Open Source Values

I am a firm believer in the open source movement and specifically Creative Commons licensing for creative works. I have been publishing this blog under a creative commons license for years giving away content, as most blogs do, without concern for making money. Credit yes. Money, no. The benefits I have received far outweigh what money could have been made had I tried to monetize this. The purpose for me writing this blog is fun and enjoyment.

Because I work as a professional artist I have found it important to have a creative outlet that is not tied to income. While I would certainly welcome a book deal, I am not about to go seek one out. I enjoy having a space wherein I can create without the pressure that money brings to a situation.

In my theater work I have provisions in my contracts to protect my work on a show. They state that if the show gets picked up by a larger producing organization I get the first right of refusal to be hired as the lighting designer for the next incarnation of the show. They also state that the lighting design, drawings, etc belong solely to me.

From an ethical standpoint I find myself posed with a bit of a dilemma. On the one hand I need to eat and ensure that I can continue to do so. On the other hand I want to remain true to the values of open source thinking. Because my theatre work is contract work for hire, rather than solely generative art, I am able to make a mental distinction that allows me to go on with my life in a state of ease. But it makes me wonder, what would open source performance look like? Is it possible in a collaborative art form or is the collaborative nature of theatre and opera inherently open source?

At a certain level theater does have an inherent open source component to it. Plays, opera scores, and ballets whose copyright has expired are ripe for remixing and reconceiving by contemporary artists. This happens all the time. While one could point to an obvious example like the Wooster Group’s Hamlet, every remount of a play or opera is a remix of the original.

Works in repertory, like opera or ballet, have an element of the open source ethos in them every time they are remounted. The lighting supervisor, who may well have not been born when the original lighting designer created the work, must reconstruct the thing using new lighting instruments colored with gels by companies which were not around at the time of creation. There is always a degree of interpretation in these moments, sometimes quite severe transformation, yet the by line will always read “Lighting by Original Designer” no matter how much the work has changed over the 10, 20, 80 year lifespan of the piece.

Repertory lightplots carry this same quality of a remixed open source code. Jean Rosenthal’s plot for New York City Ballet was updated by Tom Skelton and has been updated since. Many of the same ideas and structures are still in place now as were then. While the plot may not be attributed to anyone but the current lighting supervisor, the source code, as it were, could be traced back to the work of Jean Rosenthal.

While these are all elements of performance which have an open component to the code or structure, it does not get to the idea of the whole process as open source. The financial aspect of making work complicates a truly open source approach. It would be hard to relinquish one’s rights to a design for a show and then be the only one not to travel with the new production uptown. Or if the drawings and documentation were released with a production it could be difficult to see your work applied poorly and then be given credit for it.

But these concerns are egoic and have nothing to do with the efficacy of the potential project or the artistic validity of such an endeavor. For something like this to work it would require the full compliance, if not enthusiastic support, of a rather large number of individuals. Merely gathering such a group together would pose quite a challenge. But the novelty of the exercise could well be worth it.

Be Sociable, Share!