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[Book Review]



by Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk (Eds.)
Poitiers, France: GOTO10 in association with OpenMute, 2008. 320 pp. ISBN 978-1906496-18-0.
$21.97 CAD (; $32.00 USD (

Under the aegis of artists’ collective and, digital artists Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk have taken up the editorial challenge to collect an anthology of essays on the relationship of free software, its counterpart open content, and the arts.

True to the spirit of the movement, FLOSS+Art (1) is not only available in print, but also as a freely downloadable online version from the Pirate Bay. To demonstrate that openness means more than just a PDF at no cost, the book comes with its complete “source code”: fonts, layouts, texts and illustrations. Having had a first glance at the PDF, I took the opportunity to open the sources in Scribus (a free desktop publishing application used to assemble the book) to fix the refreshingly innovative, playfully eclectic, and to my eyes unbearably ugly font chosen for the preface. (2) After this minor modification, I was ready to dig in.

Naturally, a significant chunk of the tome is dedicated to musings on communities and their role in the creation of art (and software), as well as the role of the individual artist in the age of sampling and collaboration. The reader is due to encounter some surprises and refreshing insights regardless of previous exposure to the topic, thanks to the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives of the contributing authors.

A few of the essays even delve into sociological and philosophical realms whose associated jargons scared off this humble reviewer. Nonetheless, these texts might be a valuable source of inspiration to braver souls.

Quite a few interesting articles discuss copyright (or droits d’auteur) legislation, licensing, attribution, and their implications for artists and consumers (if they draw this distinction at all), pinpointing the disturbing fact that contemporary artists need to be (and usually are) experts in intellectual property law. Included is a juicy critique of the “Creative Commons Misunderstanding,” an opinion piece on the shortcomings and omissions of the CC set of licenses. Some authors outright condemn all copyright law, some see it as a tool to foster open content and to prevent its commercial exploitation without giving anything back. The excellent article “Copyright is for Copying” explains the inevitable self-defeat inherent in mandatory attribution licenses, using the example of an album containing several generations of sampled music: “Who is going to bother reading through thousands of credits?”

Another set of chapters deals with the role of programming in the process of art creation (and its most evident form, live coding) from various viewpoints. Live coding raises interesting æsthetic questions about virtuosity (one author compares the effort to acquire audio and video livecoding skills to that involved in truly mastering any instrument) and the curious laptop performance situation. The latter culminates in the “show us your screens” paradigm, to offer the audience visual impressions similar to the movements of a classical instrumentalist, which help to increase the spectators’ immersion in the art, even though they do not necessarily understand in detail how the instrument is played. Consequently, one article is adorned with small live code snippets of increasing complexity and their corresponding graphical output.

A few oddball chapters extend the book’s range of approaches even further. One of those introduces us to the computing history of the Maldives, where, despite scarce monetary resources, FLOSS uptake has been slow due to the general practice of sharing proprietary commercial software, which is currently legal but will be outlawed shortly to ensure compliance with the international TRIPS treaty. The author then describes how people found ways to adapt that Anglocentric closed software to their native right-to-left script (for which there was no commercially available support due to limited demand) using bolt-on solutions and weird workarounds, and predicts a strong demand for FLOSS and local collaborative development in the near future.

Another essay takes a look at the history of “borrowing” of designs in the typographic community, and the typesetting industry’s ambiguous attitude towards intellectual property. On the one hand, type foundries base their business model on strict enforcement of IP rights, on the other, it’s common practice to appropriate and re-release or build upon classic font faces whose copyrights have expired, which is seen as an evolutionary development model inherent in type design.

For some reason, the less philosophical the topic or approach, the more concise and enjoyable the article. I can’t quite fathom why this should be, and it may well be reviewer bias, but the impression was striking nonetheless. While conciseness is a worthy goal, some authors overshoot a little: sometimes, a line of reasoning is reduced to a terse sequence of allusions, which must remain cryptic to the uninitiated. At the same time, it would seem that the seasoned expert capable of following such an argument is already familiar with the point being made — having lost most of the congregation en route, the author is left preaching to the choir.

Another aspect to criticise is a cavalier attitude towards the quoting of web sources. Few authors seem to take the trouble to copy all relevant excerpts into their texts. Instead, they like to give links, constantly forcing the readers to type URLs into their browsers, some of which are expired or require an additional search to arrive at the actual source. The most extreme case is a footnote that comprises the sole factual support of an entire paragraph. It contains a single link to an online job scouting agency’s “success stories” section. One can only assume that at some point in history, this highly volatile page carried a snippet in support of the author’s view.

In some chapters, I found myself struggling to hop onto the writer’s train of thought. Not all essays actually arrive at the conclusions (or even the subject matter) promised by headline or abstract. The most irritating specimen was an article called “Linux for Theatre Makers: Embodiment & Nix Modus Operandi [sic].” Having overcome my initial reaction (“What the f… ?”), I ploughed on to hear of the wonders of the command line interface and learn about the author’s “epiphany” in dealing with the /dev/null device on Linux for the first time. (3) The epiphany being about, fasten your seat belts, “… the black hole and how the theory of the event horizon might function in an everyday context.” Sadly, the context of the article squashes all hope of irony. Later you will learn how prolonged use of “Linux” (used interchangeably with “command line”) might help you to “develop more sensitivity to [your] own need for inner maintenance,” and how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein foresaw the decadence and degeneration lurking behind graphical user interfaces. At the end of a long struggle, I couldn’t help wondering: what does all this have to do with Linux for Theatre Makers? Or with anything at all?

A few articles explore online communication as a means of conducting journalistic research (with varying results), and strive for ways to represent this mode of communication in print. While I love the look of monospace fonts in small doses, there is a very good reason why typesetters do not use them for larger text bodies: they are very tiresome to read. And that isn’t alleviated by an author’s misguided decision to dump a four-page IRC log verbatim into the text. Face it: among the target audience, online chat has worn off its novelty effect long ago. All that remains is a failed attempt to look hip and an awkward, hard-to-read presentation, which occludes the content and smells of laziness. On the upside, Thor Magnusson demonstrates how to cast interview snippets into a fluent and purposeful argument in his excellent contribution “Expression and Time […],” on the vanishing divide between tool making and tool usage in the open source context.

If you have time to digest but one chapter, take Dave Griffith’s “On free software art […],” and not just because it’s only six pages. Here is a great starting point for artists new to free software who want to understand the ideas behind open source methods and products, and the implications and perspectives of adding them to their own toolkit. The veteran open source advocate will be amazed to see how deftly those concepts can be summarized.

All nitpicking aside, the book is a good read. Not necessarily all chapters to all readers, but the range of topics is wide enough for everybody to find quite a few very interesting essays in there — and some which are outright brilliant. Recommended.


  1. As a warning to the uninitiated: FLOSS+Art has nothing to do with advanced dental hygiene. The term expands to “Free, libre and open source software.” This ugly behemoth of an acronym was concocted to capture all the subtle connotations of freedom pertaining to software, so as not to exclude the advocates of each adjective and their corresponding movements. Curiously, their interpretations of freedom seem to be congruent to at least 98%. The remaining 2% however, are discussed with passion and sometimes fought over in bloody battles. Hence, we are stuck with the tautological F, L and OS for the foreseeable future.
  2. After some chapters, it dawned on me that this font was actually the exposition of a clever typographic concept which spans the whole book. Best of both worlds — I learned to appreciate the artistic idea in time, and didn’t have to put up with irritating typefaces until then.
  3. A virtual dumpster that will eat anything you throw at it; redirecting something to /dev/null is basically a quick way of saying you’re not interested in seeing a particular output.

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