The Open Source Artist

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Mark Napier’s The Shredder (1997), remix of Wired.com

Artists have historically challenged systems of hierarchy and control by using “open source” techniques to freely borrow from mass media and popular culture, creating artworks that appropriate material from newspapers, magazines, film, radio, television, and the Internet. These artists have sometimes taken a politically rebellious stance by resisting the dominant culture through free appropriation, sharing, and distribution in defiance of copyright restrictions.

The history of appropriation is long and varied, resulting in works of collage, remix, detournement (hijacking), sampling, hacking, and other uncategorizable techniques by 20th century avant-garde movements. For example, Robert Rauschenberg’s epic construction, Retroactive I, is one of the classic mixed-media collage works from the 1960s. Rauschenberg used news images of President Kennedy and the space mission by employing the silkscreen process to overlay appropriated news print with painting and drawing.

Soon after, Korean artist Nam June Paik applied techniques and sensibilities of appropriation into the medium of video in the late 1960s. Paik, who is considered the father of video art, created new electronic forms of collage, such as one of his best known works, Global Groove, from 1973. Anticipating MTV music videos of the 1980s, the artist superimposed mass media, dance, rock, and avant-garde performance. A prophet of open source thinking, Paik declared: “If we could compile a weekly TV festival made up of music and dance from every country, and distributed it free-of-charge round the world via the proposed common video market, it would have a phenomenal effect on education and entertainment.”

More recently, the Web has provided artists an immediate and accessible platform for the appropriation of online materials. In Mark Napier’s The Shredder from 1997, the artist designed a custom browser that deconstructs or “shreds” Websites, providing the viewer the means to appropriate and generate their own collaged abstraction using the Web as a vast open source repository. The artist has essentially created a tool that resituates the viewer as the protagonist for real-time appropriation.

The ease of storage, access, retrieval, and distribution are part of the lure for the creation of artworks that take advantage of the Internet as an open source repository. Artists can appropriate, amplify and redirect information freely and openly for purposes of reshaping, transforming, remixing, and rebroadcasting their work. The theater artist Richard Foreman, in his Ontological-Hysteric Theater, has made his notebooks of texts and scripts available via the Web since the 1990s as material for anyone to use for their own purposes: “This website contains hundreds of pages of unedited text which Richard Foreman is making available freely for use by theatrical authors/directors from which to create plays of their own.”

Mark Amerika (pseudonym), a pioneering digital artist, recently published Remix the Book (2012) with a curated Web exhibition inviting artists to create digital remixes of his book in forms that range from experimental sound to spoken word to video. Amerika suggests that his remixthebook project could be considered “an open content platform for others to use as source material for their own art work, literary creations, 21st century multimedia theory, and/or innovative coursework.”

Artists also open source their research and process through their Websites and blogs. Artists sites by Jon Cates, Mark Amerika, Cory Arcangel, as well as my own Reportage from the Aesthetic Edge, which provides a window that gives open access to the studio and artistic process. These sites use networked space as an arena for experimentation, such as in the fragmented utterances of Cates’ GL1TCH.US; or Mark Amerika’s Professor VJ, in which the artist is spontaneously testing ideas and ruminations on remixology and other forms of experimental writing.

These artworks and projects of open appropriation and online research point to an open source artistic practice that is deeply committed to sharing and collaboration. Using a rich field of connections afforded by relating one’s work instantaneously to the public via hyperlinks, metadata, social media, repositories, etc., the artist is creating works and systems of interaction with the viewer that constitute an open source space inviting inclusivity and participation.

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