Image by Frank-Jan van Lunteren
12-03-2011

article/

The Graffitational Pull

Abstract: 

On Tuesday, March 8th, all seats at the Impakt Headquarters were taken within minutes, during the fifth edition of the Utrecht New Media Evening. In '#5: Tagging the City', artists, academics and developers were brought together to discuss new digital graffiti practices.

Review-of / thoughts-on The Utrecht New Media Evening #5: Tagging the City (Impakt, 8/3/11)

 

On Tuesday, March 8th, all seats at the Impakt Headquarters were taken within minutes, during the fifth edition of the Utrecht New Media Evening. In tradition, this 'expert-meeting and network night for the Utrecht new media scene' focused on specific technological developments, using an interdisciplinary approach with several keynote speakers, to discuss its use and meaning. In '#5: Tagging the City', artists, activists, academics and developers were brought together to discuss new digital graffiti practices. As heterogeneous and dissimilar these practices might appear, they're basically all negotiations on territory (physical as well as virtual). Preceded by an introductory column of Dr. Mirko Tobias Schaefer, both Jeroen Jongeleen and Evan Roth talked about their on-going creative engagement with public space, richly illustrated with thought-provoking examples of their own artistic work. Their use of technology is quite different, which made the audience aware of the idea that it's no longer the technology itself that constitutes digital graffiti (there's no obvious 'replacement' for spray cans and brick walls, and it might be a mistake to think it ever was just about that). As both artists made clear, it is about creating tools of empowerment. In this review, I would like to put forward the idea of digital graffiti as a playground, a certain space in-between art, politics and commercialization, where experiments with new technology are pursued. However, unconfined as it seems, it also needs boundaries to sustain itself, to ensure its own empowerment that keeps it bottom-up and subversive.

 

How about digital graffiti

"Is the mobile phone mightier than the spray can? [...] New technologies allow text messages to be displayed on the sides of buildings, on public screens in cafés or on vast digital displays at sporting events and festivals. Such digital graffiti can be used in various ways: to capture the mood of a gathering, boost a brand, or to spark public dialogue."
Economist; 9/23/2006, Vol. 380 Issue 8496, p18

"Digital graffiti is about things that happen outside without permission, [...] a hack in public space, placing artwork where it isn't supposed to be."
Evan Roth, Impakt lecture 8/3/11

Comparing use of the term 'digital graffiti', the quotes above are somewhat different. Exploring the subject, The Economist places emphasis on the commercial and political use of messaging in public space, in which send-in messages are shown on digital displays to anyone passing by. In a similar way, a user interface research at the university of California uses the term 'digital graffiti' in their aim to design new methods for posting and acquiring digital information to and from so-called 'plasma posters' (large-screen, interactive, digital community bulletin boards). The key concept is 'social/public annotation', "allowing people to leave comments for others to happen across" (Carter et al, 2004 [2]). This "involves marking of content where the original remains unchanged". According to The Economist, these technologies of digital graffiti do carry potential to be subversive; in some cases it might be "a chance to cause public stir".
To illustrate the differences in using the term 'graffiti', I would like to add some notions to the subversiveness of this 'digital graffiti'. When there's a commercial sponsor involved, the 'stir' will always be controlled, one way or another. Even though edgy messages might actually create attention that serves the specific branding, there's always a risk of negative attention, endangering a costly business strategy. The question remains if we still deal with bottom-up communication when messages are monitored and/or moderated in the background. In addition, using fixed locations does target a more of less defined audience, it's not just 'for anyone'. And in trying to merge into the territory of a desired audience, there are also agreements to be made with any local authorities. But more important, the real 'danger' of using fixed locations is perhaps the one of 'merging too well' into urban landscape; becoming a known part of the city environment (in other words, 'being where you're expected to be'), might cause the repeatedly passing audience to ignore.
Last, I doubt the idea that 'the original' remains unchanged in the process of annotation. No doubt, 'the original' in the user interface research points to a message on the billboard that others passing by can comment on/contribute to. However, this lacks any reflection on the urban landscape itself as an 'original' state of being, when looked upon in terms of owning the space, marking territory. Compared to spray-can-graffiti, we could state the wall remains unchanged as well, there's just the adding of some paint. But at the same time, a new information layer is added, providing new context to re-interpret 'the wall', and therefore its ownership and meaning in public space. In those terms, the described use of 'digital graffiti' on fixed billboards might indeed be less changing 'the original state' than the actual spray can messaging, which –as a hack in public space– far more negotiates with the idea of territory.

 

A conceptual vessel

As Schaefer stated in his introductory column, the city changed from a medium to a projection surface for another medium. There's no doubt that several aspects of graffiti practices here appear useful to new media practice. However, considering the notions above, there's a difference in its empowerment, how it's being put to use. What role does technology play in creating a subversive playground that remains in-between? How does new media's appropriation of graffiti functions, and what has graffiti still to do with these new practices?

"No one is freely able to leave traces, that feels like being cut out of your own public space."
Jeroen Jongeleen, Impakt lecture 8/3/11

Graffiti is the act of inscribing or drawing on walls for the purpose of communicating a message to the general public (Werwath, 2006 [1]). It important to notice the difference between 'graffiti' and 'graffiti art', in which the latter uses aesthetic appeal to communicate the message. According to Lachlan Macdowall, researching contemporary cultural production, it would be a mistake to characterize the subversiveness of graffiti by its aesthetics or the technology that is put to use: "Graffiti does not provide an escape from the conditions of late capitalism, for not only are graffiti forms highly commodified and visible in commercial art, design and advertising, the cleaning and prevention of graffiti is itself a growth industry, which has itself harnessed new media technology" (Macdowall, 2005 [1]). Instead it might be more useful to interpret graffiti as a conceptual vessel. In studying graffiti, sociologist Devon D. Brewer defined four major values to describe the act itself: fame, artistic expression, power and rebellion (Brewer, 1992 [188]). As such, in accordance with the lecture of Schaefer, graffiti becomes a visual language, able to constitute a discourse on space. This does not necessarily require the spray can. In her article 'Whatever happened to the graffiti art movement?', Lynn Powers notes that the artists that actually reached beyond their own graffiti subculture, did so through "abandoning the typical graffiti look in order to explore other venues. Most of the artists also abandoned their traditional medium, spray paint" (Powers, 1999 [140]).

 

Tools for empowerment

Returning to the lecture, both Jeroen Jongeleen and Evan Roth have a history in using spray cans, but have developed their techniques into a more heterogeneous mixture of tools and techniques.

Jeroen Jongeleen, known by its alter ego Influenza, showed examples of his work, in which he tries to intervene in public space by different ways of addressing city space. One of the key concepts is a resistance against dominating commercial adds in public space. His work mostly consists of creating 'subversive markings', using graffiti, stickers and discarded shopping bags. In the latter, he climbed a number of tall buildings, to attach plastic bags (which could be seen as commercialized icons of consumer culture) as a 'jolly roger', a pirate's flag of contemporary culture. In a way, he explained, it's merely a way of recycling existing elements in city space, but –referring back to Roth's quote– it isn't supposed to be there, creating a different notion of space. In addition, he noticed "It would be okay if a plastic was caught by the wind and got stuck on a rooftop, but when this is manually done, it's suddenly illegal". One of the most interesting notions, though, arose when talking about the subversive characteristics of his work. Subversiveness (and the sustaining of it), he noted, is always a more or less factored element. In case of the plastic bags, it would be quite hard to remove them, or to legally copy the idea for commercial purposes. And right there, Jongeleen shows how art can truly be used for empowerment.
Furthermore, the thin line between subversive and commercial art became quite clear, when he described being prosecuted for vandalism, after which a scheduled museum exhibition was initially canceled. Here, I would like to point out the difficulty of remaining 'in-between', as the art world functions in a commercialized system as well. The artist's work contributes the to branding of the museum itself, where any negative attention might endanger business. The fact that Jongeleen's work in the end nonetheless got exhibited, illustrates the ongoing discourse that surrounds his work.
For Jongeleen, new media technologies are merely used to make others 'join in'. In a very literal sense (in 'the art of urban warfare' people were invited to design stencils of single-color army soldiers, and spraying them onto city surfaces), but also on a more implicit level (exposure, getting people to think about the ideas presented, and inspire).

Evan Roth, co-founder of both Graffiti Research Lab and Free Art & Technology Lab (F.A.T. Lab), has a different approach of using new technology. In his richly illustrated talk, the most striking aspect is how he keeps very different technologies close together (traditional-new, high-low, expensive-cheap). Looking back at Brewer's values of graffiti, each of them is easily recognized in Roth's work, which is described best as 'creating self-made tools for empowerment' (power). As in his teachings, he uses the formula 'Fame = grade', to underline the importance of getting eyeballs (fame). And in his debranding projects, using a company's name and technology against itself (in which especially the 'Google debranding project' created lots of cheering among the audience), there's definitely a sense of uprising (rebellion).
For Roth, the use of emerging open licenses and open entrepreneurship is vital for the development of creative technologies. This is best illustrated by the 'Graffiti markup language', a universal, XML-based, open file format designed to store graffiti motion data, which in turn can be used to develop new graphical practices. According to Roth, "A main goal of GML is to spark interest surrounding the importance (and fun) of open data and introduce open source collaborations to new communities" (graffitimarkuplanguage.com). More than making digital graffiti, this is about developing tools for others to 'use'; for end users (to recreate similar art or perform similar hacks) or even developers (to extend the technology itself). As such, new methods of self-expression are developed in a high pace, and –again with the use of new media technologies– spreading throughout a network of like-minded. This high pace also originates in a mentality that Roth called "being lazy like a fox"; ideas are executed very quickly, to attain instant result with minimal effort. Moreover, in most cases there's only a small budget for technology, and the time-frame might be even smaller (most projects are a hack into specific urban situations that might not last that long).

 

U should b shame

In contrast with Jongeleen's work, this openness –even encouragement of copying– makes it vulnerable for commercial hijacking, being used for business applications. Several ideas of the Graffiti Research Lab were already put to use by tobacco brand Lucky Strike. However, as Roth noted it's limited success, "There's something in there that didn't translate, which gives me hope". This brings forward the notion of digital graffiti as a concept, showing that both technology and visual style can be transferred, but the concept itself is not that translatable to a business model, especially when it's origin (artistic, open source) is known among the audience. Roth referred to this as a "bullshit detector", which is reflected in corresponding Youtube-comments on Lucky's attempt: "Fukken fail. the idea of guerrilla marketing demeans consumers", "Shame shame shame", "Deeeem fuck lucky-strike! they should b shame of their self using this idea for their commercial" ('Lucky-strike berlin', 2007). I would like to add that even when commercial adopting would be successful, it might provide a new urban situation to hack into, using its adopted technology against itself. After all, isn't that rebellion; when getting locked out of territory, finding a backdoor in.

 

The graffitational pull

"Far from taking place in an autonomous sphere, new media practice is by necessity engaged with the material conditions of state and corporate power."
Lachan MacDowall, Vital Signs: School of Creative Media National Conference 2005, p8

As all keynote speakers have shown, digital graffiti is creating self-made tools for empowerment, to negotiate on ownership of public space. The mixture of graffiti and emerging technologies creates new media practices, but is not necessarily in any way subversive. I've titled this entry 'The graffitational pull', considering that it's the distance to the concept of hacking public space that gives mass (i.e. used techniques in digital graffiti) its actual weight. Commercial purposes can adopt techniques or aesthetics, but cannot truly represent its underlying values (starting a sponsored 'negotiation of ownership' does seem to carry some hypocrisy in it). For artists, new media technologies are not essential for the work itself, but play huge part in maintaining a playground, where exposure and open source/data stimulate self-expression and invite to join in. The subversive character of digital graffiti practices lies in the fact that it's always reacting to contemporary circumstances, searching for a backdoor to re-open discourse.

"The question 'is this really graffiti?' has always caused me stress. [...] In then end I decided that it was acceptable if people didn’t view the projections as a form of graffiti as long as it allowed them to look at graffiti in a new way."
Evan Roth, 2009, Geek graffiti, p75

For me, the idea of 'leaving traces' itself could have received more attention during the evening. The obvious observation would be to state that digital graffiti practices leave a less permanent marking (that it, being on a particular fixed location in space, for an indefinite period of time). Of course, no physical mark is permanent as well, nor in appearance (paints wears off, walls go down) as in value (contextual, relating to other markings and a changing city space). But moreover, in digital graffiti practices, 'trace' has a different meaning. Most of Jongeleen's markings have disappeared, but are well-documented on the internet. And even though he no longer participates in his own 'urban warfare project', new markings still appear throughout the streets. And in Roth's case, his work merely consists of single events, but often results in open source or open data, to be used in new practices. (How) Should we consider these spread-out results, these aftereffects, as being the 'trace' that one leaves? And would it be possible to define the permanence of a marking by the level of discourse or pro/counter action it causes?

When Roth was asked if any project ever failed, he shared a delightful story of a project that failed in the broadest sense (executing as well as recording it properly). However, he agreed with the audience, there's much joy in retelling: "Graffiti, in the end, is always a number of great stories". The audience's response to both Jongeleen and Roth's stories proves this right. And it could well be the most important notion of the evening; even though intentional goals are not always reached, it did open up a discourse somewhere, it made people aware, which in the end is the true nature of subversiveness.

 

___
Frank-Jan van Lunteren ♥ New Media + Art.
www.fjvanlunteren.nl.

 

Mentioned

Impakt Events: http://www.impakt.nl/index.php/events/
Mirko Tobias Schaefer: http://www.mtschaefer.net/
Jeroen Jongeleen/Influenza: http://www.flu01.com/
Even Roth: http://evan-roth.com/
Graffiti Markup Language: http://www.graffitimarkuplanguage.com/
F.A.T. Lab 'Google debranding': http://www.fffff.at/google-street-view-car/

Brewer, D. D. (1992), "Hip-Hop Graffiti Writers' Evaluation of Strategies to Control Illegal Graffiti", Human Organization vol. 51 no. 2. Oklahoma City: The society for applied anthropology
Carter, S. et al. (2004), Digital Graffiti: Public Annotation of Multimedia Content. Wenen: CHI Conference 2004
MacDowall, L. (2005), Graffitimedia: How graffiti functions as a model for new media futures. Syracuse: Vital Signs, School of Creative Media National Conference 2005
Powers, L. A. (1996), "Whatever Happened to the Graffiti Art Movement?", Journal of Popular Culture. New York: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
Roth, E. (2009), Geek Graffiti, A study in computation, gesture, and graffiti analysis. Available at http://www.evan-roth.com/graffiti_analysis/graffiti_analysis_09.pdf
The Economist (2006), "The writing on the wall", Economist 9/23/2006, vol. 380 no. 8496, special section. Londen: The Economist Group
Werwath, T. (2006), The Culture and Politics of Graffiti Art. Available at http://www.graffiti.org/faq/werwath/werwath.html

Comments

Great review!

You've not only captured the discussions of the unma event very well, but did also give a good reflection of it, put it into context and highlighted important subjects and questions. Although it's a bit lengthy it was interesting enough to read completely.

I think you connected Mirko's theoretical introduction to the hands-on practices of Jongeleen and Roth in an interesting way. For me that was somewhat missing at the evening itself.