Source Code

The part of my review of “White Heat Cold Logic” that seems to have
caught people’s attention is:

“for preservation, criticism and artistic progress (and I do mean
progress) it is vital that as much code as possible is found and
published under a Free Software licence (the GPL). Students of art
computing can learn a lot from the history of their medium despite the
rate at which the hardware and software used to create it may change,
and code is an important part of that.”

I have very specific reasons for saying this, informed by personal

When I was an art student at Kingston Polytechnic, I was given an
assignment to make a new artwork by combining two previous artworks: a
Jackson Pollock drip painting and a Boccioni cyclist. I could not “read”
the Boccioni cyclist: the forms did not make sense to me, and so I was
worried I would not be able to competently complete the assignment. As
luck would have it there was a book of Boccioni’s drawings in the
college library that included the preparatory sketches for the painting.
Studying them allowed me to understand the finished painting and to
re-render it in an action painting style.

When I was a child, a book on computers that I bought from my school
book club had a picture of Harold Cohen with a drawing by his program
AARON. The art of AARON has fascinated me to this day, but despite my
proficiency as a programmer and as an artist my ability to “read”
AARON’s drawings and to build on Cohen’s work artistically is limited by
the fact that I do not have access to their “preparatory work”, their
source code.

I have been told repeatedly that access to source code is less important
than understanding the concepts behind the work or experiencing the work
itself. But the concepts are expressed through the code, and the work
itself is a product of it. I can see a critical case being made for the
idea that “computer art” fails to the extent that the code rather than
the resultant artwork is of interest. But as an artist and critic I want
to understand as much of the work and its history as possible.

So my call for source code to be recovered (for historical work) and
released (for contemporary work) under a licence that allows everyone to
copy and modify it comes from my personal experience of understanding
and remaking an artwork thanks to access to its preparatory materials on
the one hand and the frustration of not having access to such materials
on the other. And I think that awareness of and access to source code
for prior art (in both senses of the term) will enable artists who use
computers to stop re-inventing the wheel.

If you are making software art please make the source code publicly
available under the GPL3+, and if you are making software-based net art
please make it available under the AGPL3+ .

Posted in Art, Art Computing, Art History, Free Culture, Free Software