GRAFFITI RESEARCH LAB:
WRITERS AS HACKERS AS ARTISTS
Txt: Monica Ponzini / Eng: Claudia Contino
Real and virtual spaces, cities and new media. These are the domains of confrontation of the new semantic clashes, made of massified and pre-digested messages on one hand, and free circulation, manipulation and expression of ideas on the other. The main characters are big companies, buying ads spaces to spark the consumerism at the basis of their economies, versus individuals, sometimes gathered in little independent groups, using new technologies for realising and using expressions means and the net to communicate and join in.
In NY, one of the most active groups in this light is the GRL – Graffiti Research Lab, a think tank created by Evan Roth and James Powderly. They match open source and practical technologies of metropolitan activism (on this subject we widely spoke about in the 23 rd issue of DigiMag, in April 2007,
Some of their instrument of unconventional communication have been realised by themselves or by groups of people who have developed their projects previously published on the web. Not only in NY, but also in other cities of all around the world. Starting from the LED Throwies, that are coloured LED provided with a magnet, unintentionally “famous” actors of a guerrilla marketing episode arranged by an ads agency and even (mis)taken for a terrorist attack. To end up with the LASER Tag, a device not giving a coat of paint upon buildings, but “pointing” a shaft of light coming from a projector reproducing writings and draws laid out by a laser reflector.
Their last intervention took place last 1 st December at the Enzimi Festival in Rome. They joined in at the explicit request of Marco Mancuso, director of Digicult and curator of their performance and conference (whose main subject was indeed the direct relationship among writers, city hackers and open source communities of all throughout the world). During their first “arrival” in Italy , in an old FIAT 500 covered by coloured LED, they drove for the streets of the Roman district “Testaccio”, in the centre of Rome , along Tiber , to reach the Roman Pyramid Cestia. They showed a long and meaningful demo of digital graffiti-art on the walls of this building. Not only. They also allowed passers-by and writers to draw freely with lasers.
After their beginning at the OpenLab of Eyebeam, a centre for experimentation on digital art and new technologies, Evan and James gave birth to a spin-off, the so-called F.A.T. Lab, Free Art and Technology Lab. Their main objective was allowing the development of open source also in the pop culture which seems to be dominated by the rules of a standardised market. In NY, they spoke with us about GRL and their next projects
Monica Ponzini: How did GRL start?
James: GRL GRL started because Evan and I -without knowing each other- just simultaneously applied for a fellowship at Eyebeam. Jonah Peretti was starting a lab all based on open source technology research, more like pop culture versions of these sort of DIY projects. He’s done a lot with software here at Eyebeam and got a big grant for this lab for artists and engineers. Evan was the artist, I was the engineer. We met, we looked at each other’s work and it just kind of naturally evolved from there. The first project we put up on the web were the LED Throwies and we created the website www.graffitiresearchlab.com .
Evan: It made sense for us to do public space graffiti work within an art and technology context. We see this similarity between graffiti writers and hackers: graffiti writers sort of hack the city, street artists and pranksters sort of hack public spaces to twist systems that happens in the city into sort of their own message, and hackers do that in a digital sense, so it made sense to get these two groups of people meeting each other and talking to each other. We tried to reach out and work with as many graffiti writers as we can, we have met enough people that have been a good influence on us and hopefully we had something to offer back to them.
Monica Ponzini: What’s the philosophy behind GRL?
Evan: Our longstanding mission statement is that we develop open source tools for artists and pranksters and protesters and I think that still remains true. In general I think we kind of come back to this idea of sort of leveling some sort of communication playing field between the voice that certain groups have in the city like, advertisers have a very large scale voice, like in any big city of the world. We don’t work for them, we kind of work on the opposite side. They already have this very big public presence and we sort of see our mission as giving us and our friends and people who don’t have the means to buy billboard space how do we give their messages the same scale, we live here, there should be our messages up there, not theirs. Lots of our research is like “wow, how for cheap can we make something that is easily reproduced by people who don’t have a ton of resources ”
Monica Ponzini: How did you develop your cooperation with Eyebeam and how did you develop your new project, the F.A.T. Lab, in Brooklyn ?
James: we had a fellowship for a year-long residency and that first year was about developing LED Throwies and a number of other projects, that have culminated with the development of the Laser Tag System. Then we reapplied for another fellowship and the next year began with Laser Tag and touring that over the country and all over the world. Then we curated a show here at Eyebeam with a bunch of our friends kind of our heroes – and public artists who do work without permission. We just recently have left Eyebeam, we didn’t reapply for a third fellowship. We decided to start sort of a spin-off of Eyebeam.
The Open Lab is still an interesting, new viable concept, an open source sort of art-technology lab, but we didn’t wanted to just limit it to the arts, there’s a lot of elements of pop culture, like the entertainment industry, the music industry, that is ready to open up and say “we’ve been doing open source for years”. We wanted to start our own lab that was looking at not just the arts, but also looking at that kind of entertainment pop-culture and try to push open source further in, just the way Linux has pushed the open source into web-server market. And they actually make up over 50% of the web-server market, so we’re like: “why aren’t 50% of entertainers doing their work without copyright?”. Obviously they aren’t, or maybe 50% of the entertainment that we know, not that 1% that makes all the records and all the money.
Evan: And some of that does exist too, it’s already there, it’s just that people haven’t realized it yet
James: And there’s also a strong opposition culture, just like in public spaces, this opposition culture are advertisers, who’d rather keep the streets covered with their imagery than open it up to get it free for all. Same thing is true in the entertainment industry, you have organizations who actively oppose any loosening of trademark or copyrights. Just like the urban spaces need this opposition voice, to get little voices bigger, we think that in the entertainment industry there also need to be this opposition voice, someone saying “we got to bury the hatchet over copyright and move forward”. And the record industry is suffering because of their inability to adjust to a changing distribution market, there’s a lot of stagnancy and now it’s not an exciting time for the record industry, we think that if the open source pushes into it, you could have people who are doing interesting work. We’re not the bearers of bad news, just like in public space, we’re trying to say “this has been working, it could work a lot better if we weren’t always fighting each other.”
The lab we’re doing in Brooklyn is called F.A.T. Lab, Free Art and Technology Lab, all the GRL’s work is sponsored by the F.A.T Lab. We’re about to get an actual space, right now we just have a virtual one with a bunch of virtual fellows. John Johnson, the guy who puts this sort of roof over Eyebeam’s head, is giving us the initial support to start this new lab. Part of the deal with Eyebeam is that, just like the GRL now, we reached the stage where people from all over the world say “hey, can I start my own Graffiti Research Lab”, we want this F.A.T. Lab concept to be the same way, just like with our tools the open source aspect of that -, we’re doing that with the bureaucratic process of starting your own non-profit organization. And starting a non-profit is not simple
Monica Ponzini: What’s the difference between counterculture in the States and in the rest of the world?
James: In particular in Europe , there’s this notion that the fringe of culture is part of culture Depending on the country, there are various degrees of acceptance of the counterculture. In Mexico City graffiti is prosecuted, in other countries is more tolerated. We happen to live in one of the least tolerant cities in the world for graffiti. New York City has been at war with graffiti and really set the standards for other cities. So now you have a city like Barcelona , that previously has been accepting counterculture, to the point that graffiti tourism was an actual market for them, they followed the same “zero tolerance” laws.
Evan: Maybe, just like New York , Barcelona is trying to keep its downtown “clean” for the tourists.
James: But in New York there’s more freedom of speech than in other American cities, just like Hong Kong compared to the rest of China . And talking about being liberal, art organizations tend to be the least liberal. They’re made up of liberal people who are scrounging around for tiny amounts of dollars, and the people who hold these dollars tend to be from that dominant culture, so these art organizations find themselves in the position where, more than others, have to censor the works. So we got into the practice of turning down commissions you’d be surprised how much an art museum is willing to censor its artists
Monica Ponzini: What do you think about the “Mooninites scare” in Boston a guerrilla-marketing action that was made with LED devices placed in several parts of the city and identified as a bomb-based terrorist action, and that ended up with the arrest of the two artists involved?
James: We had an interesting introduction. One of our students had gone to Boston , to a street art convention, and with one of his friend saw up on a overpass what he thought were a bunch of LED Throwies. He and his friend, drunk, climbed up on this thing and pulled it down, broke it, had to reassemble it, took a bunch of pictures and put them on Flicker. And it got covered by make magazine and a few others, and this was about 3 weeks before the Homeland Security Department found out about it. The technologies are even published online and it been talked about by Make Magazine who identified them correctly as non-violent marketing campaigns for this upcoming movie. My student communicated with the actual marketer at Intereference, Inc., who posted a video on the Internet saying “inspired by the brilliant creativity of the Graffiti Research Lab”. And this was exactly the opposite of what we really wanted, but we downloaded for presentations, to show the reach of open source distribution.
When the Homeland Security Department called the student, they were like: look we know you’re involved in this, we see this is tagged GRL, is that who did this? We told him to tell them who the real authors were. Meanwhile, all these major media outlets were still calling us, and wanted to know if we were involved and if not, what our take was, but we blacked out. We noticed that on that day they’ve removed their video from YouTube and we just put it back up on our site saying it was not the work of the GRL, that this was just corporate vandalism, the other side of graffiti, and we were the opposite gang. We try just to ignore these marketing campaigns that uses our technologies. There’s a sort of “collective brain” on the Internet who can distinguish between real counterculture and marketing campaigns.
In the end, the whole Boston Mooninites thing introduced LED Trowies to the mainstream a little bit, but mostly it’s just another example of how the US administration turned a cartoon into a bomb scare.
Monica Ponzini: How do you usually conceive your projects?
Evan: We don’t tend to put up really polished, finished art projects on our website, it is like research for us. Throwies are an example: we don’t consider it a finished project, is just something you can do for a dollar. In general it’s us brainstorming and thinking “how can we get our voices up in the city bigger and brighter and cheaper ?”
James: Usually there’s an incomplete assumption like: magnets can make it much easier to get stuff up in the city-, we make something, we release it on the Internet, it gets chewed up, spitted back out, and at a certain point our names matter less and less in the picture and it’s more about the works
Monica Ponzini: Your works, your message circulate mainly through the Internet, often virally. In a way, it reminds me of M dot Strange, who “distributed” his movie We Are The Strange thanks to the Internet. Do you think that’s your case?
James: The only difference with M dot Strange is that he made an experience for other people and they found it and really enjoyed it, and he finished the job a little more than we do. We get it started and we had it over, we do the outline, the Internet then does the filling. The Internet now is the place that mainstream culture looks to find its contents, so people like M dot Strange or like GRL get to go to the big Festivals. The Internet and the other micromedia channels are saturated and “infected” by advertisers, but still, it’s a big enough space that gives us an opportunity to get our works out there.
Evan: We put something on the Internet, it’s always intentional, it’s the biggest graffiti technology anyone has available, if you’re interested in getting eyeballs on your work. Having good content is the number one way to get circulation
James: And not just “good” content, but unique content, content that has what Jonah Peretti calls the “holy shit factor”, and M dor Strang got the “holy shit factor”, and probably we do too: an engineer and an architect who got together to do this graffiti project, all open source on the Internet, and try our best to keep pulling open source as far as the major media will let us go