How technology is transforming how street art is made and enjoyed
On a stage in front of a couple of hundred spectators at PromaxBDA’s The New Normal event – a kind of TED Talks for TV – graffiti artist Chu is giving us a guided tour of Chutopia. With a gesture of both his arms, he goes from being the size of a squirrel to being the height of a brontosaurus. Chutopia grows and shrinks with him.
Chutopia, of course, isn’t a physical place and Chu actually stands as tall as he always did. Chutopia exists as a creation in Tilt Brush – Google’s creative tool for HTC Vive. It took Chu some four days to build the town, a place he says was created purely to destroy, and members of the audience will get their chance to do so later.
Those worried about such wanton destruction needn’t worry – he made creating objects and shapes look incredibly straightforward, spinning round the world he created with enviable ease. Asked by an audience member to solve the imaginary town’s equally imaginary crime problem, he flies up to the sky and paints a bat signal – it sits proudly alongside a VR carrot he sculpted in the sky to help another audience member “see in the dark”.
Chu is joined on the stage by Dr Lee Bofkin, CEO of Global Street Art – a company that aims to promote the art form around the world. At first, this appears like an odd double act: Bofkin’s business celebrates real-world art, while Chu – as of this moment – is defacing a virtual world. Bofkin contends that this isn’t as big a leap as it might first appear. “There’s been an overlap between street art and the digital for a long, long time,” he tells me later. “Most street art is by its very nature ephemeral, and the digital file is often the only record that lasts, because the wall disappears, the building is knocked down, and sometimes all you have left is the photo.”
It’s these photographs that his company celebrates, and it’s hard to imagine his business existing without the ubiquitous world of social media we all now occupy. Global Street Art has around 350,000 fans across its various social media platforms (“you kind of have to be diverse,” Bofkin later tells me). With a click of the mouse, a series of quirkily painted animals in Pachuca is suddenly accessible around the world – well beyond the Mexican town’s 276,000 population.
“We have a massively unfair advantage in that we’ve got all of this content we can share, that looks absolutely amazing, that people not only want to see, but don’t get to see that much,” Bofkin explains. The organisation prides itself on highlighting the thriving art scene in areas you don’t know about. “We’d rather be the first people to show you that there’s a street art culture in Afghanistan or a small city in India,” he says.
In the days before social media, sharing street art was a tough process. Once wall art ceased to be the sole preserve of the church, Bofkin tells me, artists would have to be their own limited publicists, physically posting photographic evidence around the world. The ubiquity of social media makes that process a lot quicker, and a lot louder. “If you’re painting something amazing or something that really captures people’s’ attention, it doesn’t matter where in the world you paint it – if you’ve got enough followers to give it a bit of oomph, then people will see it.”
“The digital file is often the only record that lasts, because the wall disappears, the building is knocked down, and sometimes all you have left is the photo.”
And people like it? I put it to Bofkin that street art has a tendency to be a touch divisive. “I wouldn’t expect me to like most street art,” he says. But he thinks such criticism is more of a conversation to be had when street art reaches 5% of walls, rather than than the >0.1% he estimates there is now. “There’s something beautiful and kind of valuable to have more people participating and shaping their own public space. That democratisation of what your public space looks like is valuable, even if you’re not a fan of the art work per se. The culture of expression behind it has an inherent value in itself.”
So beyond social media, where does technology come into this? Bofkin reckons there are plenty of ways Tilt Brush could help the movement. “I think Tilt Brush is a really powerful tool for letting people imagine what a painted city could look like.” And on a more basic level: “Without putting too much behind it, Tilt Brush is an awful lot of fun.”
Throughout the day, I watch various people – under Chu’s guidance – donning the Vive headset, visiting Chutopia and drawing away to their heart’s content. Some people seem to pick it up immediately; others are less sure, physically limboing underneath their virtual work to avoid knocking it over.
“The techniques employed by the Tilt Brush are very similar to the techniques I use and teach with the aerosol,” Chu tells me, explaining that it’s about co-ordinating every bone and muscle. “I think it’s built into everyone anyway. Everyone’s got spacial awareness, everyone’s got the urge to impact the world somehow – it’s an ideal opportunity.”
As mentioned, Chu designed Chutopia was built to be destroyed (“constructive vandalism” is how the artist himself describes it). Has his wish come true? “Smashed to bits,” he says delightedly. “Even the police have moved out now!” That’s okay, though, because he has plenty more to do with it: “I’ve got to do the river, the underground system, the drainage, the housing estate… I could go on.” At the time, Chutopia represented just 5% of the maximum file size Tilt Brush allowed.
“Dr Bofkin’s business has been transformed by the ease with which static images can be shared via social media, while Chu’s creation is limited by the technology that created it.”
But examining the two figures who shared a stage four hours earlier provides an interesting contrast: Dr Bofkin’s business has been transformed by the ease with which static images can be shared via social media, while Chu’s creation is limited by the technology that created it. Very few people have access to an HTC Vive on account of its astronomical £759 price tag. “For Tilt Brush and immersive artwork, there’s no substitute for actually being in that 3D space and putting on the Vive,” Bofkin concedes. He’s right: there’s a world of difference between exploring the world with the headset and viewing the video feed, or pictures on this article, though I’m sure that many real-world graffiti artists feel that way about how their work is viewed through a haze of Instagram filters too.
Even if you do have access to an HTC Vive, it’s a sadly solitary experience. Chutopia is essentially a gated community, with only one person able to visit at a time. Everyone else is a 2D spectator, forced to spy via monitor. “Although VR still feels very solo as an experience, give it a year and we all know that’s going to change,” says Bofkin. “The headsets will become wireless, you’ll be able to collaborate with different artists in real time in the same virtual space even though you’re physically thousands of miles apart. Virtual reality is clearly quite a solo experience now, but social virtual reality will be a really interesting thing in future.”
Chu agrees. “That’s where it needs to be,” he says. “I think it’s on everyone’s radar. If you’ve got three grand’s worth of gear, and you’re the only one who can see it… I mean, spot the flaw! No-one’s going to want that in their home, if only one person can be smiling.”
“There’s a comparison with VR being like the CD-ROM, you know? It’s like Encarta released a CD-ROM that had videos, pictures and sound… it sounds old-fashioned. But this will sound old-fashioned in three years. ‘A cable on a headset?!’”
Both men are convinced of the medium’s future in any case, and Bofkin in particular is adamant that VR needs art more than art needs VR. “When the best artists share their content, people finally get it. If you or I jump on Tilt Brush, we make squiggles and swirls, and it’s all fun and games, but you can’t really see what people do with the tool,” he says.
“But put it in the hands of a really competent artist, then people see how this can be incredible. That’s why VR needs artists. When everyone puts on the headset and walks through Chu’s cityscape, you really do get that wow factor.”