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Graffiti and Elon Musk

How many followers do you have? Thirteen thousand, I answered. Almost thirteen thousand...twelve thousand something, I corrected immediately. The woman paused for a moment to write down the number and asked me again, and how’s your rate of engagement? I didn't know what to answer. She kindly guided me through the digital platform to understand the metrics and conclusions of the interactions on Instagram. I heard no more from her but it left me with some trepidation and some discomfort. This coming January, Vertigo Graffiti will celebrate its 13th anniversary, a period of time where we have seen urban art and graffiti culture change and evolve. Sometimes for the better, sometimes to put itself at risk.

The extraordinary digitalization of the world is inevitable and irreversible. Despite the nature of graffiti and urban art practice, which relies heavily on physical inhabitation, this culture has not been immune to this dizzying transformation. Today, street paintings and murals coexist, inch by inch, between the physical and the intangible. With few exceptions, every action of intervention in public space has its replica (duplication?) in some social network (the quintessence of the digital world). The audience of the works now includes virtual passers-by who stop in front of shiny walls of a few centimeters confined in a screen.

In any case, opposing this phenomenon of digitization is futile and unprofitable. Nevertheless, it is worth taking a close look at what is happening. It would be wrong to assume that the changes are - in essence - detrimental to culture; just think of the immense diffusion that social networks bring to old and new talents, thus multiplying the reach of many highly relevant and contemporary messages and reflections. The cultural exchange and intersection that comes with seeing murals and works conceived at another end of the world, with just the swipe of a finger, is a cultural process of immense value. The world now also communicates through digital replicas of its murals, thus nurturing (and complexifying) the concept of freedom of artistic expression in the streets and, by effect, of the use of public space.

Nevertheless, it would be unforgivable to accept these new media - and their rewards - without offering some kind of resistance or objection. Although social networks have broadened audiences and tightened the virtual relationships of human creativity, we cannot lose sight of the fact that they follow a commercial logic that depends, almost exclusively, on keeping their users connected for as long as possible. This has caused these networks to reward and encourage exhibitionism, lies and frivolity: turning, at any cost, inattention and disinformation into their fundamental and organizational principles. The return of the 44 billion dollars that Elon Musk has just invested in Twitter is based on the probability that this social network is a growing business, even if it undermines the foundations of democracy by giving resonance to the profitable discourses of hate, discrimination and violence.

Again, graffiti culture and urban art have not been oblivious to these new circumstances and incentives. It is undeniable -and sad- the proliferation of artists and works that, bordering on discredit, ridicule and vanity, seek to attract the attention of perverse algorithms and thus become more attractive to potential customers or brands. Reflection on what is painted and what is said has been replaced by the number of likes and interactions. There is no frankness and rigor among so much choreographic staging. It seems, and this is the biggest risk, that more importance is being given to the replica (the image on the platform) than to the original (the intervened wall) and that the character (the influencer/entertainer) is given more value than the artist himself and his career. While the creator belittles himself in his content, communication and diversity in the street fades away. The artist becomes consumable, expendable, and replaceable. The serious thing is that tomorrow there will always be someone more capable and more willing to ridicule himself. Clowning is not a stable business.

In any case, it is not a matter of abandoning these new technologies, but rather of making the most of them (including the economic aspect of it) by knowing how to draw very well -and each one of us- their limits, and identifying their consequences in time. Despite the fact that the digital world privileges the instantaneous and the peregrine, this does not mean that it is mandatory to do without long-term artistic projects and, much less, to disregard their natural scenario: the street. Indeed, a possible alternative would be to seek a creative balance, in time and resources, between the physical and the digital (and the remunerations found in one and the other instance). Otherwise, the avalanche of social networks will continue to damage and impoverish culture; draining its substance and turning the artist into a disposable entity.

It occurs to me that a consequent and probable alternative would be the design and creation of a platform for the exchange of digital assets exclusively for graffiti artists and muralists, whose yields and returns would be destined in a prevalent way to intervene the public space of cities and municipalities; thus promoting the career and life projects of the artists. The good news is that the technological resources to materialize this balance, through a specialized market, are increasingly within the reach of creators. Hopefully, the panacea of fair remuneration for artists will become increasingly timely and likely. NFTs have been invented, now we must discover their true utility.

@vertigograffiti // @camilofidel

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