From open circuits to open distribution: can video artists adopt FLOSS strategies as their own?

[Forthcoming chapter in the book FLOSS+Art to be published by Mute and available via Amazon September 2008.]

“The cassette will diversify the video culture. Now there is only one television structure in the United States, one-way communication from three major networks. You get their kind of television, or you must cut it off. But in the future world, you will have cable TV, video cassettes, and picture phones… Why move, why drive somewhere in your car, if you can do everything right at home?” Nam June Paik, 1973 (1)

While the history of video art is presently being be re-told in books and journals, and its presentation in museums, galleries and art events is more widespread than ever, video art is in danger of becoming disconnected from the far-reaching changes underway in today’s networked media world. The “future world” Nam June Paik imagined may not have actually arrived exactly as he envisaged it, but he wasn’t that far off. The trouble is I’m not sure the video art world agrees.

This chapter argues that the most radical proponents of video art were always concerned with establishing alternative networks of communication based on the principle of “open circuits” and “participation TV”. An understanding of this historical context is helpful in highlighting the potentials to be found in today’s web-based networks that privilege “sharing”, “participation” and “openness”.

While we should not be too hasty in declaring a victory for open source, we should note – as Mark Pesce reminds us – that “as broadband succeeds, broadcasting will fail”. (2) The open source movement and Creative Commons protocols represent the best distributed, shared and non-proprietary tools we have at our disposal to achieve the alternative networks of distribution envisaged since the 1960s and now mutating into their broadband offspring.

That said, there are many stumbling blocks to be overcome before we will see the widespread distribution of video art according to FLOSS principles. Today, the biggest opponents of free and open distribution for video art are often the artists and distributors themselves, who are struggling to come to terms with the immense changes happening in the alternative media universe – largely emerging as a result of digital networks and technologies (from web-based platforms to peer-to-peer networks). The difficulties lie in very real concerns to do with the assignation of rights and the control of distribution that earns income for both artists and organizations alike. As emerging artists find new ways to sell limited editions of their work through gallery and museum circuits, what does it mean to make their work “freely” available via the web?

I want to suggest that solutions to these challenges can be found in FLOSS principles, and that these approaches will “diversify the video culture” in new and unexpected ways. The radical challenges to television, art and culture made by video artists in the 1960s and 1970s find their echo today in the principles of FLOSS, Creative Commons, Open Content and other emerging principles of participatory culture.

When artists first took to making video in the 1960s, its radical form and function was often predicated on the ease of access to the means of production. For a couple of thousand dollars anybody could buy a portapak and start making videos. The same is true today, as the barriers to entry-level video equipment tumble. But making work is only ever one small part of the production-distribution-exhibition circuit. As Kate Horsfield argues in “Busting the Tube: A Brief History of Video Art”, groups such as the Radical Software collective of the 1970s saw beyond the means of production to another immense shift in politics and culture:

“Power is no longer measured in land, labor, or capital, but by access to information and the means to disseminate it. As long as the most powerful tools (not weapons) are in the hands of those who would hoard them, no alternative cultural vision can succeed. Unless we design and implement alternate information structures which transcend and reconfigure the existing ones, other alternate systems and life styles will be no more than products of the existing process.” (3)

Forty years ago, video artists proposed a radical approach to the rise of the “information society”. They saw the potential for far-reaching changes to mainstream media models. With their focus on process over products, their “alternate cultural vision” was squarely aimed at disrupting the easy fit between the one-way communication networks of broadcast television and the circuit of commodity-consumption. In the 1970s and 80s, it was the one-way tube of commercial television that was reconfigured by video art practice. And while the dissemination of video art in alternate information structures has certainly been growing and transforming over the past thirty years, distribution has remained the Achilles heel of all video art movements.

As interest in the past and present of video art increases, it remains almost as difficult to access and view these works today as it was in the 1970s. If you can’t access a reasonable viewing copy of a work online, what chance is there of tracking down a copy anywhere else? But what would it mean to establish a distributed, networked archive of video art – one that is based precisely on the viral principles of peer-to-peer sharing, the democratic protocols of open archives and the powerful technics of open source codecs? It is my contention that the current conditions of digital media provide significant opportunities to create globally distributed archives that extend and develop the early vision of video art radicals. Video artists and their representative organizations should therefore embrace and adopt the culture of open source as an extension of the “original” video art project.

The problem of inadequate distribution has existed for video art since its inception. Make as many videos as you like, but who was going to keep them and where could you show them? The rise of the video festival circuit and the organizations devoted to the preservation and distribution of video art made perfect sense in this context. But despite all these significant efforts to distribute alternative videos by alternate means, their impact has been necessarily stunted by the physicality of the networks. The video image may have been wrenched from its commercial televisual framework, but the objects [tapes] and viewing contexts remained.

Of course it’s not going to stay that way for much longer. The technical possibilities for the distribution of video art and experimental film are rapidly changing, and there are many opportunities to make work that has been hard to see freely available via open systems. I want to argue that the question of video distribution has been crucial for artists since the inception of video, and that open means of distribution lie at the heart of alternative uses of video. Historically, individual artists and representative organizations have worked hard to ensure their work is seen and disseminated to the largest possible audience, without disrupting the integrity of the work. FLOSS is an important cornerstone in the development of this crucial aspect of video art – it’s wide dissemination.

In this chapter, I want to underscore the differences between FLOSS platforms and proprietary ones. Although there are many issues surrounding the rights of works to be resolved, an open archive approach presents a broad set of possibilities that will help contribute to the expansion of video art to wider audiences. Creative Commons licensing practices and the open source ethos offer new ways of brokering the relationship between video art and new (and old) audiences.

From the point of view of user experience, there is simply little or no difference now between the technical/aesthetic characteristics of proprietary systems and open systems. While proprietary formats such as Windows Media, Quicktime and RealVideo have developed their own competing and incompatible formats and codecs, a plethora of high quality open source solutions to digital video are finding widespread utilization – witness OGG Vorbis, MPEG-4IP, VideoLAN or FFMPEG. The sustainability and growth of any distributed archive or online video art channel is better served by subscription to the FLOSS model, which allows for a greater uptake of “agnostic” technical systems that are not in the service of particular corporate constraints (cost and licensing).

Open content management systems assign very different sets of rights along Creative Commons lines. This can leave the copyright with the originator of the work, assign it to another agent or person, or vary the extent to which a work may circulate. The standard Creatrive Commons licenses have a significant impact on the assignation of copyrights, allowing for a variety of flexible (though legally binding) agreements that benefit publishers, audiences/users, and most of all, artists.

As Stoffel Debuysere has pointed out in a recent article entitled “Culture Intercom Redux: Audiovisual media in a network culture”, the convergence of television and video art strategies finds its expression in the FLOSS ethos:

“This becomes clear in practices such as ‘broadcatching’, in fact a variant of ‘Podcasting’ but in relation to video and other media files, by which with the aid of RSS feeds digital image fragments can be called up and downloaded via BitTorrent. Independently developed software such as the video download program Videora and open source, build it yourself InternetTV applications such as MythTV demonstrate that the restraints built in by the industry can be gotten around or overcome with little difficulty. Recently various communities launched a call to hack and modify the PSP … which resulted in countless brilliant hybrid applications.” (4)

The open source and participatory media community represent forward-looking bottom-up initiatives that challenge the conventions of broadcast networks and corporate media ecosystems. It seems natural that the video art community would align itself with these “movements” and new paradigms.

The efforts of organizations like Montevideo in Amsterdam, the Video Data Bank in Chicago and Electronic Arts Intermix in New York have championed the collection and distribution of artist’s works for decades. It is thanks to their efforts that many video works have any distribution at all, and that more and more artists’ videos find their way into more general circulation.

The Netherlands Media Arts Institute has played a major role over a number of years in attempting to provide structure and consistency for databases and processes that are needed to make any online system easily adopted by anybody. A number of viable models and tools have already been introduced by the Capturing Unstable Art project. And most promising of all, the OASIS project has also made significant advances in this direction. It is an open source collection management system that is well-suited to the needs of an open content video art system. (5)

Recent moves to make parts of their collections available online (ie “A Kinetic History: EAI Archives Online” and “REWIND | Artists’ Video Collection” at the Visual Research Centre, Dundee Contemporary Arts and CARTE in central London) point towards a future where archives will become less repositories for dead content and more like a living, expanding database that will link past and future media arts.

What would be the impact of such a system for the institutions who have been trying to archive and distribute such material for decades? (6) My question is really to ask what would it mean to put this model of user-generated content, distributed viewing, and exhibition networks in the service our institutions and individual video artists?

What would happen if we could dynamically bring together our geographically distant and fragmentary histories of video art using the participatory and user-centric technologies of the peer-to-peer web? Perhaps a FLOSS view of the internet can offer new possibilities for stitching these “immaterialities” together into new relations in a mashable, hyperlinked, electronic universe. Under such conditions, it is possible to create a multi-way read-write web of connections, links, videos, writing, biographical data, images, comments, debate and other important documents (and not a unified giant that takes ownership and control).

Unlike physical archives that must house objects and place them in a single location (an object can’t be in two places at once), digital archives don’t need physical space. They need server space. They chew bandwidth. Driven by metadata that allows an enormous amount of flexibility for classifying, sorting and browsing, these digital “objects” (ie video) can exist in many places (by way of hyperlinks) and in many categories and subcategories at once (by way of tags and folksonomies). Videotapes and DVDs, along with index cards and library stacks, just can’t do that.

The explosion of video on the web also coincides with a renewed interest in the re-tracing and re-telling of the history of video from different perspectives to the North American-European axis which has tended to have a monopoly on the grand narrative of video art. We are all familiar with the official accounts of well-known global celebrities, founding fathers, protagonists, subcultural groups and influential organisations that form important nodes in the bigger story of Video Art. But the problem with these histories is that they’re often monolithic and bounded by national boundaries. They miss the large waves of video art activity happening everywhere all at once all around the world. They leave no room for contestation. Forty odd years after the emergence of video art, it’s only natural that people everywhere would want to account for their own particular local history and to want to relate it to the broader history. As those early video tapes begin to disintegrate, the imperative to collect, preserve and interpret this output becomes more pressing. The need to tell the stories surrounding the making and circulation of these tapes becomes even more compelling.

Individual mavericks such as Jonas Mekas are also establishing the presentation of their ouevres online, and sites such as UbuWeb provide an ever-expanding assortment of digital files of hard-to-see material by key avant garde film and video makers. UbuWeb insists that the digital videos on the site are presented for educational and non-commercial use only and that copyright of artists is respected. Though this may not be altogether entirely legal it’s hard to argue against the fact that

“most of us don’t live anywhere near theatres that show this kind of fare and very few of us can afford the hefty rental fees, not to mention the cumbersome equipment, to show these films. Thankfully, there is the internet which allows you to get a whiff of these films regardless of your geographical location. We realize that the films we are presenting are of poor quality. It’s not a bad thing; in fact, the best thing that can happen is that seeing a crummy shockwave file will make you want to make a trip to New York to the Anthology Film Archives or the Lux Cinema in London (or other places around the world showing similar fare). Next best case scenario will be that you will be enticed to purchase a high quality DVD from the noble folks trying to get these works out into the world. Believe me, they’re not doing it for the money. Please support these filmmakers and their distributors by purchasing their films. Please support the presenters of these works by going to see them in theatres whenever you can.” (7)

While not everyone is in agreement with this free-wheeling approach to copyright, there is something about the open and expansive spirit of projects like this one that makes it hard to deny the value of ad-hoc online video archives such as this. As Lawrence Lessig would have it, the more you share something the more valuable it becomes. UbuWeb is more than mere promotion for artist’s work: it is indeed a global digital distribution outlet that increases the cultural value of work included on the site.

A number of isolated projects are emerging spontaneously form their own unique conditions of existence. There are groups in Brazil, Australia, Japan, Hungary, Germany, Holland, France, Canada, the US and the UK working on their own local histories, many of which challenge and supplement the dominant histories of video art. And while conferences such as this one (together with the Refresh conference in Banff in 2005 or the Future History of the Moving Image symposium in the UK late 2007) seek to make links across the boundaries of national histories, our projects remain fragmented, disconnected and looking very much like unconnected silos – not because we want them that way, but as a result of our of pre-information society organisational structures and distribution infrastructures. A globally moderated FLOSS system for video art archiving, scholarship and presentation is needed to address this situation.

So how might all these things come together in the age of peer-to-peer networks and the sharing of digital files across time and space? Videos circulate and are remixed, mashed up and broadcast over the web at an ever-increasing rate. They are being blown-up, torn apart, ripped, mixed and burned to such an extent that there is no going back. Images and sounds are coming unstuck, opening up a new space for the renegotiation of their associated history, archival context, and critical commentary. And in the process, innovative new ways of making, exhibiting, circulating, annotating and supplementing digital video works are emerging.

If the old televisual models have indeed been totally busted by the movement towards user-generated video inaugurated by video art of the 1960s, then I want to propose that we continue this process and hack the archives and the histories we are responsible for. A FLOSS distributed network should allow us to collectively annotate, post, and grow video art cultures – and to provide links to other new media and electronic arts cultures.

In this context we can assert that FLOSS and Creative Commons may provide answers for archiving artworks, maintaining them and making them accessible to students, scholars and the public.

It is clear from this brief description that we are not talking about replicating YouTube, with its restrictive user agreements and monolithic structure. Whatever the platform is for our new model, we need to link it, open it up, blow it apart – as that’s what is necessary to avoid the creation of yet another proprietary walled garden and individualised silo. YouTube’s restrictive license agreement has been much commented upon in this regard, and is an excellent case in point. It represents the type of agreement that would be avoided by the adoption of FLOSS and Creative Commons systems:

“by submitting … to YouTube, you hereby grant YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sub-licenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the User Submissions in connection with the YouTube Website and YouTube’s (and its successor’s) business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the YouTube Website (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels.” (8)

Beyond the restrictions of YouTube, a large number of internet TV models are implementing a wide variety of promising alternatives for a very different approach to the digital networking of video. One of the most important of these is the Participatory Culture Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to enable and support independent, non-corporate creativity and political engagement. Its primary project is a free and open-source internet television platform, Miro (previously known as Democracy Player) is a free open-source desktop video application designed to make mass media more open and accessible for everyone.

There are a number of obvious links that can be drawn between the aims of the PCF and those involved with Radical Software in the 1970s:

“Television is the most popular medium in our culture. But broadcast and cable TV has always been controlled by a small number of big corporations. We believe that the internet provides an opportunity to open television in ways that have never been possible before. Miro is designed to eliminate gatekeepers. Viewers can connect to any video provider that they want. This frees creators to use the video hosting setup that works best for them – whether they choose to self-publish or use a service. It’s the kind of openness that the internet allows and that we should all demand.” [emphasis added] (9)

If just a few companies such as YouTube dominate online video, creativity will be restricted by their corporate terms and conditions of use. If the most popular video tools rely on closed, proprietary distribution systems, creativity and innovation will suffer. FLOSS video platforms are specifically designed to give video creators and viewers more freedom in the way they aggregate, browse and distribute video. Because they are open, they work with as many video hosting sites and video search engines as possible. Rather than being forced to use a few monopolistic services, the developers of FLOSS platforms believe that the future of media depends on creators being able to choose the publishing services that work best for them.

A number of other projects are worthy of mention here, including Wikimedia, OurMedia, Archive.org, BlipTV, Metacafe and OhTV. Another is Videoart.net, which highlights the problem of the intersection between local and international concerns. Founded by video artists and filmmakers based in New York City, Videoart.net provides a searchable online archive and connects artists with curators, producers, and the public. The Videoart.net archive is open to all genres, from short films, video installations to interviews. We could well adopt their mission as our own:

* To establish an international hub of video artists, filmmakers and audiences.

* To expand video arts into public spaces accessible to a wider audience.

* To create an online community of filmmakers and artists.

If we can imagine a growing collection of digitised work with large “metadatabases” and tag clouds associated with the collection, we start to see how we can preserve, distribute and contextualise video art material in a recombinatory history/archive project. Using web interfaces we can sort, aggregate and recombine elements into multiple histories and new relations. In order to achieve this we need to use new open tools that help us grasp the power of the growing digital disorder.

An example from the field of literature may be instructive here. Project Gutenberg (a volunteer effort to digitize, archive, and distribute cultural works) was founded in 1971. It is one of the oldest digital libraries, and most of the items in its collection are complete texts of public domain books. The project tries to make these as free as possible, in long-lasting, open formats that can be used on almost any computer. Unlike some other digital library projects, Project Gutenberg does not claim new copyright on titles it publishes. Instead, it encourages their free reproduction and distribution. Since December 2006, Project Gutenberg has more than 20,000 items in its collection, with an average of over fifty new e-books being added each week.

A similar distributed network of intelligence could be initiated for international video art. While there is clearly a need to address questions of rights (Creative Commons style), value (originals and copies don’t make any sense in the digital world, but in the artworld they do), and governance, success in other fields of endeavour suggest that these obstacles are surmountable. Indeed, the active negotiation of these issues has led to the most successful and innovative systems of the moment.

Although the rise of YouTube and other proprietary video services have offered us a glimpse into the extraordinary possibilities of globally distributed user-generated video networks, it also alerts us to the issues that video artists have been challenging for decades. As a loosely connected network of interested curators, researchers and artists, we have a powerful new means of distribution at our disposal.

Network television has been consistently challenged and diversified by video art and user-generated content. The challenge remains to organise our diverse ideas of what constitutes video art in the age of digital networks, and to collectively develop a distributed open content system that will build upon the rich history of open circuits and participatory cultures of video art.

Ross Rudesch Harley

References

1) Nam June Paik, quoted in David Joselit, Feedback: Television Against Democracy, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2007, p.46.
2) Mark Pesce quoted in J.D.Lasica, Darknet: Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation”, Wiley, New Jersey, 2005, p.162.
3) [empahasis added] Kate Horsfield, “Busting the Tube: A Brief History of Video Art”, in Horsfield, K and Hilderbrand, L, (eds) Feedback: The Video Data Bank Catalogue of Video Art an Artist Interviews, Temple university Press, Philadelphia, 2006, p.9.
4) Stoffel Debuysere, “Culture Intercom Redux: Audiovisual media in a network culture”,in Ramon Coelho (ed), Content in Context: New Technologies for Distribuition, Netherlands Media Art Institute, Amsterdam, 2005. p. 51.
5) http://www.oasis-archive.eu/index.php/En:Metadata:Model, accessed 4 April 2008.
6) By asking this I suggest that we need to respond to the conditions surrounding the rise of YouTube, today’s most popular video service on the web. According to Greg Sterling of the Search Engine Journal, YouTube presently contains 6.1 million videos with 1.73 billion total views taking up an estimated 45 terabytes of storage6. Almost 70% of the online population has watched online video and the average consumer watches 73 minutes of online video a month.
7) www.ubu.com/film, accessed 20 November 2007.
8) YouTube Terms of Use, http://www.youtube.com/t/terms, accessed 3 April 2008.
9) participatoryculture.org, accessed 10 November 2007.