Do watch the above video as it explains more about the scratch process the BAC team have been refining for several years, in which an artist has the valuable opportunity to try out work with an audience of participants who then help shape it. As a means of making art, the scratch process is more like a conversation than a one-way broadcast. If you know NativeHQ then you’ll have guessed that this mentality of conversation-not-broadcast and process-as-product twigged our interest straightaway! The brief which led to the nascent Scratchr software platform and community started out as a question: how do we take the offline scratch process into online? In other words how can we reimagine and support the outworking of the scratch process using digital technology?
It’s still very early in the life of Scratchr. Like the artistic process, it’s a co-creation with the community of people that is forming there. I like the idea of giving people a broad description ‘it’s a platform for artistic collaboration and idea development’ and letting them work it out in wonderful ways. We do need some guidelines on what features are intended for what purpose. But we don’t want to prescribe exactly how it’s used. One never prescribes to an artist.
A friend recently asked us if we could have done something similar with Facebook or a pre-existing platform. I would say ‘no’. It would have been very difficult to change people’s perceptions of such a general-purpose platform and also bend the software to our will. That’s why we took the decision to build using WordPress multi-site and BuddyPress. We are not tied as a company to this software other than the fact we like it and know it to be flexible. Still, it has taken a lot of coaxing to have it perform exactly as we want it and it would be rash to say that’s it’s all there even now (the beta test group is testament to this). The decision to take this more difficult route wasn’t about picking up more development work – if we could have picked a platform which allowed us to begin even more rapidly then we would have! But we felt that the requirements of Scratchr were unique. (Thanks go to Marc Heatley for invaluable work with us on this.)
WordPress and BuddyPress are released under the GPL which is a free software licence – in other words, the software gives us freedom to copy it, modify it and use it for any purpose, independently of the software developers. The principles and licence underlying the software itself are also happily in keeping with our aim of being unrestrictive to BAC as a client and to embrace the results of good collaboration around the globe. I mean, it would seem odd to pick proprietary restrictive software for a project that celebrates collaboration, freedom and openness.
If you’ll permit I’m going to offer some half-developed thoughts that have resulted from this project – and grown from previous work we’ve done with theatre and live performance.
Many people would agree that another valid term for free software is ‘open source’. Now, there is something in the way the artists are using Scratchr which could be described as ‘open source theatre’ or ‘open source art’. In other words, they are sharing the process, they are inviting collaboration, they are not as ‘closed’ as theatre and live performance can sometimes be. Maybe some of them wouldn’t mind if you borrowed their ideas and adapted them (but that’s a tentative observation rather than a piece of advice). But I’m still trying to resolve what it means to use the term ‘open source’ in this context.
As I’ve alluded above, the discussion as relates to software is very well advanced. For example there are four specific freedoms associated with the GPL and such licences have allowed for a galaxy of innovation from GNU/Linux to Firefox to Raspberry Pi to cloud computing. In the world of content such as text, video and images there is a parallel in Creative Commons and GFDL licences which enable reuse with conditions – leading to amazing projects like Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap.
But software and content are very different from live performance and its various offspring. In the world of theatre and live performance the conventions and rules of play for ‘open source’ are still being worked out. Sure, you could share a script or a planning document under Creative Commons BY-SA and many artists have done. But that doesn’t feel to me as if the potential for widespread collaboration has been fully realised. I appreciate that the original principle behind free software was user freedom but I think that this also changes the culture in the field and in the industry; it changes the way people and companies create.
A hallmark of success could be new forms of work that have never been seen before. We see this happening in other fields. Journalists are grappling with what the internet can do to improve their work to make reporting and analysis more collaborative – and to better serve society (hopefully). Businesses, filmmakers, musicians and other content creators are experimenting with crowd funding platforms like Kickstarter which promise to give us a wider variety of products and innovations.
What then is open source theatre? What would be the Firefox or the Wikipedia of live performance? I’m not necessarily referring to the scale of Wikipedia but to the fact that it’s living proof of newer forms of collaboration. If we believe that such a thing as open source theatre is possible and opens up new opportunities for more people to participate, what would that look like?