Tripping the light fantastically

by Amy Kingsley

Two men stroll to the top of a grassy hump outside UNCG’s Elliot University Center a few minutes after 8 p.m., dragging on cigarettes and pulling a rack of equipment.

The program printed on glossy paper says their show should have started at the top of the hour, but they’re not really late. That’s because the sun’s still giving up weak rays from the other side of the horizon, and these two need darkness.

Their names are James Powderly and Evan Roth, but they’re better known as Graffiti Research Lab. They live in Brooklyn, and work all over the world – tonight their quixotic occupation takes them to Greensboro.

They’re going to be LASER tagging the backside of the Jackson Library – as good a canvas as they could hope to come across. Powderly throws a grid onto the wall and rocks the dolly into position. Roth stretches the screen to fill the building. All of it is done digitally, from an Apple laptop rigged to a dolly-mounted projector.

A crowd gathers, and Powderly sweeps a laser pointer across the building, sketching the word “Oink” in 20-foot letters. He finishes it with an arrow pointing at the campus cop parked below.

A beat later, the blue lights come on and the mob erupts.

Powderly starts over. “First in Light,” he writes. The letters drip like digital spray paint. A girl from the crowd behind him takes the pen and writes “Kella.” Roth snaps a photo of her profilin’ beneath her larger-than-life handiwork.

Earlier in the day, Roth and Powderly participated in a panel discussion entitled “Words in Freedom: Interactive Text.” They described what they do and how they met.

It happened at Ibeam, an organization in Brooklyn that awarded each of them a fellowship. They could create whatever they wanted, but whatever they created had to remain in the public domain. That’s how LASER Tag and Graffiti Research Lab were born.

“We consider graffiti artists similar to hackers and software,” Roth said. “What they’re doing is hacking urban systems.”

One of the artists they work with installs dummy surveillance cameras next to real ones on New York City street corners. Another operates in London, where he builds replica traffic cameras mounted to the tops of poles that lean in and kiss their real counterparts.

Then there’s Mark Jenkins – his medium is tape – an artist who imbeds sculptures of people into walls and places tiny tape babies in unusual places.

“You know Q from James Bond movies?” Powderly asks. “We’re like him except graffiti artists are our clients, only they don’t have any money.”

The software they created is like an amplification system for those artists. Instead of working on a wall, L.A.S.E.R. Tag gives them a building. Powderly and Roth scrolled through a slide show of their work. They stop on the words “Don’t Trust Bush.”

“We’ve done this all over the world,” Powderly said. “Penises and ‘Don’t trust Bush’ are international. It’s like Esperanto.”

Roth and Powderly are culture jammers in the classic mold, guerilla artists who target mass media and advertising. The technology behind L.A.S.E.R. Tag is available free for download from their site for individuals, but corporations need not apply. If the group knows the person trying to download the program is a marketer, the site automatically redirects them to a Rick Astley clip – a practice known as Rickrollin’.

“There’s one kind of graffiti I don’t enjoy seeing and that’s advertising,” Roth says.

Powderly and Roth support graffiti artists who work in more permanent media like spray paint.

“We think all graffiti is non-destructive,” Powderly said. “It’s additive. I can tell right now that splits us into two groups: People who think that’s wrong, and people who think that’s awesome.”

Recently they took Graffitit Research Lab to Hong Kong, where they gathered their graffiti-artist friends and embarked on a subversive overhaul of the metropolis.

“The whole goal is to take a place like Hong Kong that’s flooded with ads,” Powderly said, “and make it start to look more like us and our friends instead of Panasonic and Sony.”

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