Category Archives: LGRU

The Libre Graphics Research Unit (LGRU) was a traveling lab, developing new ideas for creative tools. The Unit was an initiative of four European media-labs actively engaged in Free/Libre and Open Source Software and Free Culture. This cross-disciplinary project involved artists, designers and programmers and was developed in dialogue with the Libre Graphics community (2011 → 2013). The posts in this category were originally published on Future Tools.

making tools that punch holes into walls

Interesting discussion on whether or not cultural organisations should ‘oblige’ artists to work with free licenses (thread starts with

“In the end, free culture has been an essential step and great opportunity to sync all sorts of individuals, groups and communities who would probably not have connected with each others, and maybe the recruiting loop needs now to transit towards something else more effective, maybe for instance in the area of copyright reform while at the same time keep on making tools that punches holes into walls and not just prettify them.”

Future Tools Diary

… I switch to diary mode this month to record some of the events that are about to happen in Madrid: LGM2013 (10-13 April) and Interactivos?’13 (15-27 April)

In Brussels for a few more days, I keep all on-line channels open so I feel in touch with Madrid and can respond to last minute questions from other remote Libre Graphics Community members that are about to pack their suitcases.

It is impressive to experience the full Medialab Prado team at work, making the meeting happen. After a long period of insecurity, Medialab finally moved back to their own building and LGM2013: Future Tools will be the first large scale public event taking place in this new location. The excitement is tangible even from here and I am sure that the international Libre Graphics community flying into Madrid next week will be energized by it.

A new old building: La Serreria Belga (The Belgian Sewmill)

For me, the upcoming events are above all an occasion to connect the Libre Graphics Community as-we-knew it with Spanish speaking developers, Open Design enthusiasts, local DIY people and the growing network around the Libre Graphics Research Unit. We purposely chose the slogan Future Tools because it is about time to take this yearly meeting serious as a rare occasion for research and development specific to Free Software in the creative field. For this to happen, we need to bring the conversations between software programmers, users, designers and tinkerers to another level.

A few years ago we tried something along these lines when Constant hosted the meeting in Brussels. Soon we found that beyond bringing people physically together, it was not easy to sustain a dialogue between diverse members of the Libre Graphics community. Three years later Libre Graphics has certainly gained momentum in art schools, design collectives and cultural organisations. There are also many new Libre tools being developed (and used!) in the context of creative coding and web technologies but I don’t think we solved that community problem yet. The involvement of core developer teams this year seems minimal and I’m not sure how to interpret their absence.

One interesting example of the growing presence of Libre Graphics in cultural organisations is Medialab Prado itself. Pioneering maker-communities, 3D printing, data journalism, The Commons Lab and many other Free Culture initiatives, Medialab used the incentive of the Libre Graphics Research Unit to experiment with Libre tools on their own communication material.

In the summer of 2012 they invited Manufactura Independente to work with local designers on the collective design of Serreria Sobria and Serreria Extravagante, a Libre font-family based on historical lettering that can still be found on the outside walls of the Belgian Sewmill. It not only resulted in a beautiful typeface, but spread interest and expertise amongst people interested in Libre typography in Madrid.

Serreria Sobria is available from the Open Font library

A few months later, Myriam Cea began to work on The Libre Graphics Workstation, a mobile ‘center’ for learning about Libre Graphics. With artschool Arte Diez she developed exciting activities such as Me pica el kerning (I hack my kerning) and formed Colectivo Gráfica Liebre, a group of designers that exercises their new found knowledge on designing conference bags, badges and complicated typographical objects such as the printed programme for the Libre Graphics meeting. In the mean time OSP finished a new brochure announcing all upcoming activities at La Serreria and since last week, Medialab has a new logo too. It is of course using the Serreria font:

The Libre Graphics Workstation is now part of the “lab of labs”-structure at Medialab Prado and will continue to generate and host activities around Libre Graphics. I am also convinced this is not the last time we heard from the Gráfica Liebre collective!

Colectivo Gráfica Liebre … Free hares?


November 21, 2012 Abstracting craft, LGRU

Contribution to ‘Perspective: Artist – The position of individual artists in the performing arts in Flanders’ (VTi Institute for the Performing Arts, Brussels)

“None of the work that we discuss here is actually hidden, but its dullness and technicality make it prone to blend into the background and it’s only with some effort it can be rendered tangible. We think it is essential to pay attention to data practices in order to understand the value and validity of data, especially when we focus on what it can tell us about the roles of individuals in the field.

We would like you to read this contribution as a collection of annotated snapshots, a glimpse of how the VTi-database (like many databases) is the product of long term institutional work but also of micro decisions informed by intuition, technical artifacts and common sense.”

All sources can be found at:


11 sessions @ ERG, Brussels.

La plupart des auteurs contemporains (artistes, designers, cinéastes, écrivains), créent leur œuvre à l’aide d’ordinateurs. Ils utilisent les logiciels par défaut, les mêmes outils que tout le monde utilise. Imaginez que ces logiciels n’étaient pas seulement faits pour faire le travail, mais seraient des outils à penser, des instruments à développer l’imagination, qui produisent des nouvelles idées?

Toolbending creuse des voies différentes dans le monde du logiciel, afin d’explorer les possibilités de réorientation d’applications habituelles. De façon collective nous développerons des méthodes pratiques et intellectuelles qui permettent de réfléchir de manière critique sur ce type de technologie compliquée mais omniprésente. Au cours de dix semaines, nous prendrons le temps de nous pencher sur la culture des logiciels, et nous trouverons les moyens d’y contribuer activement. Quelles sont les normes produites par les outils numériques? Comment sont-ils faits, et par qui? Qu’est-ce qu’ils rendent possible et quelles sont leurs limites? Pourquoi sont-ils faciles à utiliser dans certains cas, et pourquoi résistent-ils dans d’autres? Comment pourraient-ils fonctionner différemment et générer des résultats inattendus?

En mélangeant l’exploration, l’interrogation et le développement pratique, avec des contributions d’invités proches et lointains, nous nous déplacerons au-delà l’horizon du logiciel conventionnel, et apprendrons à imaginer nos outils autrement que par leur application pré-déterminée.

Comme nous interrogerons activement les outils numériques, afin de les comprendre mieux, et leur faire faire des choses surprenantes, nous travaillerons principalement avec des Logiciels Libres. Ce type de logiciel est licencié de sorte que vous êtes invités à apporter des modifications et à les partager avec d’autres. Toolbending offre un voyage pour les esprits curieux qui ne nécessite pas de compétences techniques particulières autres que du courage et un peu d’humour.

Tools for a Read-Write World I

While working on a call for projects in the context of LGRU (codename: Tools for a Read-Write World) I drift off into reading an interview with Ward Cunningham. Cunningham developed concepts and codes for collaborative tools such as the Wiki, and also inspired programming methods like Extreme Programming.

Bill Venners: Everyone would likely agree that predicting the future is difficult, but is it always a bad idea?

Ward Cunningham: (…) When we start talking about what will be desired in the future, we might have some instincts and they might be right, but they won’t always be right. And we have to attend to the times when they aren’t right. (…)

Somebody might say, “Why don’t we look forward, look at all the work we have to do? Why don’t we design a system that makes all work easy from the beginning?” And if you can pull that off, that’s great. It’s just that, over and over, people try to design systems that make tomorrow’s work easy. But when tomorrow comes it turns out they didn’t quite understand tomorrow’s work, and they actually made it harder.

Bill Venners: To tackle the cost of change curve, you found a way to make it practical to make changes all the way through the lifetime of a project. And that made it less important to plan for the future, because you could make changes when they were actually needed as the future unfolded. Does an overall architecture simply emerge through the process of focusing only on each small step?

Ward Cunningham: I like the notion of working the program, like an artist works a lump of clay. An artist wants to make a sculpture, but before she makes the sculpture, she just massages the clay. She starts towards making the sculpture, and sees what the clay wants to do. And the more she handles the clay, the more the clay tends to do what she wants. It becomes compliant to her will.
A development team works on a piece of code over several months. Initially, they make a piece of code, and it’s a little stiff. It’s small, but it’s still stiff. Then they move the code, and it gets a little easier to move.

Working the Program: A Conversation with Ward Cunningham, Part III. Bill Venners, 2004

forget that you are

click for video!
i P a d (Michael Murtaugh’s melted version for Prototyping Futures)

I am enjoying Household Words, an associative analysis of ‘common-sensical’ words such as Sucker, Bloomers, and Bombshell. In her last chapter, Cyber, Stephanie A. Smith refers to On the road to intimacy, a 1992 whitepaper calling for the development of ‘personal digital assistants’. The authors David Dunham and Scott Shwarts predict that we would one day all carry “a helpful friend in our pocket”. Intimate devices for them, should be like telephones:

The telephone is an intimate device. You don’t have to think about using it, and probably don’t consider yourself to be using high technology when you do. When you talk on the phone, you frequently forget that you are. An intimate computer should be equally transparent. Ideally, you shouldn’t know you’re using a computer until it does something wonderful.

Smith asks herself:

Now really, who can forget they’re on the telephone? More interesting is the syntax of the statement “When you talk on the phone, you frequently forget that you are.” What might it mean that you forget that you are?


It is barely visible through the glare of its plexiglass container but I am struck by a paint-splattered box-camera included in the exhibition George Hendrik Breitner: Pioneer of Street Photography at De Kunsthal, Rotterdam. As a reminder of this crude object tainted by extensive use, I take a picture.

At home, I realise that I have left my phone (with the picture on it) in a train. I start looking on-line for Breitner’s camera thinking that it should be easy to find. To my surprise nothing turns up.

I remember that the object was on loan from an academic collection in Leiden. The Leiden University Library has indeed a ‘Special collection’ on early Dutch photography, and a website ‘Special Digital Collections’ at:
In a sub-collection ‘Photographica’ I finally locate a detailed record for the camera that was on display in Rotterdam.

Shelfmark: PK-F-GHB.098
Title: Guy’s Edison-Camera
Date of creation: [Tussen 1898 en 1902]
Object: 1 camera : boxcamera
Remarks: Camera gebruikt door George Hendrik Breitner
Location: Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden – Prentenkabinet – Kluis -1 kast 22219 plank 2
Rights: For information on rights and reproductions, please contact the Special Collections Reading Room.

The software to manage this digital collection is called Ex-libris DigiTool, tool for resource discovery. The Leiden Special collections are prominently featured on their website as a successful case of how Ex-Libris helps ‘Orchestrate Institutional Repositories‘.

Wedged between Close, Print, Help, Send and a shoppingcart (which adds the record to my ‘e-shelf’ but no clue how to access this space) is the option Save. It is unclear what it will save and the file-extension .sav does not disclose much either.

.sav is a generic extension, used for saving progress in video games but also for predictive analytics created by the proprietary Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS). As for opening this file, I find the following advise: “Various programs use this extension; too many to list individually. Take clues from the location of the file as a possible pointer to exactly which program is producing the file. The file’s date and time can also help if you know which programs you were running when the file was written.” Right.

I suspect from the microscopic size of the file that this is probably meta-data saved in a convoluted way, but I install GNUPSPP to be sure. It is nauseating to imagine the budget, work, hours spent on digitizing this iconic object only for it to end up in a digital dungeon.

Turning tools into instruments

The Piksels and Lines Orchestra (PLO)

If we turned our tools into instruments, could we experience Libre Graphics as an ensemble? What would be the performative potential of lay-out and drawing, and how to listen to the sound of a pixel, or to the tune of a line?

In response to these curious questions, The Libre Graphics Research Unit developed a prototype for The Piksels and Lines Orchestra. In a single afternoon, several well-known Libre Graphics tools were networked using standard protocols. The ‘Instrumented’ versions of Scribus, MyPaint, SketchSpace and GIMP were made to send their actions (everything that is saved to the undo/redo-history) as HTTP GET requests to The Underweb so that any completed brushstroke, transform or text-change made by the Orchestra’s Instruments would be displayed on a screen. From here, we used Lyd to sonify actions with the help of the LibreOffice sound-effects.
Simultaneously, Players were saving their results into git. A PureData-patch pulled from the repository and provided ambiant sounds based on processing the outcomes of The Instruments. Finally, through OpenFrameworks, we visualised the growing image-collection on-screen.

We started thinking about The PLO in the Demonstrating the Unexpected workshop with Brendan Howell

Pierre Huyghebaert drawing the PLO-diagram

Multiple visual outputs

The Orchestra performed two sets of about an hour, exploring the improvised connections between design-production and experimental sound. The differences in tonality of the various instruments were obvious, even if this was just a quick sketch. Scribus proved to be interesting to play; the action-history of this page-lay-out tool is fine-grained, and it’s large variety of operations is clearly defined. The range of sounds produced by MyPaint appeared to be less rich then we expected; to turn a drawing tool into an instrument, it might have been more interesting to take mouse-positions into account. Although exciting because it was the only web-accessible Instrument involved, playing SketchSpace was a little less gratifying due to the high granularity of actions that made it hard to actually perceive causal relations between a change on canvas and it’s sonification.

Ana Carvalho and Pierre Marchand playing Scribus

Pippin playing Lyd

Playing MyPaint while Brendan explains

Adding sound-feedback to lay-out broke the usual boredom of putting elements to the grid. The pleasure of connecting these different tools through a minimum of negotiation and a maximum of improvisation allowed them to express their character to each other and with each other. Free, Libre and Open Source Design practice will never be the same again :-)

LGM 2012

This year I could only make it for a few days to LGM, but I am glad I came. First of all to meet friends and colleagues, to find out how they and their projects have been. I enjoyed getting hold of a fresh issue of Libre Graphics Magazine for example; The Physical, the Digital and the Designer is once again an excellent collection of articles, images and reviews so make sure you get your hands on it too!

SK1 reloaded: 'Printdesign', a new tool for office printing

I arrived just in time in Vienna to witness the birth of a Scribus GUI-team, something that has been in the making for a while now. Although the discussion at the meeting GUI of Scribus and effectiveness of work showed that developers and designers involved still are getting to grips with what this will mean for the project and it’s team-dynamics, it is a start.

Tom Lechner's demo of a future align+distribute tool

Unfortunately I did arrive too late for Tom Lechners’ talk Weird Layout. Using Inkscape-like align and distribute functionalities, his fresh approach to putting elements in relation to each other actually doesn’t seem that weird at all. If only it would deal with text as elegantly as it handles images?

The Auditorium. Photo: Nicu B., 2012 CC-BY-SA

This year’s venue for LGM was the University of Applied Sciences Technikum Wien (a brand new auditorium, cantine and several classrooms at our disposal) and ran parallel to the Linuxwochen. It made for some lively inserts but also put the lean organising team and minimalist style of hosting under pressure even more. But participants happily found their way to other places like Metalab, a hackerspace not far from the glossy MuseumsQuartier. Metalab offered us comfortable spaces for working and discussing, and a broken power plug was successfully re-soldered and taped too.

Beautiful cusps with Powerstroke

New to LGM were exciting projects such as Powerstroke, the result of Johan Engelen’s work on multiple width strokes in Inkscape. The construction of smooth ‘calligraphic’ strokes (always in quotation marks!) clearly benefitted from his background in mathematics. Ricardo Lafuente compiled Inkscape with it and looked *very* happy.

HarfBuzz: A fast-moving target

The text-shaping engine HarfBuzz takes care of lay-out at an atomic level. Behdad Esfahbod explained in accessible terms how HarfBuzz tries to simplify and make legible the process of shaping even the most complex of text-lay-outs.

Keeping a promise: Joao delivers Brazilian chocolate for transport to Belgium

It was also interesting to see Máirín Duffy from the Fedora Designteam at work; with her colleague Emily Dirsh she toured us through several collaboration tools for interactive design that they were thinking about and developing. Their slides on Sparkleshare, Magic Mockup and Design Hub:

And, classified as #tehweird at lgm: SoundFumble; an audio player that takes GIMP image data as input. Without taking anything away from the GIMP-experience, your favourite digital image editor can be a soundmachine too.

I enjoyed introducing Marcos Garcia to LGM and vice versa. We did not present much of the LGRU-work in the end because we wanted to make sure that the Libre Graphics community felt as excited as we were ourselves about LGM in Madrid next year. So we used most of our time to tell some inspiring Medialab Prado stories and I think that was convincing.

Stefanie at Mz Balthazar's Laboratory

That evening I met with Stefanie from Mz Baltazars’ laboratory, a lab or hackerspace for women and trans. We discussed the various methods we were both using to create ‘fearless, accessible plattforms’. It was a nice and useful strategy-swap before I joined the party at Metalab.

Over lunch on Saturday, a discussion with Kate Price, Peter Sikking, Joao Bueno and Chris Lilley about being stuck with the page-metaphor and what that means for graphics traversing from web to print and vice versa. Kate agreed that relational placement made more sense: “Measure at the point where the relationship is“. Which prompted Chris: “The problem with intelligent tools is that you end up argueing with them“. Kate also made interesting connections to CAD-software and Peter referred to Theo Van Doesberg and his idea of designing from the smallest element outwards. Hopefully to be continued.

An invitation to Madrid at the closing session. Photo: Nicu B., 2012 CC-BY-SA

At the closing talk, our invitation to host LGM 2013 in Madrid was accepted with enthusiasm. It felt a bit strange that we were deciding on a second European meeting while being in Europe, but still I am glad to have an opportunity to connect LGM to LGRU and the Spanish-speaking free software community. Apparently the same team of people that invited LGM to Vietnam in 2011 is working on LGM-Asia in 2014 … wouldn’t that be great?

A Dictionary of Received Ideas

Her colleagues often repeated that ‘there is no perfect solution to a design problem‘. Rebecca was pretty sure she had read it somewhere within the context of computer science or learning technology but after looking all over, she still had not found a solid source for the idea. After posting her question to the mailinglist, Luke e-mailed almost instantaneously:

It sounds like you are looking for Rittel and Webber’s third of ten characteristics of wicked problems:
Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad1

The ‘third characteristic’ Luke was referring to, came from a book on the theory of planning:

For wicked planning problems, there are no true or false answers. Normally, many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge the solutions, although none has the power to set formal decision rules to determine correctness.

Jude thought that it was something Herbert Simon might have said:

Evidently, organisms adapt well enough to ‘satisfice’; they do not, in general, ‘optimize’.
A ‘satisficing’ path, a path that will permit satisfaction at some specified level of all its needs.2

In her e-mail Jude explained what she thought Simon meant by that:

What is good enough is certainly better than what is not good enough.


The bar for what satisfices can be raised over time, this achieving the even better, but not necessary the best.

Neil agreed with Jude and added a reference to Henry Petroski’s Small Things Considered where the same concept of ‘satisficing’ accounts for the role of decision making in design. Rebecca was not sure which of these two quotes would be more useful for her research.

Design must always conform to constraint, must always require choice, and thus must always involve compromise.

or rather:

We live in a world of imperfect things, just as we do in a world of imperfect fellow human beings.3

Prue suggested the gnomic but brilliant remark made by Ray or Charles Eames:

The best you can do between now and Tuesday is a kind of best you can do.4

Terence was not being very helpful. He felt she might first need to ask herself what it meant for something to be a ‘perfect’ design solution.

Derek suggested that all of this was spinning around good oldfashioned pragmatism. Therefore the relevant source would not be a designer, but psychologist and philosopher William James:

We say this theory solves it on the whole more satisfactorily than that theory; but that means more satisfactorily to ourselves, and individuals will emphasize their points of satisfaction differently. To a certain degree, therefore, everything here is plastic.5

Ranolph liked to apply Samuel Beckett’s famous quote from Worstward Ho as a definition of design:

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.6

and pointed her to the reworked Rittel and Webber statement by Jeff Conklin:

Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.7

She closed her laptop, smiled to herself and thought:

Perfect is the enemy of good.8

  1. Rittel, H., & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences, 4(2), 155-169.
  2. Simon, H. A. (1956). “Rational choice and the structure of the environment”. Psychological Review, Vol. 63 No. 2, 129-138.
  3. Small things considered: Why there is no perfect design. New York: Vintage Books, 2004
  4. Quoted in Eames Demetrios, 2001, An Eames Primer, New York Universe Publishing p 173. Prue Bramwell-Davis.
  5. Pragmatism, A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. William James, 1907
  6. Samuel Becket: Worstward Ho, 1983
  7. Conklin, Jeff; “Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems,” Wiley; 1st edition, 18 November 2005
  8. Voltaire in La Bégueule, Contes, 1772

Objects and their biographies

Q: I found these scissors here. Did you make them?
A: No, I did not make them.
Q: But who did?
A: I do not know.
Q: I found these scissors. Did you do this?
A: No, they are not mine.
Q: They are not yours? I was told that you did make them.
A: No, they are not mine. You found them perhaps in the garage?
Q: I talked to the welder. He said that you made them.
A: Hehe, no.
[A man approaches and says: He did it. He is just afraid. I ask: Is he shy? He answers: Yes, he is shy]
Q: And when, when did you do this, Samat?
A: A long time ago.
Q: How long ago? A year ago, or two?
A: A year ago.
Q: And why?
A: They broke, something should be cut, but then no one could go home [to get new ones]. We have to work, we need to cut.
Q: And those scissors, you use them both in the garage and at home?
A: The handle was made of plastic and it got broken. They break sometimes.

These scissors and their biography are included in, a collection of self-made and re-made objects curated by Vladimir Arkhipov. Automatic translation interpretation by FS.