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Collaboration and Community: Similarities between Artists and Programmers

Whistler and Roussel: Linked Visions, an exhibition now on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, features prints and drawings by James McNeill Whistler and Theodore Roussel. The exhibition shows that the work Whistler and Roussel produced during the late 19th century was not created in isolation, but was only possible in the context of their dynamic, thriving community. This community of artists, technicians, writers, publishers and models as well as their family and friends encouraged experimentation and created space for insiders and outsiders to explore a new world of artistic expression.

In order to bring this idea to life, I was part of a team at the Art Institute that created the Linked Visions interactive, an application that allows the user to visually explore the social and personal connections between individuals in Whistler and Roussel’s circles. As we developed the application, I was struck by the parallels between Whistler and Roussel's network of relationships and my own rootedness in open source software. New software today is often described as "built from scratch" or "from the ground up," offering romanticized visions of teams of programmers huddled around laptops with blank text documents. In much the same way the idea of the artist alone in a studio ignores the communal and historical context of their work, these images of start-up culture ignore the decades of systems and developers who came before us, whose work are part of histories of incremental collaborations that have resulted in the frameworks we all base our work on today. One project allows developers to work out a common problem, which then allows space for others to push those ideas further, a process accelerated in recent years by services like GitHub that offer tools to open source communities. As developers, we would be remiss to ignore our participation in this collaborative building process and its history, whether or not we actively contribute to open source code.

The Linked Visions interactive wasn't built from scratch. We started with a copy of code from the developers of Linked Jazz, a project that visualizes dynamic relationships between jazz musicians over its history. Linked Jazz wasn't built from scratch, either. Both applications extensively use D3, a project that helps developers provide dynamic, interactive data visualizations in web browsers. D3 is built in JavaScript, a language meant to provide rich user interactivity in web browsers. JavaScript derives its syntax from C and adopts methodologies and ideas from a number of languages that came before it. And so on. I believe art in Whistler and Roussel's community, and arguably art in general, developed and evolved in much the same way, through the intersection of iterative collaboration and time.

As the exhibition shows, tools alone don't create the circumstances for communities to grow–and for our ideas and ourselves to evolve. We need community and deep relationships to move forward, and these histories reflect that as they include the work of people from many different life experiences. None of these communities are homogeneous groups, and it's only through their diversity that they thrive, grow, and are able to push boundaries further and further.

I invite you to visit the online interactive, but to get the full experience, the exhibition is open at the Art Institute through September 27.

—Nikhil Trivedi, Senior Systems Analyst, Department of Information Services