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Article categories: Issue 67[ET] Emerging Technologies
June 17th, 2009

STEP 1: Stop asking permission from law-enforcement officers, city officials, (but feel free to take their $$$$$). Causing mayhem in public is like downloading music on the Internet; if enough of us rush the guards, they won’t be able to take us all out.

GRL-image2-by-Urban-Data.bSo begins Graffiti Research Lab’s call to arms to the global masses of graffiti writers, hackers, pranksters, nerds, and impassioned youth who populate this big blue planet. With the attentive eye of a formidable online fan base consisting of these people-brands and more, this duo from New York (NY) have been pioneering their own subversive dogma. Their goal – hacking public and online spaces armed with a shed full of high-tech gadgets ready to disrupt and inspire the public landscape.

It’s now a little over two years since GRL first shot to international fame when a simple yet effective public subversion device was invented: The LED Throwie.

“We were kind of experimenting with making stencils that were circuit boards, you could spray ‘em down and then have these electronics,” recounts Evan Roth, one half of GRL on the beginning of the Throwie phenomenon. “It was good research for us but it ended up being a poor graffiti technology just because it was so material, time and money centric. It just wasn’t a good tool for making stuff when you’re trying to hide from people.”

“We were trying to figure it out: Okay, it looks really good in the end but it takes too long. So what’s the quickest, easiest way to get electronics embedded in the city? And we had magnets and LED’s and tape just lying around from this other project and we just wrapped them up together and were like: oh you could throw it on something!”

Thus Throwie’s and Graffiti Research Lab were born. Documentation and ‘how to’ video’s were posted on the web and the floodgates opened.

Image by Daydream Graphics.

Image by Daydream Graphics.

STEP 2:  Work in public spaces and the public domain. You should be open with your process to the point of being sleazy. Hit walls and networks and minds for free. Your only reward will be a purpose and an army of collaborators who are legion and loyal. Not patents, no copyright, no property… Just fame.

Evan Roth and James Powderly’s eclectic past lives include stints as an architect (Roth) and as an engineer developing technology for NASA (Powderly). But it wasn’t until they independently landed fellowships at Eyebeam: a privately funded NY research and experimental lab for art and technology, that their worlds collided. Evan had recently completed a two year thesis, Graffiti Analysis, which involved working with local graffiti writers to create software that could capture the movement of tags as they where being made. Meanwhile James had been furthering the human race through robotic developments for the NASA Mars space mission.

“He was kind of a good counterpoint to my skill set, because my programming knowledge was all related to the screen,” Evan explains. “So I knew how to code and I knew some stuff for the web, but it was all screen-based. The software I’d written would turn into digital projection, but it couldn’t control motors and circuit boards. And so James came and filled that other half.”

STEP 3: Train to be deviant: Tear down ads, lick expensive paintings, sniff packets, steal paint, curse in the source code, trespass, torrent, install Linux, make drippy markers, buy a laser, don construction gear and go around the city unscrewing things. Let advertisers drool over your work but never return their e-mails.

A quick scan of GRL’s website will reveal what appears to be a strange hypocrisy for such staunch anti-commercial open source advocates; a web link that reads “Advertisers interested in hiring the G.R.L. please click here”. A little puzzled and curious  click of the mouse reveals: you’ve been Rick Roll’d! [1]  I.e. sent to GRL’s YouTube Rick Ashley video: ‘Never Going To Give You Up’, purpose built to monitor the stream of naïve money men slobbering at GRL’s trouser legs [current view count: 3,372].

Ironically, although the duo are able to snub big bucks for ideology, their open source ethic means that the info and money is floating out there for anyone to snap up, unfortunately leading to a multitude of copycat stunts invoking the GRL name.

“Half of me knows that it’s okay and I just need to deal with it and this is part of the game, but every time it stings,” Evan bravely laughs. “It’s easy to take comfort because these advertisers are typically uncreative and unproductive people and so they’re usually six months behind us. So if you look at the YouTube view counts for our videos of LASER Tag vs. Nokia’s view counts for LASER Tag, we’ll have a million views on ours and they’ll have a couple of hundred [GRL current view count: 978,071 / Nokia current view count: 264]. So it’s not like they’re really winning. I don’t know, part of me just takes comfort in the fact that we can always stay a step ahead of them.”

throwie_detail-by-Urban-Data.bIn March the duo are heading down under to run a masterclass during the Adelaide Festival of Arts, fitting nicely into the Festivals’ ‘light’ theme. The masterclass is not only an opportunity for street and new-media artists to be bombarded with a smorgasbord of techniques and skills for tech-street-deviance, but also for the Adelaide public and it’s city landscape, a chance to get a taste of the luminescent beautification New York and various cities across the globe have been experiencing through the GRL led geek-graffiti-revolution.

Evan explains that the menu for the Adelaide masterclass is shaping up to be a mish-mash of classes the two independently teach at a NY based art school. Ranging from conventual GRL techniques, covering basic programming, hardware and their street art applications, to some off beat urban survival classes tackling home DIY projects across everything from acid etching to taxidermy.

Looking beyond the obvious tech skills and creative approaches Evan and James both boldly command; the final element of the workshops could be in fact seen as GRL’s fundamental strength. This is the ability to shout loud and clear through the deafening chaos of the online environment, creating an inspiring global collaborative network. An invaluable skill GRL hope to pass on to Adelaide audiences.

STEP 4: Build an audience and don’t be picky. The bored at work network is ready to be chronically distracted by your MySpace page, so make it BLING. Your mission here is to lower office productivity, make open-source the 6th element of Hip-Hop and convince suburban kids to stop buying junk and start making better smoke bombs.

“With the GRL cells, we’re trying to keep it like a headless dragon,” Evan muses. “We’d like for them to spring up and have people notify us about it rather than people ask us permission if they can. We’re going to be in Australia longer than we have been for trips we usually get to go on. So I’m thinking we’ll have more time to hopefully get these ideas to sink into the point where GRL Adelaide will crop up. I think it’ll be good!”

And with a GRL Adelaide in our midst, it is only a matter of time before Adelaide’s skyline is transformed into a Mecca for colourfully-illuminated-street-subversion. Propelling the 6th Element of Hip-Hop blazing through the sleepy night of the city of churches, lovingly accompanied by some cranking tunes and good old-fashioned deviant-street-revelry.

STEP 5: Make shit. Like a tricycle with an audio system loud enough to set off car alarms. Test your prototype in the streets. Keep the camera rolling, especially if the cops show up. Make a web page to post your documentation and research, release early, often, and with rap music.

How to guides can be found at

Lachlan Tetlow-Stuart
Lachlan Tetlow-Stuart is an arts journalist and artists working across performance and new-media with a preoccupation for light and time based visual forms. As an arts journalist, Lachlan has written and produced radio for a variety of media including Triple J, Jmag and The Program.

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[1] Rick Roll’d: An internet fad where the object is to prank hapless friends and strangers into clicking on a hoax link that’ll send them to the YouTube Rick Ashley video: ‘Never Going To Give You Up’.


Graffiti Research Lab masterclass, public talk, Throwie workshop and public interventions, March 3-7, 2008. Presented by Carclew Youth Arts in association with the Adelaide Bank Festival of Arts and the Australian Network for Art and Technology.

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