Worms, Butterflies and Dandelions. Open source tools for the arts
In June 2018, I gave a talk for a group of artists and engineers who build open source software tools for the arts and creative expression. This is a transcript of the talk.
Hi, I’m Taeyoon Choi. I’m an artist, educator, and organizer, and I’m super excited to be here. I was invited to give an opening talk for this convening.* I was surprised and flattered, and very thankful for the opportunity. I would like to talk about a few things that I think would be a great starting point for us to have a conversation together. It’s a really interesting situation to give a talk to you all, because I usually find myself talking about the kind of work that you do for a crowd that are new to what you do, curators, art historians, or tech people. I feel like you all know what you do very well and have some idea of why it’s so important. I’m just trying to bring out a different perspective as to why I think what we do is interesting for people outside of this room.
I’m a co-founder of the School for Poetic Computation(SFPC). It’s a project that started about five years ago and has been such a joy and pleasure to be part of. It’s a joy because it’s a place for people to create poetic, absurd, anti-utilitarian and funny projects outside of the constraints of making a tech product or getting a paper published in a scientific journal. It’s a place for engineers to come in and explore the arts, and for artists to come and explore engineering, and I think this ethos is shared by many of your projects. It’s a real place, we have a space in New York, and this photo is the cohort from this spring. Through a competitive open call, we accept about eighteen people per period. We often reach out to communities that are outside of the U.S. and people who may not know about us.
We’ve pursued a strategic approach to become more inclusive and supportive by reaching out to diverse folks and thinking about what is a curriculum that reflects the vision of radical inclusivity. Inclusivity is not just about the diversity of people but a habitat of learning that is inclusive and empowering for people, especially the racial and gender minority. SFPC is a post-graduate program so some students come in with Ph.D, and some students come in without high school degree. SFPC as a space for being together and learning together has been a very fruitful experience for both types of students. SFPC is a place that the cofounders started so that we can collaborate with people that we care about. Often times the student — participants become our chief collaborators very soon thereafter.
What is software, really?
This is a convening about open source software for the arts. I wanted to start with the hard question, “What is software, really?” I pulled up some books and Fredrick Kittler, a prominent media theorist who said in 1995 that “There is No Software.” Here, he’s being provocative to say that any kind of software is an extension of hardware and the distinction between software and hardware is arbitrary. He’s highlighting the fact that we always need to look at the material fact of making software possible, dependencies and unpacking the strict division between code and machines. Software is merely a human friendly category extracted from hardware operation. This comes back to the history of software as a labor of patching electrical circuits together in a hardware system.
Programming initially meant wiring circuits together. Software, historically is the labor performed in and on information machines. Your labor is also part of software. It is the labor of translating mathematics into physical entities. When we are coding, we are actually going through a translation process of ideas becoming logical operations.
Software initially meant something that is fluid, something that has a fluidity such as a video. In the early days of the “Radical Software” which was a magazine that was first published in 1970, the motto was “The Alternative Television Movement” and considered software as content that is fluid across different hardware platform structures. Then, what is software important?
“People may deny ideology, but they don’t deny software — and they attribute to software, metaphorically, greater powers than have been attributed to ideology.”
This quote is from On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, 2004. When people talk about software they’re actually talking ideologies that are embedded in the software. It includes the values, the biases, the visions, and also the prejudices that are embedded in the software. The tools that we make reflect the worldview that we have as citizens, as technologists, and as artists. Therefore, let’s not separate the ideologies from the software.
“Code is performative in a much stronger sense than that attribute to language.”
This quote by N. Katherine Hayles is from My Mother Was a Computer, 2005. Here, she is talking about the fact that code needs to be executed to become software. Code is performed at the moment that it is run. This act of execution is fundamentally different from other sources of language. That’s one of the reasons behind software’s power.
“Codes are essentially closed systems of semiotic elements — like all language codes. The texts which are formulated in these languages (or programs) are ‘performative strings of signifiers.”
This quote is from Coding Praxis: Reconsidering the Aesthetics of Code by Geoff Cox, Alex McLean, Adrian Ward. I’m performing the text that I wrote earlier today, right now in this room. This act of performing speech is different from how software executes, and how the operations become repeated and abstracted and distributed over multiple machines. This act of translation and then execution is unique to software. Then, what does software demand?
“Software asks a question to which the political interpretation is the only coherent answer.”
In The Interface Effect, 2012, Alexander Galloway, who is a programmer and philosopher, is proposing to consider software development as a political project. Again, code is a language that’s executable, mechanic first and linguistic second. Political here is not the traditional everyday sense of the party based politics. It is the political act of embodiment, messaging and practice.
As a reference, I want to talk about a project by Omayeli Arenyeka, who is actually in the room and who was a student at the School for Poetic Computation until just a few weeks ago. She created a really interesting installation where if you put your hand towards this interface, which has the shape of hands, it closes circuitry that conjures the terminologies that she scattered based on the racial biases and other kinds of violent expression that a person of color experiences. Its an interactive piece and a political piece as well. It uses software and hardware, and also engages with the social awareness of the artist and the audience.
What do open source arts communities look like? How do they feel like? I want to bring back a moment from a few years ago at the Studio for Creative Inquiry at the CMU when Lauren McCarthy and Golan Levin organized the first p5.js contributors conference. It was a conference unlike any other technical conference I’ve been to. For one, it had an equal gender balance and a healthy balance of technical developers and documentation contributors, people who are working in education, and people who are making comics about the software. We stayed together for about four days and hacked around in a room. Most of the days looked like this picture, having small breakout sessions and just coding or doing a lot of maintenance. Yet, it was also a chance to talk about a code of conduct and having a community statement about what do we want to be as a group, as well as having a microphone that’s open for other voices.
One of my favorite moments of the conference was the last day, it was after the official program had ended when, Golan Levin invited us to the botanical garden near the campus and we were just walking around with our laptops for the first time and looking at the amazing plants. I found this plant that had this really beautiful structure, almost like a distributed nodes connected and I was like, “ Huh, this is what the open source communities feel like.” They have these different nodes and they have a life of their own and it’s all very colorful. I began getting deep into this plant metaphor so bear with me for a few slides.
In this drawing, I’m a worm, I go back between different fertile grounds and look for different tools and communities that are inspiring. I think that we definitely have mites, other animals, butterflies, birds, fungus, and other kinds of really beautiful things that are contributors to the habitat of what we think as an open source software for the arts. I think we ought to highlight the dependencies between all of these things because we are always building on top of the things that other people have built. Software is built on other software, software is built on hardware, and then hardware is built on logic.
One particular organism I want to highlight is lichen which is an organizing among fungi in a symbiotic relationship.(I’m inspired by Sam Hart’s presentation at the Peer-to-Peer Web NYC.) It’s kind of like a moss, but it sprawls around; its not very noteworthy until you start to figure out the role that it’s playing in the environment. The symbiotic relationship is somewhere between mutualism, which is like a hummingbird and a commensalism which is like a shark and small fish. We have to think about how we are having a symbiotic relationship with each other as well as the tech industry and the arts in a field that large, which I like to call as the cultural sector.
I also wanted to talk about dandelions. When we launch projects, we don’t know where it’s going to go. We don’t know how many years from now somebody is going to be looking through our GitHub repository and say, “ Oh, that’s an interesting idea, I’m going to appropriate that.” We don’t know who we inspire. We don’t know the ripple effect of the work that we do as a community. This is just to point out that you are the seed of ideas and technology that makes it possible for imagination to take place.
Let’s think about the distinction between decentralization and distribution, where decentralization are the centralized nodes that are still connected. They are still less visible forms of dominating power in each of the nodes. Many open source projects have a bottleneck problem of not being able to continue because it’s based on authorship of the initial founders or stakeholders who have the keys to that project.
Let’s think about the distributive model where we can really think about the democratic approach of empowerment, and not only inviting people but giving them the keys to change the modes of network and how we can collaborate to create the future that we want to see. Here I want to talk about AFROTECTOPIA which is a project by Ari who’s also in this room.
Ari was my student at NYU ITP where I teach a course called, “Teaching as Art”. She had ideas about technology and black identity in an educational space and empowering the communities she cares about. AFROTECTOPIA conference, which was two days long, was wildly popular and everyone talked about it in the scenes of design, tech, and race in New York. Here, black identity is not added on to the conference. Instead, it is a starting point for every discussion about tech and art. That shift is fundamental. That shift to start from what you care about the most and project outward to the tools. I want us to think about what are the shifts that we can create as contributors that will dismantle the biases that are inherent to the tools that we use.
Some of us are building resources, some of us are fertilizing the ground, some of us are doing the plumbing, some of us are just keeping track of the time for the season, some of us are collecting the harvest, and some of us are taking care of the animals out there. Yet, I think all of us are playing an important role in this ecosystem. Processing Community Day was a large conference I helped organize for the Processing Foundation.
It was just a really good time to bring 250 people together to meet. I believe the vision of this convening is to also create opportunities for you to meet and learn from each other and to create a vision of an open source arts tool kit that we have not heard about before.
I want to finish off by talking about another conference that I went to a few weeks ago, it was the Americas Cultural Summit. The title is grand and the vision was also quite grand. It was a convening of cultural workers and institutional affiliates from Canada, the U.S., Latin America, and South America, mostly museum folk and grant officers. I gave a talk and they were just so fascinated to hear about what we do as a community. The culture that we create gives form to the unquantifiable character of our existence. Looking at the unquantifiable and indescribable character of our existence is what we do as artists. It’s extra interesting that what we do is usually quantify things with code and data but we’re using that to change how people think about the fundamental nature of human existence.
The word that I want to finish off with is “steward.” Looking at development and contribution as a kind of stewardship, and I think all of you are doing it. Let’s just make it clear that we’re taking care of the project that we started and are taking care of each other.
On that note, I think we can start to think about what are the effects of our work ten years from now and fifty years from now. I have no doubt that future historians will look at your git-commit history and try to understand what was happening. Future public lawyers will look at your code of conduct and see what were the norms of the time. Future art historians will look at your sketches and think about what were the visions of the future. Therefore there’s a lot of gravity to the work that we do and a lot of opportunities to take it to a better place. Thank you.
- Steve Woolgar, Configuring the user (1990)
- Lucy Suchman, Human Machine Reconfigurations (2006)
- Jonathan Grudin, The Computer Reaches Out: The Historical Continuity of Interface Design (1990)
- Federica Frabetti, Software Theory, A Cultural and Philosophical Study (2014)
- Luciano Floridi,The Philosophy of Information (2011)
- Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness
- Aden Evens, Logic of the Digital (2017)
- Tara McPherson, Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation (2012)
- Winograd & Flores, Understanding Computers and Cognition (1986)
- Sarah Kember, Cyberfeminism and Artificial Life (2002)
- I’m thankful to a various folks who suggested these readings via twitter thread.
*This talk was presented at a private convening of open source software tools contributors. The convening was organized in order to support the community at large. I respect how the organizers had prioritized diversity and inclusion, making space for new comers. I hope other contributors who were not invited understand their generosity is also appreciated and acknowledged.
**Special thanks to Anderes from the Recess Assembly for transcribing.