Anika starts with broad brush strokes.
A swipe of her hand is enough to brush away the initial debris on the face of the billboard: hastily scrawled felt-tip pen tags, random stickers, cartoon monkey faces, and ironically pixelated icons, until the surface is clean, and nothing interferes with the now pristine Volkswagen advert that fills the 20-by-10-foot space. She pauses, not knowing where next to focus her efforts. She has only reached back a matter of days, and the VW branding still appears relatively fresh. Undisturbed top soil. Pulling this first layer down completely would take too long—a noob error. Better to invite an element of chance, to make seemingly random exploratory digs. She reaches out to the far right side of the board. Her hand physically falls well short of the actual distance, but the gesture is enough for the software to suss what she means.
In response, the image tears, paper-like, at the edge of the board. A long, thin section of the torn edge begins to curl back toward her, flapping lazily in the cold air. She jerks her arm back and, with convincing momentum and a satisfyingly synthesized rrriiippp, the tear cuts across the billboard’s surface. The torn material frees itself, curls and flaps like a Chinese dragon taking flight. It flees to her left down Oudezijds Voorburgwal, as if assisted by a non-existent gust of wind, like it knows its fate: it dissolves in the air, pixels turned to particles, scattered by lazy Brownian motion across the surface of the dark canal.
History, nothing else. The present discarded.
Anika steps back, just slightly. At first the billboard looks like the flag of some long-failed state, the relatively sparse white space of the VW poster horizontally bisected by a thick strip of red. But when she looks closer she can see the software-calculated tear marks between the red and the white, where the app has decided the outer skin of the paper has come free, exposing compacted, wood-pulp fibers. Irregular, erratic, unnecessarily complicated white borderlands between two disputing territories on a map. She smiles at the irony—if there is any dispute here it’s over time, not space. Relevance and redundancy rather than land and control.
Her second tear is vertical, from the top to the bottom, crossing the first to exaggerate—perhaps subconsciously—the flag effect. This second rip goes deeper though; where it crosses the first a third layer is exposed, a rough square of tropical blue sky meeting golden sands, the hint of bronzed flesh. Now the surface reminds Anika of a child’s pass-the-parcel prize, cheap wrapping paper impatiently mauled at by sticky, infantile fingers while the music pauses.
She doesn’t give it too much thought and starts to work faster. She knows without even glancing at the clock that hangs in her periphery that she needs to dig deeper—much deeper. These advert layers are superficial, fleeting in their inherent disposability, each paper-thin stratum little more than a couple of weeks, at most a month. Barely measurable on the archaeological scale. She needs to go back years.
As she continues to rip—forgotten textures cascading into the acidic air—she makes claws with her fingers, and the app instantly senses her urgency. Now she’s shadow-tearing away layers an inch deep, the numbers on the floating digital clock spinning back in a blur of skeuomorphic, rose-tinted LED kitsch while the air fills with the dissolving shrapnel of corporate identity.
Within two minutes she’s gone back roughly five years, according to the clock. She pauses, catches her breath. Looks at the mess she’s uncovered/created. The entirety of the billboard’s surface is now chaos, a collage of torn material, like someone has rooted around in a paper-recycling vat and pulled out everything they could before throwing it at a paste-soaked surface. Scruffy, virtual paper shards flap lazily in a simulated breeze. At first it aggravates her, the unregulated explosion of not just colors but textures—the different adverts seem to have been printed on a range of subtly varied material. In places they intersect with stickers and spray-painted throw-ups, creating map contour lines. The effect is like gazing down into valleys and weather eroded inlets. Snatches of language flow down typographical riverbeds; rain and grime stains cut circular bays into patchwork fields made from long forgotten club night flyers and hookers’ calling cards. Infinite fucking detail. She wants to reach out and touch it all, to run her fingers over the rough rust spots, the sodden paper, the smooth domes of dried paint drips, but she resists. There’s nothing to feel. Plus she’s unsure how the app would interpret even the smallest of intimate, caressing gestures.
Instead she removes her spex, rubs the bridge of her nose. The mess is gone in an instant; only the VW advert of the LEGO-like self-driving electric Polo car floating in weightless Kubrickian white space remains. Time has been travelled. For the first time in awhile she’s aware of the micro-drones floating above her; a swarm of six, flitting like hummingbirds on whirring quad-rotors, recording and broadcasting her every move. She makes a mental note to check her follower count, but when she returns the spex to her face and the mess returns, that’s quickly forgotten.
There’s a certain beauty to it, she admits reluctantly to herself, even though it bites against her usual leanings for aesthetic minimalism. She’s looking for signs now, clues for what might lay below what has already been exposed. Ripping and tearing has got her this far, but any further unguided excavation could be dangerous. The last thing she wants is to dig too deep, to damage what she’s looking for and force a rewind, especially not with a live audience.
So she scans it. At first, as always, she tries to be methodological, systematic, but her mutinous eyes refuse; they dart across it semi-randomly. She reminds herself to allow for chance.
It pays off. In less than twenty seconds she’s found something: a rough triangle, about four inches on each side, caught between cloud-insurance blue and unmistakable Chocomel brand yellow. A triangle of black and white, executed with carefully hand-guided spray from a can with stencil-like precision. The tell-tale sign.
Anika blinks through the drop-down menus in her periphery. In her hand appears an archaeologist’s brush, a long slim handle with a mass of black bristles, soft yet wiry. Slowly and patiently she works at the area around the black and white triangle, skillfully flicking away pixels that fall away as blue and yellow dust. Her hours of practice are paying off; the area starts to expand, more contrasting stencil lines emerge before her eyes. After a few more minutes she’s revealed enough to be sure she’s on target. She flips the brush over in her hand, using its flat, pointed tip to pry away at the layer above. It’s frustrating at first, like trying to find the end of a roll of Scotch tape, but satisfying when eventually a section big enough to grasp between her thumb and index finger peels away. She teases it at first, gently separating it from the billboard, hoping the tear doesn’t run. She ends up just pulling away a few inches’ worth. She holds her breath for a few tense seconds, and no rip comes. Accompanied by the damp sound of wet wallpaper disobediently freeing itself, the whole layer—and the many fragments adhered upon it—comes away, dissolves, is forgotten.
Buried treasure unearthed.
Even though she knew what to expect, she’s a little disappointed at first. The sleek image of a US strike drone is angled slightly along its axis so its long, straight wings reach up and down to form a cross, a bright green olive branch in its beak. It makes Anika think of flags again. A flag sewn from a billion dollars of semi-autonomous military hardware. She can’t tell what poster it’s been painted on top of, so much of it has been blacked out.
Anika almost sneers at the graffiti’s naive, simplistic political sentiment. With a blink, she switches into ghost mode.
The sky above Oudezijds Voorburgwal darkens, the canal’s waters turn black, neon reflections shimmer on its surface. She’s punched herself in at the date the clock was showing when she pulled the final layer away, 2 a.m. Too early, but best to come in to soon. Her hand works an imaginary jog wheel and everything goes into time-lapse—ghost figures walk up and down the pathways, moving impossibly fast, stopping too suddenly, blinking in and out of existence. 3 a.m. The dark cloudscape above her shifts like water churned-up by subaquatic propellers. 3:45. The reflections on the canal start to strobe. 3:58.
She releases the jog wheel as a ghostly figure appears in front of her, its translucent bulk blocking her view of the billboard. It’s him, she knows. His hands hang at his sides, fingers flecked with black and white paint, holding similarly splattered cans. He’s wearing a baggy storm suit, his limbs highlighted principally by the Adidas triple stripe. His head is hidden inside a fur-lined hood.
Beyond him on the billboard hang three shapes, insect-like and mechanical. They’re billboard beetles, the most infamous of his tools, graffiti clean-up robots hacked into autonomous spray cans. They scurry away on the surface, their movement an unsettling mélange of mechanical precision and animal erraticism. In their wake they leave sections of the drone image in the same black and white patterns that have been painted onto their plastic shells, simultaneously evoking barcodes and savannah grassland camouflage.
She pauses time. Edges around the figure to try and catch his face, two of the micro-drones following her. No luck. It’s un-pixelated at least, but hidden by his tinted spex and bulky, paint splattered industrial respirator mask that looks like a prop from a pre-millennial science fiction movie, nostalgia for a lost industrial future.
Disappointing. But expected. Two more chances.
She flips out of ghost mode, back into excavation, daylight returning, and looks back at the finished bombing. Drone cross, green olive branch. She blinks to take a reality grab, then blinks a few more times to post it to the watching world, vocalizing tags as she does: “#amsterdam #graffiti #street_art, #naive #activism #drones #hippysters #simplistic #stencil #beetles #changetheworldLOL #occupy #politicLOL #3Cube.”