The Libre Graphics Research Unit: innovating tools for creative practice
The Libre Graphics Research Unit is a traveling lab where new ideas for creative tools are developed. Its diverse activities range from the practical to the theoretical via writing, research meetings, experimental prototyping, a conference and a workshop. The Research Unit is an initiative of four European media-labs actively engaged in Free/Libre and Open Source Software and Free Culture. This cross-disciplinary project involves artists, designers and programmers and is developed in dialogue with the Libre Graphics community.
What future practices can we imagine, and which tools can make them happen?
The Libre Graphics Research Unit is a two year project aiming to:
- Bring artists, designers, F/LOSS developers and standards engineers around the same table to exchange ideas and share experiences.
- Develop research that inspires innovative ideas about digital tools and future artistic practice.
- Provide platform to artists and designers to engage in the construction of tools and standards that matter to them.
Tools shape practice Contemporary creative work depends largely on digital tools. These tools are cultural objects themselves, and constitute a vital part of creative practice. Because digital tools often suffer from overdetermined functionality and are full of conventions about the way things “ought” to be done, it is important that practitioners take part in their construction. Unavoidably shaped by conventional models of production and distribution, tools condition creative practice in terms of divisions of labour, vocabulary and medium.
Free, Libre and Open source Software The proposal of the Free, Libre and Open Source Software movement (F/LOSS) to make source code available under a Free license, interests us at many levels. First of all we find important the principle that both producers and users of software have the right to read, change, distribute and alter the code. To us, securing free knowledge exchange is a prerequisite for any form of innovation. Secondly, the availability of source code allows us to both learn from and take part in the social construction of software. Last but not least, we are inspired by the lively culture of collaborative development that grew out of this radical proposition. It sparked the creation of new tools informed by a new type of work: social software (wiki), versioning systems for collaborative software development (GIT, SVN), secure and reliable web applications (Apache) and various programming languages (php, python).
Practice shapes tools In recent years, the Libre Graphics community provided us with Gimp (raster-image editing), Scribus (page-layout) and Inkscape (vector editing), quickly maturing Libre alternatives for Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign and Adobe Illustrator. But to who are those tools fitting? And to what job? Joseph Weizenbaum explains that it is the iterative process by which practice and tool inform each other, that makes possible an imagining of the unimaginable: “Only rarely, if indeed ever, are a tool and an altogether original job it is to do, invented together ”. So, while we are grateful for the existence of credible Libre applications, we think that replacing proprietary tools by F/LOSS does not do justice to the possibilities opening up.
Hybridization not homogenization Because of the availability of source code, F/LOSS tools are virtually polymorphic: they welcome divergence, alteration and exchange. Our enthusiasm for these characteristics links to a history of art filled with creative collaborations of many sorts. We can also see a long tradition of artists re-inventing their tools. The growing popularity of generative tools such as Processing, ImageMagick, Arduino and Pure Data hints at a similar desire to take technology out of the confined box of pre-defined applications. Designers program posters, software developers perform live-code, artists develop software-art. And more importantly, interdisciplinary teams work together in-between technology, science and visual production.
Re-imagining practice We initiated the Libre Graphics Research Unit because we understand that in order to develop innovative tools for creative practice, designers and artists need to do more than file bugs and design pretty logos for their favourite F/LOSS applications. We need to link together knowledge, skills and experiences. Imagining future tools means imagining future practices.
Constant, Medialab Prado, WORM and Piksel are actively engaged in F/LOSS and Free Culture and have met at various projects, events and festivals. Through these exchanges we discovered our shared interest in changing the default tools by which creative practice is performed.
Free software development and artistic practice are both driven by self-motivated individuals that do not per se thrive in an institutional context. Work is more often than not volunteer based, globally networked and versatile. Its precarious nature requires a flexible structure that loads as little administrative weight as possible on participants. We therefore formed a relatively small consortium of four European media labs, networked to smaller associate partners across Europe. The planned activities then relate to specific organisations, teams and individuals.
The Research Unit functions as a travelling lab, bringing local design- and art cultures as well as different professional cultures in contact with each other. The associated organisations show the range of fields covered: Art and design practice, art education, computer science, Free Software and activism. The networked is supported by additional relevant organisations: the Electronic Frontier Foundation (international and NO), Chaos Computer Club (Berlin, DE), The Participatory Culture Foundation (international), goto10.org (Poitiers, FR), apo33.org (Nantes, FR) and The World Wide Web Consortium (international and Madrid, ES).
Continuity between activities is maintained through the work of the LGRU-team. Representing the coorganisers and associate organisation, they are responsible for the implementation of the project. As artist-researchers they feed discussions in quarterly research meetings, maintain the (virtual) library, and present intermediate results on the LGRU-website and at international public events.
- Constant, Association for Art and Media: Femke Snelting* (artist, designer), Nicolas Malevé* (artist, programmer, data-activist)
- Medialab Prado: Laura Fernández* (cultural manager working in the field of digital and free culture), Marcos García* (cultural manager working in the field of digital and free culture)
- WORM, institute for avantgardistisc recreation: Walter van de Langelaar* (artist, game-developer)
- Piksel: Gisle Frøysland* (artist, curator), Elisabeth Nesheim* (Piksel program coordinator)
- FLOSS Manuals: Adam Hyde (artist, activist, writer)
- Escuerla de Arte 10: Jose Maria Ribagorda (artist, designer, educator)
- Master Networked Media & Lectorate: Communication in a Digital Age: Aymeric Mansoux (artist, software developer)
- Manufactura Independente: Ana Carvalho (graphic and web designer, illustrator, publisher), Ricardo Lafuente (graphic designer, illustrator, web and software developer)
- CREATE international: Alexandre Prokoudine (developer, activist, photographer)
- Norwegian University of Science and Technology: Letizia Jaccheri (computer- and information scientist)
* Curriculum Vitae included in the application package
The F/LOSS community presents an interesting model for collaborative development of software but lacks the impetus and resources to innovate beyond a view of creative practice bound by the current status quo. Activities proposed in the context of the LGRU try to fill this gap. The research will be cross-disciplinary and extra-academic out of necessity, drawing from both theory and practice.
Workterrains: Interface research, (science-)fiction as a tool, usability studies, futurology, speculative standards, radical usability, media theory, anthropology of practice.
At the core of the project is a series of 5 research commissions that allow artists and software developers to work together at the same level. The commissions are not described in detail yet on purpose because we think that this is to be done collaboratively in the context of the LGRU. By December 2011, organisers formulate the projects to be worked on by interdisciplinary teams. Constant, Piksel and WORM act as 'sparring partners', checking up on progress and making sure that the issue of documentation is properly addressed. Each commission results in a visual online documentation, a proof of concept and a presentation at the final conference.
An example of such a commission:
Decentralized drawing [example]
An illustrator working on international projects is matched with a software developer involved in Inkscape and the OpenClipArtLibrary are commissioned to work on modular “object libraries” of cooperatively designed drawing elements. They each have different perspectives on the way imagery is produced and can be shared and explore existing tools and software libraries to test out what it would mean for drawing to be networked and on-line. What assets would you need, what potential tools can be re-applied, changed, connected together? They log their discussions and thoughts on a weblog and produce a 'screencast' touring through their ideas. The sketch is accompanied by a list of requirements and a technical plan.
The reader is a critical tool for defining, developing and supporting the work at the Research Unit. Over the course of two years it will develop into a teaching tool that makes LGRU-research accessible to design students and young professionals. This reader will provide them with accessible theory so that they can put the radical changes that are taking place in their profession into perspective.
The editorial team consists of an interdisciplinary and international group of designers, theoreticians and developers who will use existing and commissioned resources to study the relation between design practice and tools, to question how developments in digital media have an impact on the design discipline and who will look into the debate on Free, Libre and Open Source Software, open content and open standards.
The reader is articulated around the four themes that are central to the work at the LGRU: "Networked Graphics", "Co-Position", "Piksels and Lines" and finally "Abstracting Craft". However it doesn't exclude other themes to be included if necessary. For each research meeting, the editorial team prepares a collection of relevant texts that can help focus and contextualize the session. On the other hand, the meetings will be an opportunity for feedback to the proposed material.
More about this publication: Reader
Research meetings are regular meetings between co-organisers (8 participants), associated organisations (6 participants) plus 5 guests that bring fresh input to the topic of the meeting. In addition, anyone interested can contribute to the discussions via online chat.
These seasonal sessions favour exchange between participants with very different disciplinary backgrounds. The meetings welcome experimental, explorative and speculative work and last 5 days. They are an intense mix of brainstorms, presentations, informal exchanges and code sprints and include time for responding to the intermediate results of the commissioned projects.
Each meeting is organised around a predefined topic but can be adjusted if the team decides it necessary to do so. The host organisation is responsible for defining the program of the meeting. In dialogue with the team they invite guests and take care of the overall practical organisation. Each meeting is documented on the LGRU-wiki.
The web has changed our perspective on creative production; work has become networked and distributed, challenging conventional ideas about specialism and professialism. It has changed the relation between users and producers: end-users become pro-users, or at least in theory. What does it mean when we make on-line and off-desktop, and how do we respond to the inextricable linkage between technology, content and form? What assets would we need, what tools can be re-applied, changed, connected together? Guests: OpenClipArtLibrary, GIT, SVN, Identica, Mozilla Europe, Inkscape, Institute for Network Cultures.
More about Networked graphics
- Organised and hosted by: WORM, Rotterdam (NL)
To re-imagine lay-out from scratch, we start with an analysis of the history of lay-out (from moveable type to compositing engines) in order to better understand relations between workflow, material and media. Looking at emerging tools for doing lay-out differently, we sketch ideas for tools that combine elements of canvas editing, dynamic lay-out, networked lay-out, web-to-print and Print on Demand. Guests: Scribus, TeX, OSP, APO33, FontMatrix, Mute.
More about Co-position
- Organised by: Constant & Manufactura Independente
- Host: Brussel (BE)
Piksels and lines
This research meeting focuses on a critical assessment of current free and open technologies for image creation: both pixel, vector and generative softwares that support the creation and manipulation of visuals. In addition to project co-organizers and associate partners, we invite artists, designers and developers connected to CCC, GIMP, Inkscape, W3C (SVG-workinggroup), Pure Data, OpenRaster and Processing. A critical reflection on current technologies, as well as a brainstorm on improvements and potential connections between existing tools.
- Organised and hosted by: Piksel, Bergen (NO)
Manuals could be considered as an important interface between end-users and software programmers, often overlooked as a platform for collaborative fiction about future tools. Using the well-known format of the booksprint (a group of self-motivated people with varying skills writes a manual for a specific set of tools in a short amount of time) as point of departure, we write a manual about how to design a typeface, as well as how to produce it using specific software. A case study looking at the relation between learning, development and creation. Guests: OpenFontLibrary, OSP, The Unicode Consortium and Debian/Ubuntu font teams.
- Organised by: WORM & FLOSS-Manuals
- Host: Rotterdam (NL)
Conference: Future Tools
In order to gather the results of two years of research and experimentation, to inspire the participants in the upcoming Interactivos? workshop and to discuss project outcomes with a critical public, we will organise an international conference, inviting all partners and associates to share results. 3 international keynote speakers will address the issues we have been looking at, basing their talk on intermediate results published on the LGRU website. The conference functions as an additional moment of reflection, but most of all as a way to present the work to a larger audience.
3 keynote speakers, 5 presentations of commissioned projects, 3-5 talks by associates/coorganisers. Simultaneously translated in English and Spanish and live-broadcast on the web. Audience: 350-400 participants.
- Organised and hosted by: Medialab Prado, Madrid (ES)
Interactivos? is a research and production platform for creative and educational uses of technology. Its main goal is to expand the use of electronic and software tools for artists, designers and educators, thus contributing to the development of local communities of cultural producers in this field. The 2013 edition of Interactivos? will focus on networked graphics and take place in Madrid and Rotterdam simultaneously.
Interactivos? events are a hybrid between a production workshop, a seminar and a showcase. A space for reflection, research, and intensive collaborative work is created, in which several projects previously selected by an international open call are developed in transdisciplinary work groups composed by the author of the proposal and the interested collaborators. Within two weeks, the works are completed and set up in an exhibition. The process is open to the public from beginning to end.
Interactivos? is an open platform:
- Structured around open calls for projects, papers and collaborators.
- Seminars and workshops are open to the public from the beginning to the end.
- Trandisciplinary work groups are established and connected first through an on-line forum (before the event starts) and then in the physical space in a self-organized and negociated process between participants.
- Participants are encouraged to prepare proper documentation for the developed projects, both during and after the workshop, and to publish the results and source code under licenses that grant access and distribution of the knowledge produced during the workshop.
Ca. 8 teams (60 participants) of artists, engineers, musicians, programmers, hackers, designers, architects, psychologists, educators, anthropologists, magicians, biologists, physicist, etc. Teams are supported by 2 project tutors plus technical advisors and cultural mediators.
- Organised and hosted by: Medialab Prado, Madrid (ES)
Communication and dissemination
Communication and dissemination are important to the work at the LGRU. In the first period we focus on communicating between participants and relevant professional fields. During the last 6 months of the project, the attention shifts to involving a larger audience through the Libre Graphics Infopoint, Conference, Interactivos?-workshop and on-line publication. An interested audience is welcome to follow the proceedings of the research as intermediate results will be made available under a free licence from the start. In order to do this, the project devices the following tools:
- LGRU-mailinglist, IRC-channel and wiki: Classic set of tools for communicating news and materials between project participants. All channels are open for interested (future) participants.
- GIT: Versioning platform specialized for hosting software and it's versions. Although code development is not at the core of the project, we will certainly produce material that is better shared in a code repository. Useful for designers, artists, software developers.
- LGRU-website: The LGRU website is the public face of the project. Using a flexible Content Management System that each of the partners can administrate, this site will offer an easily accessible index to documents (images, sketches, code, writing), on- and off-line activities and research.
- Future Tools conference: dissemination of outcomes through lectures, presentations and demonstrations
- Interactivos?'13 exhibition: showcasing 8 projects of fresh work with and about Libre Graphics.
Libre Graphics Infopoint
In 2012, Medialab-Prado hosts the Libre Graphics Info Point for a period of 6 months, an open studio where everyone, whether professional artist, designer or general public, is welcome to produce graphics with Free Software tools. There is a computers, a printer and scanner available and the Infopoint is maintained and animated by a cultural mediator. The Infopoint is a pilot to see what kind of working environment we could build with Free Software tools and how to favour exchange and networking between professionals and amateurs.
Although much archiving will be done along the way, we want to take care to not end the project with poor documents and little reflection on how to proceed. We would like to organise a last meeting that has no other agenda than gathering, evaluating, and preparing for a continuation. The sprint lasts a maximum of three days and involves the LGRU-team plus those people that have been documenting the project.
- Organised by: Constant & Manufactura Independente
- Host: Porto (PT)
Near the end of the project, texts and possibly other material will be gathered in an on-line publication that will be distributed through the LGRU website and the FLOSS-manual platforms. The publication will be of course designed using Free, Libre and Open Source tools, typefaces and licenses. The collection of texts is made available under an open content license.
- Network economic effects: The drive to not only imagine new futures for design but to build the tools to support them has unquantifiable potential for network economic effects. The direct development of new tools presents both amateur and professional practitioners new modes for design. Publicized by the conference, the software imagined and developed by the LGRU will become an active part of the discourse of code and practice in the fields of generative design, type, and F/LOSS.
- Open Content Licenses: All material produced in the context of the Libre Graphics Research Unit will be released under an open content license. For software, we chose the GNU General Public License, and for other content Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 or similar. These licenses allow anyone to freely use, reproduce, distribute and alter the materials generated within the project.
- On-line archive: reports, results, documentation remains available for at least three years after the end of the project.
Constant: Association for Art and Media (Brussels, BE)
Constant is a non-profit association, an interdisciplinary arts-lab based and active in Brussels since 1997. We work in-between media and art and are interested in the culture and ethics of the World Wide Web. The artistic practice of Constant is inspired by the way that technological infrastructures, data-exchange and software determine our daily life. Free software, copyright alternatives and (cyber)feminism are important themes. The activities of Constant include the development of software and the organisation of workshops, walks, meetings and seminars for a diverse public. With the affilliated design collective OSP (Open Source Publishing), we have developed Free Software typefaces and graphic design since 2006.
Constant contributes an in-depth theoretical and practical experience with typesetting, typography and illustration with F/LOSS tools to the Research Unit. Engaged in (cyber)feminism, they also have an invested interest in the way technological standards define creative practice. As coordinator, Constant is responsible for general administration, documentation and communication of the project. Furthermore, Constant commissions two essays and edits the on-line publication. Constant also commissions one of the projects and co-organises the research meeting Co-position in collaboration with Manufactura Independente.
Medialab Prado (Madrid, ES)
Medialab-Prado is aimed at the production, research, and dissemination of digital culture. It organises production workshops, conferences, meetings and work groups. All activities are free and open to the general public. It offers:
- A permanent information, reception, and meeting space
- Open calls for the presentation of proposals and participation in the collaborative development of projects. As part of its different lines of work, MP promotes free software and free culture and fosters debate, knowledge and innovation related to copyright licenses and intellectual property in the digital context.
- Interest in graphics and digital publishing is shown through projects like Visualisar, focused on researching and developing tools and strategies for information visualization, or the Digitizing Workshop, which aims to cover all the jobs related to text digitization using free and open technologies: scanning, mark-up, editing, publishing and distribution of digital content.
Medialab-Prado brings its experience in organising international workshops and conferences, creating an open environment for collaborative production and intense knowledge exchange. Its methodical approach to education and cultural mediation will make sure that users and communities (professionals, students, amateurs) are involved throughout the project. Medialab-Prado hosts the Libre Graphics Infopoint, Future Tools international conference, issues an international open call for projects Interactivos?'13 and organises and hosts the workshop itself.
WORM, institute for avantgardistisc recreation (Rotterdam, NL)
WORM, institute for avantgardistisc recreation - since 1999 - is a Rotterdam based artists collective, a venue and workspace for music, film and media. Born under the stars of punk, dada, fluxus, situationism and futurism, WORM has grown to a tenacious organisation that combines the 'do it yourself' mentality of it's ancestors with ultra-pragmatism, love for technology and good bookkeeping. The output of WORM is film, radio, concerts, performances, web projects, installations, cd's and a 24/7 web station. WORM focusses on Open Source, recycled material, superuse, seriousness and fun.
WORM designs, develops and hosts the project website and mailinglist. They organise two research meetings, one in Rotterdam and one in Amsterdam: Networked graphics (involving Hotglue) and Abstracting craft (in collaboration with FLOSS Manuals). WORM commissions and follows up two projects through the Moddr_lab, and organise an Interactivos Northern Europe. Artist-researcher Walter Langelaar participates in all activities organised in the context of the LGRU.
Piksel (Bergen, NO)
Piksel is a medialab, a distributed network of artists and developers, and an annual festival for electronic art and technological freedom, organised in Bergen, Norway. Piksel is the organisation responsible for the Piksel festival, an event for artists and developers working with free and open source software, open hardware and art. Part workshop, part festival, it involves participants from more than a dozen countries exchanging ideas, coding, presenting and exhibiting art and software projects, doing workshops, performances and discussions on the aesthetics and politics of free and open source software and art.
Piksel will be responsible for setting up and the hosting of a SVN server for the LGRU project, that includes a hosting interface, solid version control and bug tracking for collaborative code production during the project. Piksel will be commissioning two projects for the duration of the LGRU, where we invite a joint team of artists and developers to explore particular graphical tools in relation to relevant topics of artistic practice concerning graphics. In addition to participating in all relevant activities organized in the context of the LGRU, Piksel will organise one research meeting: Piksels and Lines.
Manufactura Independente (Porto, PT)
A libre graphics & design research studio based in Porto, actively engaged with design, typography, independent publishing and software culture. Developing innovative design software such as Shoebot and Batch Commander, and co-edit Libre Graphics Magazine. Involved in building up and maintaining Hacklaviva, a hackerspace in the center of Porto.
Manufactura Independente brings their expertise in publishing with F/LOSS, generative design plus the development of typographic systems to LGRU. They will co-organize the Co-position research meeting, and participate in others research meetings and the Future Tools conference.
FLOSS Manuals (Amsterdam, NL)
FLOSS Manuals is a collection of manuals about free and open source software together with the tools used to create them and the community that uses those tools. They include authors, editors, artists, software developers, activists, and many others. There are manuals that explain how to install and use a range of free and open source softwares, about how to do things (like design) with open source software, and manuals about free culture services that use or support free software and formats.
F/LOSS Manuals will host a research meeting around manuals, practice and development. Their experience with writing numerous Libre Graphics manuals will help in formulating and assessing the work at the LGRU. F/LOSS Manuals is also involved in the production of the on-line publication through the booki-software.
Escuela de Arte 10 (Madrid, ES)
This School of Art and Design specializes in graphic design and has a special interest on open content and F/LOSS. In 2007 Escuela de Arte 10 was awarded with the Erasmus University Charter, entitling the school to participate in decentralised Erasmus activities, as well as to act as an applicant organisation in Erasmus centralised actions.
Escuela de Arte 10 will be an important local partner in Madrid to disseminate and pilot Libre Graphic practices among its students, encouraging them to take part in activities such as debates around collaborative design practices and future tools and formats, FLOSS Manuals sprints. They will also set up a contest to design the infopoint at Medialab-Prado and the graphic image for the Libre Graphics conference in 2013 and develop long-term projects to be presented to the open call for the workshop at Medialab-Prado in 2013.
Master Media Design and Communication: Networked Media + Lectorate: Communication in a Digital Age (Rotterdam, NL)
The Masters programme considers critical reflection as a necessary prerequisite for any advanced media practice. The focus of the course is on computational, networked, digital media and information systems. Rather than taking information technology off-the-shelf or out-of-the-box, the course encourages students to rethink and design their own media. This is why Free and Open Source Software and a do-it-yourself ethic play a key role in the programme.
The Masters course in Media Design & Communication is affiliated with the international research programme, Communication in a Digital Age at the Piet Zwart Institute. This project investigates the future of communication design in relation to the most current technological and social developments of media and communication.
Through their participation in meetings and events, students and researchers involved in the Networked Media programme will relay their experimental design and programming work to the LGRU and vice versa. From their experience in rethinking and designing media, they will act as respondents to commissions both in terms of how they are formulated and subsequently followed through.
Norwegian University of Science and Technology (Trondheim, NO)
The Department of Computer and Information Science (IDI) is part of the Faculty of Information Technology, Mathematics and Electrical Engineering at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). The Department counts 50 permanent staff members and 100 PhD students who conduct research in many fields of computer and information science; ranging from hardware related research to research on the social implications of information systems.
The general goal of the research carried out at ArTe is to increase knowledge about the interdisciplinary intersection between digital art and software technology. Their research questions explore the interplay between artwork, technology, artist, and audience.
ArTe focuses on technologies such as Arduino, processing, and scratch, which enable a broad audience to become makers of digital artistic expressions. ArTe researchers exploit well-defined research methods, supported by qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis techniques, to design and execute valid research studies.
From their work on the intersection of art and technology, ArTe/NTNU acts as an interface between academic and artistic research in technology and feeds the reflection on the interaction between both. From their work on 'Openness' (licenses, formats, and tools), ArTe complements the work at the LGRU and helps keeping research goals and methods on focus.
Catalyzing communication and sharing between Free and Open Source creative software communities, CREATE is the umbrella organisation for all Libre Graphics applications: Gimp, Inkscape, Scribus and many others. CREATE co-organizes the yearly Libre Graphics Meeting, where developers developers, artists, designers and other graphics professionals have the opportunity to collaborate and learn from each other.
CREATE act as a sounding board and is indispensable for networking to Libre Graphics developers and teams that will participate in commissions, research meetings and workshop. Through CREATE we involve existing F/LOSS software projects from the start, and ensure that our research can benefit the Libre Graphics community and vice versa.