, 1996 pp.17
  38. < Borer, 1996, pp.17
  39. < Barthes, 1977, pp. 148
  40. < As was attempted by the Arts Council in it's hijacking of Community Arts as a form of recreational social services.
  41. < "Where community is understood as shared activities and goals, and not as the sort of theoretical abstraction which social services departments like to refer to as a 'community'" - Kelly, 1984. pp. 49

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