Rhea Myers

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 experience.

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+ .