Two can start a community

John Mertens and I wound up on a collision course in San Francisco’s Chinatown last Saturday. Without knowing it, both of us were headed to the neighborhood to take a photo of the Banksy near Columbus and Broadway for our project, www.artmapper.com — our pilot test to build a mobile community of curators for a city’s public art.

Share photos on twitter with TwitpicBanksy is a famous (or notorious, depending on who you ask) street artist from England who famously came to Chinatown to install a piece people call “Peace and Love.” It features a stencil of a doctor pointing at a spray-painted heart and peace sign. “Peace and Love” is so beloved someone has tried to preserve it by installing plexiglass over it, and it’s been scrubbed of vandalism so much so that it creates a cloudy film over the artwork.

Needless to say, it was a piece of work that was on both my list and John’s this weekend as we led a group on Saturday mapping art with our smartphones as part of the Summer of Smart hackathon for public art and community, hosted by the Gray Area Foundation for The Arts (GAFFTA), an art and innovation center dedicated to “furthering the use and advancement of creative technology for social good.” Several organizations sponsored the event in conjunction with GAFFTA, including Code for America and San Francisco’s department of information technology. The art finder was a way to see what it would take to get a crew of individuals from the event — artists, technologists, anyone interested — to Tweet geolocated images to @publicartapp. The images then appeared on a map on www.artmapper.org.

We came to the hackathon with a basic piece of technology and a lot of questions. At Code for America, we’re working hard to build web applications that improve cities by tapping into its cognitive surplus — the power of a number of citizens volunteering a little bit of their time to make their town better. But it’s one thing to say you’re building technology to start a community. It’s another thing to try to do it. Where does a community start? What’s the reward of being a part of one? How do you design for this? And what’s the best way to invite people to join you?

Turns out John beat me to the Banksy in the afternoon. I knew this when I reached for my smartphone to Tweet a mural along the way — a giant six of hearts playing card painted on a boarded up door. In the feed the of uploaded images of art, I saw John had taken a photo of this same piece of street art with his phone four minutes before I arrived.

At that moment I recognized I was on John’s trail, I realized that we had effectively done what we set out to do. The fact that John had stood in the same corner and seen the same work and recognized it as art gave me a different relationship to that corner. I was no longer looking at the art alone, but with someone else. Even if it was just me and John, it still worked like a community.

This realization was further confirmed by the fact that moments later, John’s decision to upload a geo-located image of Banksy’s artwork provided me a way to find the art. I had general directions for where the art was, but not the exact address. So, I got lost, unsure of where to look. Our basic tool was doing what we wanted to do: it was helping people (me) find cool art in the city.

At the end of the day, we had a little over 50 works mapped. A mural painter, Jetro Martinez, laying fresh paint on Bartlett Street in the Mission. A painting of Medusa and her hissing snakes in the Haight. An installation in a Eucalyptus grove in the Presidio. And along the way, we learned a few things that we plan to keep in mind as we build out our public art app:

1. The connection with another human being and a place is a reward unto itself. The fact that I was no longer experiencing the six of hearts mural at a corner in Chinatown alone changes my relationship to the public art, and by extension, that particular place in the city, in a new and interesting way.

2. GPS in smart phones isn’t always accurate and that can be problematic if you are trying to map small things, like art. For example, I Tweeted an image of a mural on Jones and Golden Gate, but on our map it appeared on second and mission street — a mile off. In the future, if we include community submissions to our public art application, we will be implementing a way for people to edit the location of artwork if necessary.

3. The ability to see how your effort to donate time toward a virtual community fits to the greater whole is rewarding. In other words, let people see their contribution in the context of everyone else’s contribution.

4. Invitation matters. Hackathons are a start, but it is advisable to have an event with the sole purpose of mapping.

5. Two can make a viable community (John helped me find Banksy.)

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Michael Rupert

This is a great post. A lot of the time, people get so caught up in numbers and metrics and ROI we forget that it should always be quality over quantity. And also sounds like an awesome way to spend a Saturday. Thanks!