Follow the Yellow Arrows: An Interview with Michael Counts

From the launch of the Comparative Media Studies Program, we have had a steady stream of students who have been interested in the role which media plays in urban spaces. In part, this is because there is a strong crossover between our program and the MIT tradition of work in architecture and urban studies. We’ve had students do thesis projects which center around how we conceptualize and map urban environments; we’ve had interesting projects in the space of augmented reality — projects which use handheld and gps enabled technologies to create an interesting overlay of digital and physical space, allowing people to annotate the world around them. I’ve mentioned here before the project Rekha Murthy did examining the flow of official and unofficial communications media in the Central Square area just off the MIT campus. In the course of this research, she started stumbling onto yellow arrow stickers that were posted on lampposts and walls through her study area, which led her to learn more about the Yellow Arrow project. Based on her contacts, we developed an MIT Communications Forum event on Branding the Urban Landscape, which featured Jesse Shapins of the Yellow Arrow Project, as well as Thomas V. Ryan, senior vice president of mobile and digital development for EMI Music North America, and Jon Cropper, then creative content channel strategist at Young & Rubicam Brands.

Today and tomorrow, I am featuring an interview with Michael Counts, the head of Counts Media, which organized and deployed the Yellow Arrows as an innovative effort to try to get people in cities around the world to look at their environments in a different way. Yellow Arrow, which Counts describes below, is a fascinating example of participatory culture and viral marketing. If you don’t know about Yellow Arrow, you may be interested to check out their home page.

I asked Counts to share with me some basic biographical information. Here’s what he sent:

Michael Counts is an artist and entrepreneur who has been a pioneer in experimental theatre, art and entertainment for over a decade. As co-founder and artistic director of Gale Gates et. al. he was instrumental in the development of DUMBO, Brooklyn and

served as primary architect of the creative identity of this now vibrant cultural

district.

In 2002, Michael started The Ride New York LLC. which later grew to become Counts Media Inc. Backed by some of Broadway’s major producers, this new company has allowed Michael to further expand into international entertainment and continue the pursuit of large-scale environmental productions and installations. Some of the initial Counts Media investors include the founders of Blue Man Group; Vivek Tiwary of Starpolish and Tiwary Entertainment Group; Robyn Goodman, producer of Avenue Q and founder of Second Stage Theatre; and Charlie Flateman, former President/CEO of Gray Line New York. Counts Media’s projects over the past years have drawn the attention of major media globally, including The New York Times, CNN, NBC, Wired Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald, The London Times, Liberation, Politiken, the Sydney Morning Heraldand the Discovery Channel among countless others. As Chief Creative Officer and Chairman, Michael drives the creative vision and organizational culture of the company, defining his team’s unique entertainment products and properties that bridge all media.

Michael grew up in New York City and studied at Skidmore college under Gautam Dasgupta, author, critic and founding editor of Performing Arts Journal. He continues to reside in DUMBO, Brooklyn

.

Counts is a fascinating mixture of theorist, entrepreneur, and artist, someone who is helping to change the ways residents think about the cities around them. I am pleased to share with you some of his thinking.

How would you describe Yellow Arrow?

Since Yellow Arrow began, we have defined it several different ways. Initially we called it a M.A.A.P (Massively Authored Artistic Project), that then became M.A.A.P (Massively Authored Artistic Publication), which finally became M.A.P (Massively Authored Publication) as we determined that its use could extend beyond the creative or artistic aspects of the project. For example, we learned a great deal as we began to work with Lonely Planet and their community as they were primarily interested in the “travel” aspects of Yellow Arrow. We ultimately found that what we were really creating was a new and subjective map of the world. I became particularly interested in the idea that there should really be as many maps of the world as there are individuals or perspectives – for instance, your map of New York, based upon your interests would likely be very different than my map, based upon my interests in New York. The patent application actually calls it a “deep map.” We have also been very interested in the idea that each object or location has a really compelling history if only it can be unlocked or revealed – for instance, the corner of 38th and 8th in New York, consider how many events have occurred there and how those events and histories might relate to each other and how interesting it would be to access that invisible reality. I think that Yellow Arrow and the growing number of projects and ideas like it, both on-line and in the “real” world, can help us navigate increasing complexity and reveal the patterns in apparent chaos.


What are its goals and how successful do you think you have been in achieving these goals?

Based on the varied definitions and intentions outlined above, I think that Yellow Arrow has had a successful beginning. In a short time, we’ve had arrows placed in hundreds of cities in over 30 countries around the world. The book we did with Lonely Planet, Experimental Travel, distributed hundreds of thousands of arrows to potential users and on yellowarrow.net there is a growing library of content. We also experimented with different uses and ended up with two projects or applications that I think hold the most promise. The first, the “Capitol of Punk”, was created with the founders of Discord Records in Washington, D.C., which was an epicenter for the early Punk scene in America. The project linked Yellow Arrows and created a tour of several areas of the city that anyone could navigate. On-line there were video interviews and a ton of content that really delivered on the idea of Yellow Arrow as a new type of publication. The second project, which is very similar to the Capitol of Punk, is a series of “text-tours” of New York, called “cityTXT”, that one would begin at any of 18 subway stops along the NR subway line. Once initiated, a user would be lead on a 45 min tour of the area. Jesse Shapins who is a tremendously bright and insightful urban explorer and one of the founding creative team, developed the tours in a way that really reveals hidden and deeply compelling aspects of the city

How do you see YellowArrow as changing people’s relations to urban space? What parallels or differences do you see between similar efforts to expand the information environment around our cities — such as geocaching, alternative and augmented reality games, and the Big Urban Games movement?

The ultimate vision for Yellow Arrow, I suppose, would be an infinitely large publication about public spaces — cities — that would allow one to access all of the information and mostly subjective information in a way that helped a user find “their city” within the greater city that they were looking for. Yellow Arrow is an attempt to make the invisible city visible. The publication aspect of YA makes it different than these other projects or movements and the depth of the YA site makes it more practical. That said, I love the projects you’ve mentioned and have been deeply fascinated with them all. As I said above, we are interested in all aspects of how media and technology are changing, the consequent opportunities that are emerging and most importantly how the interests and values of the “game generation,” that John C. Beck discusses in his book Got Game, are different from past generations or demographic segments.