What if the internet extended beyond computers and high-speed connections, with web pages expanding down city streets and onto the sides of buildings?
This is the vision behind an interactive new media project called grafedia, which enables folks to make the world their canvas by publicly posting e-mail addresses or keywords that, when punched into certain mobile phones or an e-mail account, retrieve corresponding images.
Created by John Geraci, a graduate student in New York University’s interactive telecommunications program, grafedia is part public art, part advertisement and part subversion. It’s also a newfangled take on old-fashioned graffiti.
Like graffiti artists, grafedia practitioners get out their messages in the usual way, by chalking, marking or spray-painting text in public places. Unlike graffiti, however, grafedia messages allow viewers to interact with authors using cell phones or e-mail accounts.
As Geraci puts it, grafedia is chiefly concerned with the idea that the direction media moves in is preordained, but it’s up in the air as to who can control it.
Today, companies with big advertising budgets are the main players in interactive media, engaging in activities like online ad campaigns or billboards encouraging some sort of viewer involvement. Geraci would like to change that.
“Grafedia is the option for the little guy to get involved in that dialogue,” he said.
The little guy is definitely catching on. Since the project launched in late December, instances of grafedia have popped up stateside in places like New York City and San Francisco. Outside the United States, the project has gained fans in Brazil, France and England, Geraci said. So far, several hundred images have been uploaded to the grafedia server.
Anyone with the right tools – a phone that supports picture messages and is under a T-Mobile, Verizon Communications or Cingular Wireless contract – can view grafedia. You can also view it on a computer through an e-mail program.
Anyone can make grafedia, too. To do so, a user selects a rich media file (image, video or sound) and then chooses a word (say, “wirednews”) to go along with that file. The user then uploads the file from a computer or sends it from a cell phone to, using this example, firstname.lastname@example.org. The user can then paint, draw or tattoo “wirednews” in public spaces in blue with an underline to identify it as grafedia. Viewers can interact with the grafedia by sending a message via their computer or certain cell phones addressed to “email@example.com” to get the content behind the link.
Geraci wants grafedia to make people think about the idea that the boundaries of the web are totally arbitrary. If you can put links in different places, he said, you’re essentially extending the internet.
In this vein, in addition to general grafedia proliferation, he’d like to see large-scale examples, like multiple, related instances over several blocks or on an entire side of a building.
This idea of finding ways for people to interact with each other and technology is a theme that also runs through Geraci’s other work, including Neighbornode – a Wi-Fi message board project – and the Us-ophone – a device that creates music through people touching each other.
The grafedia site was quiet at first, but in late January new media nonprofit Rhizome.org published a piece about grafedia on its website and the project began to take off, Geraci said.
Suddenly, people in Germany were making grafedia, and some in Argentina formed plans to make some, too.
Additions have come in waves, Geraci said, as the first upswing in January leveled out in early February. Activity began picking up again in early March.
“Some people saw it as this really radical, subversive idea; others saw it as a way to advertise…. I think most people just saw it as a fun thing to do with their friends,” Geraci said.
He’s seen all sorts of images, some really personal. One linked the word “parents” (as in, firstname.lastname@example.org) to an image of what he assumes are the creator’s parents in a 1960s-era photo. There are also uploaded pictures of actual graffiti, which, along with the project’s encouragement of public link posting, begs the question: Is grafedia just a cute name for the traditional street art?
“I’m not advocating vandalism. I’m encouraging people to engage the spaces around them in a new way,” he said.
In fact, a lot of good grafedia can be made with chalk or printed on creators’ bodies, he said, though he soon added, “I’m not saying don’t use spray paint.”
Grafedia fan Daniel Camp isn’t using spray paint to alert others to his creations, but rather a blue Sharpie marker. Camp, who lives in Sonoma, California, usually puts his pen to use when he’s in San Francisco. So far, he’s made about 20 posts, he said, a few in Sonoma but most around the city.
His images range from poems to photos, and he posts links in various places – on outside or bathroom walls, on the sides of trucks marked with graffiti.
“It’s fun. It’s kind of got an element of a treasure hunt…. When I first set out to make pictures I noticed everything written in blue and wondered if it was a grafedia,” he said.
“Like, graffiti is so self-centered. It’s like a dog pissing on a pole or something – ‘I was here.’ Grafedia, at least the stuff I was trying to do, people see something totally new that they hadn’t noticed,” he said.