Banksy in VR

Banksy, Girl with Heart Balloon

My VR Storytelling does not come from a position of expertise. It comes from my idea of how to learn about something.

I imagine myself organizing and explaining to an audience what I’m learning while I’m in the middle of learning it, and I make the learning materials on the fly.

For the past two years, I’ve been producing learning materials that become immersive experiences in VR for small, live audiences.

I schedule events. People come.

I talk a little, and continually change the elements of the worlds we are in together. People who attend can play active roles, if they want to, and when we’re through with the story they can stick around and talk about it.

That whole package is what I call, On-Location Storytelling in VR.

On-Location’ refers to VR’s Superpower of making us feel there, wherever there needs to be.

On June 16, for instance, I led folks around Dublin on the annual celebration of Ulysses, the novel by James Joyce, using actual locations downloaded as 360 images from Google Streetview. We listened to the opening words right where the novel begins, at Martello Tower. We felt there together.

Why Street Art?

I see Graffiti and Street Art as perfect topics for VR because, like the Dublin event, we can situate ourselves in real places, where the art is.

A gallery exhibition of graffiti feels like a zoo to me — entities that are meant to be seen freely are confined indoors where viewing is controlled and restricted.

Best case, I’d like to see any form of self-expression created out in the world right where it was created. Walking tours and audio apps help people have that real world experience. It is irreplaceable.

Being out in the open where it is not supposed to be is part of the power of street art. A beautiful portrait on the side of building is astonishing because beautiful portraits are supposed to be framed on walls inside of buildings.

My wife and I took several street art walking tours in London before the pandemic. Now, travel has become more challenging, especially international travel, which makes the real world street art experience more difficult.

at a Banksy work with my wife, London, 2019

At the same time, there is more art out in the open than ever, all over the world. I think this opens the door for a virtual version.

I decided to start learning more about graffiti and street art by focusing on Banksy because there is so much of his work available and because I’ve seen Banksy’s work in the world.

I love it. He’s an original — smart, provocative and funny — three characteristics I value highly.

Top Level Terminology

I’m not qualified to tell the History of Graffiti or Street Art, but I have started to develop some sense of the distinction.

Most sources agree that the modern era of Graffiti began in Philadelphia and New York in the late 1960s and that the New York Times applied the term to the simple designs, usually initials, that appeared at first on the outside of subways and buses. By 1972 there was so much graffiti that New York Mayor John Lindsey declared war on it.

Norman Mailer, author and a very public figure in the early 1970s, brought the word, ‘graffiti’ and the entire sub-culture into the mainstream with his controversial, “The Faith of Graffiti,” (1974). Although it was illegal and costly to clean-up, Mailer argued that graffiti is not only a legitimate form of expression, but also an important independent channel that a healthy society needs.

It’s subversive. It isn’t OKed ahead of time. It was and still is a dangerous activity, physically and legally. This is my understanding of term, ‘graffiti.’

Usually, but not always, graffiti is very simple. One of the origin stories has a young man called, “Cornbread” spraying his nickname as many places around Philadelphia as he could — to impress his girlfriend.

Visual style, placement, and the personal motives driving graffiti rapidly became more sophisticated during the 1970s and 80s.

Over time, Municipal Transit Authorities slowly secured their vehicle locations better, which forced the creators to new canvasses.

I’m not sure artists think of their work in terms of categories, but by the early 1990s, commentators and gallery owners were referring to more elaborate designs as, “street art.” It’s a soft distinction but it’s pretty clear when someone goes beyond spraying their initials around in public.

What’s unclear is how much that original outlaw quality is necessary. What if street art is authorized by officialdom? What if it’s OK to make graffiti in designated areas? Is something essential lost?

Banksy and his career to date is at the center of that question.

Take the Money and Run,” Banksy, Bristol, 1999

Banksy Basics

Because Basics is all there is.

Banksy has remained anonymous despite decades of international celebrity. There is of course much speculation and theorizing but I don’t really care. I do not believe Banksy has stayed opaque as a marketing ploy. I believe he did it at first and still does it now because what he does is sometimes, but not always, illegal.

Also, it is very cool to be famous and anonymous at the same time.

We know roughly that he got his start in the early 1990s graffiti scene in Bristol, UK, a few hours west of London. Banksy did not invent graffiti in Bristol. He wasn’t even born when the first generation of UK talent saw what was happening in the US and started doing it themselves.

He didn’t even singlehandedly lead the way from simple graffiti to complex street art. Nobody did. Creative people just kept producing, collaborating, getting ideas from each other.

So why Banksy? There are other famous and well-compensated street artists, but he transcends the genre. Why?

Volumes, scholarly and popular, have been written on this question. I can’t add anything new. I can only ask: Why did Bobby Orr transform ice hockey in the 1970s by playing defense offensively? Or more recently: Why did Stephan Curry transform basketball by scoring from places you’re not supposed to score from?

It was some perfect combination of unique talents and the specific situation these players were in. Same with Banksy. I’m guessing Bristol would be an easier place than London to take chances and gradually develop a breakthrough style.

He moved to London in the early 2000s, made an immediate impact and became known worldwide in that decade. He still is. He still does unique and powerful work. That’s the Banksy basics.

Banksy in VR

It’s been done before and it’s being done now. There have been gallery shows and world touring shows about Banksy for twenty years, most unauthorized. In recent years, some of these events have included a VR component, generally a career recap in a series of high-resolution 360 degree images preloaded onto VR headsets.

I’m trying something different.

I am collecting Banksy pieces that exist on Google Streetview. Most of his work is long gone, painted over or otherwise removed. Most of his work exists only as images no longer in their intended context.

But a few of his works have been protected and/or restored so they can be seen in place today; or if not today, at least they could be seen back in 2008 when Google Streetview was launched— and by accessing past views, they can come back to life for us.

I have 18 so far and I’m pretty sure there are more.

I will present them in free public events in free social VR apps, primarily AltspaceVR. I am still working out the experience design.

  1. Sequence: A career chronology is the default assumption and the way most other shows have been arranged. Organizing the pieces by location reflects his career chronology to some extent, but not absolutely. A topical sequence might also be an option. No sequence at all — let people choose what’s next based on some kind of menu — is another.
  2. VR World: The modeled environment in which we will be together is a semi-transparent platform with a slightly raised area for the host at the back. It’s nice to feel a ‘floor’ and sharing the platform is part of what makes us feel there together. But in this case, the point is to draw minimal attention to the 3D and maximum attention to the Banksy piece and the real world all around it.
  3. 360 Degree Images: The Google Streetview locations with a Banksy in them, that I have curated, are used to create the overall place we’re in together. The image becomes our sky and our view in every direction, like things were constructed for Jim Carey’s character in The Truman Show.
  4. Banksy Pics: While the 360 image helps us feel there at a specific place in the world with Banksy’s work, we don’t necessarily have a nice close-up view. Almost all Banksy pics are available in free-to-use-non-commercially image databases like Wikimedia Commons. My plan is to bring each Banksy pic into our viewing platform, one-at-a-time, as we move to each location, so people can see the work in-place and in detail at the same time.
  5. Participation: I will introduce each of the works in the collection and then open the discussion to any and all reactions. We will reflect together on what the work evokes.

I expect to begin offering Banksy in VR events by late July.

Image by David Denton

I write about VR and other topics I have no standing to write about on Medium and Substack.

I have a black belt in learning and I’ve been meditating for so long you’d think I’d be enlightened but I’m not.

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Tom Nickel

Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos