Social Object | Research Series 1

Interactive Installations in Public Space VS Graffiti-Street Art

In an attempt to investigate the notion and the implications of a social object in nowadays society I oriented my research in urban space, where the relationships between humans and their environment are in their most societal momentum. What we are trying to explore and analyse is the behaviour and consciousness of a citizen in relation to public street art and its potential to influence them.

“Individual bodies moving through urban space gradually became detached from the space in which they moved, and from the people the space contained. As space became devalued through motion, individuals gradually lost a sense of sharing a fate with others […] individuals create something like ghettos in their own bodily experience.” (Sennett, 1994: 323 – 366)”

One of the aims of the street art is to bring art into the public space. It aims to explore the opportunities of employing the growing infrastructure of paintings in public space, currently used mainly as a tool to influence citizens’ behaviour and their perception of urban space, and expand them by displaying cultural content, political messages or void messages (e.g tags) with the purpose of revitalizing public space. In that way the city seems like a huge museum (participatory museum from artworks of famous artists or not.

There are too many things that it is important to explore in the world of graffiti. The sociality of graffiti has to do with the tribes/subcultures that are formed, their massive presence in the physical space and the way the makers  use public space as a medium to communicate different kinds of messages (personal, political, social etc) to a broad audience. But sometimes the result that the makers want to achieve is completely the opposite: they care for their reputation and their own identity in the city. They produce codes, symbols and their own style of writing so that they are not understood by everyone. Apart from all of these aspects that of graffiti there is the ephemerality of these projects that comes from several different reasons (Illegality, artist interventions on others’ messages etc).

My research begins with the exploration of some contemporary interactive artistic projects employing urban/public space, which respond to a critique of it that was expressed at the first half of the twentieth century by sociologists such as Richard Sennett and Georg Simmel, and groups of artists such as the Situationists.

Georg Simmel, analysing the culture of mundane interaction in modern cities, described the relation between individuals who share urban space as one of civil indifference (the ‘blasé’ attitude). Public behaviour was reduced to passivity, nonintervention and observation, which replaced the previous ritualised modes of interaction in public space. In relation to urban spaces, the Situationists criticised the rationalism and functionalism characterising modern urban architecture and design which were downplaying spontaneous, imaginative and playful practices. Guy Debord in his influential book The Society of the Spectacle theorised the modern society as a ’society of the spectacle,’ to describe the media dominated consumer society driven by commercial culture, advertising and entertainment. In the contemporary society, which Gilles Deleuze dubbed as ‘control society,’ the spectacle has been supplemented by surveillance technology in public urban spaces. Constant surveillance which allows for identification at any time cancels the sense of anonymity in associating with a mass of individuals, thus tempering the unexpected energies that crowding with others may release.

The interactive installations for public space that I used as examples that they are reflecting the urban space critique, are divided into two caregories: installations which use the body as interface and installations which mark up the public space with text.

While the first category, which includes artworks such as Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Body Movies, Pulse Park (Pulse Front), and Under Scan, intertwines performance art and media art by experimenting with augmented reality and involving the human body in a multisensory way, the second category is reproducing or engaging social media, the most recent phase of Internet culture, in public space. This second category includes artworks such as Jason Lewis’ CitySpeak, Stefhan Caddick’s StoryBoard, Johannes Gees’ HelloWorld  and Golan Levin’s QR Codes for Digital Nomads. The transformation operated in the bodily representation of the self by his pieces – the gap created between the participant’s actions and the transformed representation of his actions -, creates an opening, a space of amplified consciousness of one’s body in relation to other beings, thus challenging us to think differently of ourselves in relation to that world. Potentially this sets the conditions for increasing the participant’s awareness of him/herself in relation to others in the public space in an engaging way, like in a community, which is what is important for Lozano-Hemmer:

“people meeting and sharing an experience, […] coming together, […] coming together in the flesh.”

By creating a temporary artificial zone of experimentation with the sense of engagement, connection, agency and empathy, Lozano-Hemmer’s relational architecture artworks create a state of consciousness, of awareness of the potential in public space, in order to overcome the routinisation and passivity which define public behaviour now.

In relation to the installations’ potential for activating reflection, Lozano-Hemmer states:

“People who are participating are in fact reflecting.”

The second category of artworks inscribes digital displays in urban space with text by means of mobile phones or the Internet as way of stimulating alternative models of inhabiting and acting in public urban space. The two identified categories of artworks differ both formally – in the way they involve individuals -, and in terms of intended effects. While the first category, by using the body (as shadow, video, or image) as interface, involves the individual in a more sensorial way and aims to explore the relational potential of public space by way of a community, the second category permits a different kind of individual input – textual message -, and is more directed towards challenging the disproportionate relation between individuals and other types of ‘voices’ which usually dominate public space, such as commercially driven discourses. They aim to reconfigure the public urban space by offering its inhabitants a legitimate tool to re-appropriate it by way of personal and intimate expression in public space.

But rather than dismissing the ‘spectacle’ of commodities and their reification of social relationships, they can also be seen as supplementing a culture of ‘spectacle’ and entertainment with more participatory models of generating spectacular ‘representations,’ if we are to consider Guy Debord’s critique of the society of the spectacle, or Jean Baudrillard’s critique of the media (Baudrillard, 2003 (1972): 277-288). In a public space which is already overexposed to media and information, what difference does an installation using the same means and platforms as the types of discourse that it tries to dispute bring? Debord would certainly judge them as supplementing a culture of ‘spectacle’ and entertainment, which is also how the press and the public often perceive them. Baudrillard would argue that reversibility of the positions of producer and consumer do not guarantee reciprocity of exchange. Turning everyone into a producer will not lead to emancipation or empowerment, because the issue at fault is not who transmits information but the transmitter-message-receiver model of communication itself which excludes what Baudrillard nostalgically values as ‘genuine’ exchange and interaction.

The interactive media art installations of the 1990s and 2000s which we are analysing remind us somehow   parts of the Situationist theory. They support the Situationist critique of modern urban space, although with less politicised and more aestheticised artistic practices. In order to oppose the privatisation, rationalisation, and functionalism of public space which results in a loss of the unpredictable, spontaneous and creative side of urban life, they aim to inject temporary artistic zones of creative human interaction into the public space by means of large digital displays, digital media, and sometimes surveillance technology, mobile technology and the Internet.

Although responding to social issues by means of collective urban experiments the contemporary artworks do not hold the political density and expansiveness of the Situationist agenda and the potential to empower individuals which the Situationists envisioned with the idealism specific to Modernity.

The Situationists envisioned the constructed situation, in its maximum stage of maturity, as lived by its constructors. The collective production by its participants, or ‘livers’, was the measure of success of constructed situations, although in practice this stage was never achieved.(Debord, 1996 (1957): 706)

The contemporary art installations do not aim to achieve empowerment in this sense because the participant is not meant to be the producer of the artistic ‘tool.’ The technological tool is exclusively the creation of the artist and his team who thereby guide the interactive possibilities and meaningfulness of the artwork. However, technological mediated interaction in artistic environments affords other empowering opportunities and achievements. The use of digital media, large digital displays, surveillance technology, and in some cases mobile technology and the Internet in order to mediate or disseminate human interaction may be seen as producing an aesthetization of human relations and thus mask and weaken the meaningfulness of their direct experience by their spectacular representation, overwhelming the senses and inviting for contemplation. However, technologically mediated interaction in an augmented environment which transforms the individual image in the act of reflection, as in the case of Lozano-Hemmer’s installations, affords – in the opening created by the participant’s actions and their distorted representation – opportunities for amplified consciousness of the self in relation to other beings in an intense sensorial, engaging way which goes beyond community and enables a more primary, more deep sense of human communion, a collective genesis afforded through technological mediation, in Mark Hansen’s terms.

 Examples of interactive installations in public space


Body Movies by Rafael Lozano Hemmer

Cultural Capital of Europe Festival, V2 Grounding, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 2001

Body Movies transforms public space with interactive projections measuring between 400 and 1,800 square metres. Thousands of photographic portraits, previously taken on the streets of the host city, are shown using robotically controlled projectors. However the portraits only appear inside the projected shadows of the passers-by, whose silhouettes can measure between two and twenty-five metres depending on how close or far away they are from the powerful light sources positioned on the ground. A video surveillance tracking system triggers new portraits when all the existing ones have been revealed, inviting the public to occupy new narratives of representation.

Samuel van Hoogstraten’s engraving “The Shadow Dance” (Rotterdam, 1675) is the main source of inspiration for this work. Body Movies attempts to misuse technologies of the spectacular so they can evoke a sense of intimacy and complicity instead of provoking distance, euphoria, catharsis, obedience or awe.

Pulse Park

Madison Square Park, New York City, United States, 2008

“Pulse Park” is comprised of a matrix of light beams that graze the central oval field of Madison Square Park. Their intensity is entirely modulated by a sensor that measures the heart rate of participants and the resulting effect is the visualization of vital signs, arguably our most symbolic biometric, in an urban scale.

In Pulse Park, evening visitors to Madison Square Park have their systolic and diastolic activity measured by a sensor sculpture installed at the North end of the Oval Lawn. These biometric rhythms are translated and projected as pulses of narrow-beam light that will move sequentially down rows of spotlights placed along the perimeter of the lawn as each consecutive participant makes contact with the sensor. The result is a poetic expression of our vital signs, transforming the public space into a fleeting architecture of light and movement.

Pulse Park is inspired by Roberto Gavaldón’s film “Macario” (Mexico, 1960) in which the protagonist has a hunger-induced hallucination wherein individuals are represented by lit candles, as well as by the minimalist musical compositions of Conlon Nancarrow, Glenn Branca and Steve Reich. Pulse Park is the culmination of a series that Lozano-Hemmer debuted at the 2007 Venice Biennale with Pulse Room.

Under Scan

Under Scan is an interactive video art installation for public space. In the work, passers-by are detected by a computerized tracking system, which activates video-portraits projected within their shadow. Over one thousand video-portraits of volunteers were taken in Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Northampton and Nottingham by a team of local filmmakers. For its London presentation in Trafalgar Square, Tate Modern filmed over 250 additional recordings. As people were free to portray themselves in whatever way they desired, a wide range of performances were captured. In the installation, the portraits appear at random locations. They “wake-up” and establish eye contact with a viewer as soon as his or her shadow “reveals” them. As the viewer walks away, the portrait reacts by looking away, and eventually disappears if no one activates it.

Every 7 minutes the entire project stops and resets. The tracking system is revealed in a brief “interlude” lighting sequence, which projects all of the calibration grids used by the computerized surveillance system.

The piece was inspired by representation en abîme, where the portrayed make eye-contact with the viewer, – as found in works by Jan Van Eyck, Parmigianino, Velázquez or Leon Golub. Other references for this work include the post-photographic device described in La invención de Morel, written by Adolfo Bioy Casares (1940) and the ghostly portraits created by Gary Hill, Lynn Hershman-Leeson, Paul Sermon and Luc Courchesne.

DIY City 0.01a by Usman Haque

DIY City 0.01a is an early-stage prototype for a future mass-participation performance developed in a 2-week collaboration with Special Moves. In the project, the very streets themselves, and the buildings that look upon them, become the canvas for an urban-scale three dimensional projection – a graphical environmental ‘wiki’ through which people reimagine and redesign in realtime the spaces of their city.

Marling by Usman Haque

Marling is a mass-participation interactive urban spectacle, sited in a public square in Eindhoven, Netherlands, brought to life by the voices of the public.

Your voice creates the space around you, reverberates in many ways long after you have stopped speaking. In Marling the voices of citizens are given form through spectacular effects that hang in the air above the crowd, forming a delicate, intricate ceiling of animated colour. People become players on the urban stage, together bringing the space to life through their actions and sounds, and building a shared public memory of collaboration that, hopefully, will last long after the event.


Cityspeak by Jason Lewis

Cityspeak is ephemeral graffiti, an exploration into using private modes of communication to drive transient public displays of commentary about a particular location. Participants use their SMS- and web-enabled cellphones or wireless PDAs to send text to a common server. The text is processed using the NextText text visualization software. NextText references real-time data from the location to specify the visual behaviors of the text. The resulting stream of text is layered back onto the location in the form of large-scale projections. Participants can use the display to leave commentary, tell stories, conduct conversations or simply to play with the visual characteristics of text.

Cityspeak is an example p2P (private-to-public) communication which allows participants to use communication technologies we tend to think of as private–cell phones and Personal Digital Assistants–to create public displays. It has been installed 15 times up to this date.


Storyboard by Stefhan Caddick

‘Storyboard’ was commissioned in 2005 by the contemporary gallery g39 for May You Live in Interesting Times, Cardiff’s inaugural Festival of Creative Technology. ‘Storyboard’ provided an opportunity for members of the public to post mobile phone text messages to a Variable Message Sign, a familiar sight in city centres, often displaying news of traffic disruption and road safety. Here, the VMS became the host for a public display of intimate and deeply personal text messages sourced from the people of Cardiff, and the internet:

‘Just as the writer of Doctor Who was signing copies of a new book for fans in a nearby bookshop, the message ‘Bad Wolf’, a reference to the latest Doctor Who series mysteriously appeared on the Stefhan Caddick’s electronic storyboard sign outside. Next a local Big Issue seller was given a helping hand with a message that read, ‘Big Issue for sale here. Please buy one’. But it was a mock-ominous message to the city as a whole that had most Saturday morning shoppers amused. It read, simply: ‘Good Morning Cardiff. Big Brother is watching. Look behind you’.’ (‘Sign Of The Times’, Blog, 29 October 2005).

During the project’s second incarnation at g39, Cardiff, the messages ranged from the endearing, “WOULD YOU BE MY VALENTINE’S”…? Well I’m asian lady seeking for a Valentines mate maybe not this time but in the future. Reply me back at +85267384*** JULY” (sent from a woman in South China), to the random, “Lisen i know who u are and i now u have got this phone so plz less not have troble can u put phone some were i can have it bk just tex me bk and tel me were ur gona put the bk,” to those which were location and time specific and left for a particular person to see: “Fed up of waiting, Sarah, Gone to the pub. Why are you always late? Dave”.

Hello World by Johannes Gees

A global media art project is offering anyone with a mobile phone or internet access the chance to see their message to the world beamed onto a famous landmark in one of four major cities. The Helloworld Project is Switzerland’s gift to the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which is taking place in Geneva this week. An interactive installation, it is the brainchild of digital media artist Johannes Gees. It will use lasers to project text messages onto the UN headquarters in New York, a mountainside in Rio de Janeiro, the Air India building in Mumbai’s business district, and Geneva’s Jet d’Eau, a 140m-tall water fountain. It aims to highlight two issues at the heart of the WSIS discussions: the digital divide opening up between developing and developed nations, and the right to freedom of expression. Anyone can send an SMS message to the city of their choice, via either a mobile phone or the Helloworld Project site.

The texts will be viewed by Mr Gees and a team of more than 25 “message jockeys” – editors at Swiss information site Swissinfo – who will pass them on to the projectors at one of the four cities. Within seconds, they will be flashed up in projections up to 70 by 400 metres in size. The messages will also be beamed to the summit’s delegates and webcast on the Helloworld Project’s website.

They can be written in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Hindi, Portugese or Spanish, and are free if sent via the website, or the cost of a regular SMS if sent from a phone. Any texters with mischief in mind are warned that “commercial, sexist or racist messages, or those containing personal insults, will not be projected”. For anyone stuck for ideas about what to write, the Helloworld Project’s FAQ says that it is expecting “mostly statements, some personal, some political … expect funny messages, sharp comments, questions, love poems, messages with social or political content, but also comments on the WSIS”. WSIS will bring together more than 65 heads of state and government to debate who should govern the internet and how the digital divide, which denies poorer countries the same access to technology and telecommunications as richer ones, can be bridged. The Helloworld Project is the second in a series of public, interactive installations by Mr Gees. His first, Hello Mr President, invited people to send messages to George Bush at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2001.

Graffiti / Street art as a public/urban installation

QR Codes for Digital Nomads

QR Codes for Digital Nomads: QR_STENCILER and QR_HOBO_CODES are homebrew “infoviz graffiti” tools, intended for civic markup and in-situ information display. QR_STENCILER is a free, open-source, fully automated software utility that converts QR codes into vector-based stencil patterns suitable for laser cutting. The QR_STENCILER software was used to create the QR_HOBO_CODES, a collection of 100 stencil designs which, deployed in urban spaces, may be used to warn people about danger or clue them into good situations. Inspired by 19th Century “hobo symbols”, these stencils can be understood as a covert markup scheme for urban spaces — providing directions, information, and warnings to digital nomads and other indigenterati.

QR_STENCILER and QR_HOBO_CODES are a part of “Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good“, an exhibition organized by the Institute for Urban Design to represent the United States at the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale.

QR_STENCILER and QR_HOBO_CODES, a F.A.T. Lab project, was developed by Golan Levin and Asa Foster III at the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at CMU, with generous support from

QR codes are a form of two-dimensional barcode which are widely used to convey URLs and other short texts through camera-based smartphones. A variety of free tools exist to generate QR codes (such as from ZXing) and to read them (such as TapMedia’s free QR Reader for iPhone app). The QR_STENCILER is a Java-based software utility which loads a user-specified QR code image — from which it then generates a lasercutter-ready, topologically correct stencil .PDF. As Fred Trotter has pointed out, QR codes contain stencil islands in unpredictable configurations. QR_STENCILER automatically detects and bridges these islands, using thin lines that are minimally disruptive to the highly robust QR algorithm. It does so through the use of two basic image processing techniques:connected component labeling (sometimes called blob detection) and 8-connected chain coding (sometimes calledcontour tracing). QR_STENCILER was created with Processing, a free, cross-platform programming toolkit for the arts.

Accompanying the QR_STENCILER are the QR_HOBO_CODES (see below), a set of 100 lasercutter-ready QR stencil designs created with the QR_STENCILER software. These stencils can be understood as a covert markup scheme for urban spaces — providing directions, information, and warnings to digital nomads and other indigenterati. We present these as modern equivalents of the chalk-based “hobo signs” developed by 19th century vagabonds and migratory workers to cope with the difficulty of nomadic life. Indeed, our set of QR stencils port a number of classic hobo annotations to the QR format (“turn right here”, “dangerous dog”, “food for work”) as well as some new ones, with a nod to warchalking, that are specific to contemporary conditions (“insecure wifi”, “hidden cameras”, “vegans beware”).

Style Wars [documentary by Tony Silver]

Style Wars is a 1983 documentary on hip hop culture, directed by Tony Silver and produced in collaboration with Henry Chalfant. The film has an emphasis on graffiti, although bboying and rapping are covered to a lesser extent.

The documentary shows both the young artists struggling to express themselves through their art, and their points of view on the subject of graffiti, as well as the views of then New York City Mayor Ed Koch, one-armed, now deceased graffiti writer Case/Kase 2, graffiti writer Skeme and his mother, graffiti “villain” Cap, now deceased graffiti writer Dondi, Seen and Shy 147, graffiti documentarian (and co-producer of the film) Henry Chalfant, breakdancer Crazy Legs of Rock Steady Crew, police officers, art critics, subway maintenance workers, as well as several “people on the street”.

“Style Wars is a work of art in its own right too, because it doesn’t just record what these artists are doing, it somehow absorbs their spirit and manages to communicate it across the decades so that we can find ourselves, so many years later; in the city; understanding what made it beautiful” [Scott, A.O. “Critics’ Picks: Style Wars”. Critics’ Picks: Style Wars (New York Times). Retrieved 20 April 2009.]

As it is mentioned in the movie from the autorities point of view

“Graffiti is not an art. It is an application of a medium to a surface”

On the other hand from the makers’ point of view

“It is a play that never ends, a symbol that has lost control”

Graffiti Meets the Digital Age

Light Criticism

A new project by the Anti-Advertising Agency with Graffiti Research Lab.

“Advertising is the vandalism of the Fortune 500”.

The txtBOMBER is a one-hand-guerilla-tool from Felix Vorreiter – a machine not much bigger than an iron – that generates political statements on the fly and immediately prints them on any flat surface. The txtBOMBER “serves” the modern voiceless generation. It’s powered by a strong battery and all you do is move it along a wall. It’s that easy? The txtBOMBER has seven build-in pens to “print” the letters and theArduino micro-controller.


…to be continued


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