BY Joanne McNeil in Opinion | 11 JAN 13
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Issue 160

Look Inside

The unexpected uses of Google Street View

BY Joanne McNeil in Opinion | 11 JAN 13

Paulo Cirio, from the series 'Street Ghosts', 2012-ongoing. Courtesy: the artist and 'Where Are We Now?', Frequency, 2013, Lincoln. Photo: Steve Smailes for the Lincolnite

Search for Indiana University’s Herron School of Art and Design on Google Maps and an image of a darkroom will pop up with the invitation: ‘See inside.’ Clicking on that image will call up an immersive panorama of the room with familiar navigational interface elements. Tap on the floating chevron to tour the space and you will see the lockers in the hallways, art works on the walls as well as other tiny details like an old-fashioned pencil-sharpener mounted next to an eye-wash station. Now zoom out a bit to find a dozen students playfully staging a scene for the Google cameraman in almost every room. ‘It was the end of semester. Everyone was winding down from finals,’ Brit Alamillo, a photography student, told me. She is pointing a hose at another student in the darkroom panorama. In a further image, in the hallway, she covers her face with a printed qr code (scanning it takes you to the website for Anda Cross, another student in the pictures). Most of the students are masked in some manner with balloons, scarves, peekaboo hands or photo equipment concealing their faces. One student drew a smiley face on a piece of cardboard. Another held up her self-portrait painted on a canvas. Some of the girls hid behind long hair brushed over their foreheads. The students who didn’t voluntarily shield their faces were covered anyway with the anonymizing blur effect that has become a Google Street View trademark.

Google launched Street View in 2007, documenting parts of five cities in the us. Several years on, and thousands of cities later, it still feels uncanny to look at these pictures. To move through this virtual world is like being onboard a strange, puttering carnival ride. Each mouse click jerks you forward at a distance far longer than the average stride and without the smoothness of a vehicle. With a gravity of its own, perpetual sunny skies and a population of spectral faceless beings, it is not a world anyone would ever like to live inside. What has this service given us? An expanding mirror of the world, far weirder than anything Jorge Luis Borges imagined. It folds itself up into hundreds of terabytes, which may be delivered instantly, anywhere, to any smartphone user.

Street View is a map, after all. It’s purpose is to collect data on building exteriors, landmarks and surface textures. But Google’s 360 programme, which photographs indoors, has no pretence of cartography. The people are now the point in spite of their blurred faces. Human behaviours and interactions are recorded in these images of restaurants, libraries, hair salons and dentist waiting rooms. Even if a business decides to vacate when the photographer arrives, there is no mistaking the lingering traces of humanity. Taste and personality come across in the tattered lace of a cafe tablecloth or a vase of flowers on an empty reception desk at a car dealership.

Martin Jackson, Hackney Wick, 2013. Courtesy: the artist

The 360 photographers also capture their images differently to the Google Street View cars. With the company paint job and multi-eyed globular camera sprouting from the roof, a Street View car vacuums up images haphazardly as the driver completes his course. The people pictured on the streets are there by accident. But if you are going to photograph a clothing boutique you might need to say hello and thank you first. For that reason, 360 photographers tend to be local contractors dressed in everyday clothes with an ordinary camera on a tripod. In the case of Herron School, the photographer was taking classes at the university and documented the building with an administrator by his side. The students might have conducted themselves with more formality if it had been an outsider coming to take these pictures. And if the cameras were unseen, as they are to most Street View residents, we would come upon more randomness.

Jenny Odell, in her series ‘Re-enactments’ (2009), explored that randomness when she restaged several Street View shots in San Francisco. Her project is as much a way of thinking about the Street View camera itself – its unusual height, 2.5 metres above the roof of a car, and picture quality – as it is considering the lives of these people now frozen for anyone to see. A forgotten moment of someone’s life – stretching in the park, tapping on a parking meter, sitting on a wall while waiting for the bus – is now stitched inside the map; maybe not forever, but at least until the Street View cars come around again. Another artist, Martin Jackson, based in London, has appointed himself the Street View ‘Writer in Residence’. On his website, he has a series of Street View screenshots with poems, inspired by the location, written in three-dimensional forms which are Photoshopped inside each image. As he writes in an introductory video for the project: ‘We know that writers == geographers, maps == canvases and we all live somewhere && everywhere.’ Jackson pays special attention to Google interior shots, and it is no wonder, as these characters he comes across naturally invite someone to think up stories to explain what happened when the camera found them. A few of Jackson’s poems are about actual Google cameramen; he discovered their reflections in mirrors.

Without facial expressions available for us to see and interpret, the people on Street View are forever a mystery to us. The man sitting alone in a cafe with a glass of wine in one of Jackson’s images could be waiting for a date, lonely or happy to unwind after long hours at work. We have only his posture and the place to help us guess. Or maybe he’s not a man at all, but another illusion on the Google Street View map. Paolo Cirio printed out life-size pictures of people found on Street View in a series that began in 2012 called ‘Street Ghosts’. The images were wheat-pasted on building exteriors at the same location where they were found. Recently the artist checked the coordinates of one of his ‘Street Ghosts’. Google had re-shot the neighbourhood. Rather than the man appearing in the image, his replica is there instead. Having already blurred the man’s face, the artist saved the Google algorithms some work.