On Collecting Algorithms: A Roundtable Discussion

On Friday, March 13, 2015, Nicholas O’Brien (net-based artist, writer, and new media curator), Sebastian Chan (director of Digital and Emerging Media at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum), Daniel Doubrovkine (head of engineering at Artsy), and Orta Therox (head of mobile engineering at Artsy) met in the Artsy offices to sort through the complex issues raised by selling and buying pieces of code as cultural objects.

Can code be considered art? What responsibility do we have to preserve it? What is at stake in all of this? What follows is an edited version of the conversation, moderated by O’Brien.

Nicholas O’Brien: Before getting into specifics, I want to talk more generally about what it means to purchase, own, collect, preserve, and steward code-based works as pieces of material and objects. You have open-source developers where property is distributed and it’s not localized to one single author and one single company. And museums operate almost as an inverse of that; the property is located centrally. Can we talk about what institutions, whether they be Artsy or Cooper Hewitt, can do to balance or mitigate the difference between open-source and centralized property?

Sebastian Chan:  Well, there’s the difference between public and private, and there’s also the issue of software patents and whether they are a good idea in the first place. I think there’s a lot of evidence to say that software patents are an incredibly bad idea. Pushing against software patents is interesting because we know that when we write code, it is building on other people’s stuff. Of course there’s commercial interest in all of this, but I think what’s interesting is this moves into institutions, particularly public ones like the Smithsonian.

“The shelf-life of any piece of code could be counted as a couple of years at most.”

It’s interesting what happens to things that can’t be contained as a physical thing. We should consider them in another way and try to look at what their role is. Aaron Cope, who works with me on my team, talks about the idea of having sort of an escrow service, where something—intellectual property from a design, for example—might be held in escrow. I think the work the Internet Archive has been doing is really great in that regard. The Archive team and Jason Scott’s work is exceptional because it doesn’t follow the rules.

Orta Therox: Like the museum of the internet...

SC: …like a public institution. Museums have to become museums of the internet, too; particularly these technology and science museums, whose historic role has been to collect things like the first steam locomotive, or the first Google Maps server. What they don’t collect is code. They collect the thing it ran on, but so what?

Daniel Doubrovkine:  I think that companies—private companies, especially—and institutions don’t pay enough attention to the fact that software and code has a certain natural decay. Instead, they think about it as an asset that has intellectual property value, and is immediately applicable and very long-term. The reality is that most of this has a very short lifespan. The shelf-life of any piece of code could be counted as a couple of years at most. Companies also disappear and get merged, and the majority of code is just lying around and evaporates in the ether. In some ways it’s very similar to performance art.

“In the science and computer museum model, code is a tool to achieve a thing. It’s not art; it’s like plumbing.”

NO:  It’s interesting that you bring this up, since one of the questions that I asked in anticipation of this conversation regarded some of the historical precedents for collecting so-called ephemeral objects like code. Let’s talk about that.

DD:  The performance art reference is a clear one. It’s art that is sometimes difficult to own and difficult to even describe. Performance art is often about the viewer and how you relate to it. We collect descriptions, we collect installations, notes, rights, explanations; we don’t collect the artist or the performance itself, right? Perhaps a video of it. So I think that’s the nearest precedent. I think performance art, especially as viewed by earlier generations, was often not considered art. It was a completely new medium.

NO:  With performance art, an institution doesn’t necessarily think about the materiality of the finished product; you think about it as a process. I would not have normally made that association. From a more object-based perspective and with regard to preservation, what would be a similar kind of precedent? I know, Seb, that you’ve written about that in relation to collecting Planetary.

SC:  The conceptual art/performance art connection is clear when considering how institutions might think about collecting code. There’s a lot of practices around the preservation and documentation of the affect of those works. But with code, documentation matters because it changes something. As a result of that code, we now do something in another way. It’s important to also see how we did it beforehand—that’s one way of documenting code for collections. The other way of looking at it is to consider these works not as art; I don’t always agree that code should be seen as art.

In the science and computer museum model, code is a tool to achieve a thing. It’s not art; it’s like plumbing. Those institutions collect maps of sewer systems because they show how we solved problems of hygiene and public health. The map of the sewers of New York is the representation because there’s no museum that’s going to collect the entire sewer system.

OT:  Or all the pipes. [Laughs].

SC:  Right. [Laughs]. But an institution might collect pipe, or you might collect a particular pipe that was significant because it broke and flooded half the city. An institution might have peak objects that are stand-ins for something greater.

“By making this code open-source, we’re allowing other people to see that they could then apply that idea to other ideas in the future.”

OT:  This analogy fits really well. One of the lots in the Algorithm Auction is a Hello World example, written in B, which is a language that no one writes in anymore. The code that you read feels foreign to me in comparison to how I would write “Hello World” now.

SC: It’s almost like the idea of Hello World is one sewer pipe, and there’s a billion other sewer pipe methods. This is sort of how we viewed collecting Planetary. We made the point when we were acquiring Planetary that we weren’t acquiring an iOS app; we were actually acquiring an idea about how to represent nested data sets in a particular way at a particular period in time. By making this code open-source, we’re allowing other people to see that they could then apply that idea to other ideas in the future.

We weren’t trying to capture the iOS app as it was in 2010-2011; it was about the idea of doing it with what you had available. It’s sort of like the Hello World lot. We were trying to collect the idea and method, and this was one instance or instantiation of that method, rather than merely the app.

NO:  To that end, thinking about collection and ownership, or distribution of code, how do designers, artists, and institutions present a well-rounded context to appreciate the elegance of the art and craft of those materials? How best can we represent—“we” being institutions and programmers—the context in which the code is being created?

DD:  I think we need to put code in social context. For example, your early programmers were mostly women, and creating exhibitions around women programmers and the art of their programming is a needed social context. I think that’s one very important aspect: to not limit ourselves to the object that is being written around, collected, compiled and so on, but to put it in a larger picture.

SC: I also think that’s super important; the contextualization piece is also why I don’t like to always say that code is art, because I think that art historical projects, or the white cube, inherently claims the world doesn’t exist. For instance, putting PacMan on a screen says nothing about the context.

NO:  From a programmatic perspective, how do you embed that social context into code? In some ways, I think that open-source culture does a very good job of that.

OT:  Right. That’s why you’ve got the github repositories, because it gives you the context of who has collaborated, how they’ve collaborated. You can see tracked changes and comments. Those are the real social issues around building and collaborating on code. Having all that stuff centralized into one place is the right way to contextualize it. [Although] you can tell it was 2010, you can’t get a sense that the app store is just happening, and it’s on the cusp of something exploding. But you can get a feel for a localized version of that.

“How best can we represent the context in which the code is being created?”

SC: How we present that in an exhibition is incredibly hard. I think it’s almost impossible to do right now. The problem for institutions and museums is that you have a moment to collect things, and that moment to collect it might not have the technologies or methods available to exhibit it, maybe not for another 20 or 30 years. I’d love to be able to have ten-year-olds understand github repositories, but that’s not going to happen in an exhibition right now. Maybe in the future?

NO:  In terms of hard-coding that sense of social context along with the notion of historical precedent, I often think about this entity called Netochka Nezvanova. She was an online multi-persona that trolled and created flame wars on VJ forums in the early 2000s. They created a piece of software called nato.0.55+3d, which was a Max MSP extension to perform live video.

However, several of the conditions of the end-user license agreement (EULA) were agreeing to the atrocities that the U.S. military had conducted in Kosovo and in the Balkans. And, of course, you clicked “Agree” to be able to gain access to the software. To this day, it blows my mind to think of what you can get people to agree to if you just embed it in a license agreement. Although this NN was an art project, there is nothing that comes to my mind that has replicated this idea since. It’s in this way that I think that institutions are quite far off from representing the social contexts of software.

SC: It’s hard to present the nato example. One way would be to do a retrospective of VJ technologies to set the scene as to why people needed to use nato in their performances.

DD:  This is not the only example of licenses being used for artistic expression. There is another one that’s called the “Do whatever the fuck you want” license, which is very vocal about the idea of freedom. It’s almost an emotional message to the user of that piece of code about how and what they should be doing with it, and pushing them to do more than just use it.

SC: In the [Cooper Hewitt] office we ask ourselves, “should we be collecting law as design?” Do things like creative commons licenses, which—MoMA collected the symbol for creative commons, but—would you actually collect the legal structures around it?

“Who is the buyer, who is the seller? It’s interesting, provocative, and problematic.”

NO: Let’s transition into thinking about your collection of Planetary, Seb, which is using the BSD license to continue to exist in an open-source way. I think that not only is the social contract interesting to exhibit, but it’s also interesting to trace. It’s interesting to think about how the instance of what you’re looking at is based upon a history, or based upon an understanding of the license or contract. I don’t know how that translates into an auction context, where the auction is not necessarily transparent about those social contracts at the point of purchase.

SC:  Yeah, I think it’s really interesting to do the auction because what is being solved? Who is the buyer, who is the seller? It’s interesting, provocative, and problematic. Are these things able to be solved? Should they be solved?

DD:  I think what’s being solved in the auction is a representation of an historical object, with some artistic aspects. But I think that the border between history and art is a tricky one, and not everything in history has its artistic representation. I think we’ll be struggling with connecting the two—and maybe transforming the algorithm into an object of art. The black square is not that much of an aesthetic object, but it’s representing the movements in society.

“The thing with systems and code is that they change very fast. If you don’t collect it, it’s lost forever.”

NO:  What is fascinating to me is thinking about how a collection can be a way of continuing the life of an object, but this is also where I get slightly hung up. Daniel Buren has this really great essay about the importance of the artist’s studio. He talks about how the museum is more of a crypt or a mausoleum. I think he explicitly says that when the work goes to the museum, it goes there to die. And that stands in opposition to what you said about collecting living objects, right Seb?

SC:  Well, I think museums have been trying to change. Historical museums that only have works from the 19th century have a little more trouble than those that are continuously collecting. I think one of the big shifts now is that historical museums, or national museums in particular, are about asserting a national identity. I think, generally, collecting curators have an idea that things have to prove themselves as significant before you acquire them. There’s a great piece in the Smithsonian magazine where a curator at the Air and Space Museum was talking about the difficulty of acquiring the first kind of self-driving car. She was saying, “Well, we don’t know if this is going to be the one that actually makes self-driving cars popular, but if we don’t get this one now...?” In essence, she was very uncomfortable about having to take a punt on whether this car is going to be the right one or not.

The thing with systems and code is that they change very fast. If you don’t collect it, it’s lost forever. It’s like an oral history—it’s almost like trying to collect slang or popular music. It’s very hard to collect the song or the riff that is going to be the one that you remember 20 years from now. If you look back at music in the ’80s and ’90s, the most important music of those periods was almost never the ones that were at the top of the charts. It’s just the way we measure importance, particularly now with the web and the sort of mass subculturization of everything; it’s impossible to pick winners. Planetary is probably not the most significant app of that period; in fact, it’s not. But it is one that points towards how we might think about collecting things in the future.

DD:  I find your reference to Daniel Buren unfair because he said that he rejected past art in bulk and that we need to break tradition completely, including museums. It was very self-serving and not in context of what a museum’s role is. He wanted to remove everything from the previous millennium and start fresh by painting lines.

NO:  It’s an interesting point because I think he was also signaling a mass paradigm shift and an obliteration of what had been built before. But I think he was also leveraging the importance of the user or, if I may, the user experience of the artwork as opposed to the institutional implementation of the data of their collection.

DD:  Absolutely. That gave place to performance art and how people related to that work as well. I read Jennifer Doyle’s Hold it Against Me; it’s all about how the viewer relates to the work, and not about the work itself. I think the work is almost irrelevant to us—it’s really the ramifications that it has.

“The question is whether this belongs to humanity or whether this belongs to the ones who can afford to have it.”

SC:  This is what museums have been doing, too. Museums are no longer seeing themselves as places where people come to learn about things; those things are there to trigger your imagination or trigger you to action. The purposefulness of the museum has begun to change. The museum doesn’t see itself as a warehouse anymore. Public museums, particularly, are very much about: “How do we change the public’s perception of the past?” Otherwise we end up obliterating the past.

DD:  We’re also repeating a lot of existing patterns in other art. Musical scores, for example. Maybe the sound of it is not the art...

SC: The question becomes, how do we as societies propagate cultural practices and cultural memory? Software and code is very much part of how we create culture now. It has its own culture, down to the t-shirts we choose to wear, how our offices are set up, and our screensavers and choice of laptops. All those things are part of the aesthetic.

DD:  The algorithms cemented the mainstream. They run everything today. The sorting happens on everything around you all the time.

SC:  But we shouldn’t forget that there were people behind that. It’s people writing these things and making choices. Part of what’s interesting with the role of the museum is to reveal those people. Algorithms are almost shorthand for hiding the people behind them.

NO: Maybe we can end with this question: If this auction is just a starting point, where does this go? Does it show us that we need to have private individuals perform the activity of stewardship? Or do we need to have public institutions continue that task? What is the relationship between the public and the private in terms of giving algorithms longevity? What’s fascinating to me about code is that it also has a long history of proprietary implementation.

SC:  It also has a long history of public implementation.

NO:  Of course, absolutely.

SC:  It’s parallel.

NO:  Well, it has a long history of a tension between public and private. So how do you preserve and nurture open systems?

DD:  I certainly think it’s the responsibility of public institutions in the long run, much like education is the responsibility of public institutions in the short term. So the question is whether this belongs to humanity or whether this belongs to the ones who can afford to have it. And if we think this is something that belongs to humanity, then it’s definitely the responsibility of public institutions, or those that don’t have any other goals than preserving it for the greater good, or for the machines that come after us. It’s the same with paintings. You buy a painting at auction, you don’t have rights to the painting; you just have the painting. You can show it, but you might not have the ability to photograph it and redistribute it.

“I want to see code as genuine art that is something we admire for its purely emotional, aesthetic, or visceral properties.”

NO: It depends on the contract at the point of sale. This is particularly problematic in secondary markets because at that point the artist is already one step removed, so they don’t really have access to the contract. That’s why secondary market issues, in this country at least, are extremely contentious right now. Not only can you profit on the sale of the asset, but you can also profit on the sale of the image of the asset that one can use to further consolidate one’s wealth. And that doesn’t kick back to the artist.

SC:  I would say this auction is akin to a rock memorabilia auction. Hendrix’s guitar is not the same as everyone else’s. I think there are very similar things that happen in the world because you’re not getting an exclusive license. If you’re getting an exclusive license then it is a secondary market problem.

DD: Regarding your earlier proposal that art should be useless, Seb, I think a lot of code is useless; I want to see code as genuine art that is something we admire for its purely emotional, aesthetic, or visceral properties.

NO: In a design context, are we collecting the end product or are we collecting the process in which it’s created? It’s like the plan versus the print.

DD:  Well, the algorithm is the plan.

NO: But in this instance, I think that you’re also buying the context, right? You’re buying the history; you’re buying the legacy. It’s not just the objects. It’s the provenance of what the object stands for.

SC:  But you can’t extract that from the social and cultural [context]... you can’t take things out of the world. That’s why the white-box approach is really problematic for things that are such a part of the world. It will be really interesting to see who the buyers are, and maybe talk to them about why they bought [these objects]. Again, once this auction occurs it creates its own sense of purpose, which probably has nothing to do with what we’ve talked about! It won’t actually be about what they bought, but maybe it is in some cases; maybe it really means something to them.

Explore the Algorithm Auction on Artsy.

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