Sunday, October 28, 2012

How open is open?

In 1996, when Peter Gabriel released the ground-breaking game Eve, he hit on a novel concept - players could remix, albeit in a rather basic way, some of the world music samples and accompaniments he had collected. The concept of interacting with, and then changing the music you listened to made the work more open and more playable. In a way, Brian Eno's app Scape does the same thing, combining all the wizardry of touch screen technology with Eno's characteristic creative flare. Scape is basically an album of 13 or so tracks of ambient music. But it's an album with a difference in which the themes and functions are open and playable. You quite easily become an active player of ambient music by rearranging the colourful shapes and abstract symbols against a background 'mood'. Here, Eno is developing the same sort of logic that lies behind his oblique strategies, in which you generate selections and combinations from limited sets of themes to create something novel. It's an appealing metaphor for openness. If a 'traditional' piece of ambient music is closed - closed in the sense that you have to listen to it in the way in which it was composed and recorded, then maybe Scape is open, because you have some creative degrees of freedom in how you play it. But of course, at the end of the day, it's always Scape and perhaps after the first half hour, breaking your ambient trance, you may decide that although it's pretty good, it's not really that open. What would be more open, then? A day in Eno's studio, perhaps. More realistically, more open would be working with the samples themselves - adding your own found sounds (using GarageBand?) or maybe working with the code behind it all. The capacity to customize, to alter, to modify, to remix or play the text is a key theme in new media, but it usually happens under certain constraints. Genuine openness must, by definition, be unconstrained and is perhaps creative at a more fundamental level. I don't want to belittle the advent of new levels of interactivity or the move towards openness with such a low entry cost, but I just want to suggest that there are some interesting subtleties in this whole debate; if indeed it really is an open debate.

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