February 12, 2021

Continuing the Conversation...The Clinic of Open Source Arts at The University of Denver

Tai Bickham


Continuing the Conversation… is a series of interviews with individuals and organizations here in Colorado working on the issues discussed in each week’s free virtual programming for Citizenship: A Practice of Society

This week, MCA Denver hosted our final virtual conversation in this exhibitions program series between artist and pedagogue Adeilta Husni-Bey and writer Amalle Dublon, reflecting on the meaning of Adelita’s artwork, The Council, in MCA Denver’s exhibition Citizenship: A Practice of Society. The Council asked teens that were alumni of the Museum of Modern Art in NYC teen program in 2018, to imagine themselves as part of a ‘council’ that had to envision the museum’s new role in a radically changed society.

This process of reimagining the future of a cultural institution and its role in society, leaves room to think about how art and the production of art would change in the future. Similarly, the progressive advancement in digital technology and software and how will this become more of a tool for creators warrants a conversation about how to make these tools more accessible to a community of creators. Through practices of open source, which is defined as open source software code that is designed to be publicly accessible, modifiable and able to distribute freely, accessibility is becoming within reach, such as through programs such as the Clinic of Open Source Arts at the University of Denver.

We interviewed Christopher Coleman, Professor of Emergent Digital Practices at the University of Denver and Director and Founder of the Clinic for Open Source Arts, to discuss the program at the University of Denver. 

Can you share with us your name and your role with the Clinic for Open Source Arts (COSA)?

Chris Coleman, Director and Founder of COSA

What is COSA and when did the program start at the University of Denver?

COSA began in 2019, building on several years of efforts by the Emergent Digital Practices Program at the University of Denver to support the open source tools in use by our students and other artists around the world. COSA functions as a clinic in both senses of the word; we are focused on helping to improve the health of creative OS tool communities, and we are creating space for conversations across OS communities. We give out grants to support work on specific tools, we lead training for community members to foster more inclusive participation, we host contributors wanting to improve the educational support around tools, and much more. COSA is specifically focused on tools for artists because we believe in the communities that come together and make creative digital tools free and accessible to everyone. The digital arts space is unique in that many of the popular pieces of software are very expensive, and also the nature of the internet and software means that people can collaborate and make software for the public good – and few need more financial help than artists.

What inspired you in creating the COSA?

For years I have watched Golan Levin at the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry support the developers/makers of the tools he was using in classrooms and the STUDIO more broadly. It was a rare example of an educational institution putting real funding into the pockets of these communities. Other professors at schools like ITP at NYU, UCLA, SAIC, and MIT Media Lab are a big part of the ecosystem as well, dedicating their time to various projects and helping students become contributors to these communities. I am also deeply inspired by Lauren Lee McCarthy and her work to form and guide the P5.js community. One of her essential ideas was to expand the definition of contribution and contributor so that everyone involved in a community, not just the people writing the core code, felt valued and engaged to build and support each other. I want to bring that energy, diversity, and health to other projects so that they can be sustainable and thus provide free means of digital expression to people from around the world.

How do you see technology influencing how artists approach creating in the future?

So much of what we do and even who we are is expressed and shared digitally. The key to empowering people in this reality is giving creative people from all backgrounds the tools they need to better express themselves, and then helping them to figure out how they might make the tools they need that do not yet exist. It is interesting that ways of making a living from digital expression are still in flux, models are being tried and sometimes failing, meaning that nothing is fixed, and we can create new patterns around supporting arts. I am deeply excited by these possibilities in addition to the lack of scarcity that comes with producing in digital spaces – it is so much easier to share ideas with millions in the way that a physical work of art can never do.

Can artists share more on their programing/initiatives for consideration? 

We are generally reaching out to people who we have considered for grants but have also received and filled some requests via email - we love to hear about projects!

Can you share any resources to learn more about COSA or other open source programs?

If you want to get started with creative coding in a supportive community, definitely try P5.js! Other popular free and open source tools are GIMP for image making and manipulation, Inkscape for design and logotype vector work, and one of my favorites, Blender for 3D animation and modeling. Learn more about COSA here and you can email us at cosa@du.edu.