“By combining grids with everyday materials – milk crates, twine, plastic cups and stickers – in public space, the works embodied an ‘open-source’ ethic, building on others’ designs and showing, rather than hiding, how they were made. Like open-source software and the open nature of the early internet, these artworks displayed their source code, inviting the viewer to copy and remake them.” (Off the Grid, p.23)
Thank you, Lachlan McDowall, for putting forward this concept because it explains much of 20th-century art. The trajectory of twentieth-century art history, starting with the Dadaist readymades, found objects, collages, chance art and cut-up poetry, shows an increase in open-source art. And it continued with Mail Art’s use of stickers, stamps and other open-source techniques. And Punk music with its open source code on the legendary t-shirt showing guitar tablature and words: “this is D, G, A now go out and form a band”. Or, to use McDowell’s examples, street artists like Invader or Sunfigo.
Open-source art, like open-source code, is where the code is evident in the product or readily accessible and free to use. It is not a technique that has to be taught and practised. The formula for cut-up poetry was first explained in 1920 by Tristan Tzara in his “Dada Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love”. And cut-up poetry has influenced William Burroughs, David Bowie, and many others.
For there are enormous numbers of people participating in art in the 20th century doing open-source art. For it is an anarchist manifesto of propaganda by deed empowering others to participate. Open-source art is democratic as it is art by the people, art anyone can do. Why is this important? For it is a source of freedom, liberation and the pursuit of happiness, my friend. It is important because everyone can enjoy it and participate, regardless of their social status, age and ability. This utopian aspect is why many Dada and Surrealist art codes, like collage, are now used in primary school art classes.
Yet open-source art is often very unpopular; angry cries of “this is not art!” Many would be voted out if there was a popular vote on what art was. Well-known works of open-source art such as Duchamp’s Fountain or Cage’s 4’33” are frequently held up as objects for derision because they destroy art’s position of superiority. That art requires skill to preserve it for the wealthy who can afford to pay for the time.
Open-source art doesn’t require a talent for the media or training in prescribed skills, and its critics miss the point by decrying the lack of skill involved. They ignore the mental effort in creating an open source code, the elegance in coding, and the artist’s character. We must not forget that in explaining cut-up poetry, Tzara noted, “the poem will resemble you”, ironically equating personal identity with random actions. The identity of the poet or artist of open-source is more evident than the studied, trained and mediated actions of a traditional painter. Like gifts, the gift and identity of the giver are forever entangled; for something to be a gift, it has to have been given by someone. Just as a battle axe blade signed by notorious stand-over man Chopper Read means something different from one I signed.