Review
Art & Technology

Black Lives Matter murals: Can truly public art exist on private platforms policed by private algorithms?

An expert view brought to you by our XR Panel of artists and storytellers who create in virtual reality and augmented reality

A browser view of the 3D model created using photogrammetry of Misteralek's mural of George Floyd on a convenience store in Wilmington Avenue, in the Watts district of Los Angeles

Black Lives Matter murals in Los Angeles, published in AR by the Los Angeles Times and Yahoo

What is it?

Four Black Lives Matter murals from Los Angeles have been captured as 3D models using drone photogrammetry. The originals were created in the days following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis on 25 May after a white police office had his knee on his neck for nine minutes.

The pieces can be viewed in VR/AR and are available with some features on desktop and Android devices, but for full AR functionality, users require an iPhone 8 or later with the latest version of iOS or an AR-compatible Android phone.

The murals are street art, and street scale, so viewing the models through an iPhone in a spacious urban environment delivers the optimal experience.

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Rip #georgefloyd #blm #blacklivesmatter

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The four pieces modelled are:

  • Alexandra Allie Belisle, Amanda Ferrell Hale, Noah Humes, PeQue Brown and Shplinton's 148-foot-long mural outside The Laugh Factory, 8001 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, CA 90046.
  • Misteralek's mural of George Floyd on a convenience store in Wilmington Avenue, in the Watts district of Los Angeles.
  • Shane Grammer's Rest in Peace George Floyd mural in the Fame Yard at Sportie LA, 7753 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046.
  • Alfonso Garcia's mural listing the names of 500 victims of police brutality between 2016 to 2020, North Fairfax Avenue, Hollywood.

Created by

Nani Sahra Walker of the Los Angeles Times (LAT) produced the pieces in partnership with Verizon Media under the Yahoo News XR Partner Program.

Where to Find it

A story in the Los Angeles Times.

A story on Yahoo's website.

They say

You just know that when you do a mural, you have to get video footage and you have to get your photos that day, as soon as you’re done, because you just never know Shane Grammer, artist

In an article on the Black Lives Matter murals, and the augmented reality models made of them, Dorany Pineda of the LAT spoke to some of the artists and organisers behind the murals. The ephemeral nature of the medium was a common theme. Many of LA's best-known murals are 40 to 50 years old, but the life of such work is typically two to five years.

Shane Grammer, who created a mural in memory of Floyd on Melrose Avenue, Hollywood, knows the work will eventually be removed. “You just know that when you do a mural, you have to get video footage and you have to get your photos that day, as soon as you’re done, because you just never know,” he told the LAT.

The Los Angeles Times and Yahoo: Murals are by their nature ephemeral, location-specific, and large scale expressions of art. LAT producer Nani Sahra Walker and RYOT director Laura Hertzfeld discussed how XR is the perfect way to both preserve this art and share it more widely. As part of the XR Partner Program at Verizon Media, RYOT and the LAT were already exploring ways to collaborate. Using drone photogrammetry was a natural fit to capture large-scale 3D art. Under Covid-safe procedures, the RYOT drone team captured the murals and created 3D versions of them in the Verizon Media Immersive web platform so they were shareable on both Yahoo News and the LAT sites. The LAT was an essential part of the editorial and post production process, ensuring all art decisions were made along journalistic lines.

The XR panel's ratings

Gretchen Andrew gave a rating of 3.5/5 stars.

Dhiren Dasu gave a rating of 3/5 stars.

Carole Chainon gave a rating of 4/5 stars.

Seol Park gave a rating of 4/5 stars.

Eron Rauch gave a rating of 3.5/5 stars

Giving an overall panel rating of 3.5/5 stars.

We say

The works are epic. Important. Deeply related to the embodied Black experience in this time and in places all over America Gretchen Andrew

Gretchen Andrew: What is public art in the time of Covid-19? The internet, which should be a public good akin to public roads and public parks, is almost entirely controlled by private corporations. The virtual provides the opportunity for access, the hope of seeing art from our lockdowns and quarantines. But can truly public art exist on private platforms policed by private algorithms? 

So we find ourselves dependent on private platforms for the public art of Black Lives Matter.

The members of this panel find themselves at the intersection of art and technology, two worlds notorious for their lack of diversity and gross under-representation of the Black population. We regularly complain that XR experiences making claims of increased access often exist only on Apple devices. The origins of this complaint are not personal product allegiances but demographical, based on an interest in diversity and greater access. Not only does the Android platform have slightly more users in the US, but internationally Android users outnumber iPhone users by 3 to 1.  And, pertinently, the Black population in the US is two times more likely to be using an Android than an iPhone. 

So it is with Los Angeles’s Black Lives Matter Murals, available in VR and AR but only fully available on the latest iOS or the latest-generation, high-end Android phones.

In AR the works do not fit in my house, which makes sense as in In Real Life (IRL) the murals take up whole sides of buildings. You can also view the works in VR, separate from the city they canvas, floating there without context like little pieces of the Berlin Wall I’ve seen in Yokohama and once in a living room in San Diego.

Still the works are epic. Important. Deeply related to the embodied Black experience in this time and in places all over America.

On Alfonso Garcia’s painted names of victims of police brutality (North Fairfax Avenue in Hollywood), you will also find a real estate sign for Lee Shapiro, an agent of high-end real estate, an industry that has been keeping whole swaths of LA empty, speculatively priced for downtown Los Angeles’s ever-elusive boom.  

The real estate sign of one Los Angeles power broker hangs poignantly where Alfonso Garcia painted the names of victims of police brutality.

To see this real-estate ad as an unintended part of the mural is an important reminder. This isn’t public art. It isn’t on a public platform. It isn’t accessible to everyone.

Is the app easy to use?

I really wish more of these digital art experiences supported both common platforms Eron Rauch

Carole Chainon: Very easy to use but only accessible in XR if you have the right hardware on hand. The murals can be viewed from anywhere in the world in 3D on any browser, but you have to have a relatively new iOS device with Safari to view the experience in WebXR.

Dhiren Dasu: Not being an IOS user, I was only able to view the 3D models on a web browser using the Yahoo Immersive platform. Easy to use, but I suspect I was only getting a taste of the XR version.

Seol Park: Very easy to use, if you are an iOS user.

Eron Rauch: Viewing the 3D models via a computer is quite easy to access in-browser, but the full AR version only works in iOS. The moment I switched to AR mode in Android, on my S7 Galaxy, the software exploded into glitches and caused my whole phone to freeze. I really wish more of these digital art experiences supported both common platforms. Handy Tip: Nothing tells you, but you can use the arrow key to change the centre-point for rotating the models.

How good is the art?

Los Angeles has a rich history of murals in many styles and these are excellent examples of that lineage Eron Rauch

A montage of three images, viewed in Web XR in a park setting, of Alexandra Allie Belisle, Amanda Ferrell Hale, Noah Humes, PeQue Brown and Shplinton's 148-foot-long mural outside The Laugh Factory, in Sunset Boulevard

Carole Chainon: The drone photogrammetry captures are very well done and the lighting is great. We can get closer and read every single name painted on those walls, stare into the eyes of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other African Americans who have lost their lives due to police brutality in the US.

Dhiren Dasu: Given how topical the subject matter is and the broader political and cultural statements embedded in the work, the art is good. All the pieces are in a classic mural style that succeeds at spotlighting the issues.

Seol Park: Earnestly created murals, captured well in high-quality 3D photogrammetry in good lighting conditions. I enjoyed reading the text elements as well.

Eron Rauch: Los Angeles has a rich history of murals in many styles and these are excellent examples of that lineage. They are particularly striking for how they express the specific humanity of the people who have been murdered; a reminder that police brutality isn’t some abstract concept. In-browser, the backlighting and white background can make the murals feel dim.

What is gained by viewing in VR/AR rather than In Real Life?

Photogrammetry has allowed us to immortalise these street paintings, which serve as reminders of our collective pain during these periods of unrest, and invite the whole world to look at them Carole Chainon

Collective pain: Alfonso Garcia's mural listing the names of 500 victims of police brutality, North Fairfax Avenue, Hollywood, seen through Web XR in front of the Royal Courts of Justice in London

Carole Chainon: Street/Public Art historically only resided on the street they were painted on, maybe for a few days or even sometimes years, but 3D scanning/photogrammetry has allowed us to immortalise these street paintings, which serve as reminders of our collective pain during these periods of unrest, and invite the whole world to look at them.

Dhiren Dasu: Street art generally only exists in the physical locations it is rendered on, the work gains a wider exposure from this medium. A handful of street artists (ahem! Banksy) have access to a global platform, so XR does really allow these artists to transcend the limitations of physicality and the ephemeral nature of street art. So definitely a win for the viewers and the artists.

Seol Park: The first AR production I did was a public art exhibit of virtual sculptures in the Northern part of Miami Beach, back in 2015. At the time, the biggest driver behind that experiment was my burning desire to produce something despite a shoestring budget—not enough dollars for shipping, insurance, installation, and permits. The show was location-specific, demanding that you be at that GPS location in order to see it, retaining an aspect of public art installations in the real world. Now, the Laugh Factory murals in AR are exactly the opposite—they come to you. And thanks to that, I can view them while sitting in Seoul, Korea.

Eron Rauch: This is an XR project designed to increase access to works that are not physically accessible, such as from above. The value of this granular documentation is somewhat dubious. In the case of the Shane Grammar mural, I can rotate and see the trash in the balcony; with the Alfonso Garcia, zoom in to get the phone number for a real estate agent; with the Misteralek, get an ant’s eye view of the roof’s satellite dish.

What medium-specific qualities of VR/AR does it employ?

Street art exists in relation to its surroundings. For future renditions, I would make a case for a less surgical approach Dhiren Dasu

Carole Chainon: This experience showcases different drone photogrammetry scans in WebXR. The user can enjoy the experience directly in their phone or computer browser without downloading an app.

Dhiren Dasu: Excellent rendering of light, shadow, and z-depth. Zooming in works well and all of the detail of the work is clearly visible. However, viewing the buildings and art stripped of their context is somewhat strange. Street art exists in relation to its surroundings. For future renditions, I would make a case for a less surgical approach. It would help if one were able to see the surrounding streets and mise-en-scène.

Seol Park: I enjoyed this production on the computer rather than via smart phone, as I was able to feel the expanse of the paintings more effectively on a large screen.

Eron Rauch: High-quality 3D documentation of an oft-transitory artform potentially allows future viewers to get a sense of the murals from a pedestrian vantage. But while the models capture the quotidian details within the work, the models end at the edge of the mural. This leaves them completely extracted from their broader context in the city. With such societally-situated works, the erasure of community context raises both ethical and art historical issues.

Does it break new ground technically?

The idea of using this technology to display potent and timely street art is a new direction Dhiren Dasu

Carole Chainon: The experience doesn’t break new grounds technically but it is a great use of the technology to inspire social change.

Dhiren Dasu: The idea of using this technology to display potent and timely street art is a new direction. So definitely innovative on that count.

Seol Park: It brings a new meaning to seeing a "mural", which normally implies a pilgrimage to a specific site in the physical world but is now made shareable via AR.

Eron Rauch: While using drone-based “capture” is lauded as new, the results don’t feel particularly showy tech-for-tech’s sake, which is good. The quality of the resulting documentation is exceptionally high. As I pivoted the models around and discovered the backs are dimpled, mostly-blank polygons. I couldn’t help making the connection to those fragments of ancient friezes propped up in museum vitrines halfway across the world from where they came from. This, coupled with using the term “capture”, gave me an uneasy feeling.

The Art Newspaper’s XR Panel

Gretchen Andrew is a Search Engine Artist and Internet Imperialist who has manipulated the US presidential election with art and desire. Her next exhibition is with Annka Kultys in February 2021.  

Carole Chainon is the co-founder of JYC, a XR development and production studio based in LA with a presence in Europe, creating XR experiences for the entertainment and enterprise sector. She is also a Spark AR Creator.

Dhiren Dasu is a digital media creator and consultant. His areas of speciality include photography, film, virtual space, graphic design, visual effects, animation, and audio production. Dasu, in his fine art persona as Shapeshifter7, makes artworks that echo and recompose the architectural spaces he photographs, turning them into immersive spaces while exploring the nexus of photography, collage, symbols, and perception.

Seol Park bridges technology, art, and branding. After working with Microsoft and INTEL, she now guides global branding at LG with emphasis on digital and cultural engagement. Her past work in XR have appeared in Media-N, ABC TV (Australia), The Southern Star (Ireland), and more. She was named in Sotheby's Institute's "4 Under 40" in 2019, and currently serves on the Board of Trustees for The American Folk Art Museum.

Eron Rauch is an artist, writer, and curator whose projects explore the infrastructure of imagination, with a focus on subcultures, video games, and photography history.