The Open Internet: From Virtuality to Physicality

Stephanie Syjuco. "Free Texts: An Open Source Reading Room", 2012. Commissioned by the ZERO1 Biennial, San Jose, CA. September 12 - December 5, 2012.

Stephanie Syjuco. “Free Texts: An Open Source Reading Room,” 2012. Commissioned by the ZERO1 Biennial, San Jose, CA. September 12-December 5, 2012.

Much of what we experience on the Internet parallels how the brain functions. Independently working entities connect like a web, a network, an ecosystem. In this vast online space of seemingly global information, the notion of open source forces one to ask what is “open” and “free,” from the dynamic and virtual environments we share down to the numbers and letters we use to communicate. But what happens when free virtual matter manifests in the physical world? How does that material translate in real life? And how should we assign value?

Stephanie Syjuco. "Free Texts: An Open Source Reading Room", 2012. Commissioned by the ZERO1 Biennial, San Jose, CA. September 12 - December 5, 2012.

Stephanie Syjuco. “Free Texts: An Open Source Reading Room,” 2012. Commissioned by the ZERO1 Biennial, San Jose, CA. September 12-December 5, 2012.

In 2012, the ZERO1 Biennial commissioned Bay Area-based artist and educator Stephanie Syjuco to create the site-specific installation Free Texts: An Open Source Reading Room—an analog version of an online open source library. The artist herself was part of the installation; she sat at a desk with a lamp, laptop, and HP LaserJet printer. All of this was arranged next to a wall of various sized flyers that mimicked lost pet notices, except the tear-away strips were printed with URL codes instead of a phone number. The words “Free Text” appeared directly above a selection of readymade bound books placed on the table for visitors’ casual perusal; they included art history and critical theory texts such as Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig, and Garrett Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons.” For visitors who expressed profound interest in a specific text, Syjuco offered on demand printing and bookbinding.

Stephanie Syjuco. "Free Texts: An Open Source Reading Room" (detail), 2012. Commissioned by the ZERO1 Biennial, San Jose, CA. September 12 - December 5, 2012.

Stephanie Syjuco. “Free Texts: An Open Source Reading Room” (detail), 2012. Commissioned by the ZERO1 Biennial, San Jose, CA. September 12-December 5, 2012.

Free Texts is about the personal act of acquiring text and, more importantly, knowledge. I am almost certain that, like myself, many Internet users have no issue with downloading texts online, be it legal or illegal. Free Texts serves as commentary on digital culture and consumption. It also raises a point about our ongoing desire for tangible objects. Reading (and writing) on paper fascinates people probably more so now than ever before because it seems almost retro. And yet thumbing through books allows needed respite from the daily practice of swiping screens.


Paul Soulellis. “Library of the Printed Web,” 2013 (ongoing).

A year after seeing Syjuco’s installation, it resurfaced for me during the conference Theorizing the Web, where artist Paul Soulellis presented his project Library of the Printed Web (2013), his own collection of printed material from the Internet. It happens to include some  books from Syjuco’s Free Texts. Soulellis and Syjuco share interest in the meaning of a hard copy in a digitally laden and highly mobile society. If traditional forms of tactility are increasingly absent from the reading experience, what does is mean to print text from the Web? How does information that’s passed different hands and can easily be doctored remain “legitimate”? Is text printed from the Web less or more compelling than text purchased through traditional forms of capitalism or consumed through electronic devices?


Paul Soulellis. “Library of the Printed Web,” 2013 (ongoing).

Syjuco deliberately omits imagery from Free Texts, asking her audience to engage with dense theoretical texts. Whereas in Soulellis’s Library of the Printed Web, he focuses more on images that have been altered or remixed in virtual spaces. Both artists, by turning virtual matter into printed and packaged objects, create new, analog bodies of work for people to consume. Their works beg close examination of our ongoing desire for physical things when those things can be virtually and easily consumed. And then, even as we download or print what we believe to be free, we acquire these goods through costly devices and the price of a connection. All things considered, nothing is actually free.

Dorothy Santos is Blogger-in-Residence through August 30, 2013.


  1. DC Spensley says:

    Here are a few thoughts:

    What happens when virtual matter manifests in actual terms?

    1. This depends on the content. For instance a coyote is a being that evolved in the physical, biological sense in the actual world. A coyote is not native to the virtual so it can only exist virtually as a symbol (simulation) of a coyote, and at this point in time, cannot be “reconstituted” as an actual coyote from virtual materials.

    This is perhaps a problem of resolution. The virtual coyote is optimized and put into symbolic form for transfer on the network. Doing so reduces resolution. The virtual coyote is no longer the “thing thing”, rather a simulation of a thing.

    2. Text content is already a symbol for ideas in both the actual and the virtual and so therefore does not lose resolution in transfer, but may lose (or gain new) context in the destination brain. Text is not the idea or the thing it represents.

    3. The actual and the virtual are not mutually exclusive, one is not a replacement for the other nor are the extreme pure states of virtual or actual representative of the practical world.

    4. Virtualization inverts the actual challenges of space and time. In the virtual, instantaneous travel to a virtual places is possible to “location” which are simulations of space that only become places when we experience them together in the shared network social spaces like, blogs, FB or Virtual Worlds like Minecraft or Second Life.

  2. I swear, figuring out how to engage and depict open source and commons ideologies, especially online, is going to be one of the biggest burdens of artists in this generation.

    I want to be really cautious about representation of the digital in physical space. Not making it a dichotomy, not romanticizing one over the other, and recognizing how they intertwine is really difficult. I am glad to see this work playfully living in between the two, and playing with a liminal community board between digital and physical world.

    One thing I noticed about this piece that made me laugh: it’s photocopier. In the book “This Machine Kills Secrets” by Andy Greenberg, he writes about whistleblowing or leaking of documents. He compares Bradley Manning to Daniel Ellsberg. Manning copied some ridiculously large amount of files onto a cd and gave it to Wikileaks, where then everyone could see it. Ellsberg spent months and months photocopying the thousands of pages and slowly sneaking them out of the office.

    The adage “information wants to be free” isn’t true. Information doesn’t want anything, but it sure seems like information is becoming harder and harder to confine and privatize, I for one am all for it.

    It’s especially serendipitous that you feature this piece as it is being censored from an exhibition a sponsor of that event (3M) didn’t find it in keeping with it’s corporate and pro-SOPA agenda. If you could confirm that or elaborate on that I would be all ears.

    but now I am really needing sleep after a long day of plane rides, hopefully this all makes sense, thanks for the piece.

  3. Waylan says:

    I mean, it couldn’t possibly be the first time that a Sponsor objection led to action, but this is a principled hypocrisy on the part of that Digital Art Institute, and the fact that they didn’t stand behind THEIR OWN curatorial and caved, is a telling point.

    Not to mention that the art project itself is about the nature of digital information accumulation, and the general Open Source intentions of individual citizen/netizens. On surface, it seems in no way to contest 3M. The only thing I can see is that the mere mention and tolerance of “illegal” scraping is what they had objection with, despite the probable fact that her concept is a commentary and has everything to do with observation/hypothesis and not exactly activism.


    To answer questions:
    “How does information that’s passed different hands and can easily be doctored remain “legitimate”? Is text printed from the Web less or more compelling than text purchased through traditional forms of capitalism or consumed through electronic devices?”

    In Legal speak, that’s the nature of “Transformative Act” in the Public Domain defense. Your question brings up the increasingly a nuanced separation of “respect of original work” from “aesthetically pleasing,” where one dismisses the former in favor of the later, which is ultimately a narcissism. ie. “I don’t care if it’s not original, it looks good to ME.”

    I think the source argument is diminished in light of the increasing importance of editing and curation, as well as presentation/aesthetics. As soon as you design and package an Open Sourced set of materials in a really nice way, the only thing that separates that from a Publisher produced item is the marketing and distribution, the brand loyalty, and to an extent the professional clout/cosign/industry validation of said materials – factors outside the scope of the contents and information itself.

    You may be interested in the efforts of and

  4. DC, you bring up some wonderful thoughts on virtual to physical translation.

    It certainly depends on content! Simulacra and Simulation are definitely other facets to this overall discussion. Is it possible to place value on physical to virtual? Your coyote example is interesting because physical to virtual translation also entails a sense of degrading the original, perhaps? You remind me of the simulations/recreations of Chris Burden or Marina Abramovic’s works by artists Eva and Franco Mattes. I’ll have to stew over this idea a bit more, for sure.

    Great point about the literal and figurative meaning of translation. You are right. Text doesn’t lose “resolution” per se but may gain or lose meaning within the context of the translation. While I didn’t think of resolution when writing this, that’s good distinction to point out because images physically degrade over multiple translations.

    Regarding your last point about inversion of space and time, have you read Doreen Massey’s idea of time space compression in Physical Spaces? We had to read her work in our first year of the program. You would definitely enjoy her and you reminded me that I NEED to revisit her work because she explores how we identify ourselves and place ourselves in space.

  5. Ben,
    You should check out the work of art duo, Hella More Funner (Sam Fuchs and Adam Gray), they are based in the Bay Area. Their art practice certainly culls all of the random images of the Internet into their intricately made collages. But when you stand back, the collages take the forms of deities! Not too dissimilar to some psychedelic art, which is telling considering that, as you point out, this generation of budding artists must contend with open source, the Commons, and cut-and-paste culture. Then again, “sampling” has been around for quite some time (i.e., Hip Hop music). But I digress…your first point totally made me think of HMF’s work (especially since they pull from the Internet…you may want to check out Jenny Odell if you haven’t already).
    I’ll have to check out the Greenberg book! Thanks for the recommendation. Many companies, organizations, and corporations still rely on hard copy materials. What exactly is being protected if, especially these days, we are able to find many texts for free? About Ellsberg spending all those months photocopying, well, the information needed to be untraceable. So, we start getting into other areas of study such as Surveillance. On another note, Capitalism certainly plays its part in ensuring the object holds value and weight (literally and figuratively). This is why artists NEED to produce artwork that pushes the boundaries of re-defining the art object (if that even exists anymore) in these open source spaces.
    To confirm, Syjuco’s piece was pulled from the IV Mostra de Arte Digital exhibition due to corporate sponsor objections. I did not find this information out until after this post. Honestly, THAT was completely unexpected especially considering that she will be showing the piece Paris next month AND Bangkok Art Museum in December! Totally brings up issues of valuation and censorship, FOR sure! Thanks again for commenting!!

  6. Waylon,

    DEFINITELY agree with you that it is telling of this particular cultural institution’s agenda. But as I mentioned in the reply to Ben, economics plays such an integral role in how a large scale exhibition, art fair, or a museum is curated and run. I imagine there’s a lot of bureaucracy involved to ensure funding, which results in situations like this, which you’ve mentioned.

    Commentary is not always the way a corporate sponsor sees conceptual works, which this situation has proven. Thanks so much for answering the questions from the piece!!! Very thoughtful and I’m glad you pointed specifically to the Transformative Act (Copyright/Fair Use), which definitely brings up the Library of the Printed Web project by Paul Soulellis!! This is why I paired them together in the post. I wanted to start a dialogue (thank you for being a part of it!!) about the key differences. Both artists are working on providing a direct reference to the online culture we live and work within every day. Their deliberate presentation of these texts and in Soulellis’s work, images, is not transforming anything per se BUT they are open to the public, they may not necessarily know that though. So, the “so what” factor of the work becomes, looking at our fascination with the object, our place in relationship to that object, our access, and how we access it. Corporate sponsors and big business are definitely scared of the Commons.

    Thanks again for your comments!

  7. DC Spensley says:

    Thank you to the writers above for your inspiring words.

    The re-realization of virtual text into physical form is something people have been thinking about for some time. In 2000 I was part of a project at the Internet Archive called “Internet Bookmobile”. This was essentially a van with a satellite downlink, a massive HP duplexing printer and various binding and finishing tools onboard. The idea was to drive to a location with no network or libraries, download a text on demand, print, bind and deliver books to people for cheap. To my knowledge there were about 10 of these Bookmobiles made; some in the U.S., India and parts of Africa. Texts came from out of copyright sources and Project Gutenberg. Here are some of the titles (still available ):

    Committing text back to physical form may have charming “retro” value in rich countries who can rely on electronic displays with some regularity, but it is critical in areas that do not have such luxuries. The questions about “value”, “consumption” and “capitalism” change when you leave the safe confines of the art gallery or museum. Setting up a little library of reprinted virtual works in a museum setting seems bourgeois and pointless unless it addresses or at least acknowledges the rest of the world.

    The value of text is in what it represents, the knowledge it conveys. Sure. Books have ancient intrinsic value aside from their content, they have a historical footprint, a manufactured history and give insights in their physical form, but in the end, they are simply user interfaces. (damn good ones actually)

    The questions of value from a capital standpoint change with virtual and actual. One person above debunked the old koan “information wants to be free”. In virtual form, information DOES want to be free, it reproduces like mad and spreads nearly uncontrollably. Committing information to physical forms reintroduces capitalism into the picture and brings up a host of new stakeholders who seek to “get paid”. Lumber, paper, transportation, fuel, ink, manufacturing, marketing etc. None of these things have really anything to do with what the text is about, what actual value it provides humanity.

    So if physicalizing text invokes capital exchange, and impoverished peoples rely on physicalized text, then it means only text that serves capital exchange is within access of the network or economically impoverished.

    On the converse, text that is virtual is only free if you don’t count the energy, network and technology costs. And then there is the disturbing possibility of being able to alter or remove text and even history from a network. En masse as a means of social control. So either way, information is NOT FREE and what we see is always filtered through the glass of capital regardless of our means of access.

  8. Ehb Teng says:

    DC makes a very good point above.

    Virtuality and physicality are not mutually exclusive. They are relative applied conditions. Just as meaning and existence are relative applied conditions. At a rudimentary level: What is a table if I strip away the applied condition of ‘table’ that I have bestowed upon it? Or in this case, what is the meaning of text in any format if the applied condition of meaning is an individual experience? I can experience digital text the same way as physical text and vice versa. The key being choice of perception. We tend to romanticize the past and hang on to antiquated ideas. I, myself, still love and enjoy the printed word. However, I’m also willing to let go of the idea of physical books because I can decipher the same text in any format. Physicality is a relative thing. Imagine being able to hold a holographic book with pages that turn?

    A friend of mine is working in the fringe science field of being able to digitize consciousness. They are obviously many years away from success. However, if this is truly possible, then it changes everything upon how the label ‘humanity’ is applied. If we can manifest as the virtual and this becomes a natural state, what do we do with the physical? Does it matter anymore?

    Whether or not artists should participate solely in open source art is an issue relative to capitalism and not an issue on its own. Strip away a capitalist society/notions of ownership and all publicly shared art naturally becomes open source. It’s not a right or wrong issue. It’s more of a societal construct issue. How do we really wish to construct a future society and what is the artist’s place in that world?

    Other fun things to think about:

    Everything we see and experience is in the past. There is always a lag in light and sound. The further away an object is the further away from actual time we are experiencing it. A great example is starlight.

    If science fiction is precurser to science fact, then we should one day be able to manifest and replicate physical object at will through replicators or cloning tech. If this is the case, is there truly a natural state of things? This applies to the coyote example given by DC.

    I could go on and on. These are just my silly musings. Agree or refute away! 🙂

  9. cocacolachola says:

    I think that DC brings up a lot of interesting points as well. Perhaps, it is because of the proximity of this blog post alongside the Ben Davis article in the ISR (including the response piece in the New Inquiry), but one has to wonder about how these things all connect outside of “contemporary art”. I think that there has been quite a bit of work that has happened for the 15 years at least (as DC stated) touching upon similar subjects not to mention the multitude of DIY for the sake of DIY (somehow seems not unlike the art for the sake of art) free libraries/infoshops and such. My biggest questions are about these subjects I think, how is the project contained beyond its influence and way its influenced by these other sources, rather than the fact that it cannot be shown in this gallery/museum space? Does it make it more interesting that it cannot be shown? In turn, does the artist have the final say as she is able to now claim it on her CV with a line crossed out etc.? I would say yes.

  10. I enjoyed reading through your musings, Ehb. I think what stood out more in your comment was the question, “If we can manifest as the virtual and this becomes a natural state, what do we do with the physical? Does it matter anymore?”

    It’s pretty mind mending to think of the virtual as a “natural state” because my mind goes directly to physical biology. Virtuality allows us to connect to one another and transmit information rapidly but to consider virtuatlity as something natural and not an extension of our existence is definitely light years ahead of what these projects are trying to convey or show. While bring up really interesting thoughts, the physical does matter. Even though art is changing significantly in that the notion of the art object is changing, people continue to yearn and engage in escapism. The fact that things made on the Internet are manifesting in physical forms (i.e., viral memes being made into t-shirts), speaks to the need for something tangible that accommodates and entices multiple senses. This is where the physical is imperative to the way we learn about the world. Looking at new media art, for me, is actually a way of understanding why we are still drawn to the physical. Well, at least, I am.

    Thanks again for commenting!

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