Art, public dissent, and technology with Graffiti Research Lab founder James Powderly
City Pages: When I think of art and political activism, I don’t necessarily think of technological advances. How did you and Evan come up with the idea to integrate all three of these things?
James Powderly: Well, we were technologists in various industries. I worked in an aerospace robotics guild and Evan was an architect. We didn’t necessary take straight paths, but eventually we found our way into these sort of techy mainstream jobs, and then for various reasons we became disillusioned. Mine reasons were related to the machine of war that turned my NASA job into a military gig, and with Evan, he was frustrated with communities overrun with a style of architecture that didn’t seem to humanize that community; really quite the opposite. When we quit those jobs, I literally felt I had a grudge to bear against dominant culture.
CP: Has your mission statement changed over the years?
JP: Yeah, absolutely. Evan had a specific interest in graffiti because he had moved to NYC, and was a photographer of it. I had a similar experience. A lot of it for me was this idea that my colleagues believed that technology was neutral; that we were just coming up with generalist solutions to these tech problems that could be implemented for good or bad later down the road, but we had very little say in it. Graffiti technology is not neutral. People are either for or against it. Eventually, I could finally convince my friends that technology isn’t neutral. Finding a way to record painting a wall with a fire extinguisher, that’s not neutral: To the City of New York that’s bad, and for graffiti artists that’s good. I was really into that; that moment when my colleagues realized it’s not neutral, technology has a lot to do with the client it’s being made for. Over time I have grown to love graffiti art more, and I see graffiti artists and writers as hackers of the city. They’re so clever and self-practitioners. We’ve been able to help out with the graffiti community, and technology does have a place in the community. There are pros to laser graffiti: you’re in a legal grey area, you could make a more publicly outrageous statement, you didn’t have to hide behind a bandanna.
CP: Have you had problems creating art legally in public spaces? I know in the past taggers like Mike Baca have faced serious jail time for tagging. Is it risky when much of your work is documented and blogged?
JP: We’re in a fortunate position in an unfortunate reality of society: we’re graffiti artists of a certain age that are white. We really don’t even call ourselves graffiti artists, we think of ourselves as graffiti engineers or research scientists. Around the world, were they do get busted fined, but here in NYC the lines are very racially divided. We have the opportunity, to do this as an art practice and walk away from it in most cases. As we’ve gotten larger, we do get fined for various things, politicians speak out against us, saying the city should boycott the universities we teach at. Our graffiti artist friends will come out for a New York Times photo shoot, and they’re artists, even minor celebrities. But then the next day they’re arrested by the NYPD. We spend a lot of time in courts for our friends trying to figure out how the system works. A lot of our efforts have gone towards fundraising for them. Some are facing serious jail sentences. Our friend Mike got out after three months. He had to stand trial for 42 counts indictment. It could have been 7 years in jail. Now he gets to clean things up at a reduced cost to his life, and the tax payer. So, we’re not taking the same risk-level as our peers, but they respect us for our devotion and fandom of what they do.
JP: We had all these parts on a table, and we started conjecturing on what would be a good way to get things up quickly in the city, like an electrograph. With magnets, we could do something. It really was about the magnet as an attachment element. It could have been silly, like: Finally, art that makes the city look better. Instead, we used LED and threw them up. The obvious next step was to make a lot of them and put them up on a building. The end result was socially interesting. It’s not permanent, so people weren’t afraid to get involved because it’s not creating permanent damage. It’s the idea that if you give people a tool that removes some of the stigma of modifying their own environment, they participate and are involved. It’s just the stigma of graffiti that prevents people from wanting to reclaim their local environment in that way.
JP: We were lucky enough to live in NY and watch what happened around the RNC, and both Evan and I are bike riders. The bike is sometimes interpreted as a tool of mischief and mayhem, Critical Mass being an example. It is an empowering tool. Technology is also empowering. Bikes organize mobility through the city. We thought that if we set the laser tag up on a bike, we could provide it to people in general. It’s sort of like how libraries provide books: You come in, you get tutored on how to use the system, go out with the interns, then use it for your own reason, be it political or artistic. We have loaned it out to 20-25 different organizations from pro-Palestine protest activists (Electronic Palestine), fringe group 9-11 Truth, and student artists that don’t usually have access to technology that use it for things like whimsical games in public spaces, to protest related activities, like projecting the line to which the sea level will rise by 2010 in NYC. These people have had relatively peaceful experiences with the technology.
CP: Obviously, you put your technology out there for the general public, but do you ever worry about certain aspects of your work being co-opted by marketing and advertising companies?
JP: Any artist practicing something—especially with street culture—they just have to deal with the fact that it is going to be stolen. They have to decide how they are going to spend their time. We’re lucky that we never really had to make that decision. We started Graffiti Research Lab at a place called the EyeBeam OpenLab (the group is currently housed at FATLAB), which is a non-profit that required all our work be public domain. So, when we got this fellowship we signed contracts that said we wouldn’t use proprietary license on any technology, and it would be available to the public. We wanted to work in the public domain, it’s an unrestricted way of distributing your information. Anyone can use our technology, even for commercial purposes. We took that stance because don’t want to spend out time in courts battling for or against our work, we don’t want to restrict access because we want to create. It wouldn’t make sense to create these things and not have it available for free, because then we’d just be a business. We also wanted to introduce graffiti to the public in a way they could get involved. So, we offer it to people, and corporations get access to it as well.
CP: What new and exciting things are GRL up to nowadays?
JP: We’ve been doing a lot of events recently. We had an opening at the MoMA, and used to laser tag inside. We realized during our friend Mike’s trial that to be able to say you had esthetic intent when you made something is a difference between a misdemeanor and a felony in NY. Basically, a judge gets to decide that. So, we figured if we had as many people from the graffiti community as possible come and use the system in the MoMA, they would be able to show that they in fact are considered artists by a mainstream art establishment. Now our crew and friends have documented photography if they should ever get in trouble.
CP: Tell me a little bit about the bike ride and any plans you have here for the Twin Cities.
JP: Ali Momeni has procured through the university a grant big enough to make three mobile broadcast units. He’s interested in having these platforms that are basically a mobile cinema, just point it at a wall and use it. With the RNC coming, he saw an opportunity to use it not only for students, but it has practical potential during the RNC. So he’s building these bikes that we’ll use for laser tag during our time here.
Come hang with Jim Powderly and others from Graffiti Research Lab at the Spark Festival. He’s giving a free lecture 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 27 at the Regis Center for the Art (405 21st Ave. S., Minneapolis), followed by a bike tour at 5 p.m. later that day. For a complete schedule of Spark Festival events, click http://spark.cla.umn.edu. Graffiti Research Lab’s blog is located here.