Why exStream?

In collaboration with its partner organisations, Hull Time Based Arts (HTBA) first developed plans for the exStream project in 2001. exStream was conceived as a platform for European experts, artists and engineers, working with and developing creative open source software solutions, specifically in the area of streaming media, to come together to share knowledge and technical expertise through workshops, seminars and residencies in order to encourage new local experiences and collaborations on a trans-European level. exStream was developed in a period when the new economy, largely floating on new technology, was still booming but showed first cracks in its facades and foundations. Open source software development and access to technology were key points being discussed across Europe, and the need to bring these issues to the forefront in an artistic context was crucial. For an arts organisation with a history in experimental and often controversial art forms, new media technologies, present countless new opportunities.

Cultural exchange and free access to knowledge are the main drivers of exStream. They can provide new perspectives for creative thinking and the development of new technologies and applications. Personal computers were developed with the illusion that electronic media would replace books and other print media to save trees and provide easier means of access and distribution. However, for many years, the use of computers was considered too difficult and too expensive for arts and artist-run organisations. And until recently, many museums and cultural institutions surrendered to the idea that the Web could cause people to stay away. Computer technology and data communication have now become widely available, have become common in many artistic practices and creative industries, and therefore require organisations such as HTBA to promote a sustained level of commitment to education and collaboration.

Paradise lost – welcome to paradise

At first, the links between the City of Hull and new technologies and new media culture are not evident, in light of the city’s history and socio-economic context, but they are there. In 1768, the world’s first power plant was built in Hull and distributed kinetic power across the city for bridges, cranes, locks and other public facilities. Many of these milestones have been lost, disappeared and are forgotten, and the city does not always recognise its own industrial cultural heritage. Unlike our exStream partner organisations, Hull is a middle-sized city, and it is this relative isolation that makes the city unique in many respects.

HTBA is working closely with organisations and companies in the city and sub-region to provide online resources to the creative industries, and is developing ideas for a virtual channel on the local television network. Interactive television means largely video-on-demand, but can include other media services as well, such as querying databases, gaming and chat rooms, messaging, video conferencing and browsing the web. The web on the other hand is also developing in the direction of broadcast and interactive media. exStream has provided a unique opportunity to begin the process of gaining more technical knowledge and bringing HTBA into a new phase of its development — this new phase, and this new knowledge can and will allow HTBA to pursue new forms of art and to commission more technologically complex works proposed by British and international artists.

Art and technology

The process of collaboration and exchange between the very different organizations (and geographical, sociological, political and cultural contexts) within exStream has become one of the more unique aspects of the project, enabling all partners involved to explore new levels of understanding of some of the same basic issues. The collaborative nature of the project on a logistical level also reflects the processes we hoped to encourage in the relationship between artists and developers during the residencies offered through exStream. There has been a long-standing argument between ‘the artist’ and ‘the engineer’; the former was the one to produce an idea, while the latter turned it into matter. However, what we are seeing more often now is a different level of teamwork and understanding between these supposedly divided camps.

Open source development in the cultural field clearly illustrates this new model of working, and as such is an integral part of exStream. In this context, HTBA has been inspired by the work of the exStream partners, such as InterSpace Media Art Center in Bulgaria that launched a project called Open Source Software Solutions for Bulgarian NGOs, which aims to create an understanding of the philosophy and advantages of free software use; the V2_Lab, which has promoted the artistic use and development of open source tools for many years; and Public Netbase’s history of critical and theoretical reflection on the issue through events, conferences and publications.

For HTBA, the main benefit of exStream is access to these new technologies and ways of working, and more specifically to technical know-how, since this determines how, for instance, streaming media technology can be applied in an artistic context, or in an educational or community context. In the case of the exStream partners, this was practically realised in a variety of ways, from reboot.fm at Bootlab in Berlin, which shows us how open source can be applied in a public radio broadcast, to StreamStudio, a project developed by Stoyan Kostadinov throughout the exStream project and during his exStream residency at HTBA. The latter, which has now been installed at HTBA, is an open source solution that has enabled HTBA to live stream events and to develop an online collection of audio, video and new media art. This archive is a living object and is constantly extended, amended and updated, fed by the critical and open knowledge base fostered by exStream, providing models and documentation that can be used by others in the region and beyond. Through these tools, exchanges and projects, each organisation, artist and engineer has helped to interpret and translate, to break barriers and incubate new forms of artistic practices, and importantly, to promote understanding of the complex relationships and knowledge needed to actively pursue future interdisciplinary collaborations in the field of new media art.

Text for exStream 2005