Openlab Interview

Openlab Night - Fave Dave Alex Live Coding

[Openlab Night - Fave Dave Alex Live Coding / photo: Openlab Flickr Pool]

Openlab is a loose collective of artists centred around London, UK, who use and develop open source software and technology for music, art, noise, performances, and just about anything else they feel like doing with it. Openlab organizes performances, talks, workshops, events, and beer-y meetings across the UK for like-minded individuals to share and exchange ideas and let loose their creative inner daemons.

Marco Donnarumma: What is Openlab?

Evan Raskob: The beauty of Openlab is that people who are motivated and willing can come into it and "hijack" it for their own events and purposes, without some fear of pushing against the status quo. Of course, there are limits, and it needs to stay "open" to still be Openlab, but as I've discussed with other members, the emphasis on open source software is there but also includes open process and transparency of thought - it isn't constrained to a single medium such as code. There are plenty of organizations out there, such as MakeArt, that explicitly enter into the politics of open source, and that's great that they are there fighting a worthy fight for access to important tools and opportunity to learn and the shared culture of international software design, but Openlab has taken a more apolitical and anarchic stance or just doing what we do without worrying too much about it, more of a social club and meeting place for like minds than an organization with a political agenda.

Robert Munro: I think Openlab is more about community, anyone can join just by signing up to the mailing list. Openlab is more about enabling artists to use all these free resources, and using it to make stuff. Different people organize things and Openlab is just a good communication medium to collaborate and find others who are willing to join in.

Openlab Workshop 8 - Make Some Noise

[Openlab Workshop 8 - Make Some Noise / photo: Openlab Flickr Pool]

MD: Media-labs and artistic platforms play an essential role in the cultural development of the cities in which they are based, even though they are not always properly supported logistically or financially. What does Openlab aim to offer to London and what do you think the city is lacking? How does the city support Openlab's activities?

Evan Raskob: Certainly, things have sprung out of Openlab and yet maintained an association with it, which is great – personally, I'd love to see Openlab keep its role as anarchic incubator of open ideas, but I know that others feel differently and would even go so far as to explicitly disagree with that, which I also, in a strange intellectual-judo move enjoy them doing.

Openlab doesn't aim to offer London anything. Openlab simply exists, and sometimes wonders exactly what it is that London offers it. Often times, bits of Openlab decide that London doesn't really offer them anything (except the occasional squat party, and the soon-to-be-demolished pub and performance space The Foundry) and break off and leave for other pastures.

S. Jagannathan: I find London has many programmers (I would wager a lot more than many other cities in the world) that write free software that makes music especially and through Openlab I have been able to meet many of them and share and learn from them. From my perspective, the logistics appear fine but maybe paid gigs would benefit…a travel card + a meal + a drink would be a humble start.

Robert Munro: Venue support has been a challenge at times as we most want Openlab to remain free or low cost. In fact the place where Openlab's first event was, the foundry is under threat for a planning proposal (to be replaced with an "art" hotel). I think there is a bit of a lack of public space for groups of people to just get together and jam or hack.

Openlab Night - Lone Shark aka Ed Kelly

MD: Nowadays we see an increasing number of cross-disciplinary artistic tools and works developed using free or open source frameworks which challenge our perception of art and technology, I think of Graffiti Markup Language (GML), ARToolkit (a library for augmented reality) or the latest monumental mapping project by Telenoika. How would you define the present distribution of open source technology? Do you think the demand of new artistic open source tools is expanding? Specifically I'd like to address FLOSS distribution as an independent process and possibly outline its characteristics.

S. Jagannathan: This question implies this is about free software vs proprietary technologies to make art or music and who is winning that battle. However, it is important to understand that there is no battle at all. Free software is a dark, dingy, leaking and long tunnel but many of us see light at the end of it. Proprietary software though is like the attractive trap of a carnivorous plant - death definitely awaits at the very end and when its too late to do anything about it.

Robert Munro: One of the biggest advantages of FLOSS it that it is very malleable, you can just roll your sleeves up and mash it together in lots of different ways. The good thing about having all these fragments of technology is that you can build something original and not just have something shoved down your throat. So it's not really about competition, or this being better than that … its about the philosophy of open source, the fact that people give it all away for free to enable others, and more and more will be built on open source going ahead. I wouldn't be surprised if there is a lot of open source stuff in windows nowadays, though they would never admit it anyway. Pure Data, Supercollider and Processing are great applications but open source is about tinkering and playing around with stuff and I think as people get more computer literate, open-source just make more sense, which is pretty well why I like it ;).

Chris McCormick: For me, Free Software is evolution whilst proprietary software is intelligent design. Free Software is massively parallel, whilst proprietary software is serial. As you say, proprietary software leads to death (companies collapse, people die, source is lost) whilst Free Software at least has a chance at survival through change, maintenance, modification. I believe that evolution is sustainable and that intelligent design isn't (because it's too expensive), and that evolution can afford to make mistakes, whilst intelligent design can't. Free Software is moral, whilst proprietary software is immoral, because Free Software gives it's users freedom, whilst proprietary software takes that freedom away on purpose. That's why I release everything I can as Free Software.

Alias: I'd take issue with that statement - free software isn't moral or immoral, it's just software. Open source is amoral. From the original GPL licence:


Freedom is not by default good, it simply represents a lack of constraints. Some open source software is very, very bad, if viewed from certain moralistic perspectives - some is amazingly good. Some is created with the express intent of changing the world, some is created with the intention of establishing the developers as experts in their field. Like a lot of creative endeavours, a large proportion of open source software never gets finished.

In my experience, Openlab does not generally seem to concern itself with ongoing and largely simplistic, unwinnable "x versus y" arguments, as most of us are simply concerned with making art, exploring technology, and/or drinking beer.

Chris McCormick: Yeah, I definitely take your point. I think that the decision to license something as Free Software should be a moral decision though, not a technical one. I was convinced of this by this article "Taking a Principled Position on Software Freedom". This is tough for me personally as my day job often involves writing proprietary software for other people, which I now see as an immoral, but unfortunately necessary, act. I guess I am not the only person on this list in that position though. On the other hand, Mako argues "Most people won't demand evidence for someone's commitment to non-violence or an adherence to the Golden Rule" in that article, but I think it can still be useful to explore objective reasons for a subjective choice. For example, I believe that altruistic behaviour, quite apart from being morally "the right thing to do", can be objectively justified as an optimal way to behave in human culture for the benefit of everyone.

Andy Farnell: It's not just dynamics and parallelism, for me the lure is in diversity and difference. Openlab (its culture) and open source (freedom) software is about finding something different.

Dave Griffiths: I think this is a good time to have this discussion. When Chun and I started Openlab the intention was simply to promote the use of free software for artistic uses - at that time this was unusual, and people only thought free software was for running servers with. I remember some of the reactions at Openlab#1 were fairly incredulous at what we were trying to do.

Nowadays it seems very different - free software has gained a lot of ground, and although my view is completely biased, I don't really see much interesting going on with proprietary software now. All the energy seems to be surrounding free software.

I guess there is a problem now that free software is so pervasive that it's easy to forget where it came from and why its possible - i.e. all the hype about crippled apple hardware. But largely it seems that the role that Openlab has played over the last year or so is providing workshops - seeing as the free software 'stack' has found its way into so many academic institutions, but seem to lack people who actually use it to teach it.

Chun: Over the last year, it also occurred to me about free software is, or its primary benefit, the ability to change the relationship between technology users in a more positive way. and that, for me, is Openlab. I mean, because of its diversity and openness (technological), we as the users are encouraged to, well, make friends and work together (cultural), than otherwise. I have also experienced this when working with gangs. If this "change the relationships between people for the better" stuff has some truth in it, then I would like to think this could be the purpose (if there is any) for what we do in the grand scale of the society.

S. Jagannathan: Yes! This is indeed a deep but subtle point and has the potential to revolutionize the way society itself is organized. So far its been about inventing technology which is inevitably not shared and thus becomes a weapon to use against someone who hasn't invented it. The inventor makes money (a non-violent result on the surface) and that has become a self-obvious virtue. A quantifiable virtue – understandable to all. What free software brings back and that which money making displaces and that which I've experienced myself is a kind of "love" among the practitioners. Help your neighbour as he is your brother kind of love. Now, that word love might have sounded cheesy cos its not quantifiable. Its not objective. Its personal. When you are creating and you benefit from others creation you feel that love. I do almost every time I call a function in PortAudio or SDL or liblo :D

Dan Stowell: On this very topic see this thesis just published: Geeks and Global Justice: Another (Cyber)World is Possible [PDF link] From the abstract:

'I analyze how tech activists consciously design technology that embodies values of equality, freedom and justice. Their creation and appropriation of free software indicates a more general argument for open knowledge production as the basis for a new mode of work, and indeed, a new set of social relations. In reconstructing the Internet along a democratic model and through a democratic process, I argue, tech activists are creating a model of social organization that is radically transformative, refusing the reductive limits of the neoliberal world order, and enacting the possibility of a better world now.'

Martin Klang: In terms of the free software ethos providing a social model for the future, I can't help but feel some apprehension for a couple of reasons. The first is to do with the inherent elitism of the open source/free software 'movement', or whatever you want to call it. There's often an implicit assumption that meritocracy somehow equals democracy, and people tend to overlook how they came by their extraordinary skills in the first place. So there are actually two points here, or two questions: one is to determine exactly what model of democratic decision making is being proposed, the other is to do with recognizing what function, in a capitalist society, that technology specialists fill. Specialization and centralization tend to be inherently anti-democratic societal tendencies. The other main misgiving I have when I see writing such as Geeks and Global Justice is the following - though I have to admit I've so far not read much more than the abstract - when speaking as the author does of political engagement, it is clear that this involves a completely virtual sense of activism. Virtual as in something that happens on the web, and virtual as in not real. The author Kate Milberry states:

'I argue, tech activists are creating a model of social organization that is radically transformative, refusing the reductive limits of the neoliberal world order, and enacting the possibility of a better world now.'

A better internet, perhaps, though even that is stretching it a bit far if all we do is sit at our computers. The risk is that we retreat from the real world to the virtual, and take our battle with us. How then the neoliberal world order will be overthrown - with its wars, famines and injustice - is a mystery to me. But maybe these questions are answered later on in the text.