Extract from Royal College of Art MA Thesis OPEN-SOURCE:A NEW SITE OF ART PRODUCTION? (2013)
Full thesis available here
‘The world of people who make things is in upheaval‘ (Grima 2012)
This quote is taken from a recent essay on the emergence of open-sourced, highly networked technology driven eco-systems in which certain types of making takes place, specifically in the arenas of product design and manufacturing. The notion of upheaval is the starting point for an analysis of making in a wider sense, For the purposes of this text a consideration of making is extended to include the plastic arts, specifically sculpture, in order to critically examine whether the adoption of these same emerging technological practices constitutes a new or at least distinct site of production in art.
When artists start to respond to the technological flux shaping the very idea making in related disciplines, and indeed to metabolise the tools and processes of those industries, does this raise the atavistic questions on the separation of art from technology? Furthermore to what extent does the notion of autonomy of art survive when its process and substance becomes so reliant on the tools of technological and industrial production?
Open source is a movement that has been waiting for its time to come. According to its proponents, such as designer Joris Laarman, that time is now. Laarman’s claim, certainly as far as open-sourced design is concerned, is that it serves “to redistribute knowledge and the means of production. It has the potential to change everything we know about design, from manufacturing to education” (Van Abel 2011 p. 121)
Laarman traces the roots of open source to the Modernist movement, "true modernists wanted open source design one hundred years ago" (Van Abel 2011 p. 121) and cites the example of the De Stijl movement. Gerrit Rietveld published manuals about how to make his chairs, but the information was of little use to the public at the time due to the lack of skilled fabricators.
Laarman notes how Modernism's claims to democratize design were flawed in that a huge amount of power ended up concentrating in the hands of big factories and design firms. If, in general, modernism resulted in the mass consumption of an international and generic style, at least some modernists kept alive a utopian and democratic attempt to make the tools of production accessible to a wider public.
“A theory must be general and valid for anybody” -Yona Friedman
The architect Yona Friedman made the claim that the two most important architectural developments of the twentieth century were the steel space-frame structure and the Merzbau by Kurt Schwitters. As a conceptual combination they offered, according to Friedman, the potential for a post-war utopian vision for mass housing based on elevated mega-structure grids affording the individual space for unique personalisation. Friedman’s post-war theoretical vision, aligned to those of the Situationists, contained within it ideas very disruptive to the prevailing orthodoxies and narratives of architectural practice.
Again this is a prime example of an open-source theory ahead of its time. Rietveld and Friedman’s intention, not just to share ideas but to create a culture of “user involvement”, were simply waiting for the appropriate technological levers to gain traction. For example, in architecture, the internet has underpinned the development of the Open-Source Architecture* movement. The manifesto for which – itself a document open to multiple authorship – states that:
“Drawing from references as diverse as open-source culture, avant-garde architectural theory, science fiction, language theory, andneuro-surgery, it [OS Architecture] adopts an inclusive approach as per spatial design towards a collaborative use of social software for transparent operation throughout the course of an integrated public life” (Ratti 2012)
Similarly in the arena of furniture design, Rietveld would probably recognise the motivations of the recently launched OpenDesk** project which offers freely downloadable plans for machine buildable furniture.
A key characteristic of these recent developments in design and architecture is that they open up and democratise the processes of making. In doing so they challenge the accepted industry orthodoxies of supplier and consumer. Historically the same orthodoxies have existed in art production, perhaps even to a greater extent. The following chapters will examine some of the conditions and resistances attached to technology in art and specifically the role of open-sourced making as a potentially disruptive force. Equally, the hypothesis of a “new site of production” is systematically tested by attempting to contextualise and locate the key values of open-source art practice within a wider history of art production.
Automated wall drawing
Found digital model, cast iron
Public WiFi capture project