Category Archives: Piksels and lines

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 frog and a rooster

“A story, doubtless true in the life of such a man, tells us how Hokusai tried to paint without the use of his hands. It is said that one day, having unrolled his scroll of paper on the floor before the Shogu, he poured over it a pot of blue paint; then, dipping the claws of a rooster in a pot of red paint, he made the bird run across the scroll and leave its tracks on it.

Everyone present recognized in them the waters of the stream called Tatsouta carrying along maple leaves reddened by the autumn. A charming piece of sorcery, in which nature seems to work unaccompanied to reproduce nature. The spreading blue color flows into divided streams like a real wave, and the bird’s claw, with it’s separated and united elements, is like the structure of a leaf. Its nearly weightless trace makes accents unequaled in force and purity; its path respects, but with the nuances of life, the intervals setting apart the delicate flotsam that the rapid water sweeps along.

Can any hand translate the regular and the irregular, the accidental and the logical in this procession of things almost without body, but not without form, on the surface of a mountain stream? Very much so: the hand of Hokusai. For the memory of long experiment with his hands on the different ways of evoking life brought him, magician as he was, to attempt even this. The hands are present without showing themselves, and, though touching nothing, they order everything.”

Story: Henri Focillon, The Life of Forms in Art. Zone Books, 1992
Image: Current OSP logo; it’s abstraction results from IRC-operated Scribus manipulations. See also: and

Calligraphie lumineuse

Wanting to go see the fourth edition of Graphology in Antwerp (the show opens only next weekend), I end up at Explosition instead. The exhibition in the Museum of Ixelles is only half interesting but the catalog is nice. I also like the video registration of Human Brush, a performance by the Brussels street-drawing phenomenon Bonom. The piece renders his deliberately antiquated pseudo-prehistoric imagery more than bearable; making the connection between dance, drawing and the digital obvious.

Photo: Dominique Vankan (all rights reserved)

Other than it being made with Quartz Composer (“a node-based visual programming language provided as part of the Xcode development environment in Mac OSX for processing and rendering graphical data”), I cannot find much about how the piece actually works. I never worked with this tool so it is hard to imagine. Tracking? Video? Sensors? MM thinks the performer is probably a professional dancer. I’m convinced it is Bonom himself.