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Art for Everyone: How Monsieur Chat turned an abandoned Parisian building into an online interactive artwork

The question of what constitutes art is as contended today as it has ever been. Philosophers through the ages have indeed wrestled with such a quandary, not to mention the very artists themselves. The development of contemporary art movements have only gone on to muddy the waters, often subverting our typical perceptions to the point of parody.

One of the most recent trends has been to populate the world’s trendiest gallery walls with works more normally associated with inner-city decay. Street artists such as Banksy have elevated graffiti to highbrow status, clashing starkly with its traditional status as criminal vandalism. This mainstream acceptance provides a necessary backdrop to our featured project, named as such that you may be forgiven for expecting a gritty, urban hospital-based soap opera.

Graffiti Général is, in fact, a quite beautiful digital project for capturing a significant building found in a Parisian suburb. The derelict warehouse known as ‘Magasins Généraux’ has become a concrete canvas since abandoned in 2004, gaining artistic and cultural significance in the process. With the site set for transformation into the new headquarters for advertising agency BETC, an in-house design team settled on a rather unprecedented idea.

Rendering the real world in WebGL 3D

All 20,000 square metres would be painstakingly photographed and virtually rendered via a WebGL 3D tour, giving grafitti fans a chance to view every paint-daubed wall from the comfort of their browsers. “Fluid to use, with exceptional form and colour rendition and a vivid reconstitution of the sound environment and special atmosphere of this singular site, Graffiti Général offers a breathtaking 3D sensory experience,” as BETC itself describes the site. “Users can stroll through the building at their leisure, exploring its corridors and its several floors.”

Far from merely a passive experience, visitors can also engage with the surroundings by adding new artwork. A specially designed painting module allows custom scrawls to be previewed, saved and published in just a few mouse clicks. Transforming the experience into an ever-evolving entity rather than merely a virtual mausoleum to murals past, the whole thing oozes with rich layers of interactivity. So, given the chance to ask the good people at BETC Digital about the site’s genesis, we weren’t about to brush over the cracks. Given the unorthodox nature of the project then, how did the idea for Graffiti Général materialise in the first place?

“When a temple to graffiti art is transformed into an advertising agency, the question of the transmission of heritage is inevitably raised,” explains BETC founder and creative director Rémi Babinet. “In choosing to install our agency in the Magasins Généraux at Pantin, we were conscious of our duty to preserve as many pieces of artwork as possible. However, the nature of this art form and the way it is realised presented us with a dilemma.”

It seems very early that the notion of this project revolved around adding a deeper experience than merely capturing a snapshot of the building as it was. This would move Graffiti Général beyond the realms of a web-based time capsule and something the community could grab a hold of and reshape its own way. “The very essence of graffiti is that it is continually over-painted by new works,” Babinet continues. “Preserving the works as they are, freezing them in time at an arbitrary date in the life of the building did not really make sense. At the same time, renovating the building by destroying the thousands of artworks that have given it the unique identity it has today was unthinkable.

The Graffiti Général project provides a solution to this contradictory problem through an initiative that is consistent with the very spirit of graffiti art: preserving the current state and atmosphere of the building and its works on the eve of the reconstruction while still allowing it to continue to live and evolve through an unprecedented virtual experience.”

Outside of this desire to deliberately complicate the scope of the work, the BETC Digital team would face an inevitable obstacle. The majority of projects featured by Design Diary are based around an agency working for an external, third-party client. Of course here we have an internal design team in effect commissioning themselves to tackle a very personal idea. This would be more of a labour of love, perhaps a neat test case for future projects and certainly an admirable promotional story. That said, it would still require the kind of discipline and commitment required by more traditional development lifecycles: “A project this ambitious for one’s own company is paradoxically more stressful than a client project,” concurs BETC Digital CEO Ivan Beczkowski. “Firstly you’ve got no excuses with fewer constraints, approval amongst colleagues, total conceptual and creative trust. Plus, it’s always difficult to talk about yourself. You need to know how to enjoy this freedom, knowing where to set limits on people’s commitment and passion, in order to keep deadlines and stay within timings.”

“It’s destined to disappear, to be transformed. What you see, no one else will again”

One of the advantages the team did have in this instance however, was an unflinchingly rigid source of inspiration. The building itself was the focal point and really held everything the designers needed between its many multi-coloured walls. It was in effect a silent client, not prone to budging on a whim when it comes to stipulating the requirements the project should fulfil. “An abandoned building is not a product like another,” Beczkowski continues. “It’s destined to disappear, to be transformed. What you see, no one else will again. We all knew that the experience of visiting the building was our most important source of inspiration. We didn’t yet know what we could do with it, we just wanted to share the experience… we wanted to say ‘Now it’s your turn’.”

Those visits to the building would of course become essential and more frequent as the project moved into the practical phase. In regards to the visual design process, Graffiti Général rests entirely on the front-end and a graphics-heavy virtual tour. This needed to be modelled as a 3D space but also would require an intensive image capture exercise. A vast collection of photos of the building exterior and interior were collected over roughly the space of one week, and readied for mapping onto virtual surfaces. “The stars of this website are the building and its graffiti. It was a titanic job to reference and capture every square metre of space. More than 5,000 photos were taken in total.” This is, of course, astounding in itself, but he goes on to stress that there was even more to it than simply trying to re-create.

“Then of course, this physical place and the style of the graffiti had to take precedence over our interface,” Beczkowski continues. “Graffiti Général is graphically designed as an application, as software. The elements of web design had to be as simple as a cultural venue’s signage. The resulting motion design elements combined the spirit of a Parisian industrial building and Brooklyn-style graffiti street culture.”

Moving over to development, again the coding was very much focused on realising the visual experience. Effort was trained around 3D JavaScript library three.js for plotting models onto the canvas element, backed up by PHP5 framework Kohana. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the size of the development team given the impressive performance of the final product.

“Most of this project’s development is actually frontend, primarily three.js and (HTML5) canvas. However Kohana was used as a back-end framework to speed up the development and localisation effort, with Jenkins configured for continuous integration. The development team consisted of two senior developers, one focusing mostly on the 3D modelling and rendering, while the other focused on the website’s layout and the graffiti feature. The biggest coding challenges were finding the most efficient workflow to model the entire building from the pictures taken on site, while enabling colour calibration from the web design team. Secondly, the enabling of users to graffiti freely on walls, in 3D and while moving, hence the need for mapping their 3D movements onto a 2D plane realistically. Last, dealing with transparency through windows inside & outside of the building.”

Marketing through word of mouth

Most will agree that the end result at is jaw-dropping, especially for those connected adequately to enjoy the full high-definition version. Impressive as it is however, the site continues to feel a little like an undiscovered gem – retaining the underground factor so indicative of the graffiti art scene. As the folks at BETC reveal, the project could not rely on the usual marketing resources enjoyed by big commercial launches. Instead, the site has amassed an admirable following by being talked about between visitors and press, leveraging opportunities like this to spread awareness: “As an internal cultural project, Graffiti Général has no media budget for its launch,” Beczkowski reveals. We relied solely on the interest of the media and on word of mouth. Before reconstruction work started, we invited journalists to visit the building and presented the website in one of the rooms. The risk paid off, as the project has since created a buzz, with more than 60,000 people visiting the building and 35,000 new virtual pieces of artwork created on the site.”

Somewhat aptly, the site after launch has relied on journalists to fulfil a role as an on-going research project. In order to make Graffiti Général an evolving document of artistic works it has reached out to various sources and experts to identify the various daubs. Perhaps the biggest triumph has been the ability to bring artists, fans and even potential employees together around the content and inspire more great work.

“Graffiti Général will continue to be a living project. With the help of a specialised journalist, we’ve already identified 40 major pieces and their artists, in the building. Visitors to the site can see these artists’ biographies and interviews. In the future, we’re sure other graffiti artists will step forward to identify their work, allowing us to update the site. The online artwork module allows visitors to the building to create their own artwork. It’s become a real communication tool and some users are leaving messages such as requests for internships, for example!”