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