this article was fully published at FLOSS+ART colective book

Free Studios

by Fabianne B. Balvedi, Guilherme R. Soares, Adriana Veloso, Flavio Soares
translated by Tori Holmes

Summary: This article presents the Estúdio Livre (Free Studio) project – a collaborative environment for research, development, experimentation and production in free media – based on the perspective that one of the biggest innovations of the digital world is to be found in the structure of division of labour which takes place in an open network and of which free software is the best example. The methodology proposed illustrates the breaking down of barriers between producer and consumer as an example of collective intelligence as well as of changes in aesthetic, economic and social paradigms in contemporary society.

1. Introduction

It is not difficult today to find the image of open and shared systems associated with the defence of freedom in the fight against a proprietary monopoly. Based on this perspective, free software is almost always appropriated as a banner and a strategic weapon in a counter-hegemonic struggle, which places it in opposition to closed models of information systems.

Although this discourse succeeds in attracting the attention of the mainstream media to questions such as the inequalities present in global technological development and the consequences of patent laws, its failing is that it ignores what are perhaps the most important characteristics of the free software phenomenon: its production dynamics, its rules for the circulation of products and the behaviour changes which take place towards the medium, brought about by its philosophy regarding usage (Novaes, Caminati & Prado, 2005). It is different from the proprietary model not just in the nature of its materiality, but, principally, in terms of the social relations into which it is inserted. Therefore, from this point of view, we understand that it is not correct simply to say that free software is better than proprietary software, but that it is of another order, which is fairer and qualitatively better than the proprietary one. According to De Ugarte (2005), the free software movement is the basis of the first ever large-scale structure based on free property in distributed networks.

While the proprietary model is based on competition and holding back information, the free one is mainly motivated by collaboration and generosity. At any of the levels of interaction, multidimensional developer/user relationships are established which constitute an alternative to the unilateral producer/consumer or provider/client relationships. As a result, the ensuing product is also a process. This process can be defined as a cumulative feedback cycle which makes the network think and is based on the sharing of information as the driving force behind technological innovation and the production of cultural goods.

It is worth observing that the coexistence of the process and product variables as the result of a continuous flow of occurrences cannot be understood within the traditional Western logic, that of Aristotle, which is based on the binary values of affirmations. According to this logic, the result of a development process would be just a product, and not the process itself. As for the fuzzy logic, it supports modes of reasoning which are approximate, rather than exact, with which we are naturally used to working. Many human experiences cannot be classified simply as true or false, yes or no, black or white. This is also how Estúdio Livre works.

2. The Community

2.1 Developers: Art and Science

The use of licenses which allow the sharing and re-use of codes is potentially a huge trump card for the sustainability of a more interdisciplinary community like Estúdio Livre, which combines art and science. Stimulating this model of production encourages a space in which science can operate more innovatively and art can become more involved in improving its techniques.

One of the big problems with the dehumanisation of technologies is the failure to question the mechanisms of repetition built into the interfaces of industrial software. In most cases, artists see the computer as a closed box which ends up dictating aesthetic paths linked to standard interfaces, and ties the cultural producer to a blind dependency on new products and formats launched by the industry.

In the case of free software, production follows a rhythm of requests and mutual collaboration in which the developers receive immediate feedback from the artists, who thereby gain more advanced knowledge about the development of their tools since they are no longer trapped within the cycle of industrial secrets. This encourages the deepening of knowledge for the shaping of a personal way of using technology, and the potential for customising the production processes grows, bringing with it also a greater interest in science and the methods which make this possible.

As for scientists, in this environment they find an enormous incentive for creativity and breaking down the distances between scientific technique and the artist, bringing the awareness that producing a code or designing an interface or machine can be a technique loaded with communicative intention and as playful as making brush strokes on a canvas or strumming a guitar. A much less technocentric vision of scientific work is stimulated, bringing back the figure of the inventor and adding poetry to the mix.

2.2 Artists and Cultural Producers: Collaborative Means of Production

Without a doubt, the way free software is produced represents one of the most successful models ever known of organic and participatory management of collective work. The idea of producing collaboratively, using internet-based interfaces for editing code, version control, discussion forums and email lists, stimulated the construction of systems which are today so proficient for certain application niches that they have overtaken proprietary applications, such as in the case of web servers. This happens because there is also open dialogue between the various parties – this is a more direct and intelligent way to solve problems and implement innovations than in a closed approach in which the parties isolate themselves from everything, cloaked in secrecy.

This vision has had a great influence on how artistic production is seen at the beginning of the current century (Lessig 2005). It became clear that artistic production could reach its audience directly, without intermediaries and without needing to conform to the aesthetic and marketing demands of distributors (in many case retrograde assumptions, which hamper creativity). This brought with it a better, and more organic, understanding of the artistic field of action. On the other hand, it also generated the need to look again at the question of how this authorship is recognised or remunerated since any consumer could potentially be a distributor or even a collaborator in this production.

One of the solutions proposed and encouraged by Estúdio Livre is support for collaborative production through the use of licenses for sharing. Just as the free software developer shares his or her code using licenses such as the GPL, the cultural producer, through licenses such as Creative Commons, gives the public the prior right to redistribute his or her work, with or without charge, and therefore makes them a partner in the creative production. In this way, a relationship is established in which consumption and production are parts of the same cycle, in which the great profit is the knowledge acquired and the establishment of social networks. Sooner or later, these same social networks will become partners in initiatives for mutual sustainability, creating a chain of production flows which breaks down cultural and geopolitical barriers, making possible autonomous niches which are much more self-referential and aware of their directions and more capable of reflecting their socio-economic influences and the role of their production.

3. The Environment

Estúdio Livre is a collaborative environment which emerged from the combined perception of people with the most varied backgrounds about the need for research into – and deeper knowledge of – the use and development of free media. The media contextualised through this environment corresponds to communications media, that is, it refers to the instrument or the content form used to carry out the communication process. Since software is an instrument for interaction which makes possible communication between a human and a machine, it may also be considered media, reinforcing McLuhan's (1967) hypothesis that the medium is the message. The main objective of Estúdio Livre is active research, and supporting and encouraging the production and circulation of free cultural goods, in other words works which can be freely distributed, remixed and retransmitted in a legal way and without any kind of restriction on access. Both virtually and in person, Estúdio Livre's activities and participation take place in the most free way possible. Proposals are made and these are added or other activities removed, depending on the profile of the group in each activity. All the tools in the environment are based on the concepts of free software, open knowledge and technological appropriation. The stimulus for interaction comes from workshops, media labs, free archives, user manuals, forums, personal blogs, research groups, discussions taking place via list and other differentiated tools for collaboration. The maintenance costs for the project include a big part which is voluntary on behalf of the collective and another small part which comes from its partners: the Free Software Project - Paraná (PSL-PR) and the Digital Culture sector of the Brazilian Ministry of Culture (MinC). PSL-PR was the cradle of the project and administers some of the network services, which the MinC maintains the server and a small team dedicated to the maintenance of the environment. The main reason for this partnership is the support provided to the Cultural Hotspots (Pontos de Cultura) which form part of the Ministry's Living Culture Programme (Programa Cultura Viva).

3.1 The Abstract Environment

3.1.1 Administration and Development

At the moment the tools used for virtual interaction are located on the World Wide Web. The main ones are the public discussion list and the collaborative portal which allow real-time editing of hypertexts as well as upload and download of documents with metadata.

The general public work list was the first virtual environment for interaction amongst the community. Up to now it has been hosted on the technical collective's server. Although we currently have emails and discussion lists under the domain, we chose to maintain our main list under the domain due to this connection being characterised as a “knot in the network”, in other words a project which uses resources from another and vice versa – there are people in the Estúdio Livre community who also collaborate with projects such as for example the translation of its web interface, which is originally in English, into Portuguese.

The Estúdio Livre website was originally hosted at the Utopia server, then by the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), and is now at the Rede Nacional de Ensino e Pesquisa (RNP) in Brasília. It is programmed in free software and can be developed by any person with technical knowledge of PHP, MySQL, Smarty and CSS. It is based on TikiWiki, a content management system (CMS) designed for communities and distributed under the LGPL license. People without programming knowledge can also contribute via bug reports.

The Estúdio Livre code is a Tiki module which consists of a group of new files, patches and SQL scripts, managed by Polvo, a software written in Perl to carry out automatic publication on the web and locally on the developer's machine. This procedure is necessary to maintain the code separate from the TikiWiki code.

The group responsible for the development, maintenance and administration of the site, discussion lists, request verification and organisation of the information is made up mainly of more experienced users, programmers, system administrators, musicians, videomakers and producers who have been using free software for some time.

3.1.2 Desktop

The main aim of is to amass a community which researches, documents, experiments, produces and develops free media. For this purpose, different types of interaction options are available to users. They may either simply search for information or add to or correct incomplete content which they come across during their research. They may also make their own productions available through the Free Archive (Acervo Livre) or download productions by other members of the site. Depending on the license used by those files, users may also remix them and upload them again in a new version. This is only legally possible because the content made available on the portal uses permissive licenses, which facilitate the most diverse types of sharing.

Another resource implemented in the Free Archive are the live channels which make possible audio and/or video streaming. Users can listen to and/or watch someone else's transmission or do their own, as long as they have the necessary tools installed on the computer that will generate the stream.

Access to all of these processes is completely free. However, to interact in this virtual environment, it is necessary to register some personal details on the site. By doing this, the user declares that s/he is aware of the conditions of the site's Terms of Use, thereby taking exclusive, irrevocable and irreversible responsibility for the information provided, as well as for any complaints from third parties about the material contributed, with Estúdio Livre being exempt from any obligation related to the exhibition and distribution of the works, and guaranteeing that no remuneration will be due for the material which is licensed, exhibited and distributed by it.

3.2 The Concrete Environment

In face-to-face interactions, proactive members of the community promote and participate in workshops and events which involve themes covered by the scope of the project.

The first experience with workshops took place at the V World Social Forum in January 2005 through participation in the activities of the Free Knowledge Lab (Laboratório de Conhecimentos Livres) located at the Youth Camp, which Lawrence Lessig dropped in on and later mentioned on his personal blog. Starting that same year, the Free Knowledge Encounters (Encontros de Conhecimentos Livres) took place all over Brazil, through the partnership with the MinC.

In 2006, a partnership with the regional government of Extremadura in Spain made it possible for seven members of the community to travel to Spain to share knowledge with European activists. Workshops took place in Almendralejo and Barcelona, bringing with them a subtle upgrade in the project's evolution (this trip also encouraged the internationalisation of the site, which gained an interface in various languages, but the translation of the wiki pages is still only just beginning). Despite the mainly nomadic characteristics described above, if we analyse Estúdio Livre as a concept, we can find it applied in various parts of Brazil, such as for example Curitiba, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte – or even inside the home of a member of the community.

4. Final Considerations

Estúdio Livre's activities are concentrated on supporting the increasing closeness of the development and usage cycles of free software media for the production of other types of media and encouraging sharing and collaboration in this production. Above all it is an environment which draws on volunteers from amongst the community and from those who share these interests for the sovereignty of its principles and autonomy of its proposals. On the other hand, it encourages the participation of its more active members in consultancy and the implementation of projects which require this methodology, using the documentation and works on the site as tools. Estúdio Livre also accepts voluntary donations and partnerships with institutions, governments and companies which are using its material or which would like to encourage specific productions within the community (documentation of a specific software, compilation of documentation, customisation or multimedia production), as long as the objectives of this partnership are coherent with those of Estúdio Livre and the donor or partner in question does not stand for anything which goes against the activism carried out by the community which maintains the project.

The aim is to create a scenario for more participatory cultural and technological production, which can generate less alienated reflections than purely entertainment-driven consumption and a greater awareness of the social role of everyone involved, who come to see themselves as part of an independent, open and collective process. We call this aim Estúdio Livre Phase Two, which sets out to produce something capable of causing the impact that the film “City of God” had on the history of Brazilian cinema, but with the differential of free software and the process of methodological sharing, following in the steps of the film “Elephants Dream” which was the world's first open source film and met with critical acclaim.

References & Bibliography:

Castells, M. (1999), A Sociedade em Rede (The Rise of the Network Society), Paz e Terra.

De Ugarte, D. (2005), El Poder de Las Redes (The Power of Networks), electronic book,

Garcia, D. (2004), "We Pledge Allegiance to the Penguin" in Wired Magazine, Issue 12.11, November.

Lessig, L. (2005), Cultura Livre (Free Culture), Trama.

Levy, P. (1993), As tecnologias da inteligência (Collective Intelligence), Editora 34.

McLuhan, M. and Fiore, Q. (1967), The Medium is the Message: An Inventory of Effects, Bantam Books.

Novaes, T., Caminati, F. e Prado, C. (2005), “Sinapse XXI: cultura digital e direito à comunicação" (Synapse XXI: digital culture and the right to communication”), Paulineas.

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Last modification: 29/03/2012 at 00:12, by: fabs