Chalkbot Versus GraffitiWriter…Round One! Ready….FIGHT!


From the Laboratory’s Bureau of Historical Precedence comes this dispatch: A colleague here in the studio, in a thread about Jeremy Wood’s GPS Drawing mentioned this ChalkBot robot that Nike has deployed to help promote, well — cancer awareness with the Lance Armstrong tie-in and itself by extension — at the Tour de France road race. When he started describing it, my mind immediately jumped to Josh Kinberg’s “Bikes Against Bush” project in which he used a bicycle-drawn rig to spray chalk on the pavement, in precisely the fashion of the ChalkBot — and Josh got tossed in the Pokey in the bargain! I wrote a note to Josh, curious if he was involved (if only to track and admire the activities of friends, etc) and he reminded me of the Institute for Applied Autonomy‘s GraffitiWriter and StreetWriter projects, which were his inspiration. (The data fragmentation in my human algorithm started clearing a bit.) An hour or two later, this press release appeared on the wonderfully dyspeptic, exceptionally over-sensitive, super grouse-y nettime from one of the IAA’s agents: read on

JULY 7TH, 2009

Nike Chalkbot Rips-off Streetwriter

This week Nike unveiled a cool “new” chalk-writing robot used to print messages on the road during the Tour de France bicycle race. The trouble is, the robot isn’t so new after all. The Nike Chalkbot is nearly identical to the “Streetwriter” we began developing ten years ago.

[[Oooh..this is gonna be GOOD! It was MY, no..MINE! Five’ll get you ten, some guy in Idaho in invented this thing in 1958 only with mechanical gears, levers and fruit coloring.]]

Since 1998, the Institute for Applied Autonomy has been inventing and building robots to protest the militarization of robotics research and to reassert the public’s ownership of public space. Among the machines we produced were GraffitiWriter, a small remote controlled robot capable of printing high-speed text graffiti on the pavement while driving, StreetWriter, a black cargo van capable of printing large text messages the width of a traffic lane while driving, and SWX a more compact trailer version of the same. Largely without permission, these robots were used to print politically controversial messages in 6 countries and major cities across the US. In 2004 the StreetWriter project was deployed as the SWX in protest against the first DARPA Grand Challenge where its mission was to print Isaac Asimov’s First Rule of Robotics (i.e.: “A ROBOT MUST NOT KILL”) at the starting line of the military robotics event.

In pointing out that the Nike Chalkbot is a higher-resolution/higher-budget but otherwise obvious descendent of the StreetWriter (SWX), we do not claim any sort of ownership over the project or the idea. We have always been very open about the inner working of our machines, publishing “how-to” plans and helping other artists and activists build similar devices. While we have long expected our anti-corporate project to one day be reappropriated as an advertising scheme, we are surprised that in this case, the culprits are close associates. According to sources close to the project, Chalkbot was built by an early IAA member working under contract for Deeplocal, a startup company founded by a onetime ?hacktivist?. Deeplocal in turn is under contract with the Wieden+Kennedy PR agency, which was in turn hired by Nike. The IAA was neither contacted nor consulted on the Chalkbot.

Beyond wanting to reassure our friends that the IAA had nothing to do with the Nike project, we issue this release because we are concerned by the corporate appropriation of ?outsider? research projects without acknowledgement of the amateur, collective, hobbyist, and activist communities upon which projects like Chalkbot are built. Young people witnessing the Chalkbot on television need to know this was not handed down from a corporate research lab, but was made on nights and weekends by the hard work of people not unlike themselves.

We certainly understand our friends? decision to work for Nike — we all have bills to pay. It is unfortunate that as they enriched themselves, they were unable to also enrich the communities that nurtured their own development. We see this primarily as a failure of imagination, which we understand is a common side effect of working too closely with corporate sponsors [[Whoa there..keep it above the belt there, Spartacus!]]. We helpfully suggest the following remedial ?karma-cleansing? activities:

1. Publish their plans + code, in keeping with the open nature of the project.
[[*shrug* I think it’s probably a bail of Python and a gang of ‘duinos banging solenoids, dude, just like in the olden days.]]

2. Feature a historical accounting of the technical and ideological origins of the robot prominently on their website and related publications.
[[I guess they have done this, see this thinly veiled mea culpa…I started welling-up there towards the end.]]

3. Make the Chalkbot available for use by anti-corporate activists, free of charge.
[[Hold your breath. Keeeeep holding…keeeeeep…Although, this is a hard one. I mean, calling an effort by Nike to promote C-word awareness/response/activism self-serving is a bit dicey.]]

4. Provide proportional financial support to new projects that share the anti-authoritarian and anti-commercial aims from which this project emerged. [[Technetartists get their own recession-busting bail-out from Nike!]]

For more about the Institute for Applied Autonomy please visit:

Why do I blog this? Wheew! A genuine hissy-cat fight in the art-tech-corp nexus! Pop some popcorn and lets see what’s going ON here!

Well, from my perspective I have a fascination with the length and breadth of memory as to things that are framed as “new”, despite the fact that most things are variations on a theme, at best. I am much more curious, honestly, about the things that have normalized, become quaint or even antique. But, this is not the case here, and it’s interesting to have some insights into the history as well as the “politics” and ideologies that come into conflict. Although I don’t think this is what this art-sensitive Deep Local design studio thinks but perhaps the “new” with the Chalkbot has more to do with the fact that it is new in relationship to the sensibilities of the IAAs philosophies? It’s a new corporate logo-making device? A way to emblazon one’s mark in all kinds of places? (Whether a literal brand mark or something suggesting that mark, as in a Swoosh or just the fact that people know that “you” — NIke — is doing this bit of street marking?) Chalkbot/Deep Local/IAA/GraffittiWriter are so intertwined you can barely figure out which end is up!

Oh, wait. Chalkbot has a personal story which captures the intertwined histories and sensibilities and seems written in part to tamp down any rifts or senses of misappropriation of the idea, available here.

But on a less catty note, I enjoy this controversy, minor as it is on the scale of, oh…*shrug* Twitter saving Iran (eyeballroll….agk – woops — there I go throwing up AGAIN at the incurable haughty hubris of the net-head-tech-krunks-of-the-bay), in the way it indicates the disparities of similarities. Technically, these are the same things, but when it comes to motivation, purpose, and the role of the object, they become quite dissimilar. The only way we would know this is if you had these Latourian controversies acted out. Something definitely happens when a concept dips into the world of corporate sponsorship — it’s authenticity and the trust behind the principles begins to dissipate quite rapidly. It becomes bland eyeball candy, is all.

Related: Julius von Bismarck‘s (yes..from the lineage of that Bismarck) Image Fulgurator, which is a device that produces flashes of light that will make unexpected things (like crosses and rabbits) appear in other peoples’ pictures. Like writing with light, the images appear so quickly (as fast as it takes a shutter to open and close — shutters these days, but you get the idea) that they are imperceptible to the human eyeball, but are captured by light sensitive sensors/film.



I mention this because during the question and answer session while von Bismarck was giving his artist’s talk at Ars Electronica in 2008 (he won the Golden Nica for this project), the question came up — what about the horrible possibilities of corporate use of this art concept? von Bismarck said yes, this was a possibility — of course it is, in fact. There’s nothing really to prevent it — and he even showed this image above of the “Google” logo appearing in a typical tourists’ photo from the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin. (That’s a real composition. I mean — the Image Fulgurator flashed the logo and, presumably, the tourist’s camera caught it as well so when they reviewed the photos they were in for quite a surprise. The Fulgurator team goes in pairs, so they have someone innocuously taking photos at the same time so they can document their work. The Fulgurator does not capture light — it only produces it.)

Update: Josh Kinberg has a few remarks. He created the Bikes Against Bush project.