CIAC’s Electronic Magazine

I have a review in the new edition of the Canadian online art journal CIAC’s Electronic Magazine

It’s of an artistic Electronic Voice Phenomena recording project, a kind of digital seance. Read the review to find out more…

Free Software Debate Antipatterns

A collection of fallacious arguments commonly encountered in debates about Free Software.

Clean Hands

“I don’t want to restrict the freedom of users of my software so I’m not going to copyleft it.”

This confuses use of software with economic exploitation of source code. Failing to protect the former in order to protect the latter privileges control over freedom.


“Hi! I’m NiceCorp’s community manager! My book on community is available on Kindle under a non-free licence!”

Seeking to exploit a community while working against that community’s interests is at best confused. And “community manager” is an oxymoron.

Companies Not Users

“BigCorp make BigSystem so they can tell users what they can and cannot do with BigSystem, it’s BigCorp’s system.”

No, the actual instance that the user owns is the user’s system.

Exploitation Not Use

“But what about my freedom to not share the sources and to charge for the binaries? You are limiting my freedom by trying to stop me doing that!”

Use of software means something like interacting with it, not exploiting its economic value. Even if we ignore this, the “freedom” to control what others can do with software is not freedom but control.

Gift Economies

“Software is a gift economy and you can’t seek anything in return for a gift.”

The ability to share software freely may result in a gift economy but this is not the objective of free software. It is individual liberty, not gift giving, that should be promoted and protected.

Even where it is appropriate to discuss gift economies their history is often misunderstood. The strong social norms of tribal societies that have historically practiced gift giving would be represented in civil societies by law rather than rhetoric.

Giving Back

“As long as BigProject gets back any modifications we’re not worried about users of those modifications elsewhere.”

Free Software is not about “giving back” code to projects. It’s about not taking freedom from users of software. If someone else doesn’t respect the freedom of users of software derived from a project then contributing code to that project does not excuse their actions.

Hackers Not Users

“I share my code with other hackers. Users don’t need it anyway.”

Software must be free for users to use not just for hackers to hack. Ensuring that all software is free helps hackers more than just sharing source code between themselves because hackers are also users.

Let Them Eat Cake

“Sure, you aren’t free to use the software on SystemX, but you can get the source code to build and run it anywhere else you like.”

If an individual is not free to use the software that they are currently trying to use then it is of little comfort to them that the same software is theoretically free to use elsewhere. The freedom to use software should be general, and each use of software should be a specific instance of that general freedom.

Markets Not Users

“The market will produce free systems if they are more efficient, and so in the long run everything will be OK.”

The current technology markets are the product of decades of non-market activity against free software. There is no reason why resistance to this should be limited to consumer choice within those markets. Don’t confuse economics with ethics.

Popularity Not Freedom

“I’d rather my software was used in a hundred proprietary projects than by a dozen people who are truly free to use it.”

Then you are interested in popularity, not freedom.

Projects Not People

“The important thing is that the licence protects BigProject.”

Free software enables people to organize themselves around projects to produce software. But the subject of free software is the freedom of the individuals that use the software produced by the project, not the status of that project.

Source Code Not Software

“I just want to get code back for my project, I don’t care whether people can run software on their systems.”

Availability of source code is important for the freedom to use software that is made using that source code. But availability of source code elsewhere is not a substitute for the freedom to use software freely on a particular system. Tivoisation demonstrates why this is a problem.

Nominato Ergo Blog

Careerism means not letting art production get in the way of promoting yourself. Actually doing things takes away valuable time that could be spent on schmoozing and self-promotion. The oh-if-I-must artistic pseudo-practice of choice squeezed in (and out) during spare moments by early 21st century careerists is cretino-nominative art. They tend to blame Duchamp for this.

Duchamp invented nominative art with his “Readymades” of the 1910s. Replacing the blue-collar manual labour of producing art with the white-collar managerialism of declaring it, Duchamp’s “creative act” was a blasphemous and unrepeatable event. Theologically, Duchamp’s act of creation apes God’s. Artistically it denies the power of art history and aesthetics. Such an act is unreproducable both practically and conceptually. It is a Badiouan event, a year zero.

This has been lost on the growing hordes of self-nominated (fnarr) heirs to Duchamp’s legacy. They point their magic finger at something and the art bit gets set on it. It’s a Meinongian ontology with artistic status replacing physical existence. To spell it out, it’s not Guitar Hero or the air guitar championships, it’s landfill indie. And after a couple of hours you nominate the entire universe and move on. Unless you also discover semiotics.

Semiotics is the art of textual ventriloquism. No matter what an object is or does, semiopsy will reveal amazing truths about it that are even more amazingly always congruent with hegemonic academic opinion. When applied to art, semiotics turns art objects into non-art objects and then makes them speak whatever will amuse the audience. Paintings and urinals are simply cultural objects with unreflective content for exegesis. This flattening of the cultural landscape raises semiotics, and the
semiotician, above it. Consumption becomes performance, a blasphemy
rehearsed in discotheques decades ago, and what is applauded is, as
Tony Wilson almost pointed out, the demonstration of taste. The act of
making the blog is a representation of a paradigmatic social and media
activity; the production of blogs.

Found images are often regarded as a subset of nominative art but it’s very rare that an image is simply nominated rather than recreated or reworked in some way. Silk-screen printing, painting, collaging or even re-photographing the image are interventions that work against the creative act being simply a matter of nomination. It is not until the era of digital images that nominating an image becomes as simple as nominating an object. This appears to be exemplified in group found image blogs.

In group found image blogs the artist becomes a DJ weaving a narrative of images. DJ Spooky’s “interrogation of meaning” would haunt this if not for the fact that nominating images to be art that will be subject to semiopsy is a category error akin to asking how many calories are in a communion wafer. Once the object is nominated as art its history and associations as a non-art object are gone, transubstantiated away. Since semiopsy is impossible, or would at most de-art rather than en-art the nominated image, the art must be somewhere else, such as in the creative act of producing the blog as art rather than as a blog.

This would make group found image blogs yet another form of pastoral, a high-cultural depiction of low-cultural subjects in order to extend the hegemony of high cultural values. These are not shepherds unknowingly illustrating Biblical scenes, they are resources (human or artistic) being managed to create value that accrues to the manager. Image nomination blogs share with relational art the culture of managerialism, outsourcing and the service industry. That capitalism has moved beyond the deskilling that produced relationalism is news that hasn’t reached the artworld yet. [And the complicity of myself and much recent cultural criticism in this is something I have yet to react to.]

Unless you are within the real-world social network that the blog is a product of you will not be able to recover its social production. This is the case with most social blogs, they are the reification of clique activity. [A point I missed until Paddy at Art Fag City, and Dana Boyd’s thesis, corrected my thinking on this.] Far from transparently depicting greater democracy or participation, group blogs based on nomination of found images performed as art are opaque, exclusionary and exploitative. The depiction fails because it is a depiction. It shares this problem with much relational art. Marie Antoinette milks her herd.

How, then, could group found image blogs work as art? Simple image DJ-ing on a vague theme will not work in the affective bandwidth of the web unless the juxtapositions of images become heroically incongruous in order to produce figure-ground relationships in the aesthetic and (if we must) semiotic potential differences of successive posts.

Reclaim the dynamic range of postmodernist eclecticism. Introduce compositional form into the flow of posts (slow, slow, quick-quick slow). Use bling as it’s actually used on MySpace profiles. Learn CSS, it won’t kill you. If you’re going to endlessly post the same terribly amusing animated GIFs, at least find some with fleshtones in.

Frighten the Frieds with theatricality, assumed personas, and other ways of embracing the acting-out of making a group image blog that is like a group image blog. Interrogate the relational space of the net with commedia. Act up as well as out.

And start nominating and performing semiopsy on your own activity rather than other people’s. Perhaps the point of the blogs should become the openings and schmoozing and admin work. A feedback loop will align the interests of your career and your art in a way that an interference pattern won’t. And it’ll be a much richer experience for everyone than just one more terribly amusing animated GIF. What happens when Nelson Muntz points and laughs at himself?

And So But No

Infinite Jest is a train-wreck of a novel but quite deliberately so. The problem is that it is also a train-wreck of a consciousness-raising gesamtkunstwerk generated as a negative form by the narrative narcolepsy of that novel.

Its attempt at giving the reader an imaginative lifeworld to render beyond the novel, the same as, you know, any other novel, by self-consciously not actually doing that is trivial and grating. It

Open Source Befuddlement

Talking about “Open Source” rather than Free Software can lead people to concentrate on availability of source code rather than protecting freedom. And to concentrate on the developers who write that source code rather than all the users of the software that it represents.

There were two particularly clear examples of this today.

Columnist Matt Assay argues –

“Because Web developers don’t necessarily need to protect their
software, we’re seeing more adopt licenses like BSD, Apache, and other
permissive licenses in order to foster community, rather than
protection, around their software.”

Developers protecting their software source code isn’t the point of free software. The freedom of the users of that software is. And using “permissive” licenses for web applications doesn’t protect that freedom when you encounter the software online as a user.

Developer Steve Streeting argues at length that copyleft doesn’t get more code back for his project than community spirit does –

“So, after much thought I concluded that the most useful pay-backs to
an open source project, and thus its community, from a user (in my
opinion) were:

  1. Code & documentation contributions – which based on my experience come from voluntary sources
  2. Community participation – forum support, bug reports etc
  3. Publicity.

The ‘restrictive’ elements of the LGPL (and GPL), to which so much
confusing license text is dedicated, didn’t seem to contribute to any
of those except number 3, and then really just as a side-effect.”

Projects getting back source code from the developers of derivative works isn’t the point of Free Software. The freedom of the users of that software is. And, again, using “permissive” licences for libraries doesn’t protect that freedom when you encounter the compiled software as a user.

These are just two examples of how thinking about “Open Source” can lead people to concentrate on the wrong issues and pursue the wrong objectives. It is a marketing term that was explicitly created to obfuscate the ethical issues that Free Software makes clear. It is doing its job far too well. 

Aesthetics, Statistics, Social Software

The problems of colour psychology for advertising –

Machine learning algorithm gallery –

Popularity algorithms –

A Twitter trend prediction market –

Experimental aesthetics –

A study of colour names, created using AMT –

Notes Towards Free Culture

Apple claim trademark on shiny speech bubbles –

Sound trademark battle over duck whistles -

The American Football league have banned Twittering -

Microsoft are pushing for a single global patent system -

Code Stencils

Pall Thayer rules. And stencils.

Cut out the stencil and spraypaint code on the walls.

“Beneath the bricks, the source code.”

Crank Aesthetics

I reviewed David Galenson’s self-refuting marketarian art history on this blog last year. Galenson had an earlier book applying statistical methods to art history, comparing early and late blossoming artistic innovators. You can find an exert of a review here. The claims of amazing new discoveries phrased in incoherent terms along with accusations of rejection by the mainstream fit the definition of crank science. Crank aesthetics possibly? There’s a discussion of the book on the Two Blowhardsblog, along with links to more reviews, here. Two Blowhards reviews another book that applies statistics to the artistic canon here, just as critically.

It is easy to do non-crank statistical art history (I’ve provided some examples on this blog recently). The most important step is to phrase the theory you are testing in the language and using the concepts of art history rather than in vague and irrelevant terms from breathless tabloid business reporting like “innovation” or “value”. Asking how turquoise the derivatives market is won’t get you published in the Wall Street Journal. Not because it’s too daring an idea, or the establishment is closing its ranks, or because of a lack of imagination on the part of anyone else but because as a combination of aesthetics and economics it is incoherent.


There are a few packages for handling colour mathematically in R –

Colour Schemes

Create colour-scheme functions for fine control of colours driven by your data.


Functions for computing coordinate conversions between colorspaces.


“Builds gradient color maps”