Cultural Sources

On my art foundation course at Kingston Polytechnic [1] I was set the task of making a painting by combining two other paintings. A mash-up, in other words. The two images I chose were a Jackson Pollock drip painting and a Fututist cyclist by Umberto Boccioni. I hadn’t encountered the work of Art & Language at the time, so this wasn’t based on their “Portrait of Lenin In The Style Of Jackson Pollock”.

I had a problem with the Boccioni cyclist. I couldn’t make out all the details of the cyclist amongst the abstract geometric shapes of the Futurist painting. I’d copied a Picasso cubist painting from the Tate [2] on my A-Level art course but I still wasn’t used to analysing highly abstracted images in detail. This is a Freedom 1 situation: I needed to study the work in order to complete my task. Luckily the college library had a book containing reproductions of the preparatory sketches for that painting. These showed how the final composition had been derived through a series of drawings starting from the forms of a representational sketch of a cyclist.

This experience taught me the value of having access to source material for cultural works. It could be argued that access to preparatory work is not necessary to appreciate the finished work, that it is private or that the public have no right to access it, and this might be true. But for the purpose of the task that I had to complete as an artist as part of my artistic training and practice I needed to study the work more deeply than the finished work itself allowed me to.

Boccioni’s painting is an autographic work, it has no score [3], but it is the product of a process of development that is not encapsulated in the finished product. The finished, exhibited, work is the public tip of a private iceberg. Disclosure of the materials of this private process of development is beneficial to those who wish or need to study it, notably to other practitioners, and thereby to society. Whether this is a matter of rights or not (I am very open to debate on this) it is a clear social benefit.

Unlike the GPL the Creative Commons licences do not require the disclosure of preparatory or source material for published works. This is probably correct both given CC’s emphasis on mash-up style derivation of mass media work and the burden that providing source for CD or DVD-based work would place on authors and publishers. But providing source material or preparatory work for cultural works is a high ideal for Free Culture practitioners and deserves more consideration than it has seen so far.

The ideal cultural source will be:

  • Transparent – In a format that is easily editable by human beings. For electronic versions, preferably a text-based format.
  • Full quality – Of a standard that allows you to at least recreate the distributed format (so at least one generation above the released version).
  • Complete – Consisting of at least the materials required to recreate the distributed version, with any cues or lead ins included.
  • Unencumbered – In a free and open format unencumbered by patents, DRM or any future impediment to use.
  • Structured – Preferably in a vector, multi-track or other rich format.

This is not tied to high-bandwidth media or the existence of services such as the Internet Archive. A 1980s media company could have charged for Betacam video of source material, multi-track tape copies of album sessions, or film copies of rushes but these would be proportionally more expensive than a set of DVDs or an internet download.

So which source material would I take out a second mortgage just to get some DVDs of?

  • The sequencer or master tracks for the sessions for “Floodland” by The Sisters of Mercy.
  • The Lisp source code for Harold Cohen’s AARON
  • The rushes for Bladerunner
  • Illustrator files for Julian Opie’s portraits
  • Photoshop files for Fiona Rae’s paintings

I mention these examples not to show what good taste I have but to offer examples that I would pay for even in a market economy with near-maximalist IP law. Some of these are for connoisseurship, some for artistic practice, but the common thread is study of the work (Freedom 1), DJ Spooky’s “interrogation of meaning”.

I try to provide as much source material and preparatory work as I can. This is difficult for older work where disks have become corrupt, older versions of Corel Draw formats cannot be converted to well-structured modern vector formats, or I have lost sketchbooks or prints. For current projects I provide:

  • Structured vector files of images, including preparatory and discarded work in a series.
  • Preparatory sketches via flickr.
  • Discussion and sketches of work in progress via this blog.

Free Culture advocates should think both about how they can provide sources for their own work as well as how they can constructively persuade other practitioners to provide sources for work.

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[1] I attended a polytechnic (a technical college) but graduated from a university thanks to Kingston gaining university status after I finished my course but before I received my diploma. This isn’t relevant to anything but has always amused me. The Oxbridge media commentators who covered Kingston’s change of status weren’t so amused.

[2] Now Tate Britain. It was a seated female nude. Book and postcard reproductions destroyed much of the detail, so I could not have painted a successful copy without actually sketching the painting itself.

[3] Nelson Goodman distinguishes between “autographic” works with no score, such as paintings and sculptures, and “allographic” works with a score, such as a novel or a symphony.

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