"Frenchising Mona Lisa," a video performance by Amir Baradarin

Virtual Graffiti in the Read-Write City

This article was originally published on Promax in conjunction with Media Literacy Week, which is designed to highlight the power of media literacy education by showcasing the work of amazing media literacy educators and organizations nationwide and by driving conversation that creates positive social change.

Augmented Reality (AR) is a form of media that we can use to access, analyze, communicate and create new messages layered onto our physical space. In a sense, this layer of augmented content is a way to “read” additional information and it gives creators a chance to “write” and layer new stories for people to engage with. In this regard, AR effectively expands the concept of literacy. It can create a “Read-Write” City, one that can very much reveal what is hidden and encourage civic engagement.

Pokémon Go by Niantic Labs was this summer’s craze with a staggering 7.5 million people downloading it in the first week. This helped AR gain a broader acceptance to read-write our cities. Though the level of playing Pokémon Go has decreased, it continues to leave a layer of “virtual graffiti” that will not be erased, and even if it could be erased...would we want it to?  AR layers an additional level of media onto the physical world, whether it is sound, images, graphics, or GPS data to name a few. AR can be a democratizing force, one that encourages communities to contribute to their culture, tell their stories, reflect on history and inspire others to actively inquire, think and reflect on our shared public spaces.

Take for example artist Amir Baradarin who in 2011 subverted The Louvre in France to have the Mona Lisa come to life through a video performance called Frenchising Mona Lisa. Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa is a French icon—one that over time has become representative of French nationalism. Yet, in essence, the painting is of an Italian Noblewoman from a wealth Italian family which begs to question the juxtaposition of opulence vs the common man, or elitism versus the general public.  The public could hold their mobile screen up to any picture of the Mona Lisa and the woman in the painting would transform into wearing the French flag as a hijab, an Islamic head scarf which was a cry out for religious persecution since around that time the government had banned hijabs from being worn in public schools.

Amir’s goal was to encourage people to question French nationalism as well as ownership of the curatorial museum experience posing a question of freedom of expression from two points of view. 

The first is from the artist’s perspective. The artist, Amir Baradarin, wants the public to see with new eyes and ponder “Who gets to dictate what viewpoints are forced on others?”

This points out the concern that the content we view is actually already dictated to us. The illusion is that it is personalized to our interests but in actuality it is that we choose to live in a “filtered bubble” (a term coined by Internet activist, Eli Pariser). While some will want to blame it on how Artificial Intelligence is customizing our media experience, it is also about who and what we choose to follow or unfollow. 

Facebook is a good example of this. How often have you read a post from one of your family or friends that you disagreed with and chose to hide or unfollow that person because you disagree with their views or posts? This can escalate to the point of living in a world where you communicate with is of the same cultural or ideological norms as you, which over time can cause negative impact on civil discourse and democracy.

AR can help burst this “filtered bubble” and offer virtual moments that allow us to stumble upon “graffiti-covered” walls by pure chance. Graffiti has always been surrounded by controversies where disagreements have arisen between if it’s legal or not, and where it should be displayed or not, but what usually happens is the images that are stumbled upon in the most unexpected places that encourage you to re-think the meaning of that place. Augmented reality has the power to reveal that which is hidden, to give rise to alternative storytelling, and to mediate the stories between the present and the past.

Let’s return to Amir’s Frenchising Mona Lisa. From the Louvre’s point of view, this museum thought themselves the content experts in charge of upholding the integrity of Leonardo DaVinci’s masterpiece. So, when artist, Amir, comes in and layers his own interpretation on the Mona Lisa and shares it with the public to question what the painting really represents, in a sense, the Louvre felt as if it were hacked! The Louvre had not given permission to Amir so felt violated for changing the conversation on a national treasure. We saw this also happen with Pokémon Go this summer when players pursued Poke Stops in locations that didn’t choose to participate, such as the Holocaust Museum, Arlington National Cemetery or the Hiroshima Memorial. These were somber spaces wanting to respect the dead, and protect their sense of place. Catching Pokémon at these locations seemed to re-contextualize the place and felt like a violation for not having a way to opt-in and choose to participate. 

However, currently there are no digital trespassing laws. Rather than shut down innovation or set policy too soon, isn’t it better for experiences like this to provoke social good and civil discussion? If everyone asked permission first, these provocative messages might not happen. For the record, Niantic Labs did remove the Poke Stops from the locations requesting removal of the game. What’s interesting is many teens have taken to YouTube to offer tutorials for their peers on how to respect the places they visit while also playing the game, and others have shared that Pokémon Go has breathed renewed life into cemeteries, which historically were considered public parks and places for recreation.

This is the start of National Media Literacy week, a time for everyone to reflect on how we use media to access, analyze, evaluate, communicate and create messages. In its simplest terms, media literacy builds upon the foundation of how we read and write through new forms of media, such as using AR to tell new stories throughout your city. If you are designing an AR experience for the public—whether its to market a brand, give voice to an under-represented community, or build a new playable story—critically think about the messages you are creating and ask yourself these questions:

—What is your version of the Read-Write City?
—Are you offering alternative voices in your message?
—Are there opportunities for serendipity and stumbling upon something new?

What started as a summer hit opens up a Pandora’s box of using augmented reality to tag our world, shape the future of location-based storytelling and knit the digital and physical worlds more tightly together. It also has given us a glimpse into the future where the moral codes and ethics of creating this new layer and choice to participate needs to be unpacked. 

Note: Erin Reilly designed and organized an Ideation Huddle: Banksy on every corner at USC’s Annenberg Innovation Lab. Fifteen people attended with Artifact Technologies, BC Biermann, Cynthia Wang and Jeff Watson as provocateurs. This represents her summary of the huddle, a wealth of knowledge and conversation from all who attended.