Evan Roth: Hacking and Popular Culture

Evan Roth is a researcher, artist and hacktivist whose work creates open source tools that promote empowerment and free culture. He uses the ethos of a hacker to challenge systems, whether in code or in the city. He recently won the Cooper-Hewitt design award, in part for his Graffiti Research Lab, and is participating in the upcoming Hack the City in Dublin.

Overtime, his work has evolved from graffiti to urban interventions—using design and space, both online and in the streets.Spanning activism, street art, technology and education, his projects foster creativity by sharing different ideas and ways of doing things. By combining art and technology with research, they promote collaboration and participation, not just from the point of view of developing something for people to use and become involved with, but also a forum for them to work together. This interactivity at all the different stages, in my view, is crucial.

Evan's projects demonstrate how he views art and activism in the same way computer hackers think about digital space. I spoke to him about how he incorporates technology and research into his art hacktivism projects.



What motivates your work and how have your projects evolved?

I grew up skateboarding and listening to hip-hop music, and ended up going to study architecture. I graduated and worked in the field for three years, and at the end of my last year of working in an architectural office, found myself coming home and experimenting with programs like Flash and a much earlier web, just playing around and experimenting with these things online. I ended up going back to graduate school and joined Parsons' MFA Design & Technology program.

I guess I wasn't really into graffiti in any serious way until I moved to New York City from L.A. I came into it really late and mostly just because of being in New York. Giving up the car and being a pedestrian in the city, I encountered a lot of graffiti on my daily commute. My thesis tried to blend this experience and my interest with technology, writing software for graffiti writers. I developed a website to try to meet graffiti writers whose works I would encounter on my way to work or school, and ended up collaborating with them. This kind of set the tone for one strain of my work.


Photograph by Owen Franken for The New York Times.

After I graduated from Parsons, I had a two year fellowship at Eyebeam, an art non-profit in New York, where I met James Powderly. Together, we founded Grafitti Research Lab (GRL), which in a way was an extension of my thesis in terms of coming up with new tools for activists and graffiti writers.

I'm still very interested in the graffiti community, but less as a community of writers and painters, and more as a community hackers (even though they might not self identify as hackers). My interest is now more in the subversive side—taking systems and turning them into something else—than anything to do with ink or spray paint. It is now more about the hack. Humor and activism, art and technology are themes that go through my work.


I don't know whether it's a good or bad thing, but I get really bored with projects quickly. My interest in art is in the ideas, and not repeating the same thing over and over again.


Can you tell us a bit more about your open-source projects, Graffiti Research Lab and FATLab?

My art takes inspiration from the hacker community and applies it to other everyday things. GRL is an open-ended project with cells in different cities, but James and I are not really leading it anymore, we kind of threw it into the wind. GRL was really about tool-making more than art-making. What is great about the open source movement is it's very empowering for people who don't have a big economic push behind them. We have tools developed by and for us, and some are very powerful. I was taking inspiration from how things like Linux and Firefox were developed, and explored how to apply them somewhere else.


At its core, FATLab is not an open community, it is a group of people that work together without a rigid system. A group of peers, collaborating together and releasing work on a platform, we are about 20 people of which 10 are more active than others. The members often overlap with other communities, open source platforms like open frameworks, and GRL. It functions on very old technologies; it's primarily an e-mail list, and it's semi-daily. There is no central tenet of work, but the themes that go throughout are similar to GRL, in the sense that there is a definite interest in open source and in freedom of speech. What's different is I kind of went through a learning curve with GRL in terms of how to form a collaborative group, and how to release ideas outside of just the group that wants to hear them.

FATLab is extending these ideas beyond graffiti, into a space where free-culture and pop-culture kind of merge. Getting some of these ideas that might not be popular to be viewed by larger audiences, and trying to get activist ideas and things that don't have popular support behind them in places like the top 10 blogs, or on YouTube, using online systems that we never had before. It's like blending entertainment and activism.


I get billed as a technology or digital artist, but I am so much happier with zip-ties and duct tape than C++ and arduino boards. The simpler the better. I don't enjoy programming so much. I am happiest when I am conceiving, producing and publishing in the span of a week, and this plays into the traditional definition of a hacker.


Are participation and collaboration a core part of your work, in terms of what you are promoting through FATLab and open source technology?

Openness has been a huge part of my work and its changed over time, even how I interact with collaboration has changed having done more of these projects. The first big collaborative project where I started to pay attention was LED Throwies with GRL, which was an open hardware project. Watching it take off because people started adopting and innovating on it was really exciting. I had already released open-source projects before, but this  crossed over from a small group of anonymous people, to a larger group who were really using things we made online. Not just viewing it, but making changes and releasing things.

LED Throwies went to a new level, and I didn't have to do the project anymore, which for me is great. I don't know whether it's a good or bad thing, but I get really bored with projects quickly. My interest in art is in the ideas, and not repeating the same thing over and over again.


LED Throwies are an inexpensive way to add color to any ferromagnetic surface in a city neighborhood.
The Throwie is a lithium battery, a 10mm diffused LED and a rare-earth magnet, duct taped together.
Make your own here

LED Throwies was released in a way that was open and accessible, and then it had a whole other life so I could just step back and start to work on other things while the project just continued on its own. It doesn't always happen and one thing I learned from these open projects is about accessibility—the importance of the invitation is a big thing—source code or not, and extending the invitation using open source technologies or open hardware. And what is the minimum barrier to entry. L.A.S.E.R Tag, Eyewriter and Graffiti Analysis with lots of lines of code didn't get as much traction from open source development communities as ones like LED Throwies.

Another collaborative project I was a part of is Graffiti Markup Language (GML), a really simple standardization of how to archive graffiti motion data. It's really simple and has a standardized way of saving, but because it's so simple tons of people started to adopt and do cool things. That didn't really happen with Eyewriter or L.A.S.E.R Tag. In those cases, people were mostly recreating what was already done, but GML has an underlying structure for saving data and had a smaller barrier for entry, and people started to develop things that interfaced with the data even if they didn't have time to change the software themselves.

I still do a lot of collaborative work, like FAT Lab. It's not that I'm just into open and participatory projects, but more about how as someone setting systems in motion I can tweak variables to get the buy-in from the community. When it becomes their project, it's a big sign of success for an open project: when the ship has its own life and is running on its own and others are making things from it that are separate, when people take a system you set in motion and take it to places you didn't intend or expect.


Do you still do any low-tech work?

That's my favorite stuff. I get billed as a technology or digital artist, but I am so much happier with zip-ties and duct tape than C++ and arduino boards. The simpler the better. I don't enjoy programming so much. I am happiest when I am conceiving, producing and publishing in the span of a week, and this plays into the traditional definition of a hacker. When you look at where the word came from and how it was used in MIT, hackers always got credit not from solving a tech problem, but doing it with the least amount of code.

I think that ideas translate outside of the world of code, and 'lazy like a fox' applies to anyone interested in making things. LED Throwies was a soder-less hardware project. The circuit is created through duct tape and we had a ton of buy-in because it was useful to people for projects. I think you can have a relationship with technology that stems from the ethos of technology, rather than necessarily knowing how to write code.

Even though Eyewriter emerged as solving a person's individual problem, it has a social aspect to it. Are you doing any community projects as part of your hacktivism?

It's interesting because I don't think of Eyewriter as a community project. It started as a personal itch project, just trying to solve one person's problem with the idea that the same tool could be easily modified to help others with a similar medical condition doing tasks beyond writing graffiti. But it is such a complicated technical problem that it's hard for people to jump in and help us—most of the development happened through personal connections that came from members in the group.


James and I realized we didn't have the skills to solve it so we reached out to 5-6 people that formed our core team. Since then it has grown and has benefited from classroom time. Zach Lieberman took it to Parsons and started a graduate level course around it. I thought releasing it online would generate interest and that more eyeballs would lead to more developers donating time, but it's a hard problem; in the end it required tapping on the shoulders of friends.

Zach is now heading it in terms of community development at Parsons. GML is still really active and I'm hoping to do more with the GML community. I have a project in Detroit, which is a collaboration with the J-Dilla foundation, headed up by J-Dilla's mom. So I am doing solo work, but I still do collaborative projects.


What was your experience running masterclasses and workshops in Russia?

My biggest classroom time was in Ekaterinburg and that was a great group. For me it was a culture shock, for sure. I travel a lot, but this was an interesting place. Jumping in and having a group of students was also interesting and intimidating.

I had a mix of architecture students with no connection to street art and graffiti, some graffiti writers, some hackers—kind of the perfect scenario. I like it when people don't come on with too many per-conceived notions of what is going to happen.

One student, Evgeny Nefedov, created a low-tech piece called 'The Mute'. Using two broom handles duct-taped together he did a performance piece to silence an advertizing loudspeaker that was on loop. It was a really simple intervention, but I always share it as a great example of a hack where you identify and come up with a simple intervention to change the system using really low-tech tools. It's really kind of the perfect project.


As an artist and in your work, you talk about research and it seems part of your process and practice. Do you see research as an important part of your projects and art work ?

It actually took me a while to come around to the word artist. I felt more closely related to research than a fine art practice. But now I kind of see art as a research-based process too, it's just a bit more culturally than just technologically rooted. I definitely view my art practice as research-based, and I'm not the only one. People that come from new media or hack lab and tech spaces overlap with the arts, but its easier to think of our practice as research.


or search for "bad ass motherfucker."
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