Sunday, November 22, 2009

Tactical Media, Meta-Tags, and Open Sourcery: a discussion of the theoretical implications of the GRL Project

(Note: this was originally created for and posted on Artengine's blog during my residency there in the Summer of 2009)

Tactical Media, Meta-Tags, and Open Sourcery: a discussion of the theoretical implications of the GRL project

Agent Scott, Graffiti Research Lab - Canada


The Graffiti Research Lab (GRL) project has a simple mission - to outfit graffiti writers and street artists with open source tools for urban communication. Our projects combine creative coding and public space intervention that are designed to be tactical exposés masked in populism, simultaneously spectacular and subversive. Here in this text I hope to explore several tropes within the project, using Critical Art Ensemble's framework of Digital Resistance as a lodestone, and to discuss possible avenues for our further development.


Though the individual members of GRL act as artists and producers, the project's strength comes from its frameworks facilitating the self-expression of others - a model that grows out of the organization's open source mandate. It extends beyond the technical collaborations at the heart of GRL's development to the interventions designed to open up public space for more democratic and creative expression.

GRL makes use of the viral potential of new technologies; a powerful set of simple ideas is replicated by loosely associated, autonomous cells distributed throughout the world. Each action expands the reach of the concept and gives birth to new presentations, methodologies and software. From the initial emergence of GRL from Eyebeam in NYC we have seen a proliferation of cells contributing to the development of the project, alongside referential work using the original software and techniques, but not created by the original members.

During a formal GRL event, the practical application of the groups ideals becomes challenging. While we provide tools and the framework for expression, we must also take responsibility for its output. We partly address this duality by extolling the virtues of amateur practice alongside more formal graffiti taxonomies. Amateur practices have "the ability to see through dominant paradigms, are freer to recombine elements of paradigms thought long dead, and can apply everyday life to their deliberations... eliminating the privileged position of the director, auteur, genius, or any other reductive, privatizing category."1 Despite our embrace of the amateur we make no apologies for enabling formal graffiti practitioners, seeing their work as a valid form of aesthetic and political expression. Though these graffiti artists form an active core of the development of our tools, we are also constantly expanding the interdisciplinary nature of the project to include graphic novelists, manga artists, muralists, and designers, as well as using the software to provide video design for dance and club performances.

There is another challenging hurdle to the realization of GRL ideals. The internet, and technology access in general, is still culturally and politically bordered. Although GRL artists, and its audience, operate within a level of the technological elite, by occupying this space we develop new forms of digital resistance. We also recognize that we exist in a symbiotic relationship with consumer culture, and benefit from the cheapening of technology within the marketplace, particularly the planned democratization of media according to the special timeline of market forces. But we attempt to exert influence on this process by creating forward-thinking digital tools that resist franchised market and intellectual forces, and thus broaden the creative playing field for artists (graffiti or otherwise).


We know that "once named and defined, any movement is open to co-optation"2 .... this is precisely where the structure of an open source, federated cluster of cells comes in. Having a decentralized multiplicity of voices means that because other interests will ultimately appropriate us (as we have re-appropriated other interests), we don't waste energy in fighting this, and thus are able to stay free of representation or association. There are faint, gestural blockages, to be sure. For instance our license that explains 'software may not be used for advertising, marketing, or promotion', though there is confirmation that it already has. But this is little more than a hand put up to stop a tank: possibly effective, but easily steamrolled if some power has the will.

Being open source is not just having an idealistic organizational mode that we mean to push on social development, though we understand that information should not be privatized... "experimentation and invention would be hindered by lack of access to the building blocks of culture"3 Open Source is a strategy; we realize, from whichever viewpoint we use - the avant-garde, the collective, or the technologist - that we will not be around for much longer... too many factors are involved in us being subverted, surpassed, and self-destructed. Yes, we are adamant that information should be free, but also that the GRL project is particularly relevant at this moment, and by freely distributing our software - hence having it used and developed by others - is the best manner with which to preserve the core message and concern of GRL.


GRL is a tactical media project in that "... it is a form of digital intervention. It challenges the existing semiotic regime by replicating and redeploying it in a manner that offers participants in the projects a new way of seeing, understanding and interacting with a given system."4

Urban projection can be thought of as a system of parallel intervention upon architectures and a molecular irruption upon the regime of signs. "Tactical media is ephemeral. It leaves few material traces. As the action comes to an end, what is left is primarily living memory... Monumental works are the great territorializers—they refuse to ever surrender space. Instead they inscribe their imperatives upon it and disallow anything other than passive viewing."5 GRL places the trace directly upon the surface of the monument - literally - and as such re-codes and re-signifies it, temporarily and permanently. It is a 'maximal' screen and 'maximal' surface - eschewing traditional tactical media concerns of being underground and out of the gaze of the media. It is easily shrugged aside by those in power (though just as likely causes irrational concern), but truly resplendent for those participating in the event.

The GRL project can also be classified as a form of recombinant theatre, or the theatre of everyday life - "performances that invent ephemeral, autonomous situations from which temporary public relationships emerge that can make possible critical dialogue on a given issue."6 At its best the ephemeral nature focuses the participants on creative play, both in the direct expression and the environment around it... nowhere is this seen better than when participants play a 150-ft version of tic-tac-toe on the side of a building.

"When the process functions properly, the instigators of the event immediately fall into a mode of deterritorialization, and the process drifts into a multiplicity of unknown directions. No real intentionality exists, since the interaction is process-oriented and thereby subject to many unforeseeable causalities and accidents. Only aesthetic products can be fully intentionalized and their quality controlled."7 We have been criticized for oscillating between being process and goal-oriented in our urban projections, and it is true. There is a conflict between the ideas of tactical media and recombinant theatre that has not yet been resolved. But graffiti itself is diverse, and pursuant to the open-source goals of the project as a whole, we think there is space for multiple orientations and aesthetics within a GRL presentation.


Tagging, within the context of graffiti, is pervasive and contested. Rapid, microscopic, and immediate, the tag is of the lowest hierarchy within the graffiti taxonomy, often indicative of a more childish, naive, or less accomplished style. It is easily covered and resurfaced, but correspondingly, much more mobile and malleable to multiple environments and architectures.

Whereas the physical landscape is marked by graffiti tags, the information landscape is marked increasingly by the XML tag, a meta-level markup technology allowing information to be categorized in ways according to the predilections of the user. Systems like Flickr and Twitter are presented as 'social' systems because of the levels of social interaction encouraged by user participation and the new kinds of arrangements of information they encourage. Tagging is lauded as a horizontal, bottom-up canon of information, allowing for two-way, subjective participation, whereas previous systems were entirely passive and objective.

The XML tag and the graffiti tag are becoming alike in function as well as in name. With GRL software, one is not just tagging a wall, but actively revolting against proscribed social structures. Both Flickr and Google allow for systems of 'memory maps', where users comment and provide enriched content upon monumental architectures. In both cases the tag is a user-defined and dictated act against a rigid social order, but to an extent, this level of benign commentating only reinforces and proscribes a limited map of autonomy that we have in our daily lives. As has been shown by thinkers from Proudhon to Reich to Deleuze, internalizations of power structures likely mean that we will replicate the same dynamics and hierarchies onto new systems. The meta-tag however, still has inescapable radical potential for individuals to create agency.

With this in mind, will the GRL project have reached its logical conclusion when projection-bombing occurs in real space, and subsequently is tagged and mapped in virtual space? Or is there more to be done here? If we consider the tagging practice combined with locative media possibilities, a rich range of possibilities emerges. Indeed, GRL is currently working to hack Google Maps Street View, allowing for community-generated maps of tag-able locales. The more we are able to articulate our parallel concerns with the field of urban geography, the more we are able to mimic and subvert information architectures, and the larger the field of play for GRL will become.


1. Critical Art Ensemble, Digital Resistance, Autonomedia, p. 8

2. Ibid, p. 5

3. Ibid, p. 150

4. Ibid, p. 7

5. Ibid, p. 9

6. Ibid, p. 87

7. Ibid, p. 89

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Liminal Screen / bombIR

I was able to go back to the BNMI in February and March of 2009, alongside my Graffiti Research Lab partner NomIg, in order to develop a new open-source tool for digital graffiti, bombIR.

bombIR consists of an infrared pen (we hacked the circuit inside a spray-pant can!), a rear projection setup, a computer, and a Nintendo Wiimote. Using the Wiimote as an IR camera, the nozzle of the IR Can triggers the momentary switch, effectively transforming the can into a mouse device. From there, we used WiiFlash Server to communicate the Wii values to Flash, as we had written a graf-specific drawing program, with the help of the BNMI staff.

Just had our first public presentation at the founding of the GRL Ottawa event at the end of July '09. Upcoming presentations include Nuit Blanche, Toronto, Oct 3rd, '09.

This is all just Beta-testing... keep your eye on the GRL_ca site for full release...

nomads in a dangerous time

mirae and i are officially leaving you Vancouver.

Banff is up next, with a string of residencies at the Banff Centre for the Arts, then Toronto (we think) for the summer.

Then across the pond ...??


we have been in Toronto for some weeks, since April 1st, to be exact... (no, we weren't sure that it wasn't a joke at first either...)

fascinating city. we have been house-sitting/pet-sitting for three months now, which is a great way to force yourself to understand a new locale - especially one as neighbourhood-driven as Toronto... forcing yourself to identify local coffee shops, vegan restaurants, hardware stores, print houses...

We stayed in Cabbagetown, moved successively north along Ossington, from Queen to Bloor to St. Claire, lived just outside of Kensington Market, about to move into Parkdale...

We had this fantastic moment at the 'Right Here, Right Now' conference where a slew of the experimental theatre/dance crowd drew us up a homemade community map on 6ft of butcher paper, complete with a legend showing good porches, free wifi, bike routes, restaurants, galleries, etc....

Creative City Conversation

the memelab is currently instigating a new project, entitled the Creative City Conversation, which will have its first performance as part of The Upgrade! series on January 14/09. The impetus for this project is the civic development and cultural planning consultation that has been occurring in Vancouver over the past two years.  As the memelab, we have been directly involved in this process as the organizers of an alternative arts space, and as participants and advocates at several community consultations. 


Intending to create a true conversation where the City of Vancouver and its Office of Cultural Affairs fails to, the project aims to engender cross-cultural collaboration, anti-authoritarian power relations, and to serve as an international project nexus. The improvisational structure of artistic creation and sharing will reflect upon the social and cultural spaces we inhabit, and act as a microcosm of the polis, though one in which we have enhanced agency and can engender change.


C.C.C will provide an alternate space for dialogue – a space of interdisciplinary collaboration – that will bring together sound, media and performance-based artists to creatively address issues to do with our experience of the urban environment and the civic development processes. 


For our first installment, the memelab will call together familiar friends and allies, across artistic disciplines, to explore the theme centre and periphery. Through an open, improvisational staging that blends video, sound, and movement performance, we plan to lead a non-lateral, exploratory conversation that results in a 30-minute piece. The structure and content of the improvisation will stem from ideas collectively pooled within the group; the memelab (Jesse and Mirae) will act as facilitators working towards a smooth (as opposed to striated) gathering of collaborators, materials and ideas.


The Creative City Conversation will be an opportunity to discuss: concise ways to bring together complex systems of artists, methodologies, and gear; collaborative artistic process as a process of social dialogue; and current paradigms relating to city design and our experience of the urban environment.


We would like to invite you to participate as an artist in this dialogue. The Upgrade! is ‘a gathering on art, technology, and culture’ that brings together members of the media arts and other communities in Vancouver to discuss current ideas in new media, and connect to other artistic communities city- and world-wide.


For the January 14th installment of The Upgrade!, the memelab has been asked to discuss our practice and history, especially in relation to our former space and programming at 1814 Pandora Street. In addition, we have decided to perform the first installment of Creative City Conversation – with your assistance, as an artist who has been an integral part of the work we have done in Vancouver. We plan to stage this project in several cities across the continents in our coming travels, and are excited to work with all of you again…


Please let us know if you are interested – or have any further questions – and if you are able to attend the following rehearsals/jams.  Note that at this time, there is no funding for this project, and as such we will not be able to pay artist fees.  Nevertheless, we would be honored by your participation... Since we are leaving Vancouver a week after this event, we plan to make it our (final) going away party, and so encourage you to attend even if you cannot fully take part!!!



the memelab