What does the Internet mean for graffiti? In founding Vandalog, RJ Rushmore has been an active part in the world that he is discussing, disseminating images from around the world through what Hector “Nicer” Nazario of Tats Cru terms the “global track.” Rushmore explores these ideas at length in his first major release, Viral Art. In keeping with the philosophical ideas presented in the text, Rushmore released the tome to the mass public free of charge starting December 16th, 2013. From friendships made over cleaning MTA trains to the digital collective of FATLab, Rushmore attempted to leave no artist behind in what is not only the authoritative examination of the ties that bind together a global community, but could with time prove to be one of the great theoretical texts about the art form.
Viral Art opens, aptly, with a .gif cover that reflects the themes inside as General Howe animates combined images from Martha Cooper, Diego Bergia, Jay “J.SON” Edlin, and the author. From the outset, the author rightfully assumes an intelligent, but uninformed, audience for his publication. The text is laden with hyperlinks, which act as tools to access additional information for those who are not familiar with the genre’s history or terminologies. By providing information in the form of additional links, the book acts as an open source tool that leaves no reader left in the dark. Alongside the links on each page is a comments section, acting as another resource for readers to add their own stories or access more resources, providing a direct link to what would otherwise be lost in a traditional printed publication.
Aside from the technical advances of publishing online, the book itself is divided into four chapters; beyond these markers, Viral Art is further broken into subsections and interviews that act as first-hand accounts of the global track’s advances. Groundbreaking interviews document Martha Cooper’s first extended conversation with second generation graffiti documentarian Luna Park, zine historian and creator Adam Void, and others whose works are denoted into their own subsections within Viral Art’s pages. In addition to archiving interviews and quotations that will help to shape graffiti’s inclusion into the art historical canon, Rushmore has put language to ideas that were formerly uncategorized movements within the genre. One clear example that groups artists aesthetically, as in traditional art history, is the application of the phrase “block partier” to encompass the aesthetic standards set by artists Dennis McNett and Swoon at the turn of the 21st century. The phrasing borrows from an exhibition title at Ad Hoc Arts, an early proponent of the arts in Bushwick. The show featured core practitioners of printmaking in the streets, such as Swoon, Gaia, Imminent Disaster, and Elbow Toe.
The first sections of Viral Art focus on the importance of sharing pre-dating the Internet obsessions, now dominated by sites like Streetartnews and Instagram. Swapping stories of the Writers’ Bench, photos, or blackbooks have been published in innumerable books that outline the history of graffiti. Rather than regurgitating these histories, but not wanting to leave neophytes without a knowledge base, Rushmore recontextualizes the importance of these events as precursors to the digital era, to a time when entire narratives were lost if a photograph was poorly lit. The subsequent chapters define how the role has shifted as bloggers in the post-internet era act as “digital gatekeepers” and the artists who interact with, or challenge, this notion. Rushmore highlights artists whose work exists in the public sphere, but with a shorter than standard lifespan—think about the tape work of Aakash Nihalani, or more recently Pixote’s tag above the Bowery Houston wall. However beautiful, it was understood that these pieces would be, as Rushmore terms, “super ephemeral.” In these cases, the Internet acts as a safe hold to protect a history that would have otherwise been lost to the streets.
The book treks through staged artwork and video documentation before discussing pieces of art must be seen online in order to be engaged by the public. Perhaps the example most directly linked to graffiti’s past in the public sphere is Katsu’s digital ups. A member of the Free Art and Technology (FAT) Lab, the writer has dedicated his career more recently to representation in digital space. Katsu has utilized the Internet to leave digital markers of himself in the game Minecraft, and even to fool fans into thinking he tagged the White House. The ultimate crux of Rushmore’s argument is his supposition of the Internet as the ultimate public platform. In conclusion, the author states, “For the artist who wants to engage with the most people, who wants to reach the public with the fewest layers of mediation between them and a large audience, who wants to distribute their work without anyone’s permission, invasive viral art is the way of the 21st century.” With the proliferation of cellphones, more often than not viewers are looking to these platforms rather than to the streets that surround them.
Anyone who regularly reads Vandalog knows that RJ Rushmore will tell you his opinion, regardless of consequences. Where many contemporary critics balk at the thought of being “mean,” Rushmore steps up to the challenge. As with Vandalog, Viral Art is not without its share of criticism. The author points out that the rabid documentation of public art has a downside, the “pics or it didn’t happen” mentality. While numerous artists use digitization to enhance their work, others merely utilize it as an attempt to make work that would appear bland in person more engaging.
Whether readers are encountering this book from an art historical background or not, the author offers a book that stands to leave no one in the dark. Detailed histories, hyperlinks, and primary resources act as seemingly endless streams of knowledge. Independently, Rushmore has published a book that is a groundbreaking feat, displaying the potential of books in post-Internet age.