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Silicon Alleys

Tag, We're It

By Gary Singh

THE LEAD UP to next year's ZeroOne art and technology festival continued last week with a lecture/video presentation by the wonderfully disruptive Graffiti Research Labs (GRL), a.k.a. Evan Roth and James Powderly, who are competing for a residence at the festival. Based in New York, they've spent years dedicating themselves to arming and equipping graffiti artists around the globe with high technology as a way of extending their methods and practices, or as they put it, "outfitting graffiti artists with open source technologies for urban communication." The lecture took place in the San Jose City Council Chambers, of all places. We'll get back to that in a second.

One example of their high-tech exploits is the Laser Tag system, which is referred to as a "weapon of mass defacement." Roth and Powderly, whose collective backgrounds include aerospace engineering, robotics, coding, music, telecommunications and web design, recently infiltrated Rotterdam, Holland, where they hooked up with their comrade and graffiti writer, Agent Watson, who explains the project this way on his website: "In its simplest form the Laser Tag system is a camera and laptop setup, tracking a green laser point across the face of a building and generating graphics based on the laser's position which then get projected back onto the building with a high power projector."

For example, you take the laser pointer, direct it toward the face of a hotel across the street, and write something like, "Impeach the bastard," and then the computer tracks exactly where you moved the laser, converts those movements and coordinates into graphical information, sends that data to the video projector, which projects the info in real time onto the face of the hotel. So you then see a projection of the words as you wrote them—on the entire face of the hotel. Once the projector is turned off, the graffiti goes away, but it's a pretty impressive display as it happens, one that GRL and their progeny have inflicted on buildings all over the world. Since all of this is about open source technology, the plans and code for how to do all of this yourself is available for download here:

So, in the same way that a 20th-century street artist would use an empty fire extinguisher, fill it up with spray paint and repressurize it, 21st-century graffiti writers around the globe are expanding on GRL's open-source code to add new technological elements to enhance their practices.

And yes, GRL are hoping to invade next year's ZeroOne festival. One person in the audience asked how they will conceptualize their art within the context of Silicon Valley. For me, the answer was glaringly obvious: They already have, as the irony of this presentation was downright side-splitting.

You see, former Mayor Ron Gonzales left his eight-year term beating his chest that he rid San Jose of graffiti, and now we have an academic art collective from New York lecturing in City Hall about how to arm graffiti artists with high-tech gadgetry, all co-sponsored by ZeroOne and hosted by the City of San Jose Office of Cultural Affairs Public Art Program. God bless San Jose and ZeroOne. Once again, when the projector is turned off, the graffiti goes away, leaving no marks on the building whatsoever. Instead of teenagers using cans of aerosol or spray paint—which is so 20th-century anyway—GRL are experimenting with ways for kids to experience the same artistically disruptive approach, but sans the taxpayer expense to sandblast the shit off the wall. "It's an alternative form of graffiti," Powderly told me last week. "That's what we're really trying to do."

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