Wednesday, September 12, 2007

From waste to art

At the e-Content Summit in Brijuni James Wallbank (see photograph), director of the Art and Technology Group of The Redundant Technology Initiative spoke about his projects from waste to arts. (I put this blog together by combining texts from several of their sites). The Redundant Technology Initiative (RTI) was set up in 1997. Based in Sheffield, in the UK, RTI was formed by artists who wanted to get involved with information technology, but didn't have the resources to buy computers. So instead they went about getting their hands on trash computers, finding new ways to be creative with old technology, then exhibiting the results. The process that they set up was a virtuous circle: each exhibition or arts event that they held raised people's awareness of the issue of technology disposal, so they were prompted to give the group even more computers. More computers led to more exhibitions, and so on.

In a few months RTI had more computers than they knew what to do with, so they set up Access Space, a unique creative media lab, to which anyone can come and learn, create and communicate online. The methodology remains consistent. We work with zero-cost technology rescued from the trash, and free, open-source software that costs absolutely nothing. In this regard the group has become a pioneer - Access Space is the first public access internet laboratory to be run entirely with free software. Free technology is something which everyone can get involved with.

RTI continues to exhibit trash technology art (see phtograph) around the UK and across Europe, and campaigns to advocate low cost access to information technology. The people are still hungry for obsolete machines and run an ongoing campaign that asks businesses and individuals to donate computers that they no longer use. Through its Access Space RTI has demonstrated that any group can build their own online lab for no capital cost, using the technology that's being discarded in their local neighbourhood combined with free, open-source software. It's a strategy that's highly sustainable, extremely green, spreads empowering information technology skills, and best of all, and is creative and a lot of fun!

That's why their new project is called "Grow Your Own Media Lab!" It does exactly what it says: helps groups across the UK and further abroad to set up their own creative, community-based technology reuse projects, forming a grassroots network of ICT learning and techno-culture centres.

One of their present projects is the Open Source Embroidery project, which brings together programming for embroidery and computing. It is based on the common characteristics of needlework crafts and open source computer programming: gendered obsessive attention to detail; shared social process of development; and a transparency of process and product. Open Source Embroidery is a socially engaged art project developed through workshops and an email list: There are also groups on Facebook and Flickr.

Embroidery is constructed (mostly by women) in hundreds of tiny stitches which are visible on the front of the fabric. The system of the stitches is revealed on the back of the material. Some embroiderers seal the back of the fabric, preventing others from seeing the underlying structure of the pattern. Others leave the back open for those who want to take a peek. A few integrate the backend process into the front of the fabric. The patterns are shared amongst friends in knitting and embroidery 'circles'.

Software is constructed (mostly by men) in hundreds of tiny pieces of code, which form the hidden structure of the programme or interface. Open Source software allows people to look at the back of the fabric, and understand the structure of your software, modify it and distribute it.

The code is shared amongst friends through online networks. However the stitches or code only make sense to those who are familiar with the language or patterns.The same arguments about Open Source vs Free Software can be applied to embroidery. The needlework crafts also have to negotiate the principles of 'freedom' to create, modify and distribute, within the cultural and economic constraints of capitalism. The Open Source Embroidery project simply attempts to provide a social and practical way of discussing the issues and trying out the practice. Free Software, Open Source, amateur and professional embroiderers and programmers are welcome to contribute to the project.

The Open Source Embroidery project pays homage to Ada Lovelace (1816-52) who helped to develop the Analytical Engine, the first idea for a universal computer, with Charles Babbage. Lovelace wrote "we may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraically patterns just as the Jaquard Loom weaves flowers and leaves.". The Jaquard Loom (1810) was the first machine to use punched-card programming.

Blog Posting Number: 865


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