Paris thoroughfare Boulevard du Temple looks strangely absent of horse-drawn wagons, carts, and crowds in Louis Daguerre’s 1839 image. Only a man and a shoeshine boy attending to him appear in the resulting “daguerreotype.” Plenty of people were out that morning, but in the course of the fifteen-minute exposure time their motion blurred them out of representation. Just the shoeshiner and his client stood still long enough.
We see the same sunny emptiness in the cities Google captures. It never rains in the world of Google Street View but few people live there. The camera cars wait for clear skies and shoot at an hour when most people are at work or running errands.
Someday we will press a button to rewind and fast-forward through the history of Google Street View images. We will watch entire neighborhoods created, remade, destroyed, or left unchanged except in the subtlest ways. And in the course of it, we will find flashes of human experiences like the man standing with the shoeshiner in the Boulevard du Temple daguerreotype.
In his work for “Free” at the New Museum, Jon Rafman finds the shoeshiners in Google Street View. These are the few who were not indoors when Google camera cars drove out. A woman unclothed, her feet in the water, starring out at the waves on the coast in southern Italy. Four boys in tracksuits and trainers flashing rude hand gestures, perhaps shouting at the vehicle photographing them. Three men walking aimlessly through the wet grey-green grass in the Dutch countryside. They stand at a distance too far from each other to converse. The man nearest to the camera is wearing a kilted uniform. Is he a pilot? A police officer?
Google’s policy is to blur the faces of the individuals they photograph to protect their anonymity. Obscured by this ersatz bokeh, the people of Google Street View seem even more remote. It is difficult to determine one’s age, even race and gender. Vaguely rendered individuals seem like they are farther off in distance. They are photographed at an unknown moment in time, neither now nor obviously in the past, as indistinctly featured as the man and the shoeshiner.
The world of Google Street View looks eerily different from the crisp, color saturated digital photography that even a disposable camera can produce nowadays. Professional photographers generally avoid shooting in direct sunlight at midday, the conditions ideal for Google Street View cameras cars. Digital cameras are now designed to prevent the washed out look of harsh outdoor light, and in a pinch, Photoshop is there to amplify contrast and hue.
The slightly faded, sometimes blurry look of Google Street View appears without any time signifiers. No time stamps or indication as to what day the cars drove out. Paradoxically, the capacity to capture cities this way is a product of modern technology, but the degraded picture quality looks to come from a digital camera with so low a megapixel range it is no longer sold in stores. The blurred faces only amplify this confusion.
Time is just another thing to scramble and remix on the Internet. Now Google is in the process of reshooting everything in higher resolution, creating the possibility of an enormous geomatic archive if they continue the project. There are reports that the company intends to “refresh” the data every year. Eventually the quality of Street View photography will peak and the website will achieve a perfect atemporality. The image quality of 100 Oak St in Google Street View in 2015 will look no different from a 2025 representation. Date is then determined by recondite indications of the landscape and architecture transforming. No sepia tone, no lens flare occurs to sort these images into their respective moments in history.
Oliver Wendell Holmes called the daguerreotype a “mirror with a memory.” Clunie Reid’s exceptional collage series Take No Photographs Leave Only Ripples (2009) appears like a pastiche of this early photographic method of printing on reflective silver coated plates. But computer screens also reflect in certain light. In a contemporary context, Reid’s work reminds one of the uncanny experience of seeing your reflection in the glare of your monitor while deeply enmeshed in multiple tabs open in your web browser. Inkjet prints on silver foil, the mix of drawings, photographs, text, and media imagery explores sex, power, class, and technology. These are found images from websites striped of the website’s meaning and presented with the artist’s point-of-view. It is as though Reid is sharing every tab she opened in Firefox this week – along with commentary. Catching a glimpse of your reflection in the mirror-like prints is a subtle reminder of the role of the audience in the art experience.
For her slideshow projection, The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere Else (2006), Lisa Oppenheim took pictures of her hand holding snapshots of sunsets in front of actual sunsets. The horizons match up although the colors are not the same. The pictures she holds were taken by US soldiers stationed in Iraq. The artist found them on Flickr. The re-photographed images are a comment on the Internet enabled collapse of space and time. Learning the origin of these snapshots, the sunset becomes a symbol of homesickness, courage, hope, and fear. There is an artificial closeness created on image-sharing sites like Flickr, as we may observe a person’s life through his eyes in unedited streams of uploaded content. Few if any of the images these soldiers upload will ever be printed on paper. Oppenheim’s choice to print these pictures on an obsolescing form enhances the nostalgic quality. A snapshot of a sunset, like photographing an aircraft wing from the window in flight, is a momentary reflection on the possibility of the everyday. Sunsets never cease to be beautiful even in an unsafe place, far from home.
The online experience is generally a self-contained collage-like assemblage of windows and browser tabs open concurrently. The only through line is the user’s sense of curiosity and chance. Online information is generally distributed in asynchronous ways. You access a website sometime after it is created, at a moment convenient for you to receive it. But not everything online is available on demand. Martijn Hendriks’ Untitled Black Video (2008) details a rare shared experience online at a tense moment in recent history. The white text in the pitch black video is directly lifted from the comments section of a site where Saddam Hussein’s execution video was posted. These were among the first reactions to the unauthorized video, leaked cell phone captured footage. The comments express fear and anxiety, as well as cruel humor (“Haha maybe he’s still alive!”) Their anonymity frees them from cultural norms. To comment is to make one’s presence known, as there is no clear reward for engaging in this ad hoc online community. They are sharing an experience without exchanging faces or names. They could be anywhere in the world. All we know about the people who wrote these comments is that they were, at that moment, sitting behind a screen somewhere.
Aleksandra Domanovic’s video installation 19:30 (2010) makes use of the Jugoslavenska Radiotelevizija nightly news themes. It takes its name from the time the broadcast aired every night. But Yugoslavia, as a nation, now no longer exists. The past has an end in this particular archival project. After gathering these broadcast themes, Domanovic asked DJs to remix them, and the resulting music seems anchored to the years in which the nation was falling apart. One of the countdowns played on a vibraphone sounds as memorable as Brian Eno’s Microsoft Windows 95 theme. Others resemble jingles that could be used for commercials or broadcasts today. But most of the music strikes one as uncannily contemporary, sharing similar ground with a recent trend in music that rejects the aural perfection of digital recording. Writer Simon Reynolds and blogger K-Punk call it “hauntology” after Derrida’s concept that history gains relevance as time progresses. Cracks and fuzz are recreated and uncovered old-timey audio tracks are frequently sampled. It is not quite nostalgia, but an entirely different form of remembering the past. Music from anytime over the past hundred years may now sound like it comes from the early twentieth-first century.
The artists in “Free” at the New Museum demonstrate how the Internet shifts our perception of ownership. Before the Internet, no one ever had to think of whether or not his home might be photographed, freely and easily available for anyone in the world to see. Personal snapshots of a soldier stationed abroad would not be available to the wider public, rather these images would exist as stacks of glossy paper in a shoebox under the bed or pictures taped to the refrigerator. And recordings of Yugoslavian nightly news broadcast themes would collect dust someplace, if not lost or destroyed as new countries emerge in its wake.
These are comments not just on the erosion of ownership, but the new frontiers of representation in a digital age. Everything on the Internet is free to see and explore at whatever moment one chooses. The meaning of a photograph of a sunset on the horizon changes when the photographer is a soldier stationed abroad. The meaning of art changes when it is viewed online as part of a personal collage integrated with whatever other desktop apps and browser tabs are open. It plays within the narrative of whatever other desktop apps and browser tabs are open. But if art is viewed in a museum it is a shared experience.
Boulevard du Temple never existed as Daguerre captured it. It never looked that empty. The street has for centuries remained a hub of shopping and entertainment. It is not even clear if the photograph was taken in 1839, some reports have it at 1838. The only thing known is the hour of day (roughly 8 in the morning.) This is the uncertainty of the images in Google Street View. You recognize your car is not in the driveway, so you must be at work, but what day did they photograph it exactly? Google Street View shows you your home as you never actually see it.
Information is scrambled online absent of obvious time indicators. Images no longer fade with age. With no physical object to play the music, recordings do not skip because of scratches in the disk. And as the tools we use to create peak in performance, the date of creation loses its relevance. Although the date is in the metadata of a digital photo or music file, or stamped on a blog entry, the swift ways in which people navigate online means the relevance of the date is not as immediate. Now the story, not the technology to capture it, determines a creative work’s moment in history.
Timelessness is also the mark of a profound work of art. Previously, the atemporal was elusive to artists using cameras, computers, and audio recorders to create. As the technology to produce creative work improves; video, sound, and picture quality plateaus in appearance. Now it is easier to create something ahistoric with tools and gadgets. These creations can be meaningful and look relevant to any age.
The future was once represented in fantastically romantic ways: white spacesuits, buildings infinite in height, interplanetary travel, alien interactions, an abundance of wealth, and robot servitude. Now the future is represented as something more compressed and accessible. The future is on the Internet, in those screens we glance at intermittently at all waking hours of the day. Our expectation is the “IRL” world will look not much unlike what we see today. It is a future of gradual changes, incorporating familiar aspects with new but not too crazy updated technology. What is in abundance is not wealth but information.
The idea of the future is now a distorted mirror. It is the future of screens. Like the daguerreotype, screens contain memory and reflection, as well as an unknown difference only discerning eyes can see. We are overfutured. We’ve reached the point where the past, present, and future look no different from one another.
Catalog essay for The New Museum exhibition “Free”
October 20, 2010 ~ January 23, 2011