read/re-write city – the production of space in graffiti removal

Read/ReWrite City is a time-based visualization of the locations where New York City performed graffiti identification and removal.

“The city is a body without organs, and the graffitists themselves come from the territorial order. They territorialize decoded urban spaces – a particular street, wall or district comes to life through them, becoming a collective territory again” – Baudrillard, J. M. in Symbolic Exchange and Death

Graffiti production is an elusive political art generated from the street. Graffiti removal is mobilized by the opaque systems of information technology generating forms upon the street. Both graffiti production and removal have an explicitly urban textuality that both operate through tracing and annotation.

In my visualization, I hope to draw the viewer into a deeper sense of how these two modes of production equate. They both involve reading and writing the city. By tagging the graffiti that the City fails to remove, we represent more than a bureaucratic inefficiency (although, graffiti that takes longer than 70 days to remove will likely wander). Instead, what we see is an aspirational rather than an absolute control of the street as a site of communication.

The challenge to control the inscription of the city through this reading and writing is greater in some areas of the city than others. Visualizing domains for the lost graffiti reveals the political topography of the textual production. The location of the more densely layered territories reveal distinct areas of the city. Are these areas more or less saturated with a history of political discourse?

This visualization animates the reading and writing processes that government agencies and contractors perform. Each dot in the animation represents a record within the graffiti locations data set that the City posts on NYC Open Data. The placement of each dot in the video is based on GPS coordinates mapped to screen coordinates. The duration represented by each animation is about 12 months, starting September 13, 2010 and ending August 18, 2011.

Reading Manhattan
The sequence of the dots is determined by the date the graffiti was read into the data set. Each dot represents a location logged by a SCOUT inspector or reported by a member of the general public. The varying size to which the dot expands represents how long the tag took to be removed subsequent to identification.

Writing Manhattan
The sequence of the dots is determined by the date the graffiti was written out of the data set. Each dot represents a location in time visited by graffiti removal crews. The green dots indicate locations where removal crews logged success in finding and removing the correct graffiti. The red dots indicate locations where they were unsuccessful in finding or removing the graffiti.

Virtual Territories of Manhattan
Graffiti is popularly considered to make illegal territorial claims over urban space whereas City governance is assumed to have authoritative territorial claim over urban space. In this visualization I attempt to map and layer the two territories. Using the Voronoi diagram, boundaries are mapped for the graffiti that the City’s removal crews were unable to find or remove.

Each of these red dots generate a space with a boundary defined in relation to neighboring red dots. The boundary is drawn half-way between each of the dots. What emerges over the course of a year are virtual territories under contested claims.

Visualization project developed in George Legrady‘s Transforming Data class at The New School with software advice from Sepand Ansari.

Visualization performed in Processing using the following libraries: SQLibrary (for mysql), GLGraphics, and toxiclibs (for Voronoi).

This project furthers the development of my investigation into whether paths and intensities are discernible as visual forms within data visualization. See that visualization here.

Reference Project
Boundary Functions by Scott Snibbe
In Snibbe’s Boundary Functions, lines are drawn between people standing upon a platform to reveal the contours of personal space. He says it “shows us that personal space exists only in relation to others and changes without our control.”

Snibbe’s project is named after the Unabomber’s PhD thesis; an example to him of “the conflict between the individual and society.” The thesis is a representation of scientific discourse interiorized and made opaque. The visualization illustrates how an opaque mathematical abstraction can be “made instantly knowable” – bridging the individual (or scientific discourse) with society.

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