Golan Levin: Our final pre­sen­ter this evening is the Director of the Clinic for Open Source Arts, Chris Coleman. He and his insti­tu­tion at the University of Denver have been a part­ner of the STUDIO in orga­niz­ing this res­i­den­cy. Chris Coleman is also an artist and pro­fes­sor at the University of Denver. He was born in West Virginia, United States, and he received his MFA from SUNY Buffalo, New York. His work­ing includes sculp­tures, videos, cre­ative cod­ing, and inter­ac­tive instal­la­tions. Coleman has had his work in exhi­bi­tions and fes­ti­vals in more than twen­ty coun­tries, includ­ing Brazil, Argentina, Singapore, Finland, and the United Arab Emirates, Italy, Germany, France, China, the UK, Latvia, and across North America. Chris is Director of the Clinic for Open Source Arts at the University of Denver, as I men­tioned a part­ner orga­ni­za­tion for our res­i­den­cy pro­gram, which works to explore, sup­port, and cel­e­brate local and glob­al efforts to make free and open source tools that allow peo­ple to be cre­ative with dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy. Chris Coleman. 

Chris Coleman: Hello. Thank you Golan. I appre­ci­ate that. Alright I’m gonna share my screen here. 

So I’m gonna talk a lit­tle bit today…I’m gonna try and frame things around the idea of dig­i­tal cit­i­zen­ship. And I used low­er case here because I don’t always love the term cit­i­zen” and it’s been mis­used a lot over time. But I think there’s some­thing here, and I was very much inspired by some of the ear­li­er speak­ers this week and their think­ing about the roles we play and the ways that we work togeth­er to accom­plish these big­ger things. 

So, I’ll start here. This is an ear­li­er ani­ma­tion called The Magnitude of the Continental Divides. I think it gives maybe a start­ing place in some of my think­ing about the big ques­tions that I’m try­ing to tack­le with my art­work. This par­tic­u­lar ani­ma­tion was drawn from a lot of illus­tra­tions from boy scout man­u­als and oth­er sort of doc­u­ments of indoc­tri­na­tion, and maybe empow­er­ment as well, from our American culture—or white American culture—and tries to recon­tex­tu­al­ize them and com­bine them with a lot of imagery from ter­ror­ism readi­ness brochures that were hand­ed out around 9‍/‍11.

This par­tic­u­lar piece was shown in Times Square, which was a real­ly great hon­or. But it’s real­ly think­ing a lot about the nature of the way that we treat oth­er peo­ple. How we sort of con­vert peo­ple into being an oth­er, or sort of being sep­a­rate from who we are. And how we sort of rec­on­cile the notion of bor­ders, and how we allow those things to sort of sep­a­rate us. 

Borders vs Endless Growth

So these big top­ics, this notion of bor­der, which is a con­struct of these com­plete­ly invis­i­ble lines that we draw all over the land­scape in order to try and say that some­body on this side of the line is dif­fer­ent from some­body on this side of the line…which again is com­plete­ly false but it’s a sort of con­struct that we all agree to abide by. So that’s like a con­tain­ing action. So bor­ders are meant to sort of define and restrain us. And simul­ta­ne­ous­ly we oper­ate on a glob­al cap­i­tal­ist sort of eco­nom­ic soci­ety that basi­cal­ly sug­gests that there is noth­ing but end­less growth in our future. We will always expand, we can always keep grow­ing, we’ll nev­er run out of any­thing. And I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in the sort of con­flict of these two ideas, but also how they’re both used at the same time to sort of put into place var­i­ous sys­tems of con­trol and manip­u­la­tion on top of us. 

And so out of these two things comes the sense of oth­er­ing and a sort of self­ish­ness that’s embed­ded in those ideas of like okay, what’s with­in this box is mine, this imag­i­nary box. You know, prop­er­ty own­er­ship, all of these ideas about how things are con­tained. And it sort of neglects the sort of big­ger pic­ture ideas that I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in, and I think is at the heart of the way we live in dig­i­tal spaces and specif­i­cal­ly open source process­es. Which is like, how do we work togeth­er to cre­ate some­thing big­ger than what we can do apart, or alone? And so you have to kind of push past self­ish­ness. And you have to accept that we’re actu­al­ly all oper­at­ing in a sim­i­lar lay­er. And that bor­ders are kind of irrel­e­vant. And that there’s some­thing beau­ti­ful about the moment the Internet began, there was some­thing beau­ti­ful in those ideas of this. This sort of removal of these sort of phys­i­cal barriers. 

What do we take with us?

And so this was some of my big ques­tion is like, as we con­tin­ue to become more and more dig­i­tal prime— (Thank you David Rudnick for intro­duc­ing this vocab­u­lary to me recent­ly.) As we become more dig­i­tal prime, what is it that we take with us in terms of val­ues and process­es? And it’s been quite frankly real­ly scary to see how quick­ly a lot of the sort of cap­i­tal­ist process­es, the notion of exclu­siv­i­ty, have been sort of rush­ing into the vac­u­um of the dig­i­tal spaces and try­ing to make sure that they secure a new place, a new way of sort of sep­a­rat­ing us from each oth­er in this new world. So yeah, I’m try­ing to explore some of that with my work. 

And that brings me to a body of work called Secure Shell Copy, where I’ve been scan­ning hun­dreds of peo­ple as I trav­el the world as an artist and turn­ing these into var­i­ous kinds of por­traits, and think­ing about the 3D scan as a kind of pho­to­graph with an infinitely-thin shell, a sort of sur­face that nev­er has any depth and then can be manip­u­lat­ed by dig­i­tal material. 

And so I think in many ways these are not unlike the kind of ver­sions of our­selves that we present onto social media spaces like Instagram, and Facebook, and all of those oth­er places. So that these sort of frag­ment­ed, false vis­ages rep­re­sent us in this dig­i­tal world. 

And that became a mag­a­zine which you can actu­al­ly get online if you’d like, a series of por­traits, and some ani­ma­tions as well. And this is some work that’s ongo­ing. But think­ing about what does it look like to have a body that can accom­mo­date the near-endless fluc­tu­a­tion of our dig­i­tal­ness and the ways that dig­i­tal­ness sort of rep­re­sents us in this space. 

I think maybe in a more pos­i­tive note, I’ve been work­ing on a project since 2011 with Laleh Mehran. And she’s my wife and a fel­low artist, and also a CMU alum­ni by the way. And we worked on a project called W3FI. [pro­nounced we-fi”] It’s a sort of rewrit­ing of the notion of wifi, remov­ing the I,” the me” from it and turn­ing it into a we” or a col­lec­tive notion. So rethink­ing the sort of invis­i­ble net­work that we all used to con­nect the Internet. What if it was less about sort of how do I get on the Internet and what if it’s more about how we exist on the Internet? And W3FI was built on the prin­ci­ples of sort of the Buddhist path to enlight­en­ment, think­ing about going from the acknowl­edge­ment of the self and your role in the world to the we, to under­stand­ing how we all exist as these sep­a­rate cells but also in this col­lec­tive space. We exist togeth­er, and final­ly wefi as a sort of way of act­ing pos­i­tive­ly on and with each oth­er, under­stand­ing that we can all cause harm to each oth­er’s dig­i­tal selves sig­nif­i­cant­ly eas­i­er than we used to be able to each oth­er’s phys­i­cal selves. 

And so this project start­ed in 2011 real­ly explor­ing these issues. It’s a lit­tle bit out of date these days. You can also see here there’s a lot of data visu­al­iza­tion involv­ing how peo­ple use data over time in their cities, cell­phone tow­ers, wifi routers. Just gath­er­ing lots of bits of infor­ma­tion about each city that it goes to. And it’s trav­eled all over the world. Which has been a real­ly sort of beau­ti­ful expe­ri­ence, to trav­el with a piece of work like this. 

And then anoth­er piece done with Laleh Mehran is called Unclaimed. Unclaimed is an inter­ac­tive work where you can blow across this city, and as you blow across the city your breath’s sort of cap­tured in light in a sort of flu­id sim­u­la­tion under­neath the city itself. 

And we’re inter­est­ed in how all of these breaths sort of mix and flow against each oth­er. The idea that we’re all par­tic­i­pat­ing in this sort of strange lay­er of atmos­phere that is actu­al­ly con­sid­ered unclaimed space. It’s one of the sort of remain­ing glob­al com­mons, I would argue, where every­thing above a cer­tain lev­el above your house to where the FAA reg­u­lates, is this sort of neb­u­lous land, or neb­u­lous space. And it’s actu­al­ly like, it’s air. It’s air that we all share, we breathe. It’s air that’s been blown here from Brazil after com­ing around through China and going across Europe. It’s like how do we take more respon­si­bil­i­ty for the com­mons of this airspace. 

And so this piece actu­al­ly takes all of your breath as seen on the table and repro­duces it using a series of sev­er­al hun­dred fans under­neath this giant sheet of plas­tic, cre­at­ing these huge waves and air­forms, turn­ing your small breath into a huge effect across the entire ceil­ing of the space. So again sort of like how to link those notions of respon­si­bil­i­ty and cit­i­zen­ship from the sort of per­son­al to the col­lec­tive was the inten­tion of a work like this. 

So these are some of the ways that my art­work actu­al­ly tack­les the notion of cit­i­zen­ship and the roles that I play. I’m inspired by both the Critical Engineering Manifesto and Golan’s lec­ture on being an arts engi­neer. And I con­sid­er myself a crit­i­cal arts engi­neer. And part of my sort of task doing such things was actu­al­ly that I made this tool called Maxuino, orig­i­nal­ly from teach­ing my class. I just want­ed to help my stu­dents work more quick­ly to have an Arduino and have Max and be able to make cool stuff hap­pen. And so devel­op­ing a tool called Maxuino, then Ali Momeni came on board to help me with a lot of the GUI stuff. He’s a Max GUI master. 

But real­ly at its core it was a sort of sim­pli­fied way for Max peo­ple to start doing phys­i­cal com­put­ing tasks. And so start­ing that in I believe 2009… It’s a very old tool at this point. Goodness. Maybe it was lat­er. Now I’ve got to look it up. Alright, maybe it was in 2009; I’m not sure. I start­ed main­tain­ing this open source tool and real­ly start­ing to under­stand the chal­lenges of what it means to upkeep the tool, to pro­mote a tool, to deal with requests from users, to make edu­ca­tion­al resources avail­able, to write doc­u­men­ta­tion so oth­er peo­ple can under­stand it. These were all sort of process­es that I learned the hard way by hav­ing a tool like this. 

And so you know, it’s fun­ny. Like even now, I went to grab a cou­ple more screen­shots from the web site…and it’s down. So I have work to do when I get off this par­tic­u­lar talk. 

So that has led me over time to devel­op COSA, the Clinic for Open Source Arts. And COSA is a brand new sort of ini­tia­tive that stems out of sort of my ear­li­er inter­est in what does it look like to have an insti­tu­tion like mine, a pri­vate uni­ver­si­ty for the pub­lic good, as we call our­selves at the University of Denver. What does it look like for us to start real­ly engag­ing in sup­port­ing the tools that we’re using in our classrooms.

[Slide area of broadcast shows a blank gray screen]

And what it looked like was to start doing kind of events and things. And real­ly this is all mod­eled off of the work of oth­er peo­ple. Having watched Golan Levin and the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry for years bring in open source con­trib­u­tors, doing code sprints, cre­at­ing var­i­ous activ­i­ties so that the tools that artists need are well-supported in the space. I only try and fol­low those foot­steps, and I think the sort of thought behind COSA and the sense towards focus­ing on com­mu­ni­ty and focus­ing on sus­tain­abil­i­ty and health, those have all been real­ly dri­ven by the mod­el set by Lauren McCarthy and her work on p5.js, who real­ly start­ed to show I think in many ways a sort of new mod­el for what a healthy com­mu­ni­ty could look like, and what are all the things that need to go into mak­ing a project like that real­ly wel­com­ing and sup­port­ed and sup­portable.

So we do a lot of things. As I said, we’re focused on health and think­ing about lots of aspects of that. We’ve sup­port­ed a lot of projects recent­ly, includ­ing real­ly won­der­ful things like ml5, which we heard about last night. We’ve actu­al­ly sup­port­ed CARL, which you just heard about, from Char and Chirag. The PEmbroider project out of the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry. You might have heard last night Bomani was talk­ing about the Out of the Black Box project. So these have been a lot of the sort of grant process­es that we’ve been going through. 

And then we have also been doing var­i­ous events. The work actu­al­ly began in 2015, when we host­ed the devel­op­ers of Processing to do Processing ver­sion 3. They actu­al­ly sort of final­ized that release there in our spaces, fol­lowed up by an edu­ca­tion sum­mit for openFrameworks in 2016, doing the Processing Community Day here in Denver and engag­ing a hun­dred peo­ple in our local com­mu­ni­ty, which was real­ly fan­tas­tic. And going to oth­er con­fer­ences. We actu­al­ly just did an openFrameworks con­trib­u­tor’s con­fer­ence in the fall of 2019, hav­ing some long and sort of over­due con­ver­sa­tions about what the openFrameworks com­mu­ni­ty needs that’s big­ger than just the code itself. And so you know, we’ve been real­ly inter­est­ed in those ongo­ing conversations. 

Oh. And you all did­n’t see any of that. That’s awe­some. [laughs] That sucks. Was on a roll. Alright. 

So I was show­ing you some of the great things that we do. You can go and read about them at the Clinic for Open Source Arts web site, which is clin​i​copen​sourcearts​.org. That was embar­rass­ing. But we’ll move on. And we also have the sup­port­ed projects that I was talk­ing about, where you can read more about things like CARL, and the Feminist Data Sets, and Netnet​.stu​dio, and lots of oth­er real­ly great tools, some of which are already includ­ed in this OSSTA event, and some of them will be unfamil­iar to you. 

So. All of that said, I’m going to switch back to the presentation. 

So to bring it to the here and now, COSA is just now fin­ish­ing up a pro­gram called the COSA Community Leaders. And the COSA Community Leaders pro­gram was essen­tial­ly an effort to spend about ten weeks, eleven weeks, where he had every-other-week ses­sions talk­ing about var­i­ous top­ics relat­ed to what it means to actu­al­ly lead a com­mu­ni­ty around open source. And spend­ing a week think­ing about val­ues, spend­ing a week think­ing about brand­ing and out­reach, spend­ing a week think­ing about doc­u­men­ta­tion and fundrais­ing. All of these dif­fer­ent top­ics. Going into into each of them with pret­ty intense detail. And then real­ly try­ing to just cre­ate a com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple who are lead­ing in the space. We have eight par­tic­i­pants. We had five peo­ple who were serv­ing as men­tors and instruc­tors, and a four-person steer­ing com­mit­tee team. (All list­ed here.) And so we actu­al­ly are going to have con­tin­ued check-ins. This is also fund­ed by the NEA, likes the OSSTA residency.

We have check-ins for the six month and twelve months, as we con­tin­ue to work with every­body. A write-up is forth­com­ing on this. But I think it was a real­ly beau­ti­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty to try and say like, what does it look like to start to sup­port and devel­op lead­ers in this space who don’t have to learn every­thing through the school of hard knocks and are maybe more cul­ti­vat­ed and sort of wel­comed into the space? And to already have a built net­work of oth­er peo­ple who are try­ing to do this kind of lead­er­ship, so that they know who they can go to to ask ques­tions and just sort of say like Hey, I want to put on an event. Who has a great sur­vey that helps me under­stand my par­tic­i­pants as we onboard them into the event?” These are real­ly sim­ple things that a lot of peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ty have and should­n’t have to be rein­vent­ed, but if you don’t know who to ask then that becomes the prob­lem. So, try­ing to devel­op these networks. 

Next up will be the COSA Community Contributors pro­gram, where we’re gonna look at what it means to go one step down in the sort of chain and train con­trib­u­tors. What does it mean to get peo­ple who’re ready to con­tribute but don’t real­ly know how to engage, are not famil­iar with all the process­es? Not just tech­ni­cal but in terms of com­mu­ni­ty as well. Like how do we make sure that they’re ready to engage and do that in a healthy way, and a way that feels sus­tain­able to them per­son­al­ly, and helps the project move for­ward. And so that’ll be our next stage com­ing up this fall. If there are those of you who are inter­est­ed in such an idea, and maybe even want to be a par­tic­i­pant in learn­ing to be a con­trib­u­tor or maybe even learn­ing to be a bet­ter con­trib­u­tor, you should reach out. 

And then in the long term we’re real­ly think­ing quite a bit about what it means to be a clin­ic, and the notion of how do we go from just being a clin­ic that’s think­ing and watch­ing and lis­ten­ing, which is kind of the stage we’ve been at, to start­ing to diag­nose and help open source tool projects under­stand what their issues are and have experts engaged in a sort of analy­sis and pro­vid­ing that feed­back back to a com­mu­ni­ty. And then how do we actu­al­ly pro­vide them with care? And not just one-off care but care that could sig­nif­i­cant­ly alter and help them shift from one modal­i­ty to another. 

And that modal­i­ty might be how to go from a one-person project to a three-person project. It might be how to go from a big project to some­thing that goes into hiber­na­tion or is hand­ed off to some­body new. So there’s all sorts of dif­fer­ent roles and dif­fer­ent ways of think­ing about sus­tain­abil­i­ty with these tools. And we’re try­ing to address a lot of them.

And we’re doing that with the help of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. The Knight Foundation pro­vid­ed us with a sig­nif­i­cant grant to help get the Clinic for Open Source Arts start­ed. And then also the Mellon Foundation pro­vid­ing fund­ing at my uni­ver­si­ty that helped with a num­ber of dif­fer­ent oppor­tu­ni­ties as well. 

clinicopensourcearts.org, cosa@du.edu, @DigitalColeman, digitalcoleman.com

And so final­ly, if you want to read more about the Clinic for Open Source Arts, it’s at clin​i​copen​sourcearts​.org. Or you can just email me at cosa@​du.​edu. And then all of my stuff is under dig­i­tal­cole­man.” That’s my moniker every­where on the Internet, if you need more infor­ma­tion or want to look at my art­works in full. Alright, thanks. 

Golan Levin: Chris, thank you so much. That was won­der­ful. I real­ly appre­ci­ate your pre­sen­ta­tion. I’m so grate­ful to you for sort of tak­ing on this huge ini­tia­tive to sup­port open source tools for the arts. It’s not a small task. I mean, as you point­ed out we’ve been doing this for some time at the STUDIO, but in a real­ly sort of…kind of not particularly…organized way, sort of a hap­haz­ard way of okay we got a grant, let’s sup­port a whole bunch of toolk­its. Or let’s have a con­trib­u­tors meet­ing for this par­tic­u­lar toolk­it that we care about. But your way of think­ing about this in a much more sur­gi­cal way; lit­er­al­ly like, we’re gonna diag­nose, we’re gonna like…“Oh I see what your prob­lem is, you’re at this stage of the open source cat­a­stro­phe.” So fig­ur­ing out how to help tools, that is great. And it’s been won­der­ful to have you as a part­ner for this res­i­den­cy that we’ve done. 

I guess one ques­tion I have is how do you jus­ti­fy this with­in the University of Denver. As we know from the Open Source Software for the Arts con­ven­ing that we had a cou­ple years ago and the report that we made from it, uni­ver­si­ties are a major source of sup­port for these open source soft­ware toolk­its for the arts. NYU, where Dan Shiffman has been has been a big sup­port­er, putting mon­ey direct­ly into ml5.js for exam­ple. UCLA has a fan­tas­tic depart­ment with Casey Reas and Lauren McCarthy, which is real­ly an epi­cen­ter of think­ing in terms of sketch­ing with code. 

But each of these dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions needs to have kind of their own way of inter­nal­ly jus­ti­fy­ing how and why they sup­port things the way that they’re doing. Maybe it’s because it’s fac­ul­ty research, for exam­ple. In our case here at the STUDIO it’s ulti­mate­ly sort of stu­dent-dri­ven. We bring these guests to cam­pus as a way of pro­vid­ing appren­tice­ship oppor­tu­ni­ties, and we’ve had some stu­dent appren­tices work­ing with the OSSTA res­i­dents this spring. How do you jus­ti­fy with­in your uni­ver­si­ty sort form­ing a mini insti­tu­tion like the Clinic for Open Source Arts, which might or prob­a­bly will be a multi-year effort?

Chris Coleman: Yeah. My uni­ver­si­ty’s still try­ing to rec­on­cile with the thing I’ve made, I think in some ways. Part of it real­ly start­ed out as the idea of like okay, the uni­ver­si­ty’s actu­al­ly hav­ing a real­ly hard time help­ing us give mon­ey direct­ly to these projects. And so maybe an alter­na­tive method­ol­o­gy is actu­al­ly to use that mon­ey to cre­ate activ­i­ties and cre­ate process­es that hap­pen here at the uni­ver­si­ty which then ben­e­fit the uni­ver­si­ty in addi­tion to ben­e­fit­ing the projects them­selves. So I think that was sort of a start­ing place? I think in the longer term, I’ve also been mak­ing sort of long-term argu­ments for my own research and try­ing to argue…especially in the arts schools, you can imag­ine try­ing to con­vince them that yes, me mak­ing soft­ware that is free and open source to the world is just as impor­tant as exhibit­ing in a white box gallery. 

So you know, I think it’s been sort of many-fold. I think the uni­ver­si­ty is still real­ly inter­est­ed, and I think in par­tic­u­lar because we’re in the arts they’re real­ly excit­ed with the notion that the arts and human­i­ties are actu­al­ly also doing com­put­ing tech­nol­o­gy stuff and open source stuff. And so we’re sort of twice as valu­able to the dean of the arts, human­i­ties, social sci­ences, because he sees it as a play­ground for his people.

Levin: So one of the sort of missed oppor­tu­ni­ties for our cur­rent res­i­den­cy, we’re very grate­ful to sup­port from the National Endowment for the Arts to enable the res­i­den­cy that brought the speak­ers that we’re all hear­ing from this week. But one of the inter­est­ing con­straints that we had in receiv­ing funds from the nation­al gov­ern­ment, par­tic­u­lar­ly when we received the grant because it was in the pre­vi­ous pres­i­den­tial admin­is­tra­tion, was that we were strong­ly lim­it­ed to sup­port­ing artists who’re work­ing here in the United States. And you know, I see like Olivia Jack in the YouTube stream right now and I’m like wow, yeah. I mean, there’s so many peo­ple work­ing on amaz­ing toolk­its that we real­ly want­ed to sup­port like Olivia or Karsten Schmidt, also known as Toxi, over in the UK and Germany. So many great peo­ple work­ing in England. Nathalie Lawhead in their pre­sen­ta­tion a few days ago made a list of tiny tools that hap­pen to be some of their favorites, and so many that are being made in Europe.

Coleman: Right.

Levin: And I won­der, do you face sim­i­lar lim­i­ta­tions in sup­port­ing only toolk­its that are hap­pen­ing in the United States, or can you sup­port some things that’re going to be worldwide?

Coleman: Yeah. I mean you know, I’ve been for­tu­nate with the Knight fund­ing and some of the oth­er fund­ing, there’s a lot more flex­i­bil­i­ty. But you’re right, the NEA part of my fund­ing has had the same sort of lim­i­ta­tions. I’m hop­ing we can con­tin­ue to push against that. Although I under­stand the gov­ern­ment wants to pay US peo­ple to do stuff with our tax mon­ey. But yeah, I mean you know. As you know, the process of con­stant­ly writ­ing grants and find­ing fund­ing, and then con­vinc­ing the uni­ver­si­ty and oth­er insti­tu­tions to sup­port this work, there has to be a strong belief in like, we’re in this togeth­er as a glob­al enti­ty. It does­n’t stop at the US bor­der who uses these tools and who makes the tools. And like, the things used in our class­room are made in oth­er parts of the world and that’s the beau­ti­ful thing about this, right. So, rein­forc­ing that with the bureau­cra­cy is a big part of the job. 

Levin: Thanks for doing this work, Chris. This is real­ly great to have you as a partner.

Coleman: Yeah, thank you for putting it all on.