Artists embracing openness

What does it mean for an artist to be open? What are the benefits of open practice ? Why do some artists think it’s important? I look at 3 examples of artists who have embraced openness – albeit on their own terms.

Open by Kim Manley Ort licensed CC BY-NC-ND.

Open by Kim Manley Ort under CC BY-NC-ND license.

The painter

Painter Gwenn Seemel argues that an art piece is a technique, an idea and a person all wrapped into a unique piece of work. Someone may copy the technique and the idea but they can never replace the person who created the original work. In other words, let the copiers copy because they can never pretend to be you. Rather, they’ve already created something new !

In a blog post, she talks about her evolving ideas on copyright and how she came to align her practice with her convictions. After years of keeping “a copyright symbol at the bottom of each page of [her] website”, Gwenn Seemel took a stance in favour of free culture in 2009 by releasing her work directly in the public domain for all to copy, display and remix. Now, instead of the usual ‘c in a buble’, it is a smiley face that stands before her name.

She explains what motivated her to abandon her copyright :

I did this because I don’t believe that it’s possible to moderate the use of my images and, more to the point, I don’t believe that I have the right to do so. What I do believe in is making work that’s so original that no matter where people see it, they’ll know it’s mine.

It took her several years to move from sharing how she works and engaging personally with people who are interested in her art to completely letting go of copyright and changing her approach to making a living as an artist:

The writer

Also in 2009, author Leo Babauta made up his mind to ‘uncopyright‘ his blog Zen habits as well as his ebook ‘Zen to done‘. Before then, he used to grant limited rights for non-commercial reuse of his work, upon request.

He examined the benefits of increased exposure in an article for Write to Done:

Last year I Uncopyrighted my blog, Zen Habits, and my ebook, Zen To Done, and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. People have used my articles in blogs, newsletters, magazines, ebooks, books and more. And yes, they’ve made profits off me without me getting any of that money … but at the same time, I’ve benefitted: my ideas have spread, my name and brand have spread, and my readership has grown and grown. Since I Uncopyrighted the blog, it has grown from about 30K subscribers to 113K.

Like Gwenn Seemel, Leo Babauta does not consider the loss of potential royalties to be a major problem, since a writer can find alternative ways of making money (hopefully without taking up odd jobs, that is…). He suggests giving talks and conferences, selling ads or branded goods and, most obvious of all, selling books even without a copyright attached to them.

The underlying idea informing Babauta’s shift to ‘uncopyright’ was that no writing is entirely original because all creators draw from a variety of sources of inspiration. If we all copy to some extent, then why claim ownership over the particular arrangement we created ? Let others in turn be inspired by us for art to flourish.

He argues that releasing copyright is not only good for the community who benefits from engaging with an artist’s work but it’s also good for the writer’s reach, exposure and reputation. According to Leo Babauta, inducing artificial scarcity through copyright is not the solution to be successful as a writer:

By protecting your copyright, you are putting up barriers for the spread of your ideas. In this digital age, that is a mistake, plain and simple.

The DJ

My husband is a DJ and I’ve seen him grow from a passionate amateur to a full-fledged professional. His sense of ownership over his work has greatly changed in the process.

When he started out, he would distribute mixtapes on CD to grow his network and make a bit of money on the side. This gave him some exposure and motivated him to constantly improve his output.

As it happens, he got copied. Back then, it really upset him that someone had misappropriated a mix he had taken hours to put together by simply sticking their name on the cover and writing over the DJ drops. He basically felt robbed of his work.

What he came to realise though, was that these copies did not actually take away anything from him. He did not lose any clients, his skills were intact, and his reputation kept growing despite or maybe thanks to imitation. In fact, some of his fans were already copying the CDs for friends  but they would also notify him if another DJ tried to pass his mixes as theirs!

If anything, this episode challenged him to continue creating better and better mixes. His raw materials for mixing were other people’s musical creations after all…

Eventually, he turned to live shows as a main source of income and continued distributing mixtapes, for free this time. Opening his work to a larger audience online enabled him to receive more feedback and increase his following. Perhaps even more crucial to his professional development has been a network of DJs around the world who critique each other’s creations and share anything from technical tips to equipment reviews. This kind of respectful peer-to-peer support is invaluable.

Partial conclusion

Free culture has to do with opening up a space for interaction between the artist and their audience. New economic models in the art business thus emphasise the value of community-building, understood as bringing together people who are interested in a dialogue around an artist’s work and who might be willing to support further creation.

***

Is open practice a very marginal point of view in the art world? I got to hear about Gwenn Seemel through a post shared on Calimaq’s Facebook page. It might be that my perspective is skewed by the networks I am involved in.

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Why do you participate in open culture?

I recorded some personal comments on the survey answers to the question: ‘Why do you participate in open culture? Why do you think it’s important?’.

Music: Death March to Sun Fun City by Ruin Roads licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0

It was my first time trying my hand at audio mixing so feedback on both the content and the recording are definitely welcome…

[10th August edit]

Here’s the result of a brainstorming session on the same topic:

#whyopen: What is ‘openness’ anyway?

Open data, open source, open educational resources, open knowledge, open university, Massive Open Online Courses (the famous MOOCs)…Openness has become pervasive in online jargon and even in many an offline conversation. But do we really know what ‘open’ means in the first place? What do all the initiatives claiming the ‘open’ label have in common – if anything ?

Perhaps the most striking feature of the world of openness is that there isn’t a single understanding of what being open entails. As part of this ongoing conversation, I am attempting to put into perspective my own views of openness to make sense of the concept.

Open can mean transparent.

This is precisely what the open data movement thrives towards: achieving greater transparency to enforce checks and balances. Although it seems like a good idea on the surface, transparency is not without its pitfalls. How open do we want governments to be? Some institutions may open up access to their databases but provide only marginally useful raw data which effectively precludes meaningful interpretation and may even have unintended harmful consequences. Releasing data for public scrutiny also implies that people possess the necessary skills to interpret it. According to Danah Boyd, “access alone will not empower people”.

Open can mean participatory.

In the wake of protests over the banking crisis, Iceland’s new Constitution was drafted by a council made up of 25 ordinary citizens who engaged with the general public through a process of online consultation. Iceland’s netizens were able to comment and debate on the proposed draft and interact with the members of the Constitutional council. Dubbing it a ‘crowdsourced’ constitution (like the New York Times and Wired did) would be jumping the gun, though it certainly was an instance of short-lived open governance.

Open can mean ongoing

A software is said to be open source if its source code is freely available for all to study, improve and distribute. Users can thus propose modifications, provide feedback and even participate in developing the software: this is truly a community-based process where the product is refined by incremental steps. One important aspect of open source software is that it can never be completed. Instead, the code is always potentially susceptible to give rise to new versions, thus making it a permanent work-in-progress.

I see openness as a cyclical process of granting access to information, sharing or spreading it, and modifying it. The the new content thus produced forms the basis of a new cycle of access, sharing and modification. This definition includes all three features mentioned above on various levels: repetition of the ‘cycle of openness’ ensures that the process is ongoing; access makes for transparency; sharing and modification are two modes of participation.

Access

The first condition of openness is access, which means that anybody, whoever and wherever they may be, should be able to read, view or listen to the content, as the case may be.

Although it constitutes the first brick towards openness, access is not as simple a matter as it might seem. The following barriers may prevent access to content:

  • Lack of Internet connectivity or slow connectivity. Constraints for internet usage, e.g. if it is only available at an cybercafe.
  • Cost of access
  • Technical difficulties (format compatibility, technological literacy, …)
  • Language barrier: if the content is not in a language one understands, access is denied de facto (example here)
  • Disabilities
  • …?

It may be useful to keep these challenges in mind when considering the issue of access to content.

Sharing

Sharing content is another key element enabled by the Internet. Once it is made accessible, the content will reach various users through a web of networks. Sharing one’s work is actually at the heart of the open content movement, with people willing to communicate their knowledge and skills, exchange ideas, build bridges across disciplines and countries.

Re-purposing

In the spirit of openness, everybody is in turn both a consumer and a producer. As such, one is empowered to reuse content to fit one’s purpose : it is common practice to draw from creative commons licensed photos on Flickr to illustrate blog posts and articles for instance.

Some conditions might be imposed on the downstream users, such as linking back to the original producer (attribution). This appropriation of content may take the form of remix, mashup, reuse, etc. Copyright is of course a major restriction on the whole process of openness.

The free flow of content ensures the cross-fertilisation of ideas which is the very basis of innovation. To me, encouraging openness is the best way to harness the power of networks so as to advance and spread knowledge.

Answers other people gave...

Answers other people gave…

What is your own understanding of openness? I welcome your comments and suggestions.


* FLOSS: acronym for Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS)

This post is a response to this prompt for week 1 of the course “Why Open?” on P2PU:

What do you think “openness” is? Focusing on your own field or context (if you wish), describe what it means to do work openly, or to make one’s activity or artifacts open. Alternatively, you could talk about what you think “openness” means generally, what sort of definition might fit all open activities or works.

Photo credits: AttributionShare Alike John Britton