Walking the Chalk (Street testing the tech fad, War Chalking)

By Heath Bunting & Kate Rich, 28 November 2002

A basic sign language, warchalking communicates the status of wireless networks on the surfaces of the city. Since the appearance of the first chalks in June 2002, it has also proved to be wireless internet’s perfect media story. Wired dubbed it this year’s fastest-spreading tech fad, Nokia has dubbed it illegal, and the phenomenon’s general level of attention has made Matt Jones, the information architect who coined the term, a bit of a new media star. Having immediately been struck by the similarity of warchalking to artist Heath Bunting’s 1996 Project X, in which Bunting chalked URLs around the city to invite feedback, Mute asked these two masters of the white stuff to get together and compare notes. Chalkers, it turns out, are still a long way off agreeing where the war is at. Interview recorded and edited by Kate Rich. Commentary by Heath Bunting and Kate Rich

WALKERS:MJ Matt Jones inventor of warchalkingHB Heath Bunting hunter gathererKR Kate Rich sound recordistAM Apple Macintosh Powerbook G4SE Security Expert

MJ: I’m using NetStumbler. Or actually MacStumbler. I have to make sure it’s logging it.

HB: Got anything yet?

MJ: Nothing, it’s sniffing. If we find anything it will speak to me, it will say the name of the wireless gateway. We do need to be within about 50 metres of it.

HB: This is the old London wall here. I’m going to have to put my camouflage scarf on. What are we now – urban guerillas?

KR: Here’s a panel with information about the wall. ‘The London Wall walk is one and 3/4 miles long, marked by 21 panels. In the 17th century as London expanded rapidly in size the wall was no longer used necessarily for defence...’ – OK.

MJ: Still getting nothing.

KR: Do people turn them off on weekends, wireless networks?

MJ: No, people tend to leave their networks on, like they leave their water mains on.

HB: So are there any security issues regarding water supplies? Any like, hackers or anything working on that? Walking around London trying to find pipes, with big spanners?

KR: Like water divining?

MJ: Of course. I remember watching Nationwide in the ‘70’s – it was quite a big thing. People with sticks, walking round Glastonbury, divining.

HB: Maybe we could do a duel.

MJ: Oh – got one. It didn’t say anything – my sound’s down. It’s called Aspire. Says it’s managed, so it’s probably not open. I should do a chalk.

KR: When you’re warchalking, what is the point of marking closed networks?

MJ: There isn’t a lot of point.

MJ: Ah – got it – it’s gone again. It’s very weak. I think you’re in the way Heath. This is where the Pringles can would come in handy. It’s pretty easy to magyver up a directional antenna using a tin of beans. A Pringles can is kind of the apocryphal favourite. You use it as a signal hoover.

HB: What kind of chalk do people use?


MJ: Oh. It’s gone again. I’m really getting flashbacks to Nationwide and people in tweed jackets with twigs. Wandering around looking as much as an idiot as me.

KR: Do people ever try and steal your Powerbook?

MJ: We were doing it last week in New York and in some of the neighbourhoods the nodes were in, you didn’t particularly feel like getting your laptop out. I think if you were dedicated into turning this into a little urban sport you’d probably get a handheld computer.

HB: So you think it’s a leisure activity as opposed to a work or political activity. Do you think the technology’s just an excuse for a social get-together?

MJ: I really enjoyed myself last weekend. We did this thing called noderunner – two teams had to find the most nodes in two hours. Running round most of Manhattan island, never met each other before, pretty good fun. []

HB: Sport being classless

MJ: Level playingfield and all that.


HB: Maybe we should try some divination as well – I should try to divine. So – how do you make a dowsing stick? Does it point up when you get something?

SE: [pulls up in car] Hi. What’s going on here?

HB: We’re divining, aren’t we? We’ve only been going about 20 minutes.

MJ: But we’ve got three to four… five nodes

SE: Five nodes? Really? You can’t take a picture of me.

HB: We’re following London wall. It’s a challenge. Like I’m with this stick, he’s with that laptop, see what we both get. See many other people around here, dowsing?

SE: No. Well, good luck [drives off]

HB: Have you thought about doing warchalking as, like, a team building exercise for corporations? MJ: Well, there’s ‘geocaching’, which they do with GPS. It’s like a treasure hunt effectively, with little waterproof containers that people leave prizes in. You take a prize that’s been left by the previous person and you put another one in. Then you log it – quite a big geek sport in America. And this noderunning business – you could absolutely see it being done as a kind of inter-company team sport. Corporations capturing the wireless flags of the other corporations.

HB: Shall we look in this skip? I did a guide once to the skips of the City of London. []. It was a practical guide: I was looking for information, other people would be looking for things to reuse or sell. In this one there’s pipes. I’ll do some chalk.KR: What’s your history with chalk, Heath?

HB: I was doing flyposting but looking for something more immediate – a more immediate way to interact visually on the streets. We started experimenting with chalk (this was in Bristol). We would roam around all day doing drawings. We’d get through boxes of chalk every day.

KR: I was looking at some of the designs []. What are these about?

HB: The idea was to develop a visual language that could be understood without any cultural references. There were things that looked like bones or spanners, which most human beings or even animals would probably recognise. Then I took that very abstract language and kind of merged it with street style tagging. The project was spread over five to six years.

KR: Warchalking seems like the reverse process: making up signs for a set of specifically knowledged, networked people to unencode.

HB: There was no secret knowledge. A ‘w’ is only a westernised alphabet – I wouldn’t have used a ‘w’ in my work.

MJ: Warchalking has some basic or more universal symbols, like the open node one – which is like a broken circle, two semicircles back to back. Then people are inventing secret languages within that, where they’re trying to show the bandwidth or the directionality, or the way in which it’s encrypted – the sort of things that most people don’t really care about.


HB: You write it on the floor. Is there any reason you don’t write it on the wall? Do you see any essential difference between the vertical and horizontal in terms of aesthetics or legality?

MJ: I’ve always just imagined warchalking being on the ground. I guess it’s in peoples’ plane of view.

HB: I think I’ve only been challenged a few times for working on the ground. It’s like public space. As soon as you put it on a wall, that generally belongs to someone. And the meaning is a lot more limited as it’s oriented toward the centre of the earth, whereas when it’s flat there’s no orientation. Or like unlimited orientation.It’s much more difficult working on the ground though. To design the symbols, you approach it from all directions. And it washes off more quickly. How long do you think your symbols should or will last?

MJ: Probably only a week or so. People do ask us, why don’t you use stickers or paint, something a bit more permanent. Chalk washes off so you’ve got a built-in check. You have to go round and renew it. So you’re always revalidating the network, seeing if the points are still there.This is only the second time I’ve ever actually done this.

HB: Here’s a good wall to chalk on – dark background, really good stone. You could probably do a chalk on there that will last a decade. We used to go just after it rained. Chalk is what – anhydrated? Basically it reacts with water, the chemical composition will change and you’ll get something that lasts a lot longer. I used to get my chalk out of the Thames, which was a fundamentalist stance, but the best chalk was Crayola, white blackboard chalk. You’d get a constant thickness of line that gave the best visual results. It was quite cheap at the time, 55p.

MJ: One of the things people talk to me about warchalking is how quickly it has spread around. The idea of it, that is, around websites. Right now we’re walking past Norton Rose, a law firm where an email originated about a girl called Claire Swires [ ] which went down in British internet history. It swarmed the internet for a few days and made the newspapers. She was a minor celebrity.

HB: Have you thought of doing a tour? Like the history of cyber or internet or electronic London. Just offer people the stories?

KR: In LA you can do tours of architecture that isn’t there any more. Norman Klein. [The History of Forgetting: LosAngeles and the Erasure of Memory &]

HB: This is Finsbury Circus, the Circle Line goes underneath this. It also runs under a significant portion of the city wall. It was always interesting to me why it did that - like people said, where shall we put the Circle Line? and 2000 years later the wall has affected the route of it. This was a roundabout question to you Matt: have you any recognition that this mapping that you’re doing is influenced by more ancient networks or nodes – like wells, or meeting places, or routes?

MJ: Not apart from the obvious one: IT is concentrated in the city of London for the same reason as the powerbrokers, that is for very historical reasons. Other than that I’ve not really divined a corridor.

HB: Would they be in the same places as the first cellphone base-stations then?

MJ: No. If you think about the network engineers, they are looking for the most coverage for the most profitable groups of customers. The thing about wireless is it’s bottom up, grassroots up, no-one really plans how it emerges. So you sort of get this ad hoc collection of nodes around where people are activists.

HB: So you think that an archaeological dig of wireless networking will reveal no ancestry?

MJ: I think it would be twice removed – if there at all.

HB: I remember ten years ago, one of the first mobile phone networks only operated in the tube.

MJ: Rabbit.

HB: Rabbit, yeah. It was a really good idea: you have a phone in the office, a phone at home, in the tube you don’t have anything. Now you can’t even make a phone call from the tube. I always think it’s good to look back in history to find your ancestors. It gives you legitimacy or understanding.

MJ: Got one, BT open node.

HB: Is it an open network? Can I check my email?

MJ: I think it might be. Aha, ‘Welcome you’re on a BT Openzone hotspot.’ But you have to log in. I tried to get onto the net but I can’t. It’s giving me a nice little diagram.

HB: If someone else logged in round here you could intercept them, couldn’t you? Get the password?

MJ: Not if it’s encrypted.

HB: Are most networks encrypted now?

MJ: Most of the ones we’ve picked up have been managed.

HB: Is there a chalk mark for nothing? When you’ve done a survey but nothing’s been found?

MJ: Nothing? Not yet, no. You could do a big line.


HB: This is an old fire station, on our left.

KR: Nice doors.

HB: All these places are fortified. Civil defence – fire stations always have good doors in case the masses attack. During some kind of riot.

MJ: There’s tons here. Since BT Openzone we’ve picked up five… six. So we’re right in a gulch. OK, connected to TSUNAMI.

HB: You’re on their network?

MJ: I’m connected to their access point - not on their network. They’ve probably got a managed route to the internet, so you can’t get straight out through them.

HB: But you could sniff other traffic on that network?

MJ: If you were so minded. I have a programme called Ethertag that looks at graphic files. But I’m not particularly interested in doing that ‘cause it’s not very friendly.

HB: So you’re not at all interested in breaking into people’s networks?

MJ: No.

HB: What’s your motivation?

MJ: It’s just nice - walking round the streets and looking at architecture. Finding the patterns - the patterns that exist that aren’t obvious. I’m not at all motivated by getting into the networks. Plus it’s illegal and I’m a wuss.

HB: Shall we go and look in their skips?

KR: Anything good?

HB: Just artificial flooring.

MJ: What’s the symbol for that?

HB: I don’t know actually. Do you think every development of the industrialised world should have a symbol? Like artificial ceiling tiles: should there be a symbol for that?

MJ: Probably not. We spent a lot of time getting away from hieroglyphics, hieratic languages. It would seem a bit of a retrograde step.

HB: Shall we go into the Barbican, finish there?

MJ: I ran into Prada with my laptop last week in New York. That was really fun, running around a Prada store with a computer. It was awash with wireless.AM FOUND ACCESS POINT, WAVE L-A-N NETWORK! HB: So has anyone set up any wireless honeypots, to catch anybody like yourselves.

MJ: Yeah, apparantly that’s the next nefarious development in all of this. The FBI cracking down on people, to catch hackers. Dummy open nodes etcetera.

KR: They can see you sniffing?

MJ: They can get the address of my card, prove it’s me

KR: But if you were trying to be invisible?

MJ: I’m not clever enough to be able to tell you.

HB: Am I clever enough? If you had to get that close - you could use a van and a disposable card. Or rent the building next door maybe. You wouldn’t be wandering around on the street. Any network manager worth their enormous salary would probably be looking out for any unauthorised access.

KR: Like that guy in the car today.

HB: Yeah. And that was Saturday - not a particularly busy day and we were spotted quite quickly.

MJ: We got 20 nodes. Precisely none were open

HB: Except that one around the corner - the BT one.

MJ: But I couldn’t get on to the internet, which is my use for it.

HB: What are we going to call this article? Could be something like - Trainspotting or Great Train Robbing?

MJ: It’s definitely like trainspotting: you get interested in things like the serial numbers and the makes or names of the access points.

HB: The media are expecting you to deliver the illegal aspect of this, aren’t they? There’s the promise that you’re going to do something illegal, but you don’t.

KR: The chalking’s illegal of course.

MJ: Chalking is illegal?

HB: Yes. There’s actually a bylaw in parts of London stating you cannot chalk on the pavement. Including the City of London, which we’ve mainly been in today.

MJ: Really? So you’ve entrapped me?

HB: They can prosecute you for criminal damage. No-one even has to complain. In one of my psychogeographical moments, I was chalking bones outside the Lloyds building, on the pavement, and a policeman came up and said, that’s not very good taste. What do you mean, don’t you like the shape of the bones or the colour of the chalk? He said no that’s where the only dead person in the whole London terrorist campaign of the IRA died. Here on this very spot, and you can see the hole in the building where the shrapnel went through them, and went through the building. I said, you’re pulling my leg. He was thinking about arresting us. He was the one who told us it was illegal to chalk in London.MJ: And now I know. Having been entrapped by people from Mute.

HB: Actually, neither of us is from Mute.

HB: We were talking before about refusing or accepting the position of ‘guru’. Someone who through some transcendental technique reveals signs of the invisible. Is that what you do?

MJ: It’s not that specialised - anyone could do it with the right equipment.

HB: Your name has been put forward a lot though, as the person who has been doing this. It would be good to discuss the process by which there is an attempt to raise you – as a young male whatever – to a certain status. As opposed to a group of people who were just doing a recreational activity anonymously.

MJ: I hadn’t thought of it like that before. The gender politics and young male aspect -

HB: No? I’m a white working class male and do art. In England there’s only one route you can take from there and that’s the bad boy artist ‘Damian Hirst’ role. I could easily just start talking about colours and aesthetics but I was aware at an early stage of my career that there were only certain routes I could take if I wanted to do well in the establishment. Walking around the streets doing something bad or dangerous means you get a lot of stories written about you. []

MJ: I don’t really care about it, is the other point. For me, warchalking was just an idea. Four people having lunch

HB: Which people were they? Can you say?

MJ: Um.

HB: And what were you eating?

MJ: I was having a pizza.

HB: Were they all males?

MJ: No... it was just an idea. I’ve never really overanalysed it. In the last two weeks I’ve given it to someone else to look after. This is probably the last request to do something about it that I’ll take. Reaching a point where the gender politics of it are being questioned is probably a good place to stop. I think that the stuff that James Stevens and all those guys at Consume are doing is important stuff, that you can grow a network from the ground up. But this is just kind of silly.

HB: But it does ignite people’s imaginations and inspire them. It’s the exchange between the street and the elite. The elite want to escape back to the wild, which is represented by street culture now. People who are truly on the street want to get off it and into an office or a building. And they’re prepared to trade both ways. I’ve always found that very interesting: to try and put gateways, technological gateways, between those environments. I think the piece that you’ve generated, maybe unwittingly, kind of unearths that general dynamic of discovering people who are ‘wild’ - like Basquiat who was black, though middle class too. He was this dangerous guy in the street, you know, doing these symbols. Then he died, got to heaven, and was assimilated.

MB: Well, I’m going to get back to my day job. Thanks, it’s been a lot of fun.

Meta-commentary (The following was printed alongside the above text in the print version of this article, and serves as a series of reflections on what had taken place and been said during the interview.)

HB: In the ’80s they were doing wardriving. You’d drive around with cordless phones and try to get onto people’s base units to make free calls. Now they’re all encrypted though, multi-channel.

\ News Online technology 8 March, 2002 Empty cans of Pringles crisps could be helping malicious hackers spot wireless networks that are open to attack.

I used to do orienteering and that’s basically a training exercise for the military. What are these people training for? I don’t know.

KR: They’ve removed the output.

Security company ‘i-sec’ has demonstrated that a directional antenna made with a Pringles can significantly improves the chances of finding the wireless computer networks being used in London’s financial district... over two-thirds of networks were doing nothing to protect themselves.

KR: What kind of social experience is this cultivating? Running around the streets with a bunch of strangers, the ostensible goal of which is to get onto the internet – alone, with your computer. And then at the end of the afternoon you go home.

HB: You seem to need a lot of money to partake in this game. A laptop, the wireless card – which is about 80 quid - and then there’s the investment in knowledge. The attraction of working on the street for me is that it’s often very cheap, and that the things on the street are public.

HB: The whole thing about sport is that it’s a removal from the everyday. For working class people sport is an escape. It’s also often a way of enforcing, conditioning, brutalising people

HB: It would be good to analyse why this has been so seductive. Look at the form - chalking - which is a very cheap, dirty and physical artform. You can do it for free. Combined with the aesthetics of wireless networking and high-tech laptops, the contrast has turned people on. I can’t see any constituency who is actually going to read these signs though - with the right equipment or not.

KR: It’s partly an effect of the media phenomenon preceding the activity.What there is a big demand for is wireless internet, especially in places like Starbucks and airports. I think this is what this ‘subversively’ warchalking story is about: promotional literature for commercial wifi like T-Mobile. To make it more ‘street’ or edgy for those business travellers.

[]the website of the Hobo foundation, a 501(c)3 corporation:

‘Beginning in the 1880s up until World War Two, hobos placed markings. Today hobos communicate with cellular phones, and e-mail.’HB: One of the main themes here is of defence. Breaching. You’ve got the old London wall, people trying to enter that. Then there’s the subterranean Roman remains, the Circle line, the roads on top, the Ring of Steel.

RING OF STEEL: a network of police checkpoints and CCTV cameras surrounding the City of London’s ‘Square Mile’. Made up not of steel, but plastic road blocks designed to monitor incoming traffic.

Introduced after IRA bombing of the City of London in 1992 and 1993; reactivated in 1996 after the London Docklands bomb; reused at the J18 rally 1999; and back in operation after September 2001.


HB: I’m pretty sure the first mobile base stations were in the City of London.

HB: This thing about Rabbit and mobile base stations. My question is, why hasn’t any group put up a pirate base station? That would be a really good project. It’s complicated but they’ve still got analogue and they’re very easy to reprogam. Everyone complains about any charge on the net, but are quite happy to pay for mobile phone calls and text messages. Any grassroots community worth its salt should have been contesting this and have their own base stations.

KR: When you get onto someone’s internet gateway you are stealing their bandwidth, technically. For example, BT Openzone 85 gbp a month unlimited, or six gbp per one hour usage.[]

It’s a more mundane and less glamorous transgression than hacking, which is what warchalking is hinting at.

Heath, you also market yourself on the prospective thrill of illegal activity. Your current border project, for example, could sound quite criminal: crossing all the internal borders of Europe without a passport. The Tate, who paid for it, might be quite frustrated with the non-badboy website, which has a lot of nice photos of rambling through the Alps.[]

KR: You can buy ceramic tiles now of hobo signs, on the net.

CERAMIC HOBO SIGNS[image: Hobo sign for These People Are Rich 6” ? 6” enamel (glass) coated copper $30 EACH + $5 POSTAGE]

HB: You’re looking for something invisible and something guides you. The computer text-to-speech here is like an agent or demon. Matt Jones is like a shaman. He goes to the spirit world and brings something back. He’s fallen into the potential trap of being a future-bringer or prophet.

I was looking at this anti-dousing site once. They were saying there’s basically water everywhere. You can dig any hole and it will fill with water. Carrying that thinking over to wireless networks, it might be more interesting or constructive to chalk where there’s not one.

What we could do in response is warchalking countermeasures: go out and write the symbol for nothing. Say to corporations, we’ll do your countersniffing for you. Chalk that there’s no network here at all.

HB: The Tate was more troubled about restricting access to the project. It’s a website, but you can only view it from participating public access spaces. It’s breaching that idea that the internet, all content, should be available to anybody. Which it isn’t. You have to pay, or have specialist knowledge, equipment and the leisure time to use it.

KR: Warchalking takes for granted the internet as equaliser - level, democratic public space - and wireless as an enhancement of that freedom.

HB: If you take the borderxing project… Is it illegal, am I going to get into any trouble? Probably not. But as one individual, I published a guide to cross borders that anyone can use. I think you should publish information to everybody on how to do things that are prohibited. Then it’s up to that individual to decide what to do.

Kate Rich is a transient Mute reporter currently found in Bristol, UK