‘Urban Dramaturge’ Jesse Shapins talks to BigShinyThing about locative media, reality programming and Washington DC hardcore.
Yellow Arrow is a long-running international media project which explores urban narrative through physical tagging of locations, text messaging and the Internet.
Not content with a nice brand, global reach, and thousands of participants, Yellow Arrow has recently launched Capitol of Punk, an ambitious, city-wide exhibition/media trail in Washington D.C., tracing the places and people of the city’s harcore punk scene. They are also very keen to work on a UK-based project: if any of you have opportunities or ideas, please get in touch!
YA’s Project Director, Jesse Shapins, kindly granted BigShinyThing this exclusive email interview.
BST: First of all can you tell us what the Yellow Arrow project is and how it works?
SHAPINS: Yellow Arrow is a new way of exploring cities. It began 2.5 years ago as a street art project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Since then, Yellow Arrow has grown to over 35 countries and 380 cities globally and become a way to experience and publish ideas and stories via text messaging on your mobile phone and interactive maps online. The project offers curated tours of specific cities and the ability to browse thousands of single points of interest submitted by people. We call this first dimension Yellow Arrow CityTXT Tours and the second The Yellow Arrow M.A.A.P. The “M.A.A.P.” acronym signifies that Yellow Arrow itself is a new map, and specifically means “Massively Authored Artistic Publication.”
The project is built around the general philosophy that every place is distinct and engaging if seen from a unique perspective. With this foundation, Yellow Arrow enables every place to become an attraction. Stories are always tied to unique details such as back-alley murals or unique street markers, as well as classic locations like the Empire State Building in New York or the Reichstag in Berlin. Overall, the aim is for Yellow Arrow to provide a frame and platform to see the world in a new way.
The first CityTXT Tour takes place in Washington D.C. as part of our recent Capitol of Punk project. To begin a CityTXT Tour you send the keyword for the location (e.g. Mall) to the number 67067 and then you begin receiving a series of messages that guides you through the streets. People publish to “The Yellow Arrow M.A.A.P.” by placing uniquely-coded stickers at locations of their choice and then sending a text message from their phone with the story they would like associated with that place. When someone else sees the sticker, they send the unique code and then receive the author’s original message back.
In more general terms, we see Yellow Arrow as evolving a true 21st century publishing platform that merges conventional editorial publishing and user-generated content. The structure leverages the power of community publishing set forth by new media, while maintaining elements of a traditional publishing model to support cohesive curation and foster high-quality content.
How many MAAPers do you currently have and what is the traffic like? How many countries do you now cover?
There are MAAPmakers in 35 countries and 380 cities internationally. The largest communities are in Northern Europe and the United States, but arrows have been placed in Kenya, Mexico, Argentina, China, India, and Russia among others.
Is it completely self-supporting financially? You sell the stickers and merchandise, but does that pay for the SMS traffic etc?
Yellow Arrow is one of many initiatives we have. Counts Media has invested heavily in the project and the dedication has been to the integrity of the brand and content. On the other hand, The Yellow Arrow M.A.A.P. is streamlined so that expenses are very low.
Now that American Idol has made Americans engage with text messaging, have you seen an explosion in interest and are you planning to publicise the project more in the UK where text messaging has been popular for years?
It’s no coincidence that initial creators of the project all spent extensive time in Europe. That’s where we were introduced to text messaging. When we first started the project here in the US, what seemed very natural to us was definitely very new to even more advanced technology circles in the US.
Now, though, text messaging has definitely taken off here and we don’t have to explain really how it works anymore. We’ve been very excited about that. We’ve never considered this a technology project. It’s always been a cultural project, and the most unique technological aspect is the creative application within the overall philosophy of Yellow Arrow.
We already have a small MAAPmaker community, and like everywhere, would be very excited to see it grow and have more curiosities on the map from the UK. And we’d be thrilled to create a CityTXT Tour anywhere in Britain. Maybe some completely conventional tourist destination like Newcastle or something [smiles] But seriously. I love the cities of the UK and think there is a huge opportunity to create some great projects there with the right partners.
Do you think that accusations of creating (street)space junk and litter may hamper the project as it proliferates? Do you have a contingency plan if it does?
We’ve been asked this question now for over 2 years and to date there has never been a complaint or a problem. There is a clear culture established in the community that encourages stickers to be placed carefully either with permission or in places where stickers and street art already proliferate.
That said, the Capitol of Punk project is the first instance where you can experience Yellow Arrow without any existing physical marker in the landscape. You can download the PDF map online that has all of the location information and keywords for the tour starting points. This definitely points in a direction where Yellow Arrow is a completely digital experience.
Can you tell us a little bit about Counts Media and its relationship to the project/locative media in general?
Counts Media was founded by the well-known New York experimental theatre artist Michael Counts in 2005. The company grew out of the past work that Michael had done that placed audiences at the center of the experience and took them on a journey through space. Yellow Arrow was one of the first projects the company took on. We see the future as a convergence of information and entertainment across multiple channels, and we work to produce experiences that from the beginning are conceived with specific elements multiple media channels. So, it’s not about writing a book like the “Da Vinci Code” and then making the movie and the game. It’s about creating entertainment that spans different media from the start.
No media company today can deny the importance of “reality programming” due to the mass access to digital media production. From this perspective, our opinion is that place is a very interesting lens through which to engage reality. By approaching reality through place, you necessarily engage collective stories and history. And if place is a key subject, locative media are a natural means of making this content available and interactive.
Here in the UK everyone is getting very excited about the potential of mobile content (especially with regards to marketing) but very few people seem to have a grasp on an actual exciting and engaging deliverable. Counts Media seems to have an idea — can you illuminate?
In our mind, the future of mobile content is in many ways the same as the history of content to date. People are engaged by interesting stories — both fiction and non-fiction. Of course an SMS novel or an SMS documentary is different than a standard book or feature length film. The format is different, so things like the length and pacing have to adjust. And the potential for interactivity is much greater, so content should be designed from the beginning with the experience of the user in mind. But the same general principles of compelling stories and inspiring ideas apply.
It also seems to us that you are creating a new medium of urban stories — it could also be seen as a wiki. Are you concerned that it will be hi-jacked by crass commercial messages (i.e. ‘McDonald’s this way’) attempting to gain a bit of street cred or — like YouTube — do you have the attitude that it’s all content/helps you on the way to world domination. Is there a masterplan (that you can tell us about… )?
I’d say our approach incorporates both Wikipedia and YouTube. This is illustrated by the multiple dimensions of editorial publishing and user-generated content. We see the major value of Yellow Arrow as bringing together these two models, such that the philosophy, brand and community drive high-quality content. This is then supported by the technology, that both enables the delivery and submissions of content. There will surely be crass location-based marketing and it might use a system similar to Yellow Arrow. However, if we stay true to the values of providing a new way of exploring cities and a frame for seeing the world in a new way, I’m confident that the community and marketplace will respect and support that.
On that same point, do you think your brand strong enough to resist the incursion of commercial brands entering the same space?
We hope so. And our brand is commercial, in that we aim to make money to further our goal of enabling a new form of travel and publishing that enriches people’s relationship to the world around them.
Finally, can you tell us a bit about your current project and how it has been received in the Washington DC area?
This project is something we’re really excited about.
Both in the U.S. and internationally, Washington D.C. is known for the White House (and therefore home to good ‘ol Mr. Bush), for the hundreds of national monuments and thousands of politicians from all over. But Washington D.C. is also home to one of the seminal movements of American music: D.C. hardcore and punk. The music scene is deeply tied to the city and a powerful embodiment of creative localism. We thought it fit very well within the philosophy of Yellow Arrow to showcase this music scene that emerged in the late 70s there and still continues on today.
We asked musicians and others involved in the music scene to tell stories about places that meant something to them. For the past year, we’ve been collecting these stories and anecdotes to create short documentary videos and the text message tours.
The tours include quotations from D.C. luminaries such as Ian Mackaye, Ian Svenonius and Marion Barry. To take the tours, people download a PDF map on the site with the starting points and specific instructions.
People can also watch the 10 documentary videos that give insight into the stories of each location. The videos feature original music from the scene and extensive interviews with musicians. People can view the videos on the website or download them directly to an iPod as a video podcast in iTunes.
And people have asked “Why is D.C. the “Capitol of Punk” instead of “Capital of Punk”? Our choice was intentional. We do not proclaim that D.C. is the “capital,” in the sense of the global center of punk music. “Capital” implies power. The word “capitol” specifically refers to a building, and in particular in Washington, it refers to the “Capitol,” the place where the nation’s congress meets. In this sense, “Capitol of Punk” is a metaphor for the city of Washington as a place where the musical cultures of punk collide and grow. By extension, this is a provocation for thinking about the collision of ideas and values that takes place daily in the “Capitol” building. As with everything in D.C. and true to the democratic values of Yellow Arrow, politics are unavoidable in this project.