Mining Google Street View for Art

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Rafman Burning Van
Jon Rafman, 9 Rua Pereira da Costa, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, 2010

Recreationally, when it comes to Google Maps, I’m more partial to the satellite imagery than Street View. Looking down on Hagia Sophia from space, or Angkor Wat, or the Louvre: amazing. But, of course, if I want to geek out and look at Claude Perrault’s eastern fa√ßade of the Louvre, then I need Street View.

Rafman Burning Van
9 Rua Pereira da Costa, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, 2010
All images by Jon Rafman
Street View images via Saatchi Gallery

Canadian artist Jon Rafman uses Google Street View differently, and, while he pays less attention to gorgeous 17th-century Parisian architectural monuments, he seeks out a more mundane, more immediate collection of images. Through the end of the month, images he has grabbed from Street View world-wide are on view at the Saatchi Gallery in London. The Saatchi Gallery website has an extensive gallery of images from the show.

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The images he finds and appropriates are often quirky and haunting. These emotionally evocative scenes of prostitutes, accidents, fires, landscapes, people on the roadside and more share only that the Google Street View van observed them-passively, by chance, according to a pre-set regularity-as it drove by. The Saatchi show is called Jon Rafman: The Nine Eyes of Google Street View, referring to the special nine-lens panoptical cameras mounted on the top of the Google vans. Each of the images in the show is titled with the location where the robot cameras captured it.

Some of the images Rafman found in Street view expose limitations in Google’s image-processing software, which stitches together the views caught by the cameras. A picture from a tiny town in southwest France shows the same old man twice, a short distance apart, as he walks down the sidewalk with his cane. Aside from the man, everything in the image is static-the road, the hill-so it stitched together seamlessly. It actually looks like a straight photo of the scene, except the man and his doppelganger give the image an uncanny air.

Rafman Stone House
853 Ménez Ham, Kerlouan, Finistere, France, 2009

Some of the images are lovely. There is a view of a beach in Lisbon; we see the sun in the blue sky, a row of trees in candy-colored planters on the white sand. From a town at the tip of Brittany, a picturesque old stone house looks wedged between two weathered outcrops.

Some imply a dramatic, even cinematic, narrative. On a street in Sao Paolo, a man-his face blurred out automatically by Google’s software-with body language expressing a sense of purpose, walks straight toward the camera van. He has a gun in his hand. A prostitute on the side of a road near Barcelona looks over her shoulder before getting into a truck. On what looks like a residential street in Rio de Janeiro, a van (not the Google camera van, of course) is on fire while a shirtless man watches from a nearby doorway.

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Some are just plain upsetting. A motorcycle lies on the street next to a dented car in a town near Rome. A man in board shorts sits on the asphalt talking on a phone. Two other people tend to a woman on the ground nearby, obviously in distress. Another picture from a highway in Guanajuato, Mexico shows a dead body, covered by a sheet but still lying in the middle of the road. The police are there, as well as a small crowd of onlookers. The same Google software that blurs out faces also blurs out license plates, so the plate of the wrecked car is illegible, but the body under the sheet, with his feet sticking out, is perfectly clear.

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Rafman Man with Gun
80 Rua Giulio Eremita, S√£o Paulo, Brasil, 2010

Other than a handful of pre-arranged, staged spectacles, Google keeps the Street View camera routes and schedules secret. This means that the images Rafman finds represent seemingly authentic moments of daily life. Talking about his work, Rafman has mentioned the tradition of “hard-boiled American street photography,” depression-era Farm Security Administration photos and the Henri Cartier-Bresson’s concept of the “decisive moment.”

Those are lofty comparisons to make about one’s own work, especially when that work is more directly related to the tradition of the readymade. But in making his comparisons, Rafman, knowingly, cheats in a couple of ways. First, while his pictures could not have an origin more different from “gritty” street photography, dust bowl documentation or Cartier-Bresson’s camera, they communicate their emotional content surprisingly similarly.

Second, the Cartier-Bresson reference, in particular, comes off as a sly joke rather than self-aggrandizement. In Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment, the focus is on the genius eye of the photographer, ready with his camera for the world around him to crystallize into the perfect, expressive, fleeting image he can capture from the flow of time. If some of Rafman’s images seem to have that decisive-moment quality, he gets there from the opposite direction. From the functionally infinite archive of Google’s van’s machine-captured pictures, Rafman can pick and choose only the ones he wants to highlight.

If anything, his project ends up being a clever challenge, exposing that the “decisive moment” is a romantic fiction; what’s so special about Cartier-Bresson if a van can do it? In his statement on the Saatchi website, Rafman talks about this issue: “The photos underscore the tension between an uncaring camera and man’s need to interpret his experience. While celebrating and critiquing modern experience, the technological tools themselves show how they can estrange us from ourselves.” I like this statement, but it bypasses the obvious sense of whimsy in the overall project, if not necessarily in the individual pictures.

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Kool-Aid Man in Second Life
Kool-Aid Man in Second Life
Screen capture

There are a number of ironies at play in Rafman’s Saatchi show. He has been known as a net artist, doing projects about video games or what amounts to an ongoing performance inside Second Life, with Kool-Aid Man as an avatar. But at Saatchi he is showing physical, fine art prints of the Street View images, some of them as large as seven and a half feet wide. (He acknowledges that it’s helpful in making a living as an artist if there are objects to sell.)

He also takes the images as-is from Google, which means that they all have the familiar compass and zoom buttons at the top left and the Google copyright at the bottom. However, the printed images exhibited under Rafman’s name subvert that copyright and make it moot, or even an ironic joke. (According to The Independent, Google doesn’t make legal trouble for artists who use their images.) Plus, the zoom function doesn’t work on a picture printed on paper.

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These Street View images come from a source that intends them to be part of literally useful reference maps. Rafman takes the pictures out of context and divorces them from any sense of utility. Moreover, many of the images he chooses seem particularly ill-suited to any navigational function. But he never separates their cartographic origins from the finished artwork (the titles of the pictures, the title of the exhibition, the compass icon, etc.). Rafman’s Street View project seems rather modest in concept: exhibiting prints of readymade Google imagery. But he makes map art (yes, that’s really a genre) that ends up having something to communicate about grander ideas: people’s complex relationship to technology, authenticity of meaning in photographs, mysteries of human behavior, etc.

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There are other people collecting Google Maps data and imagery for fun and discovery. Some of them-my favorite is Google Sightseeing-organize, analyze, and present what they find with beauty and cultural relevance. But Rafman does something more in his artwork, and you should go see the show if you’re in London.