COSA, the Clinic for Open Source Arts

Monday 14th June, 2021 - Bruce Sterling


We launched the Clinic for Open-Source Arts (COSA) to open up the conversation around the intersection of open source software and the arts. When you consider ‘open source software’ in isolation, you explore how tools are made and sustained, and when you discuss ‘the arts’ you’re probably going to look at aesthetics, creativity, and collaboration — we believe these conversations are not mutually exclusive. Thanks to generous funding and support from the Knight Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the Emergent Digital Practices program,and the Madden Center for Innovation in the Liberal and Creative Arts at the University of Denver, we’re spending the next several years exploring why some open source creative tools flourish, others struggle, and many wither away.  

By tapping into the knowledge of creators and stakeholders associated with ‘success stories’ we hope to identify what these communities have done to promote inclusivity and resilience, so we can share that knowledge with communities creating other tools. In a world dominated by big corporate players like Adobe and Apple, we want to ensure that free, noncommercial tools are robust and accessible — so creatives all over the world can continue to learn and express themselves.

So what is a ‘flourishing’ open source tool? The graphical library and integrated development environment Processing is an enduring example. Thanks to a concerted effort by its team, tens of thousands of students, artists, and hobbyists worldwide use it to learn to code, first as novices and then later in a professional capacity. What steps were taken to get Processing into so many classrooms since its development began two decades ago? How have the strategies for documentation and community outreach evolved? How was diversity amongst contributors encouraged? These are social questions, not technical questions.

The ‘C’ in COSA stands for clinic, a reference to treatment, maintenance, and care. For every Processing, dozens of open source tools end up as abandonware. Some software never acquires the user base required to justify ongoing development; while other tools becomes wildly popular, putting the needs of a community of thousands on a few developers; other projects become chronically neglected or just die overnight when the developer’s circumstances change dramatically (e.g. they have a child, take on a demanding job, or have health problems). The key point here is that open source software development around niche creative tools is veryfragile. So COSA is a clinic — we want to diagnose what teams can do better and provide treatment by helping them plan how they’ll move forward.

COSA is examining open source tools in the arts across four domains: innovation, access, community, and sustainability….