Returning Street View to the Street

Locating Technology

Returning Street View to the Street

By Genevieve Quick February 4, 2016

Locating Technology considers technology and artworks in rather broad terms, such as: mechanical objects, analog and digital photography and video, and computer and web-based work. Through these types of works, writers explore the evolution of technology and its effects on artists’ processes, disciplinarity, and the larger social context of media creation, dispersal, access and interactivity.


As Google Street View traverses most of the globe,1 it documents all manner of places, and incidentally their inhabitants. With Street View beaming interactive, GPS-coordinated photographs into artists' studios, artists have extended their practices to these screen-based geographies. In Doug Rickard's A New American Picture (2008–2012) and Jon Rafman's 9-Eyes (2010–ongoing), the artists have appropriated Street View images of distant terrain and disenfranchised people. From their remote perches, Rickard and Rafman apply the traditional model of the photographer as voyeur to new technologies to become digital flâneurs who piggyback on Street View's incursion on individual privacy rights.2 Moreover, Rickard's and Rafman's projects are one-way routes of interaction, in which locations enter the studio but the studio never ventures back to the locale. In contrast, I am interested in projects that explore the porousness between screen-based and built environments, like Paolo Cirio's Street Ghosts (2012–ongoing) and Jenny Odell's Re-enactments (2009). As Cirio and Odell have appropriated Street View images, they have also recontextualized Street View back into the world to grapple with the politics of public places. By inserting themselves in their work, literally or as traces, Cirio and Odell acknowledge their position as artists in these narratives and locations, and engage in the flux of the built environment to ask viewers to consider the longer histories and changes to places over time. By engaging with the lived environment, Cirio and Odell complicate our relationship with screen-based environments by probing their technological, social, and historical voids and offering political and personal interventions.

Paolo Cirio. Street Ghosts, 214 Lafayette Street, New York; 2012, screenshot. Courtesy of the Artist.

For Cirio's series Street Ghosts (2012–ongoing), the artist cuts out life-size prints from Street View and wheat-pastes them back into their original location, which he documents with photographs. After Street View photographs cities, they move their images to the web; Cirio has returned them to the world as heavily pixelated figures with blurred faces.3 Some of Cirio's interventions are almost trompe-l'oeil maneuvers. At other times, the figures seem to hover off of the ground, a result of the differences between the physicality and form of embodied space and Street View's photographic representation—where camera angles and software create foreshortening, distortions, and errors. Cirio documents his work in pairs of still photographs: one from Street View and the other his own. Additionally, Cirio's site links to Street View, where viewers can scroll through the timeline, pan the area, and see other sites where the artist has installed work.

As an internationally exhibiting and nomadic artist.Cirio has wheat-pasted Street Ghosts in over 130 sites in approximately 22 cities, most of which are in Europe and North America. Installing Street Ghosts in conjunction with exhibitions and sometimes just to expand the project, Cirio executes his work himself, as opposed to having assistants or collaborators do it for him. The clusters of interventions in Berlin, London, New York, Buffalo, Barcelona, Montreal, and so forth trace his presence as he moves from city to city.

Paolo Cirio. Street Ghosts, 214 Lafayette Street, New York; 2012, photographic documentation of wheat-pasted installation. Courtesy of the Artist.

With Street View's location data, Cirio is able to wheat-paste his images in the exact sites of the original photographs, like 214 Lafayette Street, New York. Located in lower Manhattan, Lafayette Street and its surrounding neighborhoods were once occupied largely by immigrant and working-class residents. With this change, 214 Lafayette Street has also transformed from originally being New York's first power substation to being repurposed as an art storage and exhibition space in the 1980s, and is now a suite of private luxury residences and an event space.5 Cirio has used a Street View image of a young, stylish Caucasian woman walking down the street and talking on her cell phone. In contrast to its history, this anonymous woman is more typical of the area's demographic today. While Street View has only existed since 2007, Cirio's interventions invite viewers to consider the ways in which specific places and neighborhoods change over longer periods of time and how they will continue to evolve.

Street View has updated their timeline of 214 Lafayette Street rather sporadically, with entries in September 2007, April 2009, August 2012, August 2013, and then June, August, and September 2014.6 Although Cirio's Picasa Web Album dates his wheat-pasted image to September 2012, he has appropriated a 2009 image in which the building's front doors are covered with graffiti and wheat-pasted posters and ads, none of which are Cirio's. Both Cirio's 2012 documentation and Street View's August 2012 image show that the doors have been tagged with "New York" by an unknown graffiti artist. In Cirio's documentation, another graffiti artist has painted a pink crucifix, not present in Street View's 2012 image. We can deduce that the pink crucifix was painted sometime between August and September of 2012. By August of 2013, all of the graffiti had changed. While Cirio's intervention exists within the voids of Street View's timeline, his work is part of the changing urban landscape.

Paolo Cirio. Watching You, Watching Me, 2014; exhibition at Open Society Foundations, NYC. Courtesy of the Artist.

Wheat-pasting, including the work of graffiti artists Shepard Fairey and Banksy, is a DIY, covert strategy that challenges the pervasive corporate branding in our streets. Artists have tagged and graffitied walls to claim territory within public space and speak to a wide audience. While Cirio is more of an interdisciplinary artist who probes the internet and media, his foray into graffiti returns Street View images to public space. In 214 Lafayette, Cirio's work is subject to the dialogue and life cycle of graffiti art, with artists tagging, wheat-pasting, and painting over each other's work. As unsanctioned art, Street Ghosts challenges corporate or municipal approval, thus operating without their protections and being open to the exchange between artists.

Cirio sees his project as addressing the privacy rights of individuals in public space. Google, along with web-based and brick-and-mortar businesses, constantly collects individuals' data and images. He explains:

[T]he collections of data that Google and similar corporations have become the material of everyday life, yet their source is the personal information of private individuals. By remixing and reusing this material, I artistically explore the boundaries of ownership and exposure of this publicly displayed, privately held information about our personal lives.7

Google does not pay the cities or the subjects in its photographs, but a major component in the company's valuation is its profit through advertisements and web traffic, which affect their market share. With his title Street Ghosts, Cirio sees the individuals captured by Street View as casualties in a battle between public and private ownership of image, place, and data, which he memorializes through his wheat-pastings.

For Re-enactments (2009), San Francisco-based artist Jenny Odell restaged photographs sourced from Street View. Like Cirio, Odell sets up her series of fifty-four images in pairs: one appropriated from Street View and the other her own reenactment. While Street View's images are momentary blips, Odell labors to re-create them by finding the location, positioning herself in the frame, re-creating the action, and attempting to obtain the same camera angle—which proved almost impossible. In the images where the subject is sitting or still, Odell is able to re-create the pedestrian's casualness rather successfully. Contrastingly, in images where the original subject is moving, like running or exercising in the park, Odell's poses appear comically stiff and staged. As Odell attempts to position her location in the frame, she becomes like an actress attempting to hit her mark on a set.

Jenny Odell. Re-enactments, 2010; digital print; 3 x 5 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Appearing in her own clothes and with no adjustments to her hair or face, Odell does not attempt to create a verisimilitude with Street View's pedestrians, who frequently stand in stark contrast to Odell's appearance. Even with their blurred faces, enough photographic detail remains on Street View to develop a general sense of the pedestrian's demographics: age range, gender, race/ethnicity, and so forth. Because Odell's visage is never blurred, there is a pictorial solidity and clarity about her physical presence. While people have unintentionally become the subject of Street View, Odell intentionally inserts herself into these narratives and places. As Odell repeatedly appears in the largely mundane photographs, she oscillates between being an anonymous pedestrian and also distinctly herself.

While the narrative in most Street View images is rather straightforward, Odell has re-created some that are rather ambiguous and absurd. For example, in one image, a man holds up his hand to a parking meter. He could be hitting it, shielding it from the glare of the sun, holding his hand out in exasperation, or gesticulating toward someone outside the frame. In other photos, Odell appears to be operating an imaginary asphalt compactor or holding an invisible coffee cup. In isolating Street View images from their context, she frames them as individual stills in an unfolding and unpredictable narrative.

Jenny Odell. Re-enactments, 2010; digital print; 3 x 5 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

With Street View's time-stamped location data, Odell's project explores the changing nature of place and her relation to it. In Odell's side-by-side comparisons between Street View and her reenactments, she reveals small changes, like repainted walls and removed fences. Street View's and Odell's photographs act as temporal brackets, alluding to the ambiguity of what happened in between. Produced while Odell was a graduate student at San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), many of Odell's images were taken in the Dogpatch neighborhood, which the recently constructed biotech and medical campuses in the nearby Mission Rock has radically altered.8 Odell's project also includes images from the Mission—another gentrified area that has been a hub for the Latino community and artists—and Russian Hill, a rather affluent neighborhood where SFAI's main campus is located. In addition to featuring changing neighborhoods, Re-enactments documents Odell's daily travel patterns as an art student in San Francisco. These are her neighborhoods, and through her reenactments, she is staking a claim to these places.

Jenny Odell. Re-enactments, 2010; digital print; 3 x 5 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

In the seven years since Re-enactments, Odell has continued to probe Street View in other forms, such as Travel by Approximation: A Virtual Road Trip (2008–2010), in which she inserts herself into web-sourced images as a virtual travelogue. Most recently, Odell has participated in Work in Progress: Investigations South of Market, a museum residency program at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.9 For this on-site project, Odell set up an interactive resource center where she has collected published histories, articles, and promotional media about the changes in the South of Market (Soma) neighborhood. Contextualized with a video of Street View's timeline, viewers were invited to contribute personal memories about locations in Soma. Some of the public's contributions predate Street View, and present perspectives not included in its purview. Throughout Odell's projects she infuses personal narratives within public space to develop a more nuanced sense of place.

As Cirio and Odell address the porousness between the screen and the world, they politicize and personalize public space. Through their site-specific interventions, Cirio and Odell tackle the specific histories of places, which have legacies that predate Street View and are sometimes outside of its function. While Street View as a web-based network has great potential for dispersing information to wide segments of the world's population, it also operates according to corporate strictures and technological limitations. With its meta-network, web-based media has a tendency to dematerialize the body, resulting in a generalizing or superficial understanding of places and people. While ambiguous spaces with fluid borders can be powerful, they are also nebulous places that lack the specificity and experience that may empower people to think and act critically and locally.

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Notes

  1. In 2013, Street View operated in 50 countries. The map on Street View's landing page highlights its presence globally, but it also illustrates large voids of coverage in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. http://gmaps-samples.googlecode.com/svn/trunk/streetview_landing/streetview-map.htmll.
  2. For more on the problems with Rickard's work, see Amelia Rina's discussion in her book review "Printed Matters: An Old American Problem," Art Practical, September 15, 2015, http://www.artpractical.com/column/an-old-american-problem/.
  3. As a commercial enterprise, as opposed to those operating under the domain of free speech or artistic license, Google uses face-blurring software to abide by U.S. privacy concerns. Street View is not legal in all countries for privacy, security, and political reasons. In addition, countries have various restrictions on how close Street View can operate in regard to individuals' homes.
  4. In a 2012 interview with Rhizome, Cirio indicates his location is "nomadic." http://rhizome.org/editorial/2012/jul/23/artist-profile-paolo-cirio/.
  5. http://214lafayette.com/index.php/history
  6. https://www.google.com/maps/@40.7216944,-73.9977124,3a,75y,345.91h,81.89t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s_KiI9PokgmTP1FP6OdSo-Q!2e0!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en
  7. http://streetghosts.net/
  8. SFAI's graduate studios are located in the neighborhood.
  9. http://ybca.org/work-progress

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