Clay, seeds, and source code. Three articles (2/3).
We present three articles on collective creation and technological appropriation written by the art collective TAG Taller d’Intangibles (“TAG Intangibles Workshop”) between 2006 and 2012. We retrieve these articles as contributions that invite to reflect on and discuss technology, collective artistic creation, authority of authorship, and technological and creative appropriation.
TAG Taller d’Intangibles is an art collective created in 1996. Especially during this period, the collective combined artistic projects with research, reflection on the practice itself, and written production.
These articles were redacted in the socio-political context of 2008 crisis, and the Arab Spring, 15-M and Occupy movements. They were written after the movement against the Gulf Wars, the first waves of experimental net.art, emergence of wiki systems, web 2.0, and «collaborative» platforms.
The second article aims to question the principle of authority exercised by authorship or specialized knowledge on the technologies we use collectively, exploring the possibility of a radically modelable collective creation system, like a block of clay, where everyone can be the administrator with the minimum learning curve and with a reasonable robustness that does not impede its operation.
Argila, an invitation to get muddy
Rethinking networked collective creation systems
Jaume Ferrer Rosera and David Gómez Fontanills. November 2006. TAG Taller d’Intangibles · enlloc.net.
Version 1.2 – 2021 · License: Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Share Alike
Paper originally presented in Catalan at «Cibersociety Congress»
Translation: Pelin Doğan (Col·lectivaT)
The “Argila” (“Clay”) proposal arises from the Germinador project launched by the TAG Taller d’Intangibles (“TAG Intangibles Workshop”) team in October 2005, in order to collect and generate proposals for online collective creation.
It is a theoretical proposal aimed at stimulating the discussion about online collective creation systems. We imagined a hypothetical online system, and we compared it to an analogical metaphor in order to visualize the challenges more clearly. We suggest starting from the challenges it poses, in order to critically review some existing creative environments, as well as to use these challenges as a starting point to generate new systems.
Argila raises the possibility of creating a collective creation-oriented online multi-user system that would meet the following characteristics:
The users would have to be able to reprogram it as they used it
The programming would have to be easy for any participant to grasp
It should be robust despite the changes
It would have to be distributed in order to ensure decentralized control
The purpose of this approach is not so much to achieve a design, rather it is to initiate a discussion that allows us to question the principle of authority exercised by authorship or specialized knowledge regarding the technologies we use collectively.
The fact that online creation takes place in technologically mediated work environments suggests that a certain purpose and a set of conditions predate the aesthetic experience of the participants. It implies a linear model, in which the author (artist, programmer, designer…) begins first by defining the conditions of the experience, and then the participants interact under those conditions. Although interactions between participants can trigger the emergence of properties that were not envisaged by the author, the experience generally takes place within the boundaries set by the very design. These environments follow a linear process in the sense that certain things come either before or after other things, and this linearity results in a varying degree of control over the experience. Someone previously determines some boundaries that the participants cannot change later.
Would it be possible to design a working environment that participants could modify as they use it, completely changing its purpose and rules, in a way that they would become not only the co-authors of the aesthetic experience of using it, but also the co-authors of the experience of reprogramming the working environment itself? Such an environment might be considered non-linear for two reasons. First, because there would not be a before and after. Instead, there would be moments of defining the conditions of use, and these conditions could be applied at the same instant. And second, because the participants could take control of the system, including its purpose. It would resemble a biological process, because it would be designed in a way that its own metabolism -the interaction between the participants- would end up altering it completely and would evolve it towards a different environment in an unpredictable way, but at the same time ensuring that it would continue being a multi-user working environment.
Metaphorically speaking, this environment would be like clay. Clay is a material that can be shaped into any form, recycled and re-modelled by other people and for other purposes, if taken to the kneading trough. This article aims to point out some basic questions about the characteristics that a “clay environment” should have, and about the discussion threads that such a proposal can initiate.
Context: the germinator
We have been identifying systems, practices, and processes, which we try to describe by showing the similarities and differences between them. This compilation work also serves to suggest variants or generate new proposals.
This work and the proposals bring up the reflection that perhaps we should take into account not only the conditions of experience but also who or which factors define these conditions. From this line of thinking we arrive at a proposal in which the definition of the conditions would be one of the changeable parts. There emerges Argila as a theoretical proposal to propel this discussion.
We will begin by describing some models to contrast them with the proposed model. Then we will go over the four challenges outlined in the proposal one by one. We will explain the experiences based on using a mud block to explor
Contrast: open work, closed system
It seems paradoxical, but some of the proposals that provide the resources and conditions to create collectively on the internet do not usually provide the participants with the possibility to change those conditions.
This is the case in some net.art works. In the model they follow, the participants have a limited experience defined by some conditions previously imposed by an artist-programmer. Whoever creates the system, whether an individual or a group, has a position that other participants cannot obtain.
A strong version of this model would be the cases where the software linked to the system and other elements created to provide the experience are kept under a license that restricts their use and prevents their modification by third parties without the permission of the authors. A weak version would be represented by those cases where the system is a free software and/or other necessary elements are made available under a copyleft license, which allows them to be distributed and modified freely. Supposedly, the participants could clone the system to another server and modify it. But this is not the model Argila proposes, either. As we will see later in more detail, Argila seeks to eliminate the need to replicate the program or create alternative development lines.
Contrast: layers of an onion
The most important free software development projects offer us another model where there is a large group of participants of the experience and a smaller group of system developers. People in the first group can move on to the latter, though it might be difficult due to social norms or level of knowledge.
Some processes of free software development by the community are described using the metaphor “layers of an onion”. According to this model, there are different “layers” or levels of involvement in the development of a software. There is an outer layer of many users, who simply use the software and, maybe, report some errors, to a central core. The inner layer is formed by one (the maintainer) or a few users, who decide the incorporation of contributions, the development lines, and they coordinate pending tasks. There are various degrees of contribution and commitment to the project in between. Theoretically, anyone can move from one layer of this model to another. The fact of gradually going inwards may depend on election and/or social recognition norms, the level of knowledge or the capacity to acquire that knowledge, and the availability of each person. This layout has been used to describe projects like the development of Linux kernel, Debian distribution, or the server software Apache (VAN WENDEL DE JOODE et alt., 2003).
The onion model is surely a good way of organizing software production, optimizing efforts and establishing a good communication between users and programmers. At the same time, it lays the ground for gradual incorporation of new developers, and guarantees the continuity of the project. But with Argila, our experiment proposal is to find a model where all users participating in collective creation experience would (or can easily) be potential developers or transformers of the conditions of this experience. This would mean a steep learning curve as to how to participate in collective creation and in terms of the knowledge to modify the software.
Contrast: trunks and branches
When the access to the source code and the freedom to modify it are guaranteed, free software makes it possible for a person, group or organization to take the program and develop a different version. But in practice, in the main development projects, there is a joint evolution of the software on a single “trunk”, and the improvements are incorporated following the onion model. New versions that correct errors or incorporate new functionalities are published one after another.
It is always possible to clone the program and develop it on a different line. This is called a fork and it does not happen very often. Since the goal is to make a good program, creating forks would mean to disperse the efforts of the community. It usually occurs when there is an unresolved conflict. The new line of development aspires to replace the old one and in most cases one replaces the other. A less conflicting case would be when a very complex system with multiple functionalities is divided into several projects, and each of them would enhance some of its aspects.
The possibility of creating forks at a given time is a conflict resolution mechanism and a guarantee to avoid the temptations of monopolization or excessive appropriation of projects. However, with the Argila proposal we don’t think of a system in versions nor with ramifications, but a system that evolves smoothly without ceasing to function.
Challenge: A system that is reprogrammed while in use
Argila proposes that the modifications would be made “live”. The users would reprogram the software while they use it online, and that it won’t be necessary to clone it in order to make modifications. The idea of how the software would evolve is closer to how a wiki text is modified, rather than how a program is modified with different versions published as beta or release. The difference with writing a wiki would be that the intervention could modify not only the structure of the contents but also the basic functionality of the same system as a tool, to the extent that it could be turned into a completely different tool. There are programming environments that support reprogramming, such as Emacs. However, the challenge here is to achieve online reprogramming during the very use of the system; in other words, while others are using it.
Challenge: An easy-to-reprogram system
In addition, in a proposed scenario, the participants can proceed to change the program easily, and the idea of a stable core of developers disappears. There shouldn’t be a significant difference between the number of users participating in the collective creation experience and those who modify and evolve the software. In fact, the idea is that potentially all users are participants and developers; the learning curve for using or modifying the software is steep and comparable.
Traditionally, there have been attempts to facilitate accessing the necessary knowledge to program in various ways: with programming languages that can be used in a similar way as human language (like SmallTalk); specialized forms of scripting within authoring tools (such as Lingo within Director, or ActionScript within Flash), or specific tagging and programming systems of some wikis (such as the one that Mediawiki provides); the wizards based on using forms in order to avoid having to write source code; or general-purpose language programming environments that allow the use of a more compact and specialized coding in high-level tasks (such as Processing).
All of these approaches should be taken into account when we think of Argila, a “clay system”. But they also pose one of the challenges of the proposal, and a possible paradox: If you simplify the way you program, you could be creating some kind of an «authoring language» that requires a lower level of software working underneath and harder to reprogram, which in turn could impose its limits on the majority of the users.
Challenge: a robust system
Another challenge is the robustness of the system. The environment should work in a way that it could be reprogrammed without losing the basic functionality of being a collective work environment, regardless of the evolution of its purpose or possibilities. It should be considered whether or not the strategies to achieve this consistency imply the need to maintain certain initial conditions in the technological or social setting, and also how the legal distribution conditions affect this goal.
Wiki change histories or systems like CVS (Concurrent Versions System), used in software development to be able to work with different versions, give us examples of how robustness can be maintained during a work process by using the resource to retrieve/compare the current state with previous states. These mechanisms, however, bring up a new paradox: Since some system parts are responsible for keeping track of the changes in the same system, those parts shouldn’t be changeable, and therefore, they would fall out of user control.
Challenge: a distributed system
If the environment remains on the same server from which it originated, there is a dependency on the system administrator of that server (who could directly or indirectly be the designer or artist that holds the authorship position, the maintainer or the web-master). It would be necessary to find a way to distribute it on several servers, or a way that any user could partially or completely serve and manage the software from their own machine. P2P type networks, the way some netbots [and blockchain-based systems] work are the references to have in mind.
From metaphor to reality: “analogue” clay
Reflecting on and discussing about the Argila proposal continuously led us to clay metaphor, and we thought it would be interesting to do a collective creation project with real clay: mud, the “analogue” clay. Thus arose “Argila-entre-mans” (“Clay-in-hand”). At the time of writing this article we experimented Argila-entre-mans in two very different contexts: an art festival and a hack meeting. Both experiments took place during 2006. The first was carried out as a part of GERMINADOR@lloc activities at Maçart Festival, held every year in Maçanet de Cabrenys. We did the experiment again during the “Hackmeeting”, a meeting about free software, open knowledge with hacklabs from all over Spain, which took place in Mataró in 2006 under the name “Hackiluro”.
We made a large block of clay available for a certain time period (in both cases it was 3 days) on a table at a place with a certain turnout of attendees in these events. We invited people to participate in an evolving collective work by modelling the mud piece. We proposed them to intervene freely; if they wanted they could modify or transform what the previous participants had done. We just asked them not to take away mud pieces from the block. Other than that, we were careful to keep the mud moist so it wouldn’t dry out.
Exploiting the metaphor
Analysing Argila-entre-mans as a system can help us understand the key elements of the theoretical proposal that we lay out with Argila. It also helps us extract elements that will be useful in future collective creation proposals.
Argila-entre-mans is based on six main principles:
1. Plasticity: It is based on a physical property, not a social rule. If the clay has enough water, it maintains its plasticity and can be modelled.
2. No disintegrating: According to this social rule, users should not take away parts of clay. The idea is to preserve the block as a whole.
3. Minimum maintenance: If we spray it from time to time to maintain its moisture level, the clay retains the ability to respond to pressures by the users, deform, be accumulated, be kneaded… But if we let it dry it loses plasticity and becomes rigid. In that case, users can no longer continue working on it. In case of subtraction, it would require someone to add more clay to the block.
4. Resistance: Once completely dried, if the clay is immersed in water long enough, it can regain its plasticity (as long as it is not baked). It can also be recovered from subtraction, by adding clay.
5. No expertise: Working on the block or taking care of its maintenance does not require special knowledge. Any user can do it. Obviously, those with previous modelling experience can make the most of it and maybe they can achieve more controlled results. But in principle, everyone, with or without experience, can make significant contributions of any kind.
6: Minimum instructions: In theory, the user should be informed only about the necessity to comply with principle 2 (no disintegrating) and principle 3 (how to do the maintenance).
What do Argila-entre-mans users do?
- They modify the shape of the block, entirely or partially.
- They cannot substantially alter the principles of the application, except 2 (violation of preserving-the-whole-block rule).
- Although this was not the case, in theory any user can take care of maintenance (by wetting the clay if they notice that it is too dry, or by reintroducing clay if it is disintegrated).
- The users interact with other users:
* Directly, by talking or with gestures while working on the clay block
* Indirectly, by working with the modifications made by other users
By observing the principles and the possibilities of user actions, we can draw some conclusions with respect to the limits of the system:
- Apparently, Argila-entre-mans does not substantially differ from any other joint creation system that we have had the opportunity to study (GÓMEZ, 2004) (FERRER, 2004), in the sense that users are still unable to change the principles of the application, as long as they use it in a conventional manner. The main difference is that the system is so robust (principle 4) and its maintenance requires so little specialization (principle 5) that any user can take on the role of system administrator.
- However, it has two weak points. The principles 2 (no disintegrating) and 3 (minimum maintenance) are social rules that can be violated. It means that, if the violation is not compensated by a user who would take on the administration, it could cause the system to cease to be joint creation-oriented. That said, this would only be a temporary situation. Unlike other systems, in Argila-entre-mans even after a period of no administration (drying or disintegration), any user could recover the system simply by adding more clay or kneading it again. It would not require the intervention of the original creators of the proposal, provided that the documentation is preserved (principle 6) or it can be reconstructed by some participants from memory.
- The most interesting aspect is that it allows changing some basic principles that are also fundamental, specifically the principles of plasticity (1) and the documentation (6), which explains how to use and maintain the clay. Although, to do it you need to use the system in an unconventional way.
- The physical properties of the clay can be altered by baking it or by mixing it with other substances that would change its plasticity (or that would make it impossible to use, for example if someone had a bad idea of inserting needles or glass pieces into it). Luckily, the kiln to bake the clay or the additives are resources that were beyond the reach of most users. In Hackiluro some users began to use a stick as a modelling tool, which eventually ended up being part of the internal structure. And the clay block got a shape on this structure, which would not have been possible to achieve with the clay alone.
- The documentation can be destroyed or altered by modifying/including new rules or removing principle 2 (no disintegration). In that case, it would be enough to rewrite the poster that accompanies the block, or simply remove it. It did not occur. The lack of informality is probably due to various reasons. But possibly, the context of the two events where we conducted the experiment and the fact that we assumed the maintenance of the block as TAG team were influencing factors. In Hackiluro, parallel dynamics occurred where some participants actively collaborated in the assembly and supervision of a capture system, which was accumulating images of the changes in the block over three days. In a way, the original documentation of the system was remarkably expanded.
Conservative approach and radical approach
One of the issues that Argila strongly raises is related to the strength of the system. Argila-entre-mans reasonably (though not absolutely) guarantees that the system continues functioning, even though unconventional use is the only way for the user to participate in redefining the general conditions of the user experience.
We could establish some resemblances in a software-based system. Like, the reprogramming capacity corresponds to the plasticity of the system; whereas the documentation has an equivalent in the electronic documentation (explanations, instructions, signs…), which maintains the purpose and ways of using the system, and most of all, which prevents its removal by keeping the code free (conditions of distribution). This allows us to define two ways of approaching the problem that Argila poses, one conservative and one radical.
A conservative approach would mean that the very plasticity (ability to reprogram) and the documentation of the system (purpose and distribution) must remain protected, in order to ensure that the system effectively supports reprogramming, and to ensure the sense of joint (free) creation no matter what happens. But that brings us closer to the idea of “sandpit”. Everyone can do and undo things within the sandpit, but they cannot alter its principles. This is the model of joint creation projects such as Wikipedia. In this sense, Argila would only introduce the difference that it would not be geared towards content but reprogrammable behaviours, but we would work within a predefined and protected environment. In this case, the challenge would be to meet the principle 5 (not requiring expertise for it to be available to everyone).
A radical approach to Argila would imply allowing users to act on the very plasticity of the system (ability to reprogram) and on the documentation (purpose and distribution). Given the principle 5 of no expertise, the user would be explicitly invited to act in an unconventional way. In that case, how could Argila continue being “Argila” in an online software context, i.e. being reprogrammable and/or non-proprietary? This is not a new discussion. The wikis have shown strength despite the apparent weakness that unlimited access to content editing suggests (GÓMEZ, 2005). It remains to be seen to what extent could the strength be assured when the code itself remains accessible.
It is easy to think of other questions: What contribution do conservative approach and radical approach provide? Is there a possible intermediate way? Is it possible, no longer technically but theoretically, to have a radical approach that would overcome the apparent paradox that implies facilitating/promoting unconventional uses and, at the same time, aiming to preserve the consistency of the system according to the original proposal?
Argila as a study tool
Without trying to draw definitive conclusions, since the research remains open, here we summarize the purpose of Argila. We began this article saying that it was a theoretical proposal, and the goal was for it to be a discussion stimulus. It also helps us to ascertain the possibilities that a method based on formulating theoretical proposals as a complement to experimental research offers in the field of online collective creation:
- It enables to become aware of the different models that exist.
- It enables to identify the characteristics of the systems.
- It helps us make ideological and/or political substrates in the technologies visible.
- It encourages the discussion about the appropriation of technologies and the position we take in relation to these.
- It encourages the discussion about the autonomy of civil society in technological development.
- It fosters the discussion about the digital divide for reasons of knowledge, and the old debate on access to technical knowledge and the exercise of power in relation to these.
With Argila we aim to contribute to critically reviewing the existing systems but also to imagining new ones. We believe that the attempt to resolve the challenges can make visible some proposals and systems that have already solved them partially; and at the same time, that this attempt can be a starting point for new proposals that would provide new solutions. Therefore, we think of it as a study and production-aimed analysis tool in the field of online collective creation.
Discussion of this text in the category
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Next series text: Collective Creation and Technological Appropriation
Expected publishing Date: December 13, 2021.
This text is published simultaneously on the websites of the cooperatives
With the support of the Institut Ramon Llull
If you want to republish it in any of the languages in which it is published or translate it to other languages, please contact us.
- VAN WENDEL DE JOODE, R. BRUIJN, J.A. VAN EETEN, M. J. G., 2003, Protecting the Virtual Commons: Self-Organizing Open Source Communities and Innovative Intellectual Property Regimes, The Hague: Asser Press, versió en línia (Digital Library of the Commons) http://dlc.dlib.indiana.edu/documents/dir0/00/00/10/75/
- GÓMEZ, David, 2004, Sistemes de creació col.lectiva en xarxa: cooperació i conflicte; regles formals i informals,
- GÓMEZ, David, 2005, “Wikipedia, un projecte comunitari en xarxa”, a COL·LECTIU INVESTIGACIÓ, Recerca activista i moviments socials, Barcelona: El Viejo Topo.
- FERRER, Jaume, 2004, Sistemes cooperatius i de creació col.lectiva en xarxa: conflicte, competència i cooperació entre persones, eines automatitzades i agents de software.