How Google Street View has become fertile ground for artists

Google Street View will celebrate its 10th anniversary on May 25. Google Maps Street View lets you explore cities around the globe and peer into businesses and government buildings (including the White House). Street View has spawned games like Geoguessr in which players try to guess where they are in the world. Other users have captured funny images using the cars’ roving cameras.

Google Street View also provides a wealth of inspiration for artists, including music videos, impromptu performances, and photographic curation.

What is it exactly about Google Street View which makes it so attractive to creative types. It may allow us to live out the fantasy of “the God trick”, as Donna Haraway described it.

Artists have used this power to make comments on topics ranging from surveillance and sexwork.

Curating Google’s vast archives

Some artists have chosen to focus on the sheer power of Google Street View. Michael Wolf’s ” A series of unfortunate events ” curates striking images from Google Street View. These range from bicycle accidents up to fires. Wolf’s collection of images from Google’s massive archive is a testament to the sheer size of the planet. Each Image is haunting, yet familiar.

Google Street View can sometimes appeal to artists from a more political perspective. It is understandable that some people are uncomfortable with this technology. After all, it’s one of the most extensive surveillance systems in human history.

The Google Street View camera’s ‘eyes.’ Jon Delorey/flickrCC BY-SA

Jon Rafman’s ongoing project, “The nine eyes of Google Street View“, reflects on the unsettling relationship that exists between humans and surveillance. The “nine” refers to the number of cameras mounted on the pole at the top of the Google Street View vehicle. However, the number has now increased to 15.

Google implemented face-blurring in 2008, a year after Street View was launched, to protect the identity of people captured by the cameras. The technology is not without its flaws. Rafman’s Image, which shows a man dressed in a bunny suit with a blurred-out face standing next to the face of a “real person”, creates an unsettling contrast. It’s a reminder of how Google Street View cannot tell you apart from this person. Rafman’s Image plays on the fear that mass surveillance regimes will make you look like a faceless entity.

Other artists have taken an entirely different approach. Doug Rickard documented America’s “forgotten streets,” curating images of disenfranchised people in their downtrodden communities. Halley Docherty used Google Street View in order to superimpose paintings and album covers onto their modern settings. (For example, The Beatles crossing the road on today’s Abbey Road). Justin Blinder created ” Vacate“, a project that turns Google Street View photos into GIFs. The images show before and after pictures of New York City’s gentrified streets corners.

Posing for the Camera

There are also those who try to act scenes out in front of passing cameras. They may not consider themselves artists, but they have the same creative, impromptu ingenuity as an artist. People see the Google car and immediately imagine a scene, such as staging a birth in Berlin, or staging a death in Scotland. These performance-events are called tableaux vivants (living pictures) in our research to reflect the fleeting nature of these scenes.

Street View art is not without its critics. Mishka Henne, for his show No Man’s Land, cruised Street View to find known “John” locations in Italy and Spain. He then culled pictures of women who could be sexworkers. was shortlisted for the Deutsche Borse Photography Prizereceived mixed reviews. Several people thought it was sexist for the show to portray the women as prostitutes. However, they appreciated the way that the images conveyed the vulnerability and boredom of sex work.

The show prompted to ask about the authorship for photographers who curate images taken with Google’s cameras. One critic pointed out that Google Street View forced us to rethink what street photography means now in the light of Google’s roving camera.

What will happen next with this bizarre intersection of mapping and art? We don’t want to predict the future, but it wouldn’t surprise us to see more collaborations with artists. For example, Arcade Fire’s experimental music video, which uses Google Street View images to recreate a nostalgic montage of the viewer’s childhood neighborhood. We’d also like to see women involved, since most artists working with Google Street View tend to be male.

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