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<h1> Performing Libre Graphics</h1>
<p>In <strong>April 2014</strong> I traveled from Leipzig to the north of
Germany to meet with artist Cornelia Sollfrank. It was right after the
Libre Graphics Meeting, and the impressions from the event were still very
fresh. Cornelia had asked me for a video interview as part of <em>Giving
what you don't have</em>, <sup><a href="#b026324c">1</a></sup> a series of
conversations about what she refers to as 'complex copyright-critical
practices'. She was interested in forms of appropriation art that instead
of claiming some kind of 'super-user' status for artists, might provide a
platform for open access and Free Culture not imaginable elsewhere. I've
admired Cornelia's contributions to hacker culture for long. She pioneered
as a cyberfeminist in the 1990s with the hilarious and intelligent net-art
piece <em>Female Extension</em> <sup><a href="#26ab0db9">2</a></sup>,
co-founded Old Boys Network <sup><a href="#6d7fce9f">3</a></sup> and
developed seminal projects such as the <em>Net Art Generator</em>. The
opportunity to spend two sunny spring days with her intelligence, humour
and cyberfeminist wisdom could not have come at a better moment.</p>
<h2> What is Libre Graphics?</h2>
<p>Libre Graphics is quite a large ecosystem of software tools; of people,
people that develop these tools but also people that use these tools;
practices, like how do you work with them, not just how do you make things
quickly and in an impressive way, but also how these tools might change
your practice; and cultural artifacts that result from it. It is all these
elements that come together, I would call Libre Graphics. The term 'libre'
is chosen deliberately. It is slightly more mysterious than the term
'free', especially when it turns up in the English language. It sort of
hints that there is something different, something done on purpose. And it
is also a group of people that are inspired by Free Software culture, by
Free Culture, by thinking about how to share both their tools, their
recipes and the outcomes of all this. Libre Graphics goes in many
directions. But it is an interesting context to work in, that for me has
been quite inspiring for a few years now.</p>
<h2> The context of Libre Graphics</h2>
<p>The context of Libre Graphics is multiple. I think that I am excited
about it and also part of why it is sometimes difficult to describe it in
a short sentence. The context is design, and people that are interested in
design, in creating visuals, animation, videos, typography... and that is
already multiple contexts, because each of these disciplines have their
own histories, and their own types of people that get touched by them.
Then there is software, people that are interested in the digital
material. They say, I am excited about raw bits and the way a vector gets
produced. And that is a very, almost formal, interest in how graphics are
made. Then there is people that do software. They're interested in
programming, in programming languages, in thinking about interfaces, and
thinking about ways software can become a tool. And then there are people
that are interested in Free Software. How can you make digital tools that
can be shared, but also, how can that produce processes that can be
shared. Free Software activists to people that are interested in
developing specific tools for sharing design and software development
processes, like Git or Subversion, those kind of things. I think the
multiple contexts are really special and rich in Libre Graphics.</p>
<h2> Free Software culture</h2>
<p>Free Software culture, and I use the term 'culture' because I am
interested in, let's say, the cultural aspect of it, and this includes
software. For me software is a cultural object. But I think it is
important to emphasize this, because it easily turns into a technocentric
approach, which I think is important to stay away from. Free Software
culture is the thinking that, when you develop technology, and I am using
technology in the sense that it is cultural as well to me, deeply
cultural, you need to take care as well of sharing the recipes, for how
this technology has been developed. This produces many different other
tools, ways of working, ways of speaking, vocabularies, because it changes
radically the way we make and the way we produce hierarchies. It means for
example, if you produce a graphic design artifact, that you share all the
source files that were necessary to make it; but you also share as much as
you can, descriptions or narrations of how it came to be, which does
include maybe how much was paid for it, where difficulties were in
negotiating with the printer; and what elements were included, because a
graphic design object is usually a compilation of different elements; what
software was used to make it, and where it might have resisted. The
consequences of taking the Free Software culture serious in a design
context, means that you care about all these different layers of the work,
all the different conditions that actually made the work happen.</p>
<h2> Free Culture</h2>
<p>The relationship from Libre Graphics to Free Culture is not always that
explicit. For some people it is enough to work with tools that are
released under a GPL, an open content licence. And there it stops. Even
their work will be released under proprietary licences. For others, it is
important to make the full circle and to think about what the legal status
is of the work they release. That is the more general one. Then, Free
Culture, we can use that very loosely, as in 'everything that is
circulating under conditions that it can be reused and remade'. That would
be my position. Free Culture is of course also referred to a very specific
idea of how that would work, namely Creative Commons. For myself Creative
Commons is problematic, although I value the fact that it exists and has
really created a broader discussion around licences in creative practices.
I value that. For me the distinction Creative Commons makes for almost all
the licences they promote, between commercial and non-commercial work, and
as a consequence, between professional and amateur work, I find that very
problematic. Because I think one of the most important elements of Free
Software culture for me, is the possibility for people from different
backgrounds, with different skill sets, to actually engage with the
digital artifacts they're surrounded with. By making this lazy separation
between commercial and non-commercial, which especially in the context of
the web as it is right now, is not really easy to hold up, seems really
problematic. It creates an illusion of clarity that I think actually makes
more trouble than clarity. So I use Free Culture licences, I use licences
that are more explicit about the fact that anyone can use whatever I
produce in any context. Because I think that is where the real power is of
Free Software culture. For me Free Software licences and all the licences
that are around it, because I think there is many different types and that
is interesting, is that they have a viral power built in. So if you apply
a Free Software licence to, for example, a typeface, it means that someone
else, even someone else you don't know, has the permission and doesn't
have to ask for a permission, to reuse the typeface, to change it, to mix
it with something else, to distribute it and to sell it. That is one part,
that is already very powerful. But the real secret of such a licence is,
that once this person re-releases the typeface, it means that they need to
keep that same licence and it propagates across the network and that is
where it is really powerful.</p>
<h2> Free tools</h2>
<p>It is important to use tools that are released under conditions that
allow me to look further than its surface. For many reasons. There is an
ethical reason. It is very problematic I think, as a friend explained last
week, to feel that you're renting a room in a hotel. That is often the way
practitioners nowadays relate to their tools. They have no right to move
the furniture. They have no right to invite friends to their hotel room.
They have to check out at eleven, etc. it is a very sterile relationship
to the tools. That is one part. The other is that there is little way to
come into contact with the cultural aspects of the tools. Some things that
I suspected before starting to use Free Software tools for my practice,
but has been already for almost ten years, continuously exciting, is the
whole, let's say, all the other elements around it. The way people
organize themselves in conferences, mailing lists, the kinds of
communication that happens, the vocabularies, the histories, the
connections between different disciplines... And all that is available to
look at, to work with, to come into contact with; to speak to people that
do these tools and ask them, why is it like this and not like that. And
that to me seems obvious that artists want to have that kind of layered
relationship with their tools, and not just only accept whatever comes out
of next door shop. I have a very different, almost different physical
experience of these tools, because I can enter on many levels. That makes
them part of my practice, not just means to an end. I really can take them
into my practice. That I find interesting, as an artist and as a
<h2> Artifacts</h2>
<p>The outcomes of this type of practice are different, or at least, let's
say, in the kind of work I make, try to make and the people I like to work
with. There is obviously also groups of people that would like to do
Hollywood movies with those tools. That is kind of interesting, that that
happens. For me somehow the technological context or conditions that made
a work possible, will always occur in the final result. So, that is one
part. And the other is that the product is never the end. It means that in
whatever way source materials will be released, will be made available, it
means that a product is always the beginning of another product, either by
me or by other people. I think that is two things that you can always see
in the kind of works we make when we do libre-graphics-my-style. When we
make a book, for example, what is already different, is when we start the
process, it is not yet defined what tool we will use. There is a whole
array of tools you can choose from. I mean, books are basically text on
paper, and there are many ways to arrive at that output. For one book we
did a few years ago, we decided for the first time, because we had never
used this tool before, to use TeX, a typesetting system that is developed
by Donald Knuth in the context of academic publishing. That has been
around as an almost mythological solution for a perfect typesetting. We
were curious about whether we could use that system that is developed in a
very specific context for an art catalog that we wanted to make. We had to
learn how to use this tool, which meant that we somehow had to learn the
vocabulary, understand its sort of perspective; things that were possible
or not, get used to the kind of humor that is quite terrible in these
manuals; accept that certain things that we thought would be easy, were
actually not easy at all; and then understand how we could use the things
that were popping up or not working or that were different, how we could
use them in our advantage. The final result is a book that is slightly
strange, because there are some mistakes that have been left in,
deliberately or by accident sometimes. The book contains an extensive
description of how it was made. Both visually, like it explains the
technical details of how it was made, but also the description of that
learning process. Another example of how tools, practice and outcomes are
somehow connected, but also the whole politics around it, because often
these projects are also ways of teasing out; ways licences, practice and
tools somehow interact, is a project called 'Sans Guilt'. It is a play
with the 'Gill Sans' which is a famous classic typeface that is claimed to
be owned by a company called Monotype. But according to our understanding,
they have no right to actually claim this typeface as such. But through
their communication they do so. OSP was invited to work in an art academy
in London, where they had a lead version. And we decided to play with the
typeface. The typeface OSP released has many different versions, not
versions as in bold, light etc. but it has different levels of 'licencing
risk'. One is a straight scan of the prints that were made at that
workshop. Another version is more guilty, in the sense that it is an
extraction from a .pdf using the Monotype Gill. Another is a redrawn
version that takes the matrix, the spacing of a Monotype Gill, but
combines it with a redrawn example. All different variations of this font
touch on different elements of licencing problems that might occur with
typefaces. We sent our experiment to Monotype, because we wanted to hear
from them what they thought. After a few months we received a letter from
a lawyer saying, would you please identify yourself. We decided to write
back as we are, which is, 25 people from 20 different countries with
stable and unstable addresses. This long list probably made that we never
heard anything again, and 'Sans Guilt' is still available from our website
under an open font licence. What the is important, the typeface is
different, in the sense that the specimen is not much about showing off
how beautiful it will look in any context, but has the description of the
process, the motivation of why we did it, the letter we sent to Monotype,
the response we got, ... The whole packaging of the font becomes then a
way of speaking about all these layers that are in our practice.</p>
<h2> Libre fonts</h2>
<p>A very exciting part of Libre Graphics is the Libre Font movement,
which is strong and has been strong for a long time. Fonts are the basic
building blocks of how graphics come to life. When you type something, it
is there. And the fact that that part of the work is free, is important on
many levels. Things you often don't think about when you speak English and
you stay within a limited character set, is that, when you live in let's
say India, the language you speak is not available as a digital typeface,
meaning that when you want to produce a book in the tools that are
available or publish it online, your language has no way of expressing
itself. That has to do with commercial interests, laws, ways the technical
infrastructure has been built. By understanding that it is important that
you can express yourself in the language and with the characters you need,
it is also obvious that that part needs to be free. Fonts are also
interesting because they exist on many levels. They exist in your system;
they're almost software because they're quite complicated objects; they
appear in your screen, they are when you print a document; they are there
all the time. We consider the alphabet as a totally accessible and
available and a universal right to have the alphabet at our disposal. So
it is about 'freeing the A', you know. That's quite a beautiful energy. I
think that has made the Libre Font movement very strong. Something that
has happened the last years and brings up new problems and potential areas
to work on, is fonts available for the web. Web fonts have really exploded
the amount of free fonts available. Before, fonts were always, let's say,
when they were used, tied to a document, and there was some kind of
fantasy about that you could hold them, you could somehow contain them,
licence them and keep them in check. With the web that idea has gone. And
many people have decided to liberate their fonts to be able to make them
usable for a website. Because if you think about it, if you use a font on
a website, it means that it has to be able to travel everywhere. Everyone
has to be able to look at what the font does, but it is not just an
output. It is not just an endpoint. The font is active, it means it is
available. In theory, any font that appears on the web is both display and
program. By displaying the page, you need to run the font. That means the
font needs to be available as a source and as a result. That means you
have to publish your font. This has really created a big boom in the last
few years in Free Fonts, because that is the easiest way to deal with that
problem: allow people to download these fonts, but in a way that keeps
authorship clear, that keeps genealogy clear, and also propagates then the
possibility of making new fonts based on someone else's work.</p>
<h2> Free artifacts / open standards</h2>
<p>It took me a while to figure this out. For me it was obvious that if
you would use Free Software, you would produce free artifacts. It seems
obvious, but it is not at all the case. There is full-fledged commercial
production happening with these tools. But one thing that keeps the
results, the outcomes of these projects freer than most commercial tools,
is that there is really an emphasis on open document formats. That is
extremely important, because first of all, it is very obvious that the
documents that you produce with the tool, should not belong to the
software vendor. They are yours. And to be able to own your own documents,
you need to be able to inspect how they're produced. I know many tragic
stories of designers that lost documents because they could never open
them again. There is really an emphasis and a lot of work on making sure
that the documents produced from these tools remain 'inspectable', are
documented, that either you can open them in another tool or could develop
a tool to have these files available for you. It is really part and parcel
of Free Software culture, that you care about that what generates your
artifact, but also the materiality of your artifact. Open standards are
important. Or maybe let's say it is is important that file formats are
documented and can be understood. What is interesting to see is that in
this whole Libre Graphics world there is also a strong tradition of
reverse engineering, document activism, I would call it. They claim:
<em>documents need to be free, and we will risk breaking the law to be
able to understand how non-free documents actually are constructed</em>.
They are really working on trying to understand non-free documents, to be
able to read them and to be able to develop tools for them, that they can
be reused and remade. The difference between a free and a non-free
document is that, for example, an InDesign file, which is the result of a
commercial product, there is no documentation available of how this file
works. This means that the only way to open the document, is with that
particular program. It means there is a connection between that what
you've made and the software you used to produce it. It also means that if
the software updates or the licence runs out, you will not have access to
your own file. It means it is fixed. You can never change it and you can
never allow anyone else to change it. An open document format has
documentation. That means that not only the software that created it, is
available, and in that way you can understand how it was made, but also
there is independent documentation available that whenever a project, like
a software, doesn't work anymore, or is too old to be run, or you don't
have it available, you have other ways of understanding the document and
being able to open it and reuse and remake it. What is important, is that
around these open formats, you see a whole ecosystem exists of tools to
inspect, to create, to read, to change, to manipulate these formats. I
think it is very easy to see how around InDesign files this culture does
not exist at all.</p>
<h2> Sharing practise / re-learn</h2>
<p>This way of working changes the way you learn, and therefore the way
you teach. And as many of us have understood the relation between learning
and practice, we've all been somehow involved in education. Many of us are
teaching in formal design or art education. And it is very clear how those
traditional schools are really not fit for the type of learning and
teaching that needs to happen around Libre Graphics. One of the problems
we run into, is the fact that validation systems are really geared towards
judging individuals. And our type of practice is always multiple. It is
always about things that happen with many people. And it is really
difficult to inspire students to work that way, and at the same time know
that at the end of the day, they'll be judged on what they produced as an
individual. In traditional education there is always a separation between
teaching technology and practice. You have, in different ways, you have
the studio practice, and then you have the workshops. And it is very
difficult to make conceptual connections between the two. We end up trying
to make that happen, but it is clearly not made for that. And then there
is the problem of hierarchies between tutor and student, that are hard to
break in formal education, just because the setup is, even in very
informal situations, that someone comes to teach and someone else comes to
be taught. And there is no way to truly break that hierarchy, because that
is the way a school works. For years we are thinking about how to do
teaching differently or how to do learning differently, and last year, for
the first time, we organized a summer school. Just like a kind of
experiment to see if we could learn and teach differently. The title, the
name of the school is Relearn. Because the sort of relearning for yourself
but also to others, through teaching learning, has become really a good
methodology, it seems.</p>
<p>If I say 'we', that's always a bit uncomfortable, because I like to be
clear about who that is, but when I'm speaking here, there is many 'wes'
in my mind. There is a group of designers called OSP. They have started in
2006 with the simple decision to not use any proprietary software anymore
for their work. And from that this whole set of questions and practices
and methods developed. Right now, that's about twelve people working in
Brussels, having a design practice. I am lucky to be honory member of this
group. I'm in close contact with them, but I'm not actively working with
the design group. Another 'we', an overlapping 'we', is Constant, an
association for arts and media active in Brussels since 1996. Or 1997
maybe. Our interest is more in mixing Copyleft thinking, Free Software
thinking and feminism. In many ways that intersects with OSP but they
might phrase it in a different way. Another 'we' is the Libre Graphics
community, which is even a more uncomfortable 'we'. Because it includes
engineers that would like to conquer the world... and small hyper
intelligent developers that creep out of their corners to talk about the
very strange worlds they're creating. Or typographers that care about
universal typefaces, or... I mean there is many different people that are
involved in that world. I think for this conversation, the 'wes' are: OSP,
Constant and the Libre Graphics community, whatever that is.</p>
<h2> Libre Graphics annual meeting Leipzig 2014</h2>
<p>We worked on a Code of conduct, which is something that seems to appear
in Free Software or tech conferences more and more. It comes a bit from US
context. We have started to understand that the fact that Free Software is
free, doesn't mean that everyone feels welcome. For long there have been
and there still are large problems with diversity in this community. The
excitement about freedom has led people to think that people that were not
there would probably not want to be there and therefore had no role to be
there. For example, the fact that there are not a lot of women active in
Free Software, a lot less than in proprietary software, which is quite
painful if you think about it. It has to do with this sort of cyclical
effect of <em>because women are not there, they will probably not be
interested, and because they're not interested, they might not be capable
or feel capable of being active.</em> So they might not belong. There is
also a very brutal culture of harassment, of racist and sexist language,
of using imagery that is let's say unacceptable, and that needs to be
dealt with. Over the last two years I think, documents like Codes of
conduct have started to come up from feminists that are active in this
world, like Geek feminism or the Ada initiative, as a way to deal with
this. And what it does, is it describes... it is slightly pompous, in the
sense that it describes your values. But it is a way to acknowledge the
fact that these communities have a problem with harassment, first. That
they explicitly say <em>we want diversity</em>, which is important. That
it gives very clear and practical guidelines for what someone that feels
harassed can do, who he or she can speak to, and what will be the
consequences. Meaning that it takes away the burden, at least as much as
possible, from someone that is harassed to defend actually the gravity of
the case.</p>
<h2> Art as integrative concept</h2>
<p>For me calling myself an artist is useful, is very useful. I'm not busy
with let's say, the constitutional art context. That doesn't help me, at
all. But what does help me is the figure of the artist, the kinds of
intelligences that I sort of project on myself and I use from others and
my colleagues, before and contemporary. Because it allows me to not have
too many... to be able to define my own context and concepts, without
forgetting practice. And I think art is one of the rare places that allows
this. Not only allows it, but actually rigorously asks for it. It is
really wanting me to be explicit about my historical connections, my way
of making, my references, my choices, that are part of the situation I
build. And the figure of the artist is a very useful toolbox in itself.
And I think I use it, more than I would have thought. It allows me to make
these cross connections in a productive way.</p>
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