this blog is the platform for publishing the research conducted by the students of the "Prehystories of New Media" class at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), Fall 2008, instructor: Nina Wenhart


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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Eve Sanford: Hip Hop or Not Graffiti Alternatives

Evelyn Sanford

In its infancy hip hop culture and music was viewed as radical in the same way its predecessors rock and disco where. Like rock, hip-hop has paid it dues and without a doubt cemented itself as a valid genre despite doubters expectations. Hip hops music fashion and over all culture appeals to way more than simply the inner city urban black listener. Its expansion and influence is seen in many facets of everyday life around the world. Media outlets like television, radio, and advertising that in the beginning may not have cared to cater to the trend now feverishly aim to capture it.

“Hip-hop is a moving cultural force that first garnered the attention of corporate America in the early 90’s. When hip-hop made its debut into mainstream, corporate heads began to turn. Enterprising brand managers embraced the culture and soon realized substantial results.”(ZIBS Blog) There is no doubting this is a fact when you see advertisement from almost every major fashion label and car company using hip hop icons as the face for their new products. Hip hops branding not only made it not only more acceptable but also much more available or visible to people around the world. Now like anything that starts off small this expansion is nothing short of a dream come true.

Unfortunately with every “make it big story” there is always a downside. “Among its influences, hip-hop transcends boundaries in politics, music, fashion, and other forms of entertainment. With 100 million fans worldwide, hip-hop also dominates many parts of mainstream media. Filmmakers, television show writers, and print publishers for example, are among media professionals who readily incorporate hip-hop lingo and fashion concepts in their products.” (ZIBS Blog) So what we are basically looking at is a culture that got extremely popular so naturally more music labels pick up and market these artists. They make them saleable to a larger audience. People buy into the new popular images so much so that other companies buy the image again to use to sell their products. The public again loves this well packaged “hip hop” and then it gets shipped around the world. In the end we have icons who are picked up and packaged and go on to be marketed all over the world.

However in most cases I think the popularity and branding of the culture brings about many deviant portrayals of what really going on. After awhile you have outlets like MTV, BET and advertising largely dictating what hip-hop looks and sounds like. So what is this thing that’s being represented all around the world? Unfortunately it is not hip hop at it core this how so many projects that want to connect with hip hop go wrong. They have been misguided from the start therefore what they produce is oddly ill fit.

There are so many people from all over the world and the United States who only have popular controlled media to expose them to things so are ever really understanding what they follow? If your only access is very strategically planned, plotted and delivered then how genuine is your experience? How accurate are your results when you attempt to represent what you see? I immediately thought of these issues when I saw some of the projects brought forward by the Institute for Applied Autonomy and Graffiti Research Lab. First and foremost the people behind these groups seem to be both very educated and passionate about they’re work. I however have concerns. These alternative advanced technologies developed by IAA and GRL to assist the graffiti artist I believe disregard the principal and purpose of traditional graffiti. If you have an understanding of how graffiti started and what and important part of the process itself lends to and reflects the outcomes than I think there efforts would have different results or draw closer connections between hip hop culture and there results

To its benefit one of the two aforementioned groups the Institute for Applied Autonomy made some effort to disconnect their project. They seemed to understand on some level that there was a difference between what they are doing and the art from in its traditional and current context. “Graffiti Writer is a tele-operated robot which employs a custom built array of spray cans to write linear text messages on the ground at a rate of 10 miles per hour. These messages are similar in form to dot matrix printer output, and are not intended to imitate human graffiti. Rather the Writer's aesthetics are purely mechanical, prompting the viewer to wonder, "What kind of machine wrote this?" (Institute for Applied Autonomy)

Even though IAA makes this statement as a premise to the introduction of the “Graffiti Writer” I asked myself what the point was really? Given the specifics about the machine itself and even its name. I am confused as to why IAA wants the connection to be made at all.

If I on some level assume the position that the "Graffiti Writer” project isnot a graffiti writer really then why call it by that name? To what benefit is that to them? Finally why would they then also use spray paint?

I think the answer to these questions can be found under the same file as the statement made about hip-hop and advertising. I believe the Institute for Applied Autonomy sees the link as an attention grabber for their audience. The graffiti writer as an element of hip-hop has an immediate affiliation with that “cool factor”. It is hip, urban and dangerous to run around tagging on trains and buildings. There is a definitive provocative appeal to that action. IAA is using this notion to advance the appeal of these random robots it develops. In actuality if you wipe away the spray paint from their process all you are kind of left with is a remote controlled car, a van and a vocal newspaper stand.

In the IAA’s mission statement they talk about being interested in self-determination and to provide technology that extends the autonomy of human activists. Undoubtedly being a graffiti artist is about self-promotion and requires a sizable amount of determination to become well known. Though graffiti artists are careful not to get caught in the act, complete autonomy is not the goal of the artist. “everyone who wanted to be recognized as the best artist or the "King" or "Queen" of a subway line got- up, i.e., painted trains as often as possible. If one's name was on a train in a colorful and unique style, it was guaranteed to be seen by many people; most importantly by the other writers, because the subway trains in New York City travel in circuits throughout different boroughs. To be a "King" or "Queen" one could not just get-up or simply paint his or her name in a thousand different places. On the contrary, style and artistic talent were and continue to be extremely important. The goal was and is to create burners which are pieces that stand out because of creativity, color, vibrancy, crisp outlines, i.e. no drips, and overall artistic appeal. It is the recognizable artistic talent of the graffiti artist that established his or her reign on the subway line and not just the appearance of s name in a thousand different places.” (Graffiti Art)

This clearly is in contrast to everything IAA’s Contestational Robotics is about in theory on down to production. Most importantly the IAA claims that developing these robots as a way to assist the human rebellious activity and to also met the budgets of such groups. I am extremely confident that the average graffiti artist doesn’t have a budget that would include the purchase of a robot assistant. Moreover the robots abilities are not compatible with the artists needs. These machines are “tagging” things out in the fashion of dot matrix printers. As the goal of the artist is to stand out based on his or her aesthetic in comparison to their peers, I am not convinced how dot matrix text messages will advance this goal.

Finally and most importantly the risk involved in becoming one of the best graffiti writers in an integral part of the process. The exchange of battle scars, scraps and close calls are a part of the fuel and pulse to the art form. These risks the IAA is avoiding by removing the personal experience are key to the appeal of the trade to the average person. It is apart of why they formed their project around the graffiti writer to begin with.

I find it interesting that they assume they are assisting and advancing a very specific rebellious behavior by extracting all the key components required to pull off the act.

One more interesting participant in “new and improved” graffiti is the Graffiti Research Lab. Unlike the Institute for Applied Autonomy GRL has many projects in within it attempts to assist or redefine the role and approach of the graffiti artist. The Graffiti Research Lab also confidently attaches itself with the hip-hop genre unlike the more reluctant IAA. There is something about that assurance that makes my response to their work all the more crude. The Graffiti Research Labs most famous project would likely be the LED bombing.

“LED Throwies are an open source graffiti technology developed at the Graffiti Research Lab”(Graffiti Research Lab) What the GRL did was take an LED, a battery and a magnet and tapped them together. The battery keeps the LED lit for a few days and the magnet allows for the light to stick on any metal surface. During these “bombings” the GRL, their affiliates and in some events random members of the public would throw the lights on large public sculptures, buses and other things metal. After a few moments the appearance of these objects is obviously altered because hundreds and thousands of these tiny colorful lights illuminates it. In my opinion they just kind of making things look a lot more like Christmas instead of really creating the effect of graffiti.

Now honestly in some cases it looks kind of cool they even figured out a way to make text by drilling the text into a board, putting the LED Throwies in the holes and popping that onto a walls or beams. Even still here again we have structural components that takes the project away from the classification of graffiti. Actual graffiti bombs are those large-scale complex and aesthetically sound paintings how does GRL consider LED Throwies be a form of bombing. The connection can be made because it is done usually at night and meant to change the way a structure is seen but under that same definition I could very well link it to construction. Could they also be named the Construction Research Lab?

Another GRL project that is assumed to be in alliance with graffiti culture is L.A.S.E.R Tag. “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.”(GRL Laser Tag Rotterdam) Now this project actually does reference and mimic something very specific that a graffiti writer does. Tagging is typically a small scale why that writers advertise themselves by just throwing up there names in public places, buildings, train, etc. In theory with this project GRL has done what there mission statement suggests, outfitted graffiti artists with open source technologies for urban communication.

Haplessly in execution it again lacks crucial components and is irrational for use in a casual manner. When talking about traditional graffiti there is again this provocative, dangerous aspect to the process it also is crucial that these bombs are intended to have a lasting presence. GRL has removed the connection of acting out the experience by eliminating the writer from actually needing to be in the space. The LASER Tags are beginning projected from hundreds of feet away and they are projections which areextremely temporary. They are up and then gone in a matter of minutes. Where is the quality of danger and excitement? Where is that youthfulness, exploration and urgency?

The LASER Tag projections are interesting and different but I don’t know why they should be considered graffiti or even minimally an aid to graffiti writers. The amount and cost of equipment needed to pull off these stunts are enough to guarantee that any actual graffiti artist will not be using this machine. In the videos posted on the GRL website you can see that it takes more than one individual to haul and operate this technology therefore making it redundant for any artist looking to single himself out due to his own process to use the system. It would no longer be his or her process. It also lacks the every so important ability to create imagery that is engaging beyond complex line work. I do believe that LASER Tag is a very intriguing tool but again I’m not convinced it is relevant and practical for a graffiti writer’s purpose.

The Graffiti Research Lab has a few projects that deal with the line between graffiti and advertising. The GRL would be fine continuing to create work that deal with more social commentary and outsider arts but should see how that is different from the graffiti. Leave the graffiti to the graffiti artist and by all means run free with all else.

Graffiti Research Lab like the Institute for Applied Autonomy fall short of their targets. That target is being apart of graffiti and hip-hop culture. These alternative advanced technologies developed by IAA and GRL disregard the principal and purpose of traditional graffiti. They are both groups of talented individuals. Their knowledge of technology and equally their ability to create unique tools is undeniable however the

desire to connect these projects and organizations with the works of graffiti artists and hip-hop culture is ill fit.

These two groups advances no doubt have promise but that is not the issue at hand. These groups are not apart of hip-hop culture but possibly a hybrid of technology becoming more apart of our lives and hip hops appeal. Like any other culture hip-hop is not something that has an application process. You cannot simply add elements to your daily routine and then be apart of the team. Culture is learned and natural not shown to use on television or something we can read about online or in textbooks. Finally individuals as well as groups can definitely not project themselves into the world of graffiti without at the very least acknowledging and following the basic components of the game.


Graffiti Art: An Essay Concerning The Recognition of Some Forms of Graffiti As Art/

Graffiti Research Lab/,,, &

GRL Laser Tag Rotterdam- how to and source code/ http://muonic.netblog/index.php?postid=15

Institute for Applied Autonomy-Projects/

Light Criticism/

The Graffiti Artist: A Synopsis/

ZIB Blog Hip-Hops Influence on Brands/

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