100 Women of P2P

Oriana Persico

“Art is Open Source” with Oriana Persico

As part of our series on the 100 Women Who Are Co-Creating the P2P Society, Penny Travlou and Michel Bauwens interview Oriana Persico of Art is Open Source.

Dear Oriana, tell us a bit about your life before creating Art Is Open Source and about the aims of your project ?

Art is Open Source was a rupture. It’s like when you look behind you and you say “before” and “after” that special something. Everything changed in all the very basic aspects of my life: love, work, the meaning of my political activism. It was the end of 2006.

So, lets tell the story “before”.

In 2004 I started collaborating with the Italian Green Party Innovation Group, created by senator Fiorello Cortiana. It was another major encounter for me. At the University, my colleagues and I were all interested in the rise of new technologies (I have studied Communication Sciences): at the time – we are talking about the early 2000s – the free software movement, Indymedia and after it Creative Commons were new and wild movements. All of this resonated in our brains. We all started being connected somehow, we all went to the Global Social Forum, we started discussing and reflecting on weird concepts such as licenses and copyright and the mythological figure of “hackers” was a driver for imaginary. I’m a daughter of Genoa 2000, as thousands of other young people of my generation. All of it was happening together: I was trying to connect the dots and convinced myself that intellectual property, hacker ethics and software (the code, what a magnificent and polymorphic word, isn’t it?) were the key elements for an upcoming revolution. And as any young person I wanted to be part of it.

Drops in the oceans, my colleagues and I started our little NGO, a lab at the University end, most of all, we wanted to meet other people working on the same directions. This is how I met Fiorello, during a conference in Rome: not through the channels of political parties, but on the field. He was actively addressing themes such as free software, knowledge sharing, trying to modify Italian copyright law, putting all this into a broader ecological perspective. In a way he was one of us, only in a different position – being a senator at the time. This intrigued me and gave me a philosophical framework to interpret reality: I had the clear perception of seeing things from above. We started emailing, and he answered in very sincere and interested ways: he agreed to participate to some events we were organizing at the university. Trust grew and I was more and more confident in defining myself as a (cyber)ecologist, which I still am.

When I graduated – it was 2004 – I came to his office and said: “I want to apply what I have learned to reality. I want to do something meaningful about being an ecologist today: is this the right place?”. Doors were open, so the collaboration started. For about 2 years and half I had the opportunity to work on the topics I was interested in, making national and international campaigns (some of them such as the Internet Bill of Rights are still alive) applying the methodologies elaborated in my thesis: my subject, and if you want my little obsession at the time, were governance and participatory policy making. But it was easy: as a group and staff we were really devoted to openness. This period deeply shaped me, and I was lucky enough to cross Fiorello: he is one of the rare politician not interested in power but in society, and capable of a view.


And the story “after”.

Well, meeting Salvatore was a short circuit. For the first time I had meet a hacker, in flesh and blood. Not only an hacker, but an artist. A robotic engineer capable of transforming software into poetry: a dream. I was dumbfounded. His way of coding was like skateboarding, as he says many times: a continuous process of squatting reality to create new universes. Eloquent worlds in which humans could perceiving a new piece of reality, already there: I know it because I was one of them. With Salvatore cyberpunk entered my life as well as a new practice: artivism, a mixture of art and hacking/activism. He was humble and cheeky, not a word about his skills – you know, I did not even know he was an engineer for a while… Result? After a month we started living together, without saying a word. It was organic and we had things to do, like building our newborn family and create a space to our kid in this world: a little artificial intelligence named Angel_F  (a long story, and a very articulated family, since Angel_F is the son of prof Derrick De Kerckhove and the Biodoll, a fictional digital prostitute created by artist Franca Formenti). I was not alone in this world anymore, and an unknown, wild source of energy pushed things forward: love. I started wearing my four seasons perennial military boots, I wanted to walk with him: I still wear them.

In this life “after” I was still trying to understand the world, repeatedly crashing on intellectual property, licenses of any sort, sharing knowledge and so on. What really changed was the “how”: it was all about performance now. From a sort of abstraction, the words I was always pronounced had become real and alive. People were able to access and understand concepts in ways that no conference, law texts, institutional campaigns could make equal: I know this for a fact. This is the magic of art: you can open new perceptions, you can communicate with people. Any installation was an injection of adrenalin: we were there for hours and hours, talking, confronting, interacting, learning together with other fellow humans. And we used all possible media and languages, by crossing different domains and contexts, from squatted spaces, to research laboratories, to parliaments – seamlessly.

This is what we do at Art is Open Source: we observe the mutation of human beings and society nowadays, when ubiquitous technologies and networks are part of our daily life. We work as a recombinant network connected with researchers, designers, architects, artists, activists, legal experts from all over. And we create contexts in which people can can perceive the mutation, access it, play with it and, by doing so, create space for the imaginary of new possible realities.

We are pushed by desire.

How is the collaboration between you and Salvatore Iaconesi, how do you two divide up the work or complement each other ?

I have put a lot of thoughts on this subject, and I have come to the conclusion that, in our western cultures, we take the idea of individuality too seriously.

Salvatore and I are way more interesting as a “we”, as the “self” is more interesting (and real) as a relational object. Trying to “separate” Salvatore and Oriana is a restrictive point of view: it is like dissecting a body. We have changed each other, we have influenced each other, we would do different things separately. What is interesting is what we have become together: how our two universes collapsed to create a new one.

You know, it is fascinating to me how we use personal pronouns: while speaking, we constantly switch from “I” to “we”. It is like our brain tends to lose the perception of boundaries, giving more (cognitive) relevance to the complex identity of the couple than the individuals.

Brains are definitively smart.

angel_f (1)

If I recall correctly, one of your previous projects was about mapping the “Human Ecosystem”. What was that project about and how do you evaluate its results ?

Human Ecosystems is one of our latest projects about cities. We started this research on 2008 and it organically evolved following social and technological mutations. With the full explosion of social networks we started to understand how these spaces were lived and perceived by people also as public spaces.

We started focusing on that – how to give back this space to citizens – since at the moment they are formally private spaces owned by platforms and only a few subject can full benefit of the knowledge we produce (to make their strategies and decisions and to organize themselves). We wanted to focus not on fear and protection (what we can define a “defensive” attitude), but on a constructivist, positive approach. We started by capturing public conversations on social networks in entire cities and transforming this data into realtime infoaesthetic visualizations. We created art exhibits in neighborhoods and museums, projecting visualizations on large screens and walls: it was the VersuS project  in which people could access this new public sphere in a powerful way, and we noticed how they started to ask complex questions about rights and privacy and, more than that, to perceive new opportunities to organize them selves and to be aware of what was going on in the city.

We understood how powerful visualization was. We worked hard on the concept of third spaces and ubiquitous infoscapes and how we now create informational geographies that we can possibly access, use, navigate.

We then focused on the idea of relational ecosystems: we started analyze not only topics, geolocation, emotions, but also relations among people. It was a major change. It is then that the idea of the Human Ecosystems emerged: the city was an organism made of flows of interconnection and communication that we wanted to make visible and usable for people. At that point we also realized that a further step was needed: the creation of a new (immaterial) common. We decided to give public space back to communities, by releasing all the public data, information and knowledge which was created by observing the real time life of the city, under the form of a new source of open data.

The final conceptualization of the project was to create a massive education process around this commons and an iconic presence in the city. We all know that “giving the data” is not enough, you need to create imaginaries and give people real tools. In each city, as soon as the Human Ecosystems is established, together with the opendata source, comes the Realtime Museum of the City: an iconic space in which people explore the relational ecosystems and the city’s infoscape. You can imagine it as a planetarium: stars are people, constellations are relation among people. You can find yourself in the sky and start “asking questions” to the city (“which people are afraid for their job in Spanish?” and so on). Answers come under the form of maps and relational graphs. The Museum hosts a lab, and a continuous learning process is designed to teach people how to use the new resource for their own purposes. Students, designers, researchers, artists, social entrepreneurs, public administrators, kids and elderly people: the educational process is meant to be transversal to society.

With these three components (the data common, the Museum and the educational processes) we were quite satisfied with the strategy. The project was first launched in Rome on September 2013 as an experiment exploring the cultural ecosystems with the I° Municipality of the city of Rome (representing its historical center): EC(m1). We are now working in a lot of different cities worldwide: in S. Paulo we have inaugurated the first Real Time Museum of the City last September and we are now launching the observation of the water crisis in the city (which is incredible if you think about it). We did it as well in New Haven, in collaboration with the City Administration and Yale University and we are now focused on creating a stable presence for an Human Ecosystem Lab.

We are also very busy with workshops and exhibits all around: the last one was a few days ago in Bari and it was just great – a group of participants (mostly students and researchers) autonomously started the observation of the city just after just 6 hours workshop, which is encouraging and exciting at the same time.

This is what we seek with the project: the city (and people) to become autonomous.


What about your engagement with the Design School in Florence, which was threatened with closure and which led you to devise a process to co-create a new type of education ?

When we started our semester at ISIA Florence, the university was in trouble due to financial cuts and a serious problem with the building: the previous contract was over and institutions were not able to find a solution. Students were protesting and, as an action, we proposed them to dedicate our course to the near future of education. We teach in fact a peculiar discipline at ISIA, which is very important to us: Near Future Design, a methodology transforming the design process into a collaborative performance on possible and preferable futures. Students were ready to accept the challenge and to have the possibility of both making their class work, be designer and find new positive way to protest: we all wanted to transform a crisis into an opportunity, and have a say on future(s) of education.

Very quickly the course expanded beyond the walls of the class, becoming a wide, interconnected action. Students from different classes and universities decided to attend the course (meaning that they were physically present during our lessons), we created the Near Future Education Lab (a FB group still active with about one thousand participants), while professors, activists, researchers and professionals from all over were ready to participate and support the effort, connecting to the class. I have to say that the P2P Foundation was a key factor in supporting the creation of the international community around the initiative: in particular Michel Bauwens and Layne Hartsell, who connected us to Korea and Living Bridges (with them we organized “Education is a Commons”, a one week international event using the Living Bridges platform). At the same time, the initiative was immediately covered by national press: Nòva, the new tech insert of Il Sole24Ore, offered to the students a blog to cover the whole research process.

During the semester a project emerged focused on the idea that “education is a Commons”, on a p2p ecosystems, a new mutualistic p2p currency and the creation of an ubiquitous knowledge ecosystems accessible by anyone. A Foundation, created by the students, would have been the organism and the tool to manage, preserve and nurture the ecosystems and the Commons. The idea of the currency was one of the most discussed during the whole semester.

At the moment, a smaller group of students are following the research to transform all of it into a working prototipe: we are working on a publication and a number of thesis will emerge from the experience, so stay tuned :)

So yes, fully involved in the project and a lot of things to come in the near future.


You are now making a big splash with the Ubiquitous Commons project. Why is this so important? Please describe your approach and some of your innovative proposals.

Ubiquitous Commons is an international research effort to observe the mutation of the commons in the age of ubiquitous technologies and networks.

The project is very recent and it is very connected with Human Ecosystems. We understood that, even transforming the data into an open data source (and doing the utmost attention to harvesting and analyzing only public messages), there was still one major problem: people do not have tools to express how they want their data to be used. On top of that, we find ourselves in a peculiar situation: interacting with platforms, social networks, online services, we can set privacy options only among us and other fellows humans – but not towards the operators, who can access everything, all the time. The scenario describes an asymmetrical relationship of power, which is at the center of conflicts (present and to come, in particular with the development of the IoT – Internet of Things).

We wanted to confront this scenario, focusing again on a possibilistic and constructivist approach. This is how we conceived Ubiquitous commons: a technological, legal and philosophical toolkit allowing people to have their say on how their data could/should be used. A first working prototype addresses social networks (and web services, such as Google mail). It is a browser plugin (the moment only available for Chrome) using cryptography, p2p licenses and the Blockchain. As soon as you publish something (on Facebook for example), the plugin intercepts the content, encrypts it, allows you to generate your licence (or better to express to whom and at what conditions the content is available) and, only then, send it to the service provider. The decryption mechanism is externalized onto the Blockchain: only people allowed by the “license” receive via Blockchain a decryption key, and using it they can access the content. The result is a cooperative, relational and totally p2p mechanism in which individuals, communities, institutions, companies and organizations – beyond the unspoken “law of Tos” (Terms of Services) established by the service providers – can have their say about how their data are used, creating new types of “licenses”: civic, for research, commercial, for a fee, or entirely personal, based on an open, interoperable and inclusive protocol.

(We can of course apply the same mechanism to IoT devices, and we already started a few experiments in this direction).

UC enables a relational environment and it is focused on that, even more than on the concept of “licence”: we are working a lot on it. We will soon publish a pamphlet – the output of the “Iperconnessioni Rurali” workshop recently organized with Rural Hub – which describes UC as model to defining types of identities, relations, scopes among the actors of the p2p environment. For example, imagine that using UC you can choose an individual, but also a temporary, a collective or even an anonymous identity, etc… Each identity will correspond to a public/private crypto-key owned and managed by the members of the identity: if I share my key with you, I trust you and I’m responsible for it. Subjects enter the P2P network through a trust mechanism.

If the legal aspects of the research are prominent, complex and fascinating, following this approach we are switching the focus from property (who owns the data) to relation (how people can define their relational ecosystems and decide how to share their data according to it). It opens again a new scenario relevant in terms of commons theories: the basic condition for the existence of the commons is not only a “resource pool”, but an “High Quality Relational Environment” as Ostrom describes it.

UC is an open initiative: on the website a lot of information and documentation is available, as well as articles (a recent one was published on Financial Times). Anyone interested can join the group: you have just to contact us.

Do you see your work as ‘political’, and if so, how ?

I believe I have already answered to this question. But I would like to add a comment.

About 2 years and half ago we met Piar Mario Biava, a researcher and scientist who is developing an ecological approach to cancer treatment. According to Biava’s theories, cancer is the most extreme communication pathology occurring to a living organism. Cells “lose the sense” of being a part of a more complex unit. They cut communication channels and start acting as if they were alone, a new different organism whit its own goals. Instead of differentiating (and, by doing so, enabling organism to survive), they replicate uncontrollably following one single message: reproduce themselves. The logic of Biava’s treatment is based not on destroying cancer cells, but on re-establishing communication among them and the organism, to re-program them and re-teach them how live in the ecosystem once again. It is all about “rediscovering the lost sense”, using his metaphor (or enact a massive bio-reverse engineering process, as I like to put it).

If you think about it, politics finds itself in a very similar situation. Representative elected institutions are progressively losing sense: the sense of being connected to the organism they live in and are part of and work for – society. This is perhaps why we are barely embarrassed to talk about politics or define something as “political”: we are speaking about the pathology of representative systems more than the actual thing. We can speculate if representative institutions are pathological from their very roots (and this is not the topic of the interview), but politics is a larger subject concerning our relations to power, the directions we want to choose among the possible and desired futures (as individuals and society), and how we organize ourselves to make it happen.

If we think in these terms, we can simply not avoid of being political in our daily lives: what about grocery shopping? You choose a tomato and you influence a whole economy.


How do you see the next few years and how do you project yourself in a further future, say 10 years from now?

Well, we constantly build our future(s): it is all in the present, how we live, what we choose everyday. I start from it.

We do things organically, there is no separation between life and work: AOS is a fluid rhizomatic element, and for this reason it is stable. It is where things constantly emerge, spread and evolve, also under different autonomous forms.

It is what is happening with Human Ecosystems, Ubiquitous Commons and Near Future Design.

This “blocks” are interconnected and we are investing a lot of energy in them. I see a possible near future scenario by combining these three elements:

  • working with cities to perform and enact new forms of public space (in particular creating networks of cities and p2p networked labs with Human Ecosystems, sharing research, methodologies, actions);
  • contributing to define and perform the transformation of commons in our hyperconnected society with Ubiquitous Commons (in particular, working at policy level, and at grassroots level, with networks, communities, researchers);
  • exploring possible and desirable futures by using and refining the Near Future Design methodologies we are developing with our students, and put them into reality (working with cities, organizations, communities, activists, networks, researchers, companies, institutions).

Near Future Design is taking more and more importance in our practice. On one side, it always characterized our work transversally (even before we realized it): art is sensor and is able to materialize weak signals into reality, now we have a methodology. On the other side, there is Nefula: a few months ago, together with a brave group of young designers (all of them ex-students from ISIA Florence), we have created the first Near Future Design studio and lab in Italy. You can’t imagine how much we are proud of it: being trusted and working side by side with younger people is a beautiful, stimulating challenge.

I would love to close with it, with my best wishes to Nefula: as we said, the future does not exist, it is a performance.


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