Read_me 2.3 Report
In the year 2003, the Read_me festival will be held for the second time, and for the first time in Helsinki. A year has passed since the first Moscow 2002 edition, and the festival has grown and germinated through Runme.org – the online software art repository it is now based on.
The idea of Read_Me 2.3 is to test an alternative festival model, especially since the subject of the festival is software art, a realm where people with artists’ self-identities coexist with programmers whose views on the process of creation, distribution and even the very meaning of their work can be dramatically different from those of the artists.
The current shape and organization of Read_Me is the result of a number of discussions and analyses concerning the traditional schemes international media art festivals are based on, as well as the organizational forms of open source developers communities. Art festivals as widely accepted forms are often compromised by a lack of transparency in submission and evaluation processes, which prevents interesting authors from submitting their projects and generates quite problematic winners. Open source communities are much more democratic, but have their own drawbacks: they focus on functionality and pragmatic usefulness, thus sometimes leaving out interesting projects seen as unnecessary in these contexts.
In order to keep the advantages and avoid the disadvantages of the two realms a few steps have been taken. An open, moderated software art repository Runme.org (http://runme.org) has been developed and put up on the Net. The first Read_me 1.2 was also based on an online database where all the entered projects were stored, but the database was closed for new submissions after a pre-arranged deadline. The second Read_me 2.3 is based on a database functioning parallel to and independent from the off-line festival. Projects entered into Runme.org before a certain date were considered as entries for the festival, but the submission of the works was not closed as the database was kept running on a permanent basis.
Read_Me 2.3 has abandoned the monetary prize format, but has retained other features of the festival: calls for submissions, an off-line event with invited participants, this book, etc. A group of international “experts” (The Runme.org developers group) was invited to review the most interesting submitted projects. These projects were featured without ranking in order to avoid giving preference to one approach over another.
The new experimental practice has yielded some unusual results. Runme.org was open for submissions from everyone, and its developers have uploaded found projects and invited many people to submit their works; the number of works uploaded onto Runme.org during the one and a half month period from the launch to the festival deadline, reached 150 (a surprisingly big number for such a new field), including an excitingly large amount of interesting works. That is why there were 47 works selected and featured by experts, with other works still waiting to be reviewed later. This quite unexpected result of the experiment caused obvious difficulties in the presentation of all the featured works at the festival, but was also very positive and significant.
The current shape and ideas of Read_me 2.3 were to a large extent rendered possible by the Runme.org process. The idea of Runme.org was born on a boat trip, the jury members, organizers and guests of Read_me 1.2 undertook on the Moskva River when the festival was over. Joan Leandre, Snafu, Florian Cramer and Amy Alexander, among others, discussed future possibilities and paths for software art and agreed that there is a danger for software art as for any other “new art movement” that it becomes a speculative notion used by a small group of people to burrow their way into established power structures, only to be abandoned shortly after these goals are reached. One suggested way of subverting this logic at least as far as the spheres accessible for the interlocutors was concerned was the possible introduction of categories within the software art domain (something which was happening anyway), categories that would point at possible directions and support existing ones, thus, participating in the formation of a sphere. Categories would be introduced in abundance; their large number (20-30) would make it difficult to control the whole field, and would thus retard the process of order formation and stagnation.
In autumn 2002, a closed mailing list of nine members, later listed as the developers of Runme.org, was opened for discussion on categories and related issues. The idea to set up a software art repository analogous to the known software repositories such as download.com and freshmeat.org was already in the air. In a few months Runme.org was up and running. The web-site was developed creatively and in an excitingly short period of time by Alex McLean. Amy Alexander participated largely in the testing, development and realization of the solutions along with the authors of this text. The group of concept developers also included Pit Schultz, Florian Cramer, Matthew Fuller, The Yes Men, and Thomax Kaulmann.
Originally, the idea of an art database, with classified art works that functioned according to a software repository model and even had a recognizably similar interface and structure, was quite ironical. Art naturally resists classification, but is nevertheless always classified and labeled when presented at, for example, exhibitions and festivals. By using the familiar interface of an online software database, Runme.org could play with the idea of storing, classifying, labeling, collecting, while at the same time taking advantage of the democratic possibilities of open databases.
An online database for software art would make it possible to involve people and projects not known and difficult to find elsewhere. People who do not see themselves as artists or artists not sure of the quality or context of their art work, for example, would not want to snail mail their piece along with an application form, wordy description and a hard copy sample to a major art festival. One could well imagine this group of people uploading their work onto Runme.org, however, as the procedure is simple, online and “harmless”.
The first advantage of the online database was the possibility, often realized, to involvee “programmers”, bringing together the art context and software cultures. Sometimes, Runme.orgers would submit projects, the authors of which would never reply to the mails sent to addresses provided at their pages, which they had probably forgotten. These works broaden the context of software art, by shaping and re-shaping its boundaries, roots, histories and cultural meanings.
The “About” section of Runme.org states the following: “Software art is an intersection of two almost non-overlapping realms: software and art. It has a different meaning and aura in each. Software art gets its lifeblood and its techniques from living software culture and represents approaches and strategies similar to those used in the art world.
Software culture lives on the Internet and is often
presented through special sites called software repositories. Art is
traditionally presented in festivals and exhibitions.
Software art on the one hand brings software culture into the art field, but on the other hand it extends art beyond institutions.
The aim of Runme.org is to create an exchange interface for artists and programmers which will work towards the contextualization of this new form of cultural activity.”
What research in software cultures and attempts to bring them into the art context might yield is another question, waiting to be summarized, thought of, and answered. The above mentioned viewpoint that software art is an artistic practice lying somewhere between the art and software cultures is not the only one possible; there are opinions, expressed in this book in particular by Florian Cramer, that software art can be regarded as the cultural activity of building a historical perspective focusing on the social and cultural implications of software. The next year of Runme.org will possibly be spent under the banner of a new experimental motto.
The experiment carried out by Runme.org and reflected at the Read_me festival has only just started. The Read_me Reader illustrates this by suggesting a collection of interviews (which are more immediate reactions on the subject than systematic retrospections) expressing different views on software art. The interview is a good format for shedding light on an on-going activity. The promises of software art are yet to be fulfilled; its realities are yet to be discovered.