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We’re All Friends….Just Ripping Each Other Off

July 12, 2009

If you understand the logic of the economic system in which we currently live, the following story will come as no surprise. Nonetheless our understandings don’t prevent us from having our hearts broken over and over. So the story I’m referring to goes something like this…some friends and colleagues of mine worked collaboratively on a bunch of projects meant to be critical of corporate and military engineering and helpful to activists. For years they participated in the development of engaged cultural projects and then went somewhat separate ways. Last week one of them shows up on a Nike website celebrating this great event: having sold one of these collectively developed projects to Nike (without mentioning not having consulted anyone who had worked on the original project.) Video is here. (Looks like Shepard Fairey is also part of this Nike campaign.) What to do when something like this happens? Accept its inevitability? Try to get in on the deal? Sue them? I’m not sure what the best response is but these options seem less than ideal. The good people at the Institute for Applied Autonomy who had worked on the earlier projects put out a press release which articulates the original values of the group – a public response seems like a good move. Here is a link to their press release which I am also pasting below. It’s strange that Nike and these artists “care” so much about cancer and think Nike offers some kind of contribution to fighting it…as someone who recently donated my bone marrow to a relative with cancer, this ad campaign doesn’t give me hope but rather feels like a cynical approach to selling sportswear. Although I couldn’t find a recent article (I did find this 1997 report mentioning the toxins and chemicals that workers are exposed to in sneaker production for Nike), I have a hunch that it is highly unlikely that industrial sneaker production can in any way contribute to a cancer free world….their campaign states “join the fight against cancer,” hmmm how about transforming the toxic way we produce this economy…
(btw: the “We’re all friends” is a quote from the Nike Chalkbot promotional video)

Re-posted from

July 7th, 2009
Nike Chalkbot Rips-off Streetwriter
This week Nike unveiled a cool “new” chalk-writing robot used to print messages on the road during the Tour de France bicycle race. The trouble is, the robot isn’t so new after all. The Nike Chalkbot is nearly identical to the “Streetwriter” we began developing ten years ago.
Since 1998, the Institute for Applied Autonomy has been inventing and building robots to protest the militarization of robotics research and to reassert the public’s ownership of public space. Among the machines we produced were GraffitiWriter, a small remote controlled robot capable of printing high-speed text graffiti on the pavement while driving, StreetWriter, a black cargo van capable of printing large text messages the width of a traffic lane while driving, and SWX a more compact trailer version of the same. Largely without permission, these robots were used to print politically controversial messages in 6 countries and major cities across the US. In 2004 the StreetWriter project was deployed as the SWX in protest against the first DARPA Grand Challenge where its mission was to print Isaac Asimov’s First Rule of Robotics (i.e.: “A ROBOT MUST NOT KILL”) at the starting line of the military robotics event.
In pointing out that the Nike Chalkbot is a higher-resolution/higher-budget but otherwise obvious descendent of the StreetWriter (SWX), we do not claim any sort of ownership over the project or the idea. We have always been very open about the inner working of our machines, publishing “how-to” plans and helping other artists and activists build similar devices. While we have long expected our anti-corporate project to one day be reappropriated as an advertising scheme, we are surprised that in this case, the culprits are close associates. According to sources close to the project, Chalkbot was built by an early IAA member working under contract for Deeplocal, a startup company founded by a onetime “hacktivist”. Deeplocal in turn is under contract with the Wieden+Kennedy PR agency, which was in turn hired by Nike. The IAA was neither contacted nor consulted on the Chalkbot.
Beyond wanting to reassure our friends that the IAA had nothing to do with the Nike project, we issue this release because we are concerned by the corporate appropriation of ‘outsider’ research projects without acknowledgement of the amateur, collective, hobbyist, and activist communities upon which projects like Chalkbot are built. Young people witnessing the Chalkbot on television need to know this was not handed down from a corporate research lab, but was made on nights and weekends by the hard work of people not unlike themselves.
We certainly understand our friends’ decision to work for Nike — we all have bills to pay. It is unfortunate that as they enriched themselves, they were unable to also enrich the communities that nurtured their own development. We see this primarily as a failure of imagination, which we understand is a common side effect of working too closely with corporate sponsors. We helpfully suggest the following remedial “karma-cleansing” activities:
1. Publish their plans + code, in keeping with the open nature of the project.
2. Feature a historical accounting of the technical and ideological origins of the robot prominently on their website and related publications.
3. Make the Chalkbot available for use by anti-corporate activists, free of charge.
4. Provide proportional financial support to new projects that share the anti-authoritarian and anti-commercial aims from which this project emerged.


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2 comments on “We’re All Friends….Just Ripping Each Other Off”

thanks for bringing this up. i am excited about the IAA’s response to this situation and hopeful that people working in groups will take note. We could all do well to figure out “karma-cleansing” activities to suggest to those who may misuse our collaborative efforts!

I think your requests in response to their selling of an initially well intentioned project seem reasonable. Thank you for this article Dawa, if it not for you writing this, I’d be here living in ignorance of these developments. Wow. Well, I can understand the desperate need to make money as an artist but Nike. That’s comedy and tragedy.

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