On Creating Arctic Code Vault Art, Open Source, and Minerals

It’s not every day that you get an email from a friend connecting you to a project that…honestly, sounds like something out of a James Bond movie. A vault, buried deep in a mountain on the Arctic Svalbard archipelago, housing a repository of humanity’s most important open source code, designed to last 1,000(!) years, potentially with artifacts representing the project in several major libraries around the world. They’re looking for an artist. You are an artist. What??

I would love to say that I jumped and hollered when I got that email —in actuality, it came out of the blue, and I had no idea whatsoever what I was looking at. I mostly stared at my laptop for awhile, with the expression that one has when one is humbly negotiating with a cup of coffee to help them make sense of what is on their screen. And thankfully, the part of me that lives for experiences on the edges of technical creativity (and some would argue, sense) became quite awake, and eventually responded, yes, I was definitely interested. A few interviews later, and we were a go.

For those unfamiliar, the Arctic World Archive is a repository of human artifacts and information, stored deep in a decommissioned coal mine in the Norwegian Svalbard Archipelago, declared a demilitarized zone by 42 countries. It contains everything from manuscripts from the Vatican Library, to Rembrandt masterpieces, to scientific information and political histories. It is incredibly remote, incredibly cold, and also incredibly cool. In partnership with the AWA, GitHub created the Arctic Code Vault as part of the Github Archive Program, a vault in the Archive to safekeep the world’s open source software and preserve it for future generations. They artist’s job is to create an artifact for the project, both to be stored in the vault itself and in several major libraries around the world.

Making art and technology dance together has long been one of my loves in life — by training, I am an engineer, and by inalienable nature, I am an artist. My medium is whatever is in front of me, usually some intersection between several forms of technology. I‘ve worked on everything from one-off interactive LED installations for events, to a giant EEG-controllable 20,000 LED climbable brain art car at Burning Man, to a neural network art clothing company. There is a special flavor of warmth and happiness that I experience when I see technical brilliance applied in service of beauty, joy, and magic.

This project is a joy for me — in part, because of what it represents, but also in a personal sense because I have the opportunity to share the unique beauty that shows up in the magical spaces where art and engineering blur together. I love that world. And as I write and share more about my experiences there, I hope to inspire readers to explore it for themselves.

Jupiter’s South Pole, and some pebbles
Neural Network Sorcery

In addition to the technical aspects (or perhaps in service to them), this project has inspired me to think deeply about open source, human cooperation, and the shoulders that we stand on as we write software. Writing open source software is a beautiful act, in that it is not only standing on the shoulders of those before us, it is offering our own shoulders to those who come after. It is a profoundly kind and helpful thing to do.

It is also humbling, as an artist and an engineer, to try to trace that lineage back. I work a lot in Python — which was written on top of C, which was written on top of many layers of direct hardware integrations, which, if you go back far enough, would have been very challenging to develop without first understanding electricity. And it becomes both weird and kind of beautiful when you realize we wouldn’t have electricity unless it was something that the minerals of our home planet, configured properly, were even capable of. Thanks, minerals! The further back you go, the stranger and more surreal the conversation becomes.

An exploration

After a few attempts, a pattern emerges — open source software works like this, because on some very deep level, Life works like this. Nature works like this. Something new appears—some expression, some spark, some molecular reaction, some git push origin master, some gift is brought into being— and the ripples of evolution propagate as they will.

Through that lens — open source software is beautiful in that it is a particularly pure expression of the forces of nature doing what they do best — learning, building, cooperating in uncanny ways, and evolving freely.

It is in that spirit that I approach this project.

Artist, Communityist, Systems Thinker, Multi-Competency Engineer alexmakijokela.com

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