Street art, graffiti, whatever you want to call it, is inherently ephemeral. The fragility of its existence is part of the charm. And it's no coincidence that the rise of street art and artists in popular culture consciousness has paralleled unprecedented access to web publishing tools and social media. Now a piece of art may only exist for a few hours, but the web is able to preserve and exhibit it far beyond its original street corner and physical lifespan.
Ad agency BETC Paris faced a dilemma when it decided to locate its new headquarters in a building that had been abandoned since 2004, but also happened to be a mecca for street artists from around the world. Construction on the 215,000 square-foot Magasins Généraux is set to start, but given the size and scope of the building and the sheer amount of art on its walls, it's impossible to physically preserve every piece, let alone the experience of the place as it once was. But unlike New York's iconic 5 Pointz, these new owners wanted to try.
"When a temple to graffiti art is transformed into an advertising agency, the question of the transmission of heritage is inevitably raised," says agency founder and global creative director Rémi Babinet. "By choosing to install our agency in the Magasins Généraux, we were conscious of our duty to preserve as much as possible, these thousands of artworks."
The solution is Graffiti Général, an immersive 3-D digital tour of the Magasins Généraux as it stood on the eve of destruction, including detailed information on over 40 of the artworks and artists. It is the biggest building surface ever modeled in WebGL, but also offers a wide-open experience allowing you to stroll around the place as if you were actually there.
"We could have done a static gallery, gathering pictures of the graffiti, but there’s something special about this building that we wanted to capture," says BETC Digital president and creative director Ivan Beczkowski. "When you visit the building you understand that what makes it so special is not only the graffiti on its walls, but also the atmosphere, the sound and the space. It was clear to us that if we wanted to give a virtual experience to the building, that’s what needed to be captured and modeled."
The agency worked with artist Karim Boukercha to get in touch with prominent artists to contribute to the project and talk about what the Magasins Généraux meant to them. Boukercha also helped select about 30 of the most outstanding pieces to save, as well as bits of walls, windows, and large metal doors to be cut out and saved. "We’re not sure exactly what we will do with them afterwards, perhaps an exhibition," says Babinet. "Whatever is decided, it will be a nonprofit scenario that aims just to preserve and keep the best works, and share them with the public."