The slowly-unfolding tragedy in Queens just took a sudden turn for the worse. In a move worthy of a fantasy villain, the owner of the building known as 5 Pointz has ordered decades of artwork buffed overnight. Read more about it in the New York Times or the Guardian.
A student in the New School’s Urban Media Archaeology class has written up an interesting critique of Graffiti Archaeology. It amazes me sometimes that our little project, now a decade old, still holds enough interest to merit this type of critique.
The critique calls out several contextual features that are missing from the project. Some of these are missing simply due to our lack of time to implement them. For example, labeling each writer’s work with their street name is standard practice among graffiti photographers, and I always do it when I post photos on Flickr. But implementing a system of artist-name tags would mean adding a host of interface features to make the system truly functional: a way of authoring, displaying and interacting with highlightable sub-regions of each layer, plus features to access the index of tags by artist name, search, etc… the list goes on! It’s been on my to-do list for years, but the implementation is just a bit beyond my present skill set. So yes, it’s a valid critique. And if you have the technical chops to help me make it happen, I’d love to hear from you!
But let’s talk about the lack of maps. This is not “missing” in the sense that it should be there but we haven’t gotten around to it. It is explicitly absent from the project at a conceptual level. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. I touch on this briefly in our FAQ page, but my answer is not much of an explanation. A full explanation would mean a long discussion about graffiti abatement and enforcement, but the short answer is: I won’t tell you because that information is private.
Some of the walls we cover on this site are “legal” or “permission” walls. Others are not. My experience has been that the unauthorized walls are consistently the most interesting to study. On those walls, there are no authorities or gatekeepers. The only force that drives change on those walls is the force of graffiti culture itself. It is on those walls that the “why” questions are most fascinating. However, those walls only persist as long-running graffiti spots because their locations are a closely kept secret, known only among those who paint there and the people they trust.
When a location like that gets publicized, it’s called “blowing up the spot”. The metaphor of destruction is fairly accurate. Blowing up a spot threatens its integrity in various ways: it attracts toys (writers of little skill). Too many toys will drag the quality of the wall down, and discourage the really skilled artists from painting there. Graffiti abatement crews can descend on the spot and whitewash away years of history. Land owners can put up fences, local politicians can try to show they’re “tough on crime” by cracking down. But even tourists and photographers can cause trouble: too many people walking through an otherwise abandoned area can attract attention from police, posing a real physical danger to the people who paint there. Any combination of these things can permanently damage the unique character of a secret spot.
Urban Media Archaeology’s critique concludes with a description of an “ideal world” in which Graffiti Archaeology’s historical layering is merged with the crowdsourced geography of projects like OpenStreetMap and Walking Papers. I love both of those projects, but merging them with this one is a very bad idea. It would mean, essentially, the end of all secret spots. To me, this would be an intolerable outcome. It seems to be trendy these days to assume that sharing everything with everyone all the time is always a good thing. The “end of privacy” is often portrayed as inevitable, or even in the past. Facebook has certainly made a lot of money off of this naive view. I disagree. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I still believe in privacy. And if I catch you putting secret spots on your Walking Papers, we’ll have to settle our beef the old fashioned way too.
The International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam has selected Graffiti Archaeology to be part of their Doc Lab program for 2009. More about Doc Lab:
IDFA’s Doc Lab investigates the relationship between documentary filmmaking and new media. The program is open to all media that can be used to tell a documentary story. During the festival, Doc Lab presents films, web documentaries, and installations that innovate the documentary genre. Projects are showcased in the Doc Lab Media Lounge and in cinemas during a number of special Live Screenings and events. The theme this year is Live Stories, and the principal guest is Ira Glass.
So, if you’re in Amsterdam this week, stop by the festival and check it out!
Last week I had the pleasure of stopping by the studio of a local web-TV station to do an interview for Systm, the “Do It Yourself show for the common geek”. It was great fun, and the long format (30 minutes or so) made it easy to get into a bit more detail about the project. (Maybe too much detail… you tell me.) I also did a little demo of our photo-stitching process. So if you’ve been wondering about the nuts and bolts of how all this gets done, now’s your chance to find out! (You can watch the embedded video above, or visit Systm’s site to download it in high-def goodness.)
Architect Magazine runs a monthly column called “Screen Grab” that covers websites of interest to their readers. The March 2008 column is about Graffiti Archaeology. It’s a very short read, but it was a fun interview to do, because I got to try to think about the project from an architectural perspective for a change. One minor correction—this quote was taken out of context:
Since its launch in 2002, Curtis says, the site has helped make the urban art form “a more unified global cultural phenomenon” by offering an interactive database for visitors to peruse.
I wasn’t talking about Graffiti Archaeology there, but about graffiti websites in general! Grafarc.org was not the first such site, and it won’t be the last. If anyone should get credit for making graf a more unified global phenomenon, it should be Art Crimes.
I’m very proud to announce that Graffiti Archaeology has been included in the online catalogue for the Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibit, Design and the Elastic Mind. From the catalogue:
Over the past twenty-five years, people have weathered dramatic changes in their experience of time, space, matter, and identity. Individuals cope daily with a multitude of changes in scale and pace—working across several time zones, traveling with relative ease between satellite maps and nanoscale images, and being inundated with information. Adaptability is an ancestral distinction of intelligence, but today’s instant variations in rhythm call for something stronger: elasticity, the product of adaptability plus acceleration. Design and the Elastic Mind explores the reciprocal relationship between science and design in the contemporary world by bringing together design objects and concepts that marry the most advanced scientific research with attentive consideration of human limitations, habits, and aspirations. The exhibition highlights designers’ ability to grasp momentous changes in technology, science, and history—changes that demand or reflect major adjustments in human behavior—and translate them into objects that people can actually understand and use. This Web site presents over three hundred of these works, including fifty projects that are not featured in the gallery exhibition.
The collection is packed with beautiful, thought-provoking work by some really notable artists and designers, and it’s quite an honor to be included. Major props to Eric, Mike, Tom and the gang at Stamen, who also have several other pieces in the exhibit, including the always mesmerizing Cabspotting. If you’re in New York, be sure to stop by the MoMA to see the live installation!
In addition to the popular blogs in English, lately I’ve been seeing a lot of links in to this site from foreign-language sites. It’s great to see how people from different cultures respond to the project. Here’s a quick roundup of recent international trackbacks:
I’ll keep this updated as new links come up.
…and the Digg Effect slammed our server so hard, I couldn’t even log in to edit this blog. Whoops! Sorry folks! One of these days, we’ll get one of those shiny new cold-fusion-powered servers with infinite free bandwidth.
Wow! Graffiti Archaeology has been making the rounds of some very cool blogs and online magazines lately. A couple of weeks ago, we were featured on Infosthetics, a wonderful site dedicated to information design. (I’ve been a fan of their site for years!) And then this week, we got hit by the trifecta of Drawn!, Laughing Squid, and Juxtapoz. I particularly like that last one, because they really get what we’re all about, and they ask their readers to participate in the project by submitting their own photos (which they can easily do over at our Flickr group.)
Welcome, everybody! Hope the site’s not too slow from all the traffic!
The July/August 2007 issue of Archaeology Magazine features a four-page article about Graffiti Archaeology. It’s by far the most thorough, in-depth article anyone has ever written about the project, with tons of images, and interviews with real archaeologists to get their take on it. I could not possibly be more proud.
June 15 Update: The article is now online. Enjoy!