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Ad-cutting is a kind of guerrilla art form, in which parts of adhesive-backed subway poster ads are creatively cut, peeled, and/or mixed-and-matched with one another to subvert the message of the original ad or otherwise make an original statement. This latest offering from NYC’s Free Art and Technology collective is a tool, not just for creating ad-cutting art, but for encouraging passers-by to join in:

In two quick swipes, it transforms a small patch of subway advertisement…into an 8×8 grid of pixel stickers, ready for two-way interaction with the public…Keep your eyes open for a single removed pixel as an indicator of a prepared poster, as the grid itself can be hard to see.

The project is called subpixel, and the tool itself is made from a piece of laser-cut acrylic, nine razor blades, and nine rubber bands. You may recall the F.A.T. collective from their recent 3D-printable universal construction toy adapter set.

subpixel | F.A.T.

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Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I write for MAKE, serve as Technical Editor for MAKE magazine, and develop original DIY content for Make: Projects.


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Comments

  1. Will says:

    To quote Strunk & White: “omit needless words.” Instead of “guerilla art form,” try the pithier and more accurate “vandalism.”

    1. Sean Ragan says:

      As much as you want this to be a morally simple issue, it is not. If you’d care to argue instead of trading quips, this space is available.

      1. twoshort says:

        Sean-
        I think you’re being unfair to the “Why are you promoting vandalism?” crowd. I’m prepared to be somewhat sympathetic to arguments that when one parties speech (advertising posters) is put forth in ( or “inflicted on” if you like) the public sphere, it is morally reasonable for others to subvert that speech in the service of their own. You could also argue (I’d find it less persuasive, others might not) that it’s the innovative design/construction/technique that is the blog-worthy thing here, and your posting of it doesn’t imply any endorsement of it’s illegal intended purpose.
        But! The design purpose of this device is an illegal act. The whole cool thing about it is that you can make the required cuts very fast and not get caught by the police in the commission of a crime. It is perfectly reasonable for commentors to point this out, and your demand that they be more subtle and argue their case is not. If you think posting this is a good idea despite the illegal purpose of the device, there are various arguments available to you, but the burden is on you to make them. “That’s vandalism.” is simply a true statement, and any fair rebuttal ought to start with “Yes, but…”
        Particularly, I want to call out your dismissal of people who ask whether you’d publish plans for an IED or a nuke as making a ridiculous slippery-slope argument. Maybe they really are asking if you would post such things, but considering they are mentally capable of operating a computer, it seems unlikely. In any case.,it would simply be more interesting to assume they are pointing out that you would clearly not publish such things, and are genuinely curious what the line is between the two. The whole point of devils-advocate hypotheticals is to be so over the top that we can freely assume everyone would oppose publishing workable plans for a nuke. Dismissing them for being ridiculous smacks of evasion.
        What is the line for being a reasonable thing to publish that this falls on the proper side of? “Legality” would be a traditional, easy, boring line to use, and nobody would ask you to state or defend it. If you want to use a more nuanced line based on your own moral judgments, that’s a braver position to take, and I’d applaud your taking it. But so far you haven’t. You’ve posted something you acknowledge some people will object to, but then dismissed those who do. This isn’t Make’s first foray into this particular controversy; you clearly have position on it; you ought to be better prepared to make you case.

        1. Sean Ragan says:

          First, thank you for this magnificent comment. It is long, so I may
          not do it justice by my reply, but I will try.

          My irritation with moral hysteria over this sort of thing stems from a
          frustration with ruthlessly principled deontological value judgements
          in general. I do not think that moral behavior always admits of
          reasoning from carved-in-stone principles; generally there are always
          hypotheticals–and not necessarily wildly implausible ones–that will
          defeat any kind of rule set you can dream up. Part of this irritation
          is due to my own personal baggage; I have a history with engineers and
          technical types who want the moral universe to be reducible to an
          elegant system like Maxwell’s Equations, and I simply don’t think it
          can be. Moreover, I see such reductionism as a kind of intellectual
          and/or emotional crutch, of which I am, admittedly, slightly jealous:
          If I just decide on a set of moral equations and follow them, I am
          spared much of the effort of having to puzzle my way through life’s
          tough choices as they arise. I think moral behavior requires that
          each decision maker evaluate each decision using his or her own
          critical thinking skills, and that this process requires reasoning
          teleologically, based on particular outcomes of particular choices, as
          much as or even more than from first principles.

          In this case, the teleological thinker would ask: Who is harmed by
          this tool and its action, and how much? Who benefits from this tool
          and its action, and how much? What is the overall effect on society
          of this type of action? The way I see it, in this case, the net
          results are well more good than bad.

          Corporate entities own the posters that are damaged by the tool.
          These posters are mounted on walls in publicly-owned spaces. Though
          the posters are physically damaged by the tool and by subsequent
          removal of parts of the image, it is debatable whether they are
          functionally damaged, or even enhanced, by the process. Their
          function, after all, is to attract attention to the products they
          endorse. So, the “harmed” party, in this case, is an abstract legal
          entity, which takes damage to its property (it has no person to
          damage, of course), and the quantity of that harm is slight or nil.
          It might even be benefiting by the activity.

          On the “plus” side of the balance sheet, you have people–real,
          individual people–expressing themselves creatively, creating clever
          tools to assist in that expression, encouraging others to express
          themselves creatively, and generally assuming an active role in
          controlling their public environment and in “talking back” along a
          channel of communication (subway advertising) that is designed to be
          unidirectional, from the top down, and making it bi-directional. In a
          cultural context, that action contributes to a sense of community
          among those who see the modified posters in the subway: We are not
          just voiceless consumers of advertising messages.

  2. Mike says:

    I don’t understand why you are promoting vandalism.

    This isn’t “making”, it’s a crime.

    1. Sean Ragan says:

      We are not “promoting” anything. We are “covering” it.

      1. Mike says:

        Okay. So if I “covered” the latest cool tool used to sneak up undetected on potential victims and hit them in the head that would be cool too, right?

        I disagree that you can assert you are just covering this and that there is no moral dimension to the story. It is a tool specifically designed to commit a crime.

        To not disassociate oneself with that intent is a tacit promotion and endorsement.

  3. not Art says:

    Of course, nothing the objet d’slash is resting on will be damaged. Right??

  4. vegebetes says:

    Is it vandalism or is it art? If you change the paradigm of an advertising message, doesn’t it, in fact, bring more attention to the advertisement itself? Are commercial statements supposed to be static, or is it appropriate for the viewer to initiate a response?

    Personally, I think this is a cool idea, but I’m fairly sure I’d cut myself using the tool.

  5. miroslava von schlochbaum says:

    This is a well-designed creative tool made by a small group – how is this not directly related to what we think of as a “Maker” approach? If instead, you wish to discuss that a wall in a tax-payer funded public transport access — yes, temporarily leased to a private advert company so likely under other rules — is off limits to any public discourse (‘graffiti’), then perhaps a separate venue should be considered (twitter, leaps to mind). I, for one, (welcome our…) celebrate the creative cunning of the device here reported without political comment. Well done!

    1. Mike says:

      “This is a well-designed creative tool made by a small group – how is this not directly related to what we think of as a “Maker” approach?”

      A roadside IED is also a creative tool made by a small group. How about a 4 page spread with photographs on how to make one of those?

      1. miroslava von schlochbaum says:

        or the recipe for PCP? or the design of how to defeat a security screw? or the proper configuration of plutonium in an atomic bomb? or how to open a combination padlock because we’ve “forgot the combination”? or how to extract ricin from castor beans? or how to open any case that declares “no end-user serviceable parts inside”? etc and so-forth. it’s a complicated old world isn’t it? one must have a very uncreative mind if any tool can’t be imagined to have some sinister applications. so editorially: IED: bad; an device that can allow graffiti where it isn’t wanted: not nearly as bad as an IED. yes it’s tricky…. but i’d rather see some creative inventions at some risk of offending some than no creative inventions at all so that no one is offended.

      2. Chuck says:

        Yeah… no. To paraphrase Lynyrd Skynyrd ‘(IEDs) were made for killing. Aint no good for nothing else’. This tool, however, is versatile and adaptable. As a maker in a wide variety of fields I instantly saw the ‘aha’ factor in this set up. Any paper crafters out there have a need to cut lots of even strips? Anyone ever make a candy wrapper purse? Weaving recycled textiles? I’m tuning metal bars for a musical instrument I’m developing so I cut many strips of graph paper printed on full sheet adhesive labels to measure how much metal I’m removing. Something like this would have been dandy.

  6. Mike says:

    Guerilla art is the same number of syllables as vandalism and I know Iike seeing modified ads more than the ads themselves.

    Defending ads, really? This isn’t defacing people’s personal property.

    1. tatagatha says:

      Corporations are people too!

    2. Mike says:

      “This isn’t defacing people’s personal property.”

      So it is okay to deface property owned by a business?

      I’ll rush right out and paint the pole in front of the barbershop down the street green- it’s my statement, it’s okay, and it must be protected speech.

      You might like seeing the defaced ad- do you think the owner of the store that paid for the ad and had it put it up does?

      1. Sean Ragan says:

        Mike, please stop making ridiculous “slippery slope” comparisons. This tool is not an IED, it’s not a cudgel, and it’s not even a can of paint. And that is obvious to everyone.

      2. Sean Ragan says:

        “So it is okay to deface property owned by a business?”

        I am absolutely prepared to admit that corporately-owned property has less moral weight than personally-owned property. I can live with such a principle. It would not, again, admit of the simple black-and-white distinctions you seem compelled to seek. But, asked if it were morally worse to deface a poster belong to a particular person, versus defacing a poster belonging to a corporation with 10,000 shareholders, I would have no problem saying that it is worse to deface the poster belonging to a particular person.

        “I’ll rush right out and paint the pole in front of the barbershop down the street green- it’s my statement, it’s okay, and it must be protected speech. ”

        That would not be OK, as far as I’m concerned, because the barbershop in your example is clearly chosen to evoke a small business, owned by a relatively small group of people. Perhaps even a “mom and pop” barbershop? They’re probably not even incorporated. They will notice that you’ve defaced their storefront, and it will cause them to suffer distress.

        In the case of a defaced Nicholas Cage movie poster on a NY subway wall, pray tell me: Who suffers as a result of its defacement? What particular person is made unhappy by the act of cutting a grid of pixels into its surface? Perhaps even of removing some and moving them around?

        “You might like seeing the defaced ad- do you think the owner of the store that paid for the ad and had it put it up does?”

        The owners of the posters defaced in this case are corporate shareholders who number in the thousands and who, in all likelihood, will never even know that “their” property has been defaced, much less suffer any distress as a result of that defacement.

    3. Mike says:

      It is a slippery slope- and that’s the point!

      Where do you draw the line between this and an IED? You like the one because it destroys something you don’t like (corporate ads) but you don’t like the other because it destroys something you do like (corporate vehicles and people)?

      My contention is by putting this stuff in a magazine you are saying it is okay and cool. I don’t think it’s appropriate to start down that slope and say that being a little bit of a criminal is neat as long as we are pursuing art or there is a cool technology bend to it.

      Obviously I am outnumbered in my opinion, but that is alright.

      1. Sean Ragan says:

        “It is a slippery slope- and that’s the point!”

        It is not even remotely slippery. To suggest that one could start out simply cutting grids of pixels into subway poster ads and “before you know it” find oneself planting bombs designed to kill and maim strangers is hysterical, in more ways than one. It is, moreover, profoundly disrespectful of the very real human suffering that IEDs have caused, do cause, and will cause all over the world.

        “Where do you draw the line between this and an IED?”

        Pretty much anywhere. One is a tool designed to cut a grid of squares in paper. The other is a bomb designed to blow people to bits. One goes by the name “subpixel,” while another goes by the name “IED.” It is childishly simple to formulate a moral principle that will “draw the line” between the two. One such principle (which I am not necessarily advocating) is “it is OK to damage property, but not OK to damage people.”

        “You like the one because it destroys something you don’t like (corporate ads)”

        That the ads are “destroyed” by the cutting is not a given. One could easily argue that their functional value (to attract attention to the products they endorse) is even enhanced by the modification.

        “My contention is by putting this stuff in a magazine you are saying it is okay and cool. ”

        Holding to this condition requires, reducto ad absurdum, that no magazine can cover criminal activity without an implicit endorsement of that activity. So every time you read about a serial killer or a terrorist bombing in TIME magazine you feel this same moral indignation, right? Because, by covering serial killers and terrorist attacks, TIME magazine is clearly saying that serial killing and terrorist attacks are “okay and cool?”

  7. Michael says:

    Lol. I love it when the false dichotomy of art vs. vandalism is brandished… Folks, why can’t it be both? Does the illegality of something remove its artistic merit? Does this mean that we need legal definitions in order to establish aesthetic value? Think it through–you can disagree with or dislike something without resorting to overly simplistic arguments.

    1. Mike says:

      “Does the illegality of something remove its artistic merit?”

      I’m sure Fava beans and Chianti actually do go well with liver.

      Painting on the side of a train is a crime, regardless of artistic merit. The fact that it is a crime eliminates any alleged aesthetic value.

      1. michael says:

        citation needed, k thx.

      2. Sean Ragan says:

        “I’m sure Fava beans and Chianti actually do go well with liver.”

        This is lame, Mike. Do you know how to argue like a grown up, or not?

      3. tatagatha says:

        “I’m sure Fava beans and Chianti actually do go well with liver.”

        I just don’t if follow this analogy.. is art the chianti and fava beans, but because its eaten crime, aka human liver, they no longer taste good?

        “Painting on the side of a train is a crime, regardless of artistic merit.”

        Granted! I agree with this fact.

        “The fact that it is a crime eliminates any alleged aesthetic value.”

        Without getting to heady, lets just pare down these words: artistic merit & aesthetic value. If you’re ok with it, for the purposes of the discussion, lets just reduce both terms, to mean “Its art! or its not art!” without having to discuss the degree to which it is successful art, or unsucessful art, or good art, or bad art.

        Second, I just can’t see your view point at this minute. I’d really like to see you explain this position more. I immediately read his at the extremes. Let’s use the Mona Lisa, that iconic stalwart of art. By your claim, the Mona Lisa wouldn’t be art if it was painted on the side of the train.* I get that you might find graffiti distasteful, or bad art. I admit there is a lot of bad graffiti out there. But if you think something is art in any degree I don’t see how the criminal activity of how it is executed is removes its “art” status. You could have said “diminished” but you chose “eliminates”.

        What I suspect you mean actually requires a gradient of good to bad art to not art. Where graffiti style can be bad art, but the criminal act diminshes it’s artness to the point of not art.

        * I really wanted to use the analogy of a troupe performing Swan Lake on someone’s lawn without there permission because I kind of think it is a fabulous idea.

        I have to admit, I was being snarky when I said “corporations are people too”.

    2. Mike says:

      “This is lame, Mike. Do you know how to argue like a grown up, or not?”

      I do and I am. I’m not name calling, I’m not trying to construct false anythings, I’m not playing Devil’s Advocate. I have the opinion that there energy used to create this tool would have been better channeled into something not specifically designed to commit a crime. I’m also of the opinion that if one is going to sell magazines and attempt to play a role in determining how things like this are viewed, that one should consider the moral and legal implications of the technology under review. I’m sorry you didn’t see the humor in the comment.

      “You could have said “diminished” but you chose “eliminates”. ”

      I could go for diminished. Some of the graffiti painters seem to have a lot of skill.

      If I just planted new grass seed, I really don’t want your ballet troupe trespassing in my yard. It’s my space- you don’t get to use just because you think it is neat or it uses cool technology. An impromptu performance in the park or a public space intended for that sort of thing? Put me on the distribution list because I want to go.

      1. tatagatha says:

        “If I just planted new grass seed, I really don’t want your ballet troupe trespassing in my yard. It’s my space- you don’t get to use just because you think it is neat or it uses cool technology. ”

        I think this missed my point. My point is that the ballet performed on the lawn and the ballet performed on the stage are still the same ballet. I was trying to construct a situation where the “artness” of something clearly still exists even though the crimial activity of trespassing also exists.

        As for the other main thread that this object is on some slope with IEDs which we could not reasonably know what is where on the line, so lets not even be tempted to go down the line at all…I agree you are in the minority.

        What about posts like this: http://blog.makezine.com/2008/07/13/prison-makers/

        I wish these comments actually had forum ability. Its kind of cramped. There is much more to be talked about.

    3. Mike says:

      “so lets not even be tempted to go down the line at all”

      My argument is not that. My argument is that if you put something in a nationally circulated magazine, you give it a base of legitimacy. To give explicit criminal activity a base of legitimacy is troubling to me when it is done with no disclaimers (although they would sound hollow now) or acknowledgement of that dimension of the “story”.

      Sure, a pas de deux in the ballet hall might be the same as a pas de deux on my lawn, but the criminal nature of the second activity shouldn’t not be ignored no matter how sweetly the pas de deux is performed.

      1. Sean Ragan says:

        “if you put something in a nationally circulated magazine, you give it a base of legitimacy”

        So, when TIME magazine publishes a story about, say, the Beltway sniper attacks, they are giving it a base of legitimacy? By covering terrorist attacks, Newsweek is endorsing terrorism? If you are inclined to respond that the context of MAKE is different than the context of TIME or Newsweek, I might be prepared to agree with you, but so far your simple “coverage is moral endorsement” argument admits of easy reduction to absurdity.

  8. Steve in Seattle says:

    Hey why are you feeding the troll? He clearly is wasting our time. ( I cant believe I got this far in a comment thread that is so meaningless) Mike is a fascist. Or fascist supporter.As clear as the nose on my face a, dogmatic follower,a suck up to power. He relates law and morals as if they are the same. He agrees with the imbalance of power that the corporation can invade our space but we have no right to respond. He is a person who longs for the simple definitions because he is simple minded. There are a couple psycologists studies posted on Facebook ( I know. who am I to talk about intelligence using facebook.) recently about how less intelligent people travel down the conservative or racist path because their weak minds cannot wrap around the complex reality we live in. I’m not saying mike is racist but he exhibits a mental capacity that indicates he could be. Or maybe he is a little kid?

    1. tatagatha says:

      Woah there Steve… That is uncalled for. While you and I might not agree with Mike, calling him a fascist is a too much. Using words like “our time” implies you think you are this is yours. That you have some primacy on the claim to Make, or you are part of some homogenous “MAKER” group, one that Mike is not a part of. That is a very limited view, consider expanding it a bit. To be honest, it kind of equates to the “Real American” view and you can you follow the implications of that comment all you like. The group is way more diverse than you realize, and it is getting more diverse every day. Not everyone has a the utilitarian view Sean does. Sean knows this when he sees how alluring it is to not do the ethical algerbra to balance sides. How easy to just say Yes or No. Or even easier, just say No. Some people more black and white views, some people have grey scale views with a couple tones and they arbitrarily and happily assign things into those categories.

      There is actually plenty to discuss and debate in the comment thread that should be played out.

      Examples:
      1) The division between Make the magazine and Make the Blog and how they are different from each other. Should you expect the same things from the Blog as you do the Magazine. Is putting something in the blog the same as putting it in the magazine? Consider this posting from a while back that both Sean and I participated in: http://blog.makezine.com/2008/11/26/diy-oil-change-get-beat-u/

      2) Editorial voice on both magazine and blog. Neither have (or in my opinion, should have) a singular editorial voice. Although, it would be nice to suck from a singular teat.. oh wait, thats how people end up narrow minded. I bet there is someone amongst the editorial staff that actually leans in Mike’s direction rather than Sean’s. I’d love to see a P. Torrone editorial on this topic and then whoever that counter part is. Alternatively, a senior editor could assume the place of an advocate on Mike’s behalf. Sorry Mike, but I don’t think the way you’ve positioned your argument holds up well as is.

      3) Is there a place for instructions on IEDs? Could you learn from triggering mechanisms? What about things in the Anarchist cookbook? etc…

      1. tatagatha says:

        Correction, it was Luke, not Sean, that I talked with on the oil change post.

    2. Sean Ragan says:

      “Hey why are you feeding the troll?”

      Hey, why are you diminishing what has proved to be a fairly lively, intelligent, stimulating debate to “feeding the troll?”

      “He clearly is wasting our time.”

      Speak for yourself. My time in this thread has not been wasted. When this issue comes up again, I will know exactly where I stand on it, and be able to defend my position clearly.

      “I cant believe I got this far in a comment thread that is so meaningless”

      That was your choice.

      And watch the name-calling, please. Whatever you think Mike “is,” simply applying the label does not make it so.

      1. Steve in Seattle says:

        Hey, why are you diminishing what has proved to be a fairly lively, intelligent, stimulating debate to “feeding the troll?”

        Mike has proven through the “stimulating debate” he will not budge. Mike clearly believes in letter of the law. A absolutist. It is a person like that who in situations like early Nazi Germany would have imprisoned you for being Jewish because it was the law.

        If there was a experiment that you were the subject of and you have to answer the question correctly or get electric shock. If you gave the wrong answer it is people like mike who would turn the button to levels that would harm you if a authority told him to.

        There are many sociological experiments in the last 200 years that show what kind of person it is who would not question authority.

        I believe these people are needing to reflect on that. like Rush did, face the authority of public opinion. I believe Mike was not effected by your side of the debate. I have relatives like this. His siding with power puts him above you. He looks down on you and you cannot see it.
        you are too young perhaps, Perhaps he is too young.? Stimulating to me is to learn something from the other. I guess it is now officially stimulating.

        If I look at the thread it does remind me of the many times as activists during the Bush Wars how individuals would get into our meetings and they would get control the floor and wont let it go. All progressive strategies would be stopped to have to deal with the plant in our meeting absorbing all the light. It happened so many times in different groups it became obvious it was a intentional strategy to disrupt us . Watch out for the Trolls!

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