Software as a tool in digital craft

[updated 13 May 2015]

The materiality of a medium in the sense of materials and specific technologies is  fundamental for any artistic and creative practice. The importance and centrality of this kind of materiality was discussed in depth by Howard Becker in his Art Worlds (Becker, 1982) in which he argued how the dependency of artists on materials for creating art works and the subsequent circulation of knowledge, skills, production and appreciation environments spin a network of relationships and dependencies in which the artist’s role becomes just one in a larger network of creativity/art production and is reliant on multiple other institutions, people and technologies available. Materials, Becker argues affect the work of artists, no matter if these materials are specialized such that nobody else uses or if they are standard, easily available and multi-purpose such. In the same time their availability depends on the social organisation of productive economic activity – some media require specialized equipment, such as musical instruments or specific oil paints that make their manufacture very technical, complex and specific and often artstists do not produce them themselves. Other matetrials are more easily available – such as raw materials as wood, paper, and a third kind could be anything that comprises our everyday life and is generally used for multiple purposes (71-77). Using ubiquitous technology, or materials is, Becker argues, the most common approach and those who have money, buy it, others ‘beg, borrow, or steal’ (Becker, 1982: 71). Artists get materials and equipment through the mechanisms that society has for distributing goods and where the market economy does this allocation, artsts buy, rent or barter or negotiating the exchange of what they need, and those without money can steal – as Becker tells, ‘successful artists often admit, or brag, that they stole in their less successful days’ (75). At the time when Art Worlds was written computers were still an obscure computational tool used primarily in scientific projects and marginal artistic practice, yet today the computer is part of the cultural mainstream becoming a ubiquitous material for creative production.

Tools and workflows in artistic practice

The process of artistic work with technology is very specific to the individual requirements of the creative/artistic project, and forms what in professional jargon is called a ‘workflow’. The workflow represents the process of making, and encompasses the sequence of steps and specific technical decisions or actions that need to be made in order to achieve the desired outcome. Every artist or creator has usually a unique workflow, their own way of solving problems and doing things. A generic example of this would be a writer who writes a novel using Microsoft Word. The way the shortcuts are configured , etc.
Manovich aruges that the shift to software-based tools in the 1990s has affected not only the moving image culture but all other areas of media design by submerging them to the same type of production workflow. This workflow involves the combination of elements created or imported in multiple software applications in which common are the applications for drawing, image manipulation, and animation software (Manovich, 2013: 247). However, most of this software has been commodified and provided exclusively by manufacturers as proprietary, out-of-the-box solutions that are generally not subject to reverse-engineering, modification or adaptation – such as Adobe’s Photoshop, After Effects, or Maya, 3D Studio Max except by the manufacturers of the software. In the same time they are ubiquitous and widely adopted in cultural production. As one animation artist admits: “Whether you are an animator or live-action director now, you’re using the same equipment and tools – After Effects, Final Cut Pro, Photoshop and so on” (Wells and Hardstaff, 2008: 24). For productions driven by individuals or small to medium scale productions this means the need for substantial economic investments in multiple software applications that altogether form one’s workflow, but which they do not have control over.

Yet the use of proprietary technology in creative and especially, artistic work creates specific kinds of dependencies and problems for creators and artists who work professionally with these programs, as they represent ‘specialized materials’. The term specialized materials has been used by Howard Becker in Art Worlds to refer to specialized tools and technologies, such as music instruments, specific paints or as in the case here – production software – the industrial production of which attempts to be sensitive to what the industry thinks artists want, in the same time as artists ‘ rely on their products having learned in their formative years to do what can be done with the materials available’ (Becker, 1982: 73) However, this kind of adoption of industry-provided technology carries specific problems. On one hand the products of commercial, industry manufacturers could seem satisfactory for most workers in a medium, just because the users are used to working with these materials (73), and not because they are particularly well adapted to an individual’s needs and practices. The materials, or software is that which they have learnt to use and become specialists in, and have adapted their work to the constraints and possibilities of technology. This implies the development of a very specific relationship between artists and materials they use that is of dependency on materials as knowledge and skill, in the sense of craft that artists develop in relation to a particular material, or medium. This relationship can though be constraining depending on the degree of to which the market is monopolistic. (Becker, 1982: 73)
The domination of few manufacturers, Becker argues, makes them more insensitive to the need of artistic minorities and ultimately may represent a threat to them, the extreme of which can be that of discontinuing the production of a material. Discontinuation is not a hypothetic treat, but has been observed in many cases in history. Becker brings up some examples for the field of photography telling the history of Kodak, when George Eastman, the founder of Kodak discovered a potentially competitive process and got commercial control of it leading to serious consequences for photographers since only few companies produced the paper on which photographers could print and they often discontinued the materials artsts use for reasons having to do with their own, company-related interal operations (73). As Becker, continues, this was the case with a particular paper, Record Rapid that allowed producing specific aesthetic effects on a wamr-toned paper, which was later discontinued from production by Agfa forcing artists to develop new artisitc strategies which did not require that product (74). Any switch to a different material, and generally to a different primary instrument for work entails a substantial investment in time and often also money in order to re-learn the specifics of the new ‘material’ or tool, especially considering that members of art worlds teach themselves and they do that through practice (78). In the domain of software based, and in particular computer graphics software based production the possibility of discontinuing production, or other changes, such as implementation of new file formats and abolishment of old file formats carry much more profound consequences. While in non-computer based media, and in particular – in mechanic-based apparatus of production the creative work produced has a tangible materiality – a film strip, a cassette for example, digital media is distributed and consumed through file formats. Discontinuing a program through which creative work has been made can mean the loss of that creative work too, or of all creative works done with this program, aside from the vast impact such changes may bring to one’s workflow implying learning other programs, new investments in other technology and accepting the consequences of the impossibility to demonstrate one’s portfolio Even a change in one feature can change the whole work process of an artist.
To avoid this, or for reasons of getting creative independency or enable other types of artistic experimentation, artists can attempt to make their own materials in which case they need to devote time that might be spent to make art to make instead its material precursors, and implies the establishment of mechanisms for knowledge transfer so that others can learn to work with them (Becker, 1982: 76). This option carries arguably the advantage of a tremendously higher opportunity for adapting materials to one’s own needs, but requires the initial time, and investment in making technology, creating knowledge and its distribution mechanism for making things. Becker argues, that considering the sustained investment of time, money and other resources required for the practical development of a new technical possibility, their development are rare (311).

Yet, this is exactly what the free software graphics communities of Blender and Synfig are doing. Animation and computer graphics production is not only art, it is also a craft. Any craft is embedded in technology, it is rooted in practice and in close connection to materials (Dormer, 1997, p. 219). Today’s materials for performing digital craft is software, and the virtual spaces online have provided a new arena for homo faber – the human as maker (Boellstorff, 2008, p. 21). The most practical way to develop software is through its use, and the users of computer graphics software are art its. Thus, the connection between artists and projects in real production with the development of technology has become the core way of work in a number of open movie projects, by the Blender Institute, Morevna, Krita or those of independent artists such as David Revoy and his open comics. As such, keeping technology as free software is more than a political statement, a commitment to freedom, typical for the free software and the Linux movement – it is a way to preserve the possibilities and freedom of crafting (digital) art by keeping the close relationship and possibility to mould technology according to individual’s needs.

Why?

The production of art, and media has always been embedded in technology. From early painters who were mixing their colors, made canvases and brushes to software, artists have always appreciated to make and control their tools. However, with the emergence of industrial capitalism this kind of production has gradually remained more and more in the circles of artisans and more marginal artists, while the field of tools production became increasingly the business of companies and subject of mass production bringing the tools and technological knowledge of artists to a wider group of users – the mass user. With this came also a shift in the relationships of control, control over production, over skill, creative expression and most importantly, technology:


 ‘Artists in particular were pushing the boundaries of new media into new areas, while industry made the instruments available to ever-increasing groups of producers and customers…..Additionally, art and culture were allocated a critical position a priori as regards the social consequences and implications of new technology…. The educational effect of new media culture were also underlined, in which the public is tempted to play with new media forms and effortlessly becomes familiar with technology and how it works, informal learning or learning by doing” (Kluitenberg, 2009: 19)

In the developments which Kluitenberg suggests the possibilities to control and alter technology for visual culture production were scarce, and overcoming this became the goal of a number of free software graphics projects, such as Blender, Synfig, Krita, GIMP and others.
Industrialization and rationalization of production contributed to the possibility to separate the production of art from the production of technology, something which has always been at the core of craft and artistic experimentation. With this separation there was also a shift in the relationships of control -over production and over technology. Those who control technology have a degree of power (feenberg) over art, and over production. At the level of consumption, the negotiation and explication of this power is often obscured or perceived as irrelevant. When moving to the domain of production, the more technologically intensive and technologically-mediated the production practices are, the more important becomes the politics of technology.

This has prevented some from the possibility to exercise digital craftsmanship.  Craftsmanship is defined through two features:  the desire to do something of quality for its own sake, and the engagement in a problem-solving – problem finding rhythm in close relation to technology, skills development and closeness to materials (Sennett, 2008, Chapter 1). It is also related to a concern with the procedure of making and the way of working rather than simply getting things to work (ibid, p.20).
<Put somewhere here the histories of Blender, Synfig, Krita, and later also – how the artists-developers work contributes to collectively mould tools for digital visual production>
* To argue for: OPEN SOURCE GRAPHICS SOFTWARE AS A CONTINUATION OF THE LINEAGE OF the artistic experimentation with technologists, and possibility for

References:

Becker HS (1982) Art worlds. Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of California Press.

Manovich L (2013) Software takes command: extending the language of new media. International texts in critical media aesthetics, New York ; London: Bloomsbury.

Wells P and Hardstaff J (2008) Re-imagining animation the changing face of the moving image. Lausanne; London: AVA, Available from: http://site.ebrary.com/id/10382980 (accessed 29 September 2014).


Author: Julia Velkova
The license of these drafts, unless specified otherwise is Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.
Any thoughts on factual errors, constructive criticism or other ideas are welcome, either by emailing them to jv or by posting in the comment thread.

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