Tuesday, June 21, 2005

MSC: Graffiti Archaeology

From The New York Times




Digital 'Antigraffiti' Peels Away the Years
By SARAH BOXER, June 21, 2005

This month the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences awarded its annual Webby (the online equivalent of an Oscar) for the best art site to Graffiti Archaeology, grafarc.org, a pictorial study of graffiti-covered walls as they evolve. At first entry, the site looks like Batman's cave bathed in blue light. You go spelunking along a railroad track until you reach the heart of Graffiti Archaeology. There you will find a list of eight locations in California (most in San Francisco) where graffiti grows, gets erased and grows again.

The creator of the site, Cassidy Curtis, a San Francisco animator in his 30's, isn't just being cute when he calls it "graffiti archaeology." It really is archaeology. You start at the surface and then peel away layers to look into the past. When you choose one of the locales and pick which wall you want to see, you are shown a recent photograph first. Then you can move backward in time or hop around, using a timeline at the bottom of the page. You can also zoom in to see details and navigate around the surface of the walls.

In effect, Mr. Curtis has made antigraffiti. He uncovers the layers that each successive graffiti artist has covered up.

What's amazing is that Mr. Curtis, who was a character animator for the movie "Madagascar," constructed his archaeological site not by taking all the pictures himself (though he did take a lot of them) but by finding other photographers' work and stitching together a history. At the top of each picture is a label saying when the photograph was taken and by whom.

Take the case of the he Belmont Tunnel wall in Los Angeles. The most recent photograph, taken on Nov. 6, 2004, by Jonathan Tobin, shows huge letters, CAR, arched over a bricked-up tunnel. Below are blobby blue and white letters and, farther down, scribbles.

Peel a layer back, to August 7, 2004, and CAR is still there, but just about everything else is different. Instead of blobby blue letters, you see the blocky black and white letters, LSC, about to be flooded by a rising tide of shapes, colors and alphabetic flotsam.

Moving back through time, to March of 2004, you see that the word CAR is gone, replaced by DES. Two years earlier, CAR is there as part of an official-looking sign over the tunnel: RED CAR TUNNEL. Back in 2000 the word isn't CAR but CASH.

You can keep stripping away layers (there are 10 for this particular wall) until you get back to a picture of exactly the same place taken by Bill Volkmer in June 1955, before the tunnel had even been bricked over. The photo shows a train on the tracks with a placard bearing the words, "To Oblivion." Next to it a man stands at attention, the last conductor.

It seems that it took a while for graffiti to take up residence here. A photograph dated 1983 shows the tunnel blocked with bars rather than bricks. At the edge of this picture, you can see a band of youths climbing down from the hills to the tunnel. It looks like a historic moment: the first tribe of graffiti artists coming down to set up camp.

The whole spectacle of Graffiti Archaeology has a kind of protozoan beauty about it. The fiery flowery walls at Bluxome, a street in San Francisco, are particularly brilliant. Indeed, it makes you want to see Mr. Curtis's time-lapse collages turned into time-lapse movies.

But Graffiti Archaeology, for all its elegance and ingenuity, looks a bit lumpy. Since these photos come from various sources, Mr. Curtis, who put up the site a few years ago, had to correct for point of view so that he could stitch the photographs and superimpose them, one on the other, into a coherent history. "If a photo is shot from an angle, it must be stretched out into a trapezoid so the wall will look flat," he writes on his Web site.

Mr. Curtis also declares that he corrected for lighting, color and some obstructions: "If there's something in the way of the camera, I edit that out, which leaves irregular holes in the outline."
The site wears its methods on its sleeve. Each photograph is edged with a jagged orange line showing how it has been stretched and cropped and how it fits into the whole historical picture. It's nice to be able to see where each photo ends against the larger background, but it would be even nicer to have the option of erasing those jagged orange lines. You want to be able to see each year's wall unperturbed.

As for the holes in the wall's outline, you have to wonder whether it would have been better just to leave in the obstructions. Isn't it paradoxical that a site devoted to graffiti would have such a passion for purity?

The few extraneous things Mr. Curtis did leave in at the edges of some pictures - people, signs and parts of nearby buildings - are a relief. They give the site its few points of context, allowing time and history (not just graffiti history) to enter.

For the most part, though, these walls seem to float in a netherworld. It's hard to tell where they are. And there's no map provided. Graffiti Archaeology has a touch of anti-archaeology about it. What archaeologist would omit or obscure the context of his dig?

Which brings us back to the opening of the site. Maybe there's a reason that the welcome page looks like Batman's cave - forbidding, cut off from the rest of the world, with all kinds of cool stuff inside.

There's a battle going on for the soul of this site. Which will it be: archaeological dig, with all the context and transparency you could want, or mysterious grotto? Tune in and see for yourself.

Same Bat time, same Bat channel.

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