SXSW: Monday Keynote: James Powderly talks to Virginia Heffernan

James Powderly is an open source evangalist. Virginia Heffernan works for the New York Times Magazine.

Almost 15 minutes late getting started. Not a good sign. The room is full. Two youngish women next to me trying to learn how to use Twitter.

Artists are visually interpreting today’s keynote. Two women artists.

James showed clips from graffiti research lab. He took a photograph of everyone in the audience flipping him off according to the norms of their own culture’s method of flipping off. Picture will be on Facebook.

He works to maintain and improve graffiti across the planet. He’s hilarious. Listen to the podcast, no way I can create it.

Graffiti includes LED stuff, big projects with light. He talked about LED Throwies, which is an LED, a battery, magnet, and you toss it on a magnetic structure. The Dutch government saw these and wanted to fund a project that turned out to be writing on a building with lasers. He showed some images created this way. All digital projecters, lasers beams and common things.

His latest project is called fatlab. Project for the public domain. Creative technology for the public domain. combining open source and pop culture. The strategy is release often, early and with rap music. He showed a video that was a rap video with lots of light effects and light writing.

Virginia. Asked him about being detained by the Chinese government during the Olympics. He talked about projects in Hong Kong and in China where the people he worked with were censored. He would be approached to work in a museum or create some art and it would be canceled by the Chinese government. The gov kept trying to ask them to be neutral, but they are a free speech organization. He made a tiny handheld device that could write on walls with light when in Beijing. A woman was following him around as they were thinking about putting up a display and a bunch of police showed up and arrested him. The Chinese kept them for 10 days with a bunch of people who had been protesting Tibet. He’s making a comic book that documents the whole process.

Virginia. His work is powerful and unsettling. It looks like a silly toy but it can be used for bigger things. There’s something about disembodied or floating or out of human reach message in light. Why is it so powerful?

James. I tell the lie that tells the truth. Technology approaches the level of magic. Laser tag is a convincing lie. But his point is that other people can duplicate the magic. He called himself a trickster.

Virginia. What’s the differnence between the prankster and the artist?

James. Loves the concept of the trickster. Artists have different goals and reasons for self-expression. But the trickster is willing to become the prince of thieves in order to get power among the gods. He sort of hacks the infrastructure while making his own mark.  A DIY and hacker mashup.

Virginia. Online video is part of the grafitti artist’s arsenel.

James. My marker. My camera.

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