Issue 3/2014 - Net section

“Infect and be infected”

The Belgian non-profit organisation Constant as a textbook example of open Net culture

Yvonne Volkart

What has changed since the beginning? Peter Westenberg, a core member of Constant and a film/video artist, reflects: “We didn't change our ideology. But we simply felt more and more at home in our 'natural' habitat; the Net and the context of small artists' organisations. We live there most of the time.”
Constant is an interdisciplinary studio in Brussels that has been active in the fields of art and media since 1997. Or, “Constant is a non-profit organisation that is involved with cultural work and cultural producers that use digital media, among other things,” says Laurence Rassel, 10 years after its founding. Rassel is still a member, as well as having been director of the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona for a few years now. Constant is “the textbook example of an independent, self-organised media institution” (Christian Höller) that has managed to cope with a wide variety of challenges and maintain a committed, well-conceived, yet open profile to this day.
Constant was originally intended as a platform for promoting the inclusion of new media and electronic culture in institutions. Later, it developed its commitment to cyberfeminism and copyleft. In 2004, the situation changed so that the question of integrating digital media into the dominant art discourse no longer seemed pressing; new media had achieved the breakthrough. New people came to Constant; the group became larger, and more artists and designers became members instead of curators. This brought about a change in goals: the issue of aesthetic options and practices based on the desire to experiment and the critical interrogation of the tools used was increasingly addressed against the background of artists' own artistic or design practice. “In this way, we evolved more and more into a context in which culture producers that worked with free software, copyleft, gender issues and so on could develop their concepts and projects,” is how Peter Westenberg sums up the transformation that took place at the time. Constant began to intervene in discourses about patents and Internet regulation, and started to work together with the developers of free software. From a certain point onwards, only free software was used; even the programs they developed themselves are open and free. In this way, the aspect of exchange, sharing and learning from one another in the artistic context moved increasingly into the foreground, Westenberg says. Constant's focus is on its “transdisciplinary lab function”; it is an “energiser” or “dynamo”, he says: the members establish contacts, help artists and try in general to stimulate a “free culture”. “We are an open group – but aware that concepts such as 'group' and 'openness' are problematic.”

Free Libre Open Source Software
The project page of Constant shows that it is currently involved in 40 ongoing projects. These sometimes run for several years and articulate themselves in various formats and events, such as workshops, performances, lectures, print parties, walks, labs, exhibitions etc. For example, there is the festival Verbindungen/Jonctions (V/J), which Constant organises every two years. In December 2013, under the title “Are you being served?”, the focus here was not just on the topic of invisible data gathering via servers and countering it using alternative possibilities such as analogue networks, Mesh and DIY servers, tunnelling etc., but also on the feminist view of the issue. This resulted in an exhibition in Brussels and a book that came out in September 2014. There are several projects that have to do with free software: for example, Open Source Publishing: Design Tools for Designers (OSP), which was initiated in 2006 and experimented with free software in the field of graphic art. Here, the main emphasis was on exploring the possibilities of free software that, in the words of Graham Harwood, has its “guts hanging out” – i.e. that allows changes to be made to it, unlike proprietary software. The central question was: “Would this also make the design practice less uniform?” Although at the beginning only three people worked on this (Femke Snelting, Pierre Huyghebaert and Harrisson), over time there were ten – too many for Constant, with the result that OSP has been running independently of Constant since 2013. In the meantime, a Libre Graphics Meeting was organised in Brussels: one of the annual worldwide meetings for developers of free graphics software. Further projects ensued, such as Constant Variable (2011-2014) or the Free Libre Open Source Software Arts Lab, whose goal is not so much to convey know-how as to physically bring together a community. It is a kind of “case study” in which the social aspects were what counted.

Financing issues
Constant survives from state money. For a few years now, there has been a sort of structural subsidy that has to be re-applied for every two years. In the past few years, it has also received EU subsidies owing to its international orientation. Although subsidies in the fields of art and digital media have not increased over the past years in Belgium, they have not been reduced, either, in contrast with other European countries. Constant manages on what it receives, as it has remained a small institution, despite the number of projects it undertakes. It consists of 20 members, with a core team (Femke Snelting, Peter Westenberg, Wendy van Wynsberghe and An Mertens: Nicolas Malevé moved to Barcelona and operates from there) that is in charge of the program and is therefore employed (on a part-time basis). The managing director, Donatella Portoghese, has a full position. It seems that this smallness results in great energy; for example, Constant doesn't constantly have to use huge halls for its events. Rather, it sees itself forced to enter into alliances and connections (thus the name of its festival, Verbindungen (Eng.: Connections)/Jonctions). But this also makes it flexible; the spaces, venues and formats it uses are modifiable, variable, movable, just like software or, to be more exact, like free software.
Ultimately, it is this aspect that would seem to give Constant its capacity to survive; it appears as if it can and wants to constantly adapt to new circumstances. For the next two years, for example, it is planning to adjust its dimensions for reasons of efficiency and focus: fewer projects, tailored to very specific themes. “Constant's small size is a conscious choice,” says An Mertens. “It was always like that. We find it more exciting to infect and be infected. Not having one's own space is a stimulus to go out and meet other people. One of the results of this method is a large network.” And that is probably what Constant's future will look like as well: going out and entering into a diversity of connections, even if the number of projects will perhaps not experience any growth.

The quotes come from e-mail correspondence between the author and Nicolas Malevé, Peter Westenberg and An Mertens at the end of May, 2014.