Are we the hacker, or the hacked?

MIT fire hydrant hack

SOURCE: Flickr user wallyg

Hacker/artist Evan Roth offers a compelling TEDx presentation on both hackers and artists, and the ideals the two communities share. Hackers are individuals who strive for clever, shared, and often playful solutions to problems through computer code or resourceful intervention. Their work abducts or adapts existing systems toward purposes for which they weren’t designed.

Which all makes the hacker definition and ethic a natural fit with artists, who do the same. But it left me wondering about arts organizations. Are our institutions that support and connect the arts hacks in the larger system, or in need of a hack themselves?

They certainly started as hacks. The first nonprofit arts organizations abducted and adapted the tax-exempt form for expressive ends, even though the tax status wasn’t designed for the arts (and the tax law never mentions them). They found clever ways to turn wealth and found materials into expressive works, forging new spaces for artists and audiences. And many still do.

But others seem more like the system than the hacker, unable to adapt or adopt their machines to new purposes or to serve new communities. They have become slow and resourced institutions in need of (and sometimes in desperate search for) a hack.