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Tech for art's sake

(Open source digital software) plus (fake currency) minus (dealers, galleries, critics) equals the Media Lab's subversive experiment on the art market

RECENTLY THE 4-YEAR-OLD daughter of John Maeda, a professor at MIT's Media Lab, bought an expensive piece of art. ``When I wasn't looking she bought something," sighs Maeda. ``It cost 30 buraks!"

The girl's extravagant purchase took place on a website called OpenStudio (openstudio.media.mit.edu), developed by students and professors, including Maeda, at MIT's Physical Language Workshop, a design research group at the Media Lab. A collaborative experiment probing the relationship between art and commerce, OpenStudio allows its members to create digital art using Draw, an open-source software tool developed by the Media Lab students, and then to buy and sell the works within the OpenStudio community by means of a made-up currency called a burak (named after Burak Arikan, who just received his master's from the Media Lab and is one of the site's developers). Most pieces, it should be noted, cost significantly less than 30 buraks.

There's a whiff of mischief, and of the manifesto, about the site. In addition to the more mundane purpose of providing a space for testing the software (and a database for storing the members' creations), the site is intended as a playfully subversive model of the real art world's financial transactions.

``It started because of a basic problem: What's the future economic survival for art?" explains Maeda, himself an artist and thinker praised by both the academic elite and technology enthusiasts. In other words, what if artists could easily and directly sell their works to earn money, without having to negotiate formal, hierarchical institutions?

For now, while the site is still in its development phase, one can join only by invitation from a current member. The core group of MIT students and faculty has invited family members, friends, and art-world associates, so that OpenStudio's 300 or so participants range from children to professionals. Members are given 50 buraks at the start, which can be used to buy or commission pieces. It's possible to act like an art dealer, focusing on buying and reselling, or like a starving artist, creating works without giving much thought to what the market wants.

The OpenStudio digital community thus mimics the ``real" economic system. As art critic Dave Hickey and others have noted, the monetary value of art in the physical realm of art dealers, galleries, and curators is arbitrary, determined by what people agree upon, based on exposure, exhibitions, buzz, and money paid by collectors. In OpenStudio, says Maeda, ``If you're savvy, you can sell well. To use good business practices and good financial planning, it's just like the free market. People learn gradually why their work isn't selling."

New members sometimes assume they can get exorbitant amounts for their artwork, when the going rate is just a handful of buraks. ``They say, `It's not real money, so I can put whatever price on it I want,"' explains Arikan. ``Usually after a few tries they realize it doesn't make sense to the community, and they adapt to the community. People start to set similar prices."

Currently up for sale are works that run the gamut from the funny and cartoonish, such as a piece titled ``Penguin Shops for Melons," to the abstract and impressionistic. Members give their creations explanatory ``tags," which can be concrete (``mountain") or abstract (``precarious"). ``A tag creates discourse around the art piece and adds to the value," explains Arikan. For example, one member was collecting various works tagged ``bloody," and for a time those were selling briskly. Arikan says he's attracted to pieces that use the Draw software's tools in unusual ways. Maeda, for his part, just buys images that charm him.

Barbara Bloemink, the curatorial director of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and an OpenStudio member, is impressed primarily by the way the site allows people to use the technology to collaborate with and learn from each other. ``In most cases museums and collectors will collect a new form of technology," she says. ``But they're not using the technology itself." In contrast, OpenStudio's developers are ``creating tools for the technology and also a world for it to live in. It allows people to be creators, collectors, and even I suppose entrepreneurs, all at the same time."

Of course, OpenStudio isn't likely to change the way physical objects such as sculptures and paintings are bought and sold. But as the experiment plays out-with plans to introduce other software tools for making photo-based work and videos-it could suggest that an alternate, if perhaps idealistic, economic model is possible-at least in the digital realm.

``The hope," says Maeda, ``is that OpenStudio can create a notion that art can be freely traded in this digital medium, in a different way- without all the galleries and curators and boards of directors orchestrating the business of art."

Theresa Everline writes about arts and cultural issues. She lives in Austin, Texas.

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