Open Source, Open Channels, Open Minds

FALL 2011: V.07 N.02: CAA Conference Edition 2011

Robert Lawrence
University of South Florida

Tango Intervention Series, 2007-2010, Robert Lawrence, public intervention and website, image: Robert Lawrence.

Tango Intervention Series, 2007-2010, Robert Lawrence, public intervention and website, image: Robert Lawrence.

Approaching “Open Source” as a metaphor and a statement of philosophy regarding what priorities we choose as thinkers, producers, and educators, I will share two projects that exemplify Open Source philosophy as it applies to video as a creative and tactical medium – and look at some connections and disjuncture between open source software development and a historical progression toward the democratization of moving image media.

My practice with video goes back far enough to remember the wonder of threading up half-tape reels on black and white Sony port packs.  Over the next two decades I worked with video installation, and lately I have been more interested in film/video as a distributed social performance facilitated by digital tools and the Internet.

Beginning in the late 90’s, the Internet became for me an alternative channel of deployment for my projects, and since then, all my work has components in the physical or media world and complimentary or contradictory elements on the Internet.  The “complete” work exists neither in the traditional media nor on the Internet, but rather in the combined voices of both.  This real/Internet hybrid practice evolved into an examination of the post-modern reformulation of Identity by the Internet.  My hybrid practice is a meditation on the ways that we now live double or extravagantly multiple lives between our physical and our virtual selves. [1]

Positioned as I am across the media and Internet fields, I have spent a lot of time considering their comparative histories and cultures.

The histories of software development and film/video had little in common until they collided with the emergence of digital video editing.  Film culture was closed and proprietary, whereas Open Source was the spirit of software from the beginning.  Increasing proprietary tendencies in the 70s forced software developers to make a stand to preserve openness that was always at the heart of software innovation. [2]

At roughly the same time software was becoming increasingly proprietary, there was also a “video revolution” trying to open up media.  Media idealists imagined technology could change media consumers into media producers. Half-inch reel-to-reel, VHS, beta, digital editing, mini DV were each greeted with predictions of media industry transformation.

Big media had colonized the audience and we were going to decolonialize it.  But you will not find much reference to “Open Source philosophy” in the history of the video revolution, which is puzzling.  From one perspective a shot in video is very much like a line of code.  It’s a unit of production, possible intellectual property, and a personal expression.  But the Open Source idea did not circulate in the video world because they had already chosen a different battle to fight.  Deep dish TV, Video Freaks, TVTV, [3] and the lineage that followed resulted in some amazing work, but the hoped for change was not significantly accomplished.  Technology does NOT make consumers producers, because there is a skill base technology can’t provide. [4] Moreover, the real barriers were not in production but in distribution, which was neatly and strategically maintained by established powers. [5]

Until Web 2.0…
Web 2.0 technologically broke the distribution barriers, and it also technically enabled open-source film, but significantly, the Internet was mindset-enabled from the very beginning. [6] By the time YouTube made video sharing possible, there was already a change toward participatory culture through Internet use by the public.  Sharing muffin recipes paved the way for sharing media.  The web enacted the Video Freak hoped for decolonialization of the public’s mind.  Of course, at the same time, capital has been very busy and very ingenious trying to recolonize or at least brand decolonialization, in the guise of “user generated content.” [7]

The early promise of media sharing on the web was something I was considering in 2003 when I started my Open Source film project, Un Message Evidemment.  It actually started as a short experimental film, with initial collaboration from John Campbell.  We planned a very clean formal, structural send up of Hollywood action films: a kind of Wavelength meets Terminator.  Each shot was carefully constructed with an extreme close up of somebody listening to a cell phone and in the background some dramatic action.  The idea was to shoot the film in multiple locations with different characters, and then make all the shots come together in a story through the phone messages that the characters listened to on the phones in each shot.  The sound track would just be the voice messages.  We shot in locations around the world, and by 2004, we had dozens of great shots, but no stories.

Un Message Evidemment, 2003, Robert Lawrence, Open Source film project, image: Robert Lawrence.

Un Message Evidemment, 2003, Robert Lawrence, Open Source film project, image: Robert Lawrence.

Then I came upon the idea of using the web to make it an Open Source project.  I invited anyone to submit ideas for the sound/story elements, either by email, sms, or actual voice messages on my phone.  I offered the footage to anyone to download to make his or her own projects.  I conceived it as an open-source film but also as a relational performance: The film is a story about communication. The performance is a communication about story.

At the time, whenever I told people about this project, they got very excited.  I made a trailer, took it around to festivals, and conducted college workshops from Minnesota to Malaysia.  I developed the project into a live performance at the Victoria Film Festival.  Everyone was thrilled.  I imagined a thousand creative voices from around the world spinning their own deconstruction of a Hollywood action film form.  I kept waiting for the new exciting work to flood in on the website. It never did.

At first, when I Googled “Open Source film” I got a dozen sites, none of which were really open-source films.  Over a few years this changed to hundreds and then thousands, and there actually WERE “open-source film” projects that were getting participants.  They were not burdened with a single artist’s narrow parameters and personal taste for cool, strategic cultural deconstruction.  They were mostly contests offering the participants something more than participation: prizes, fame, glory, and a promise of recognition in the movie machinery that I was interested in dismantling.  In the end the project was a fun ride, and a fascinating and prescient failure.  Now Google will give you 55,000 returns for “Open Source film”.  I made an all-too-common mistake – that of artists who want collaboration and participation but are not willing to (or trained to) surrender authorial power.

Tango Panopticon 2.0, 2010, Robert Lawrence,, image: Robert Lawrence.

Tango Panopticon 2.0, 2010, Robert Lawrence,, image: Robert Lawrence.

I was carrying this lesson with me when I produced Tango Panopticon 2.0.  Part of my four-year-long Tango Intervention series, in which dance is used as an unexplained intervention in public space, and a website re-contextualizes the seemingly essentialist public action as a political action.  For Tango Panopticon on May Day 2010 people on four continents all at the same time performed unannounced dance interventions in public spaces monitored by government or corporate video surveillance.  At each location participants and the public could stream live video from their cell phones and all this video was available for display at in a grid of six images.  When participants registered for the project and started streaming, their locations were automatically marked on the website map.  Visitors to the website could click on the map and load live video from any location into the grid of six videos displayed.  The day came off as planned. We had up to sixteen videos streaming at a time, and were actually prepared to handle up to 100.

At some point I realized that the event was not as significant as the tools that produced it.  I became excited by the notion that any group anywhere in the world with a few borrowed smart phones could do live synchronous video broadcasting of actions all around the world.  I switched my thinking about Tango Panopticon from an event to genre, an opening possibility for artists, performers, and activists to create unique, synchronous and massive broadcasts previously impossible.  In terms of media evolution, it felt completely decolonializing to me.

Because of differing server protocols it was not possible to just give away our software and let others start their own worldwide events, without lots of implementation work for every user.  So, with that last few bucks of the original grant from USF, I went to work trying to make another web app, VuPango, that was more universally deployable.  Here were the requirements:

-Work on common web server configurations.
-Allow technically uninformed to set up multiple live streaming video for worldwide events.
-Allow users to configure the interface to their own tastes.
-Be free and Open Source.
-Happen soon before some industry sharpies established a dominant protocol for the same functionality—I did not want the next step in the democratization of media to belong to Microsoft.

Truthfully, things did not look too good.  The software we had was not adaptable to the new criteria we set.  We started from scratch.  The big break came when Joe had the sense to leverage a basic principle of Open Source philosophy and practice: modularity. Rather than building from the ground up, we just built a plugin for the Open-source blogging software, WordPress. VuPango is now one of 13,000 plugins available at  And that means it can be used by any of the over 25 million people who use WordPress, or anyone else who downloads the free software.

How does this compare to the Open-source film/performance Un Message Evidemment? Well, we’ll see.  But things are promising.  VuPango is being used in three weeks for a dance performance that will be taking place simultaneously in seven locations in Florida, [8] and will be part of Choreographer Marylee Hardenburg’s Global Water Dance Project in 39 locations around the world on June 25th. [9]

So, I offer this tool.  It’s free.  It’s Open Source. It lets you do things that only major corporations could do a year ago.  Anyone can use it.  Anyone can change it, adapt it, and deploy it to fight the power. [10]

Thanks to: Ben Chang, USF School of Art, USF College of Engineering, Adriana Iamnitchi, Michael Stillo, and Joe Clay.


1. Considering the rich possibilities of an aesthetic practice deployed simultaneously in traditional forms and the Internet, and the imperative cultural need to understand how our dual experiences in body and in web are transforming us, I have always been amazed that there are not legions of artists working with similar real/virtual hybrid strategies.  I keep expecting to turn over a rock at some conference and find a swarming hive of them, as yet I still find myself in a remarkably hermetic genre.
2. In 1980, the Copyright Law was extended to software, and in 1983 Richard Stallman announced the GNU General Public License – GNU GPL
3. This is consistent with a cultural colonialism metaphor.
4. 1972 GOP Convention Four More Years TVTV Top Value Television (1972) (accessed 8/7/2011).
5. The institutions of moving media were too well formed as commercially motivated, and the mindset they reinforced could not imagine what the software industry imagined almost from the start.
6. In March 1989 Tim Berners-Lee proposed Internet as a read/write online platform.
7. YouTube started as a way for some friends to share video, and was bought a year later by Google for 1.65 Billion.  YouTube video, Charlie bit me received 277,828,058 views.
10. The limitations of VuPango: Actual video streaming is still proprietary: Qik, Ustream and Bambuser.  I am working on an open-source streaming software but that is a way off.  I would rather have it be all Open Source, but that is not possible.  This is the remnant of the colonial.  However, as tactical media, even with these limitations, it is still extremely promising.  I am reminded of what de Certeau says about the difference between strategic and tactical.  Strategic is actions planned from a position of empowerment.  Tactical is strategies needed from outside empowerment.  Tactical is comfortable being ad hoc…comfortable being uncomfortable.  It has to be.  If it is not uncomfortable it is not at all.  That is part of what it means to fight the power.