A Radical Aesthetic: Syncretism as Free/Open Source Culture
Timothy Allen Jackson


Absolute Liberty, Just and True Liberty, Equal and Impartial Liberty, is the thing we stand in need of. Now tho this has indeed been much talked of, I doubt it has not much been understood; I am sure not at all practiced, either by the Governours towards the People in general, or by any Dissenting Parties of the People towards one another.

-        John Locke, from 'Epistola de Tolerantia' (A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1685), page 1.


Perhaps it may not be amiss to add a few things concerning 'Heresy' and 'Schism.' A 'Turk' is not, nor can he be, either Heretick or Schismatick, to a Christian: and if any man fall from the Christian Faith to Mahumetism, he does not thereby become a Heretick or a Schismatick, but an Apostate and an Infidel. This nobody doubts of.

-        John Locke, from 'Epistola de Tolerantia' (A Letter Concerning Toleration), postscript. [i]


Locke points to ideals as well as the limits of his proposed syncretism of toleration in the above excerpts. Despite the fact that he wrote this in exile in Amsterdam (and in Latin) in an attempt to influence clerics towards more tolerance among various Christian faiths, it is clear given the second passage that his concept of toleration had distinct borders. The modern concept of syncretism has similar limitations of meaning, which are often applied to theological discourses based upon cultural and ethnic synthesis with established religions imposed by colonial empires, producing hybrid entities as belief systems. Locke's usage of the term tolerance suggests a limited yielding of the dominant power to accept the existence of others who may exhibit slight degrees of difference.

Contemporary positions of syncretism positions are by necessity far more tolerant and culturally more complex than Locke's vision and his limited discourse on the subject as tolerance. Late modern, postmodern, and multicultural changes in an increasingly diverse global culture ultimately require much more than the naming of the others while excluding the other others. Similarly, the radical aesthetics of the present shatter much of the implicit theories of the past three centuries in matters surrounding the philosophy of art. The emergence of open source culture is an example of such an emerging aesthetic bound with the syncretic practice of shared beliefs and communitas. Art becomes arting, and art objects morph into art systems. As we art, therefore we become active in our own making, interacting with being in time and space amid our struggles to render meaning out of the growing complexity of our personal and collective existence.

Syncretism within contemporary cultural production and consumption challenges the very foundations of art theory and practice in similar ways. Our sense of a center (New York) or centers (Paris, Berlin, et al.) for the art world have given way to a multiplicity of forms, discourses, and practices which are geographically dispersed and/or placeless since they exist on networks or via nomadic structures through organized communities (e.g. ISEA). This need not lead to absolute relativism and hence a collapse of meaning. Rather, this expands aesthetic practice beyond objects and into the realm of systems of art production and consumption. As we engineer change, so we may begin to art change. Therefore, aesthetic syncretism refers to an ongoing process of change rather than an occasional opening of the ideological borders of rarefied belief systems.

The root of syncretism is the ancient Greek synkretismos, meaning "a union of communities." As in many cases, the subsequent derivation of the term has become more specific in meaning. Here I reference the original meaning of the term as well as the Greek origin of aesthetics as "the philosophy of the senses." This is necessary to adequately accommodate the idea of "free/open source culture" within the context of this text [ii]. Such historical linguistic reclamation allows for the constraints of meaning to be reconsidered in light of contemporary radical shifts in cultural production and consumption.

The radical aesthetic to engage these issues also needs the arc of the original meaning, rather than the severely truncated modern delineation of aesthetics (e.g. as primarily concerned with notions of taste and beauty in the fine arts). As the philosophy of the senses, aesthetics is able to grapple with issues of context and hence, complexity. Artist Robert Irwin has asked the question why does a painting have an edge or frame since "if I look around at the world there are no frames,... actually the world is essentially continuously knitted, its an envelope all of the way around you and there are no special frames and no beginnings or endings in that sense of the word, so the question became how do you paint a painting that doesn't begin and end at the edge?" [iii] As a complex and diverse global culture, we should ask why aesthetics should be restricted to its modern truncated usage within the gilded ghetto of fine arts. Why does aesthetics as the philosophy of the senses have to exist within a frame? And of course it doesn't any more than does painting, because we make the rules and can remake them when needed in response to such revealing questions.

Contemporary art praxis is increasingly engaged with the development of art systems rather than objects. The move towards a systems approach to aesthetics is not exactly new. In 1968, Jack Burnham in his 'System Esthetics' observed in his visionary manner:

In the past our technologically conceived artifacts structured living patterns. We are now in transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture. Here change emanates, not from things, but from the way things are done... But for our time the emerging major paradigm in art is neither an ism nor a collection of styles. Rather than a novel way of rearranging surfaces and spaces, it is fundamentally concerned with the implementation of the art impulse in an advanced technological society. As a culture producer, man has traditionally claimed the title, Homo Faber: man the maker (of tools and images). With continued advances in the industrial revolution, he assumes a new and more critical function. As Homo Arbiter Formae his prime role becomes that of man the maker of esthetic decisions. These decisions - whether they are made concertedly or not - control the quality of all future life on the earth. [iv]

Burnham is clearly aware of the depth of change occasioned by the classical breadth of aesthetics in light of modern culture. A move from individual to object encounters reflecting upon taste and beauty to a one-to-systems-to-many awareness. By necessity, this signals the recognition of a need for an aesthetics of communit(ies) and ecolog(ies). The passive audience gives way to the interactor/participant. This opens the door to many possible changes: individual production opens to collaboration, disciplines melt into others, immersion replaces conversion, authorship may lead to open source cultural sharing, etc

A union of communities suggests a shared cultural and economic project at least as much as a shared religion. The Critical Art Ensemble points out that: "[p]rior to the Enlightenment, plagiarism was useful in aiding the distribution of ideas." [v] An English poet could appropriate and translate a sonnet from Petrarch and call it his own. In accordance with the classical aesthetic of art as imitation, this was a perfectly acceptable practice. Postmodern recombinant aesthetics sets the stage for the rediscovery of hybrid culture, and we may argue that the idea of original authorship is one born of avarice, often serving more as a tool for self-promotion than as a mark of autonomous sentience and genius. A union of communities also suggests a communion, as in the act or an instance of sharing thoughts, feelings, or sensory experiences. This suggests the potential for an art engaged in a shared sensorium via telematics. The visionary French Jesuit and Paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin conceived of a spiritual unity that he referred to as the noosphere.

The original theory of the Noosphere was developed by Vladimir Vernadsky, a founder of related fields of study most easily described as ecology. [vi] In his theory, the noosphere is the third in a succession of phases of development of the Earth, after the geosphere (what he considered inanimate matter) and the biosphere (the more clearly dynamic realm of biological life). As the emergence of life has fundamentally transformed the geosphere, the emergence of human sentience similarly transforms the biosphere. In contrast to the conceptions of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis' "Gaia Hypothesis" and sympathetic theorists, or the promoters of Cyberspace as recently emerging dynamic global systems of radical change without historical parallel, Vernadsky's noosphere is not something that is just now coming into being, or will emerge in the future; it arrived with the birth of the first sentient human being, and is manifested at global scale in the form of human intervention. These actions are often motivated by greed, therefore the results of human action are usually the ecological impact of the economic development of the planet.

This impact of these human, all too human actions upon the ecological balance of the planet raises a crucial question in light of syncretism as well as de Teilhard's theory of hope implied in the Noosphere. Why would humans begin to do what is best for our collective survival, since history seems to indicate a radically different story about power, oppression, egoism and cruelty to each other. Despite this clear historical precedent, Teilhard perceives a unity: "[m]y starting point is the fundamental initial fact that each one of us is perforce linked by all the material organic and psychic strands of his being to all that surrounds him." Moreover, that unity reaches back in time and continues into the future: "If we look far enough back in the depths of time, the disordered anthill of living beings suddenly, for an informed observer, arranges itself in long files that make their way by various paths towards greater consciousness." [vii]

Teilhard goes on to ask: why should there be unification in the world and what purpose does it serve? To see the answer to this ultimate question, we have only to put side by side the two equations which have been gradually formulating themselves from the moment we began trying to situate the phenomenon of man in the world.

His work as a paleontologist credited with the discovery of Sinanthropus or Peking man in 1929 led him to go as far as asserting that "Christ is realized in evolution." Perhaps not surprisingly, he was a less than popular priest among the Jesuit Order and the wider Catholic system. His particular form of global syncretism using science and philosophy to identify what we all share collectively as human beings was far to too radical in light of canonical theory within the Church. His evolutionary theology is particularly instructive given the current devolution of scientific education in the United Sates to include so-called "intelligent design" creation myths to be offered alongside evolution as an "equivalent" scientific theory. Such fundamentalism in any religion is the enemy of syncretism and certainly is a clear example of the limits of implicit theory. Syncretism is by necessity an example of explicit theory and explicit belief. We might consider the practice of exercising a pessimism of the intellect along with an optimism of the will when engaging syncretism in praxis.

The noosphere can be imagined as an emerging sphere of human thought. The term is derived from the Greek "nous" meaning "mind" and sphere as in "atmosphere" and "biosphere." In the same manner in which the biosphere in a dynamic collection all the organisms on Earth and their interactions, the noosphere or mindsphere is composed of all the interacting minds on the planet; A planetary-wide network of consciousness fed by a technologically enhanced sensorium. The noosphere also refers to a transhuman consciousness or an emergent intelligence of human and machine thinking. This extends (by way of Marshall McLuhan) the view proposed by Teilhard who added that the noosphere is evolving towards a much greater integration, culminating in what he refers to as the Omega Point - which he saw as the ideal and indeed the endgame of what we refer to as human history. [viii] This is of course the most radical form of syncretism conceivable, at least at the scale of human consciousness.

Similarly we now see the emergence of what Jon Ippolito terms the "gifting" economy model as found in open source culture and the free software movement [ix]. The sharing of source code and even ideas for new artworks are some of the ways in which these practices challenge the core of modern aesthetic theories - particularly in the visual arts. Performing arts and related forms such as filmmaking have had to become comfortable with the idea of collaboration, although there still exists a hierarchy of power in terms of credits/billing, etc?. Although the visual artists have often maintained studios with apprentices since well before the term art was first applied to describe their activities, the designation of the "master" remained clear in establishing power relations and branding. The move towards "gifting" economies and related research practices leads us closer to a collective consciousness and the communitas that attends such practice. In order for communities of change to have sufficient impact, they need to have access to the tools of rapid communication and a common goal. The open source culture movement is a successful example on a number of levels; most significantly, the scale of its participants and their collective activities.

Over the past ten years, the open source and free software communities as well as new media artists and collectives have produced more artistic forms, manifestos, exhibitions, and critical writing than the market-driven artworld has since the 1960's. It has been radically more democratic in terms of access and participatory along lines of gender, race, class and other factors of difference. It has been extremely diverse geographically, developing complex networked social communities of ranging scale and economic demographics. Of course, the technological wellspring of hardware, software, and networks have afforded the opportunity for these changes as well as the relative affluence of the bubble economies of the late twentieth century in capitalist countries. Yet, as these radical shifts occur, the development of aesthetic theories seem to be in a state of arrested development, with previous positions seeming as obsolete as a KGB ideological handbook.

Also, these radical changes do not imply the reductive avant-gardist theories given the heroic individualist tendencies of most modernism(s). The radical aesthetics of the present are an organic extension of the pluralism of the seventies and some of the more emancipatory post-modern positions that expand our considerations regarding identity politics, engaging complexity without retreating into absolute relativism. The renewed interest in aesthetics over the past ten years has been rather like painting the sun of the enlightenment in the dark of the present. Much of this dialogue has taken the form of a reactionary return, a vague nostalgia for a simpler time where beauty was queen (e.g. the rise of lyrical abstract painting in the 1990's). This radical form of forgetting can also be witnessed in the neo-movements of the 1980's as well. While these movements in art exemplified a last stand for materialism, greed, and the celebrity fascination within the art world, the nostalgia for the past and future should be recognized as a na´ve attempt to reconcile the aesthetics of the present. Such an aesthetic must acknowledge the clear ascendancy of a systems aesthetic which offers the possibility for dialectical exchanges through explicit sensory/cognitive experiences. In order to proceed with such a project, it is important to return to etymological origins and to first principle assumptions of ontology, aesthetics, ethics, and epistemology.

Indeed, it seems that many artists and theorists seem to be looking to the distant past for inspiration and reconstruction of meaning, as the linguistic reclamation of the terms previously referenced demonstrates within the context of this text. The radical aesthetics I am suggesting here goes well beyond these previous movements by challenging the very nature of how we make and experience works of art. The reclamation of language and the reenchantment of art are crucial to such an endeavor, as is the renegotiation of the autonomy of the author and the economic structure of the art world.

In many ways, the crisis of meaning so often discussed in theoretical circles in the late twentieth century was the apocalyptic apotheosis of modern art and ideas, a sort of slow motion train wreck which we could see happening all around us as evidenced through the simultaneous cultural carnage. Yet theorists could do nothing to arrest its path at the time, merely reporting the phenomenon and making grand claims regarding the end of history, the death of painting, etc. At present, forensic analysis begins to be possible with a touch of historical hindsight and an end to the ironic detachment afforded by the theoretical narcosis made possible through the ease of the Clinton years. However, the period of the recline of the west is over.

I have also sensed a turn within some new media works produced in the past five years towards a deepening humanism. These are works of engagement produced with sincerity, tenderness, humility, and sentience. Many of these are telematic works that may rely upon human interaction/performance to complete the works or are driven by real time inputs from geophysical sources. This produces an extended sensorium only possible through the use of physical and social cybernetic networks. This leads me to believe that a noosphere of sorts is indeed emerging and a rise towards consciousness is leading towards a deepening syncretic union of communities.

Lorella Abenavoli, Le Souffle de la Terre, 1996 - 2005

A couple of recent works (among many) incorporating scientific visualization technologies and exhibiting such reenchantment include French artist Lorella Abenavoli's acoustic sculpture, Le Souffle de la terre (Breath of the Earth), which makes the earth's vibrations audible to the human ear. Her hope is to make a work "that would enclose us, and inside of which we could experience the earth's breathing." [x] Similarly, Canadian artist Ben Bogart's Oracle converts realtime weather data into an audio, text, and video composite. [xi] This produces a very poetic version of a weather gauge, which over time could no doubt be understood in translation. These approaches to art-making produce alternate interfaces to art and science. Oracle has been running for over three years at the time of this writing.

Ben Bogart, Oracle

As syncretic works, Breath of the Earth and Oracle embody a nodal space for gathering human and ecological communities, which produce an emergent form of axis mundi (world axis). The axis mundi in religion or mythology is a vertical connection between the earth and the heavens which is a concept shared by virtually all cultures and explicitly in indigenous peoples. The Proto-Indo-European idea of an axis mundi seems to have spread throughout Eurasia, in particular the concept of the world tree. It is familiar today as the caduceus, the symbol of medicine; the staff represents the axis itself, and the serpents are the guardians or guides to the other realm. It is also seen in the circular network of Yin-Yang as well as in numerous other symbols [xii].


Ben Bogart, Oracle, detail

The artwork as axis mundi in this case may be seen as an extension of one's senses into other scales of time and space (as the original idea implies). Of course, the internet reaches out encircling us into one ecological mesh rather than providing a vertical cosmic elevator. This transition is significant since it reconstructs the axis mundi into a synkretismos mundi (a world gathering of communities) and therefore shifts from astral or cosmological religious traditions into more pagan or earth-centered belief systems [xiii]. Breath of the Earth and Oracle are pagan works in this sense. Nevertheless, it is important to note than the network also extends into the cosmos through scientific visualization and remote sensing technologies (Hubble, SETI, et al) as well as using an increasingly complex network of devices to monitor the dramatic geophysical changes taking place on and inside our planet. Our network of consciousness (Noosphere) extends into the cosmos and into the core of the earth.

Ben Bogart, Oracle, composite

Art researcher and Coordinator of the MARCEL Network Don Foresta suggests that what these changes produce is a new renaissance: "[t]he interactive network is the new metaphor of our civilisation and its geometry the geometry of our imagination – the paradigm of the new renaissance [xiv]." As such a rebirth, This seems to imply a conceptual cosmic return, as in a return to what we indeed already know, but have forgotten through the nostalgia of Modernity. It is also important to note that the geometry of our imagination that Foresta refers to is fractal – a geometry or geometry of roughness that exists in nature. As painting extends from the frame, the geometry of Euclid yields to the fractal geometry of roughness found in nature.

The Enlightenment project as manifest through the industrial revolution's rapid technological and subsequent socio-political changes nears its apotheosis. The hybridism of much new media research and development seems to begin to reunite the arts, technology, and sciences once again into a synthetic force for cultural production and to explore motivations for such development beyond greed and conquest. The network as a noosphere connects us with the potential for a syncretism capable of merging the skepticism of the intellect joined an optimism of the will. Open source culture provides a prime example of the realization of such a radical systems aesthetic.

What may be emerging within open source culture might be described as a social network resembling an inverse Illuminati. Rather than the hierarchical structure of a New World Order such as the Bavarian Illuminati and their possible heirs would envision, a new media Illuminati exhibits a more open structure with no central authority, ritual, and ideology. [xv] A new media illuminati would tend toward a more open rather than closed and secret society. This could include microcieties of a few individuals working together as part of a larger confederation of like minds such as in the case with Linux or highly specialized areas of cultural research and development. This networked consciousness forms an important dimension of art as research and research as art in the 21st century. A syncretic aesthetic allows for the articulation and negotiation of meaning to remain central to such a project. Let us hope we may proceed with building the kind of sustainable future(s) we need rather than the apocalypse we seem to be heading towards at a more exponential rate. Perhaps it is our lack of collective perception that keeps up blinded at the scale of vast interactive, complex systems. Regarding the concept of what he termed mega-synthesis, Teilhard de Chardin warns us of the problem of recognition in the following passage.

A new domain of psychical expansion--that is what we lack. And it is staring us in the face if we would only raise our heads.... [xvi]

[i] John Locke, from 'Epistola de Tolerantia,' (A Letter concerning Toleration); Latin version 1685, English translation printed at Black Swan at Amen-Corner, London, 1689.  
[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_source_culture
[iii] Robert Irwin, 'The Beauty of Questions' videotape, Leonard Feinstein, 1997.
[iv] Jack Burnham, 'Systems Esthetics,' Artforum, September, 1968
[v] Critical Art Ensemble, 'Utopian Plagiarism, Hypertextuality, and Electronic Cultural Production,' Chapter 5 of The Electronic Disturbance, published online at: http://www.critical-art.net/books/ted/index.html.
[vi] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_I._Vernadsky
[vii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_I._Vernadsky
[viii] Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, p.24 cited from: http://www.december.com/cmc/mag/1997/mar/cunning.html
[ix] Jon Ippolito, 'Why Art Should Be Free,' online at: http://three.org/ippolito/writing/wri_online_why.html
[x] http://www.fondation-langlois.org/html/e/page.php?NumPage=268
[xi] http://www.ekran.org/ben/oracle/
[xiii] Private email correspondence, April 2005.
[xiv] http://www.fondation-langlois.org/html/e/page.php?NumPage=179
[xv] http://www.conspiracyarchive.com/NWO/Illuminati.htm

[xvi] Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, cited from: http://www.webcom.com/gaia/tdc.html


Timothy Allen Jackson is a professor in New Media at Savannah College of Art and Design. Jackson is also a founding member of the art/research group SynthOps.