The Akron-Cleveland Team Brings Ideas About Collaborative Art Praxis to SXSW
If there was any doubt about the power of the bourgeoning open source movement, it’s safe to say it was silenced last year when an official from a renowned technology institute sent Margarita Benitez a quick, unexpected message regarding her OS-powered weaving loom — and colonizing Mars. Let us know when it’s finished, it read, and went on to suggest if the loom was modular it could be used to weave textiles in the new frontier.
The open-source loom (OSLOOM) is one of three projects Kent State University professor Margarita Benitez and University of Akron’s professor Markus Vogl, who make up the team of //benitez_vogl, will discuss when they lead a discussion this year at the tech hub of Austin, Texas as a part of SXSW. All three projects revolve around collaborative art praxis and the rise of development we call open source, a peer review-based digital community of hackers, mashers, and coders who are changing the way we think about how art intersects with accessibility.
By using software that allows source codes to be modified and the hardware that supports it, artists like Benitez and Vogl are no longer bound by the strict copyrights of pricey materials and tools normally reserved for mass production. Instead, they can freely dismantle, rebuild, and evolve technology to their advantage. And with the rising number of FabLabs and hackerspaces, it’s revolutionizing the way we create.
“The whole OSLOOM idea came about because I couldn’t afford a $30,000 loom,” a flicker of a flashback in her dark eyes, Benitez explains the typical industry price while she brushes back her black hair, which, at the current moment, is thickly streaked with magenta.
Benitez was a young fashion technology undergraduate, fascinated with weaving large still images from live newscasts onto textiles. She would spend eight months cross-stitching a war scene from a CNN image and thinking there had to be an easier way
Her professor introduced her to industrial weaving, which would eventually lead to the 18th century invention of Joseph Marie Jacquard becoming her model for the OSLOOM. The Jacquard loom allowed complicated patterns to be woven at the same rate as plain fabrics and effectively became a symbol of the innovation of the Industrial Revolution. Appropriately, it’s also credited as one of the earliest precursors to modern computer programming.
But it’s these intricacies that also isolated textile technology, making it only affordable for commercial use. Today, it’s open source technology that is putting it back in the hands of makers
By developing the crowdfunded OSLOOM, freely distributed instructions on how to recreate looms for shorter runs will be released on the internet and its impact can extend to students and DIY crafters, to developing countries and colonizing Mars.
“What’s really important to us is accessibility. So many people just push the commercial aspect – ‘how can I patent this?’ or ‘how can I make money off this?’” Vogl explains, his native Austrian accent smooth and precise. “For us, it’s always been about ‘how can we get this to as many people as possible?’ That’s really, deeply important to us.”
It’s the reason that despite their fusion of art and technology defying convention, Benitez and Vogl have a pension for exploring the everyday familiar. SARA, a free app in development that creates sounds and visuals based on input when worn by a performer, is interactive art based around a device as universal as a mobile phone. Coded :: Fashion, which debuted at the Beijing Fashion Institute/International Textile Association Conference, allows users to design laser-cut t-shirts with the use of a photo from a camera or webcam.
“Most of our work is interactive in a sense, but we’re trying to do really natural interactions rather than complicated interactions,” explains Vogl. “We don’t want the technology to overbear; we want the technology to aid but for you to almost not even notice it.”
In spite of all this unwavering advocacy and solidarity for the common artist, it’s well-noted the open source network is also one long associated with defying the status quo and confronting the open exchange of uncensored, dangerous ideas with fearlessness. The implications of using moldable technology for collaboration challenges the model of our ingrained conceptions of art, from where it begins to where it ends up.
“If you’re an artist, such as our background is in media arts and graphic design, you can make a piece, you stick it in a gallery, it’s there for a month and then you take it down. Or someone buys it,” says Benitez. “With this, you have the potential of other people taking it and pushing it forward, redeveloping it, and your artwork has a different life.”
There’s no question collaborative art is turning tradition on its head. And with the help of grants, including the National Endowment for the Arts, Benitez and Vogl have traveled to Barcelona and Bejing, and will visit Vienna and London this year, to talk about its changing role. Will open source be the art movement that defines our generation?
“They call it ‘copyleft’ for a reason, copyright is always very closed. The way we see it, I think we’re going to have a sort of a shift where we’re going to see closed sourced versus open source. At the end of the day, our world as a closed source world won’t be able to sustain forever. We can’t just make one percent richer every day and 99 percent poorer every day,” says Vogl. “What we’re hoping is open source, in a very optimistic, somewhat socialistic kind of way, can contribute to the fact that we have better learning opportunities, better worldwide education. Quite idealistic, indeed, but one can dream.
“What’s that saying,” Margarita Benitez laughs, “the crazy ones who think they can change the world are the ones who actually do?”
Learn more about SARA and Coded :: Fashion at Ingenuity Festival’s Mini Maker Faire on April 13.
You can also catch //benitez_vogl speaking on this month’s American Advertising Federation panel of first-hand accounts of SXSW.