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Performing Libre Graphics

In April 2014 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 Giving what you don't have, 1 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 Female Extension 2, co-founded Old Boys Network 3 and developed seminal projects such as the Net Art Generator. The opportunity to spend two sunny spring days with her intelligence, humour and cyberfeminist wisdom could not have come at a better moment.

What is Libre Graphics?

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.

The context of Libre Graphics

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.

Free Software culture

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.

Free Culture

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.

Free tools

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 designer.


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.

Libre fonts

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.

Free artifacts / open standards

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: documents need to be free, and we will risk breaking the law to be able to understand how non-free documents actually are constructed. 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.

Sharing practise / re-learn

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.

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.

Libre Graphics annual meeting Leipzig 2014

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 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. 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 we want diversity, 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.

Art as integrative concept

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.