Highlights of “Tech as Art:” 4

Sunday 4th July, 2021 - Bruce Sterling

*Yet more of our July 4 celebration of a new American government document about technology art.




A Collective Ethos

Beyond innovating for personal projects, artists make it possible for others to learn, use, and expand artistic expression with digital technologies across ages and skill levels. The open-source toolkits created by artists, designers, and educators provide accessible starting points for students in the arts, open-source, and technology fields. Many of the artists who informed this report openly share their research and process with online communities, reflecting a generative aspect to this practice. They write code to be shared, establish code languages and toolkits, develop custom software, hack existing hardware, and build their own devices. Their tools and contributions provide on-ramps for users new to creative coding, and they also advance creative capabilities for fellow artists.

The practice of tool-building is done both independently and with collaborators. In some cases, artists have adopted an open-source model of development, in which many collaborators contribute to a single project. This type of development is facilitated by code repositories like GitHub and GitLab, which enable users to contribute their own work or develop variations on existing work by copying source code to make derivative works, a practice known as “forking” code. Code repositories have also given artists platforms for sharing and distributing the tools they make. The open-source development model has allowed communities of practice to spring up rapidly, and many of them are founded and self-organized by artists.32

Affordability and easy access are central values for artists developing tools made freely available online and able to be shared, edited, and improved upon by user communities. Such resources serve many sectors and users: artists, hobbyists, researchers, grade school students, museum professionals, and others whose work depends on a shared knowledge base that is freely available, extensible, and participatory. Without these resources, practitioners would be forced to use more expensive commercial software—a significant financial barrier to participation.

Unseen Labor

Tool-building is a crucial but often overlooked form of artistic labor that needs support from foundations and funders. Whether a tool was built for an independent project or through collaborative workshopping, the final product is achieved as a result of “many hundreds of hours of hard work from the artist,” most of which is invisible to audiences or users.34 Tool-building also requires the flexibility to rework and troubleshoot along the way, learning and retooling through practical application. The process is difficult, time-consuming, iterative, and highly creative work in and of itself. The field would not exist or grow without it.

However, there is a need to generate opportunities for understanding, recognizing, and supporting this field of practice. For example, in an Open Source Software Toolkits for the Arts (OSSTA) report35 from a 2018 convening, contributors documented challenges associated with the development, maintenance, funding, sustainability, and community management of open-source arts toolkits, as well as their values and goals for the future. The published report highlights common issues facing OSSTA practitioners, such as difficulty demonstrating the value of their work to potential funders and challenges describing their work to fit within funding categories and guidelines. These issues provide evidence that tool-building may be a challenging artistic practice for funders to understand. In order for these tools to remain free and open to the public, more work needs to be done to better understand and support this valuable field of practice.



*Here in Torino, which is one of the homes of Arduino and the site of Italy’s first Fab Lab, we’ve been supportive of open-source.  That’s why we’re aware that open-source imports a lot of political and economic struggle into the art world that isn’t artistic in origin.

Tech art existed before open source, and there’s been a lot of highly influential tech art in the basements of Bell Labs, Philips and the BBC.   Google tosses money at technology art, NFT art is subsidized by blockchain speculators, governments fund cultural programs, and, well, we know this will be trouble.  It has in the past, and it will be again, so we will be keeping an eye out.