The world seen through the eye of Google Satellite: Infrastructure, an exhibition by Jenny Odell
On February 5th, 2014, the Bay Area native artist Jenny Odell opened her latest solo exhibition at Intersection for the Arts, a multidisciplinary center for the arts located in San Francisco’s South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood. Infrastructure kicks off a new season of visual art, performance, and community engagement devoted to the exploration of various mechanisms of social order at work. This project, entitled Systems, will feature a number of artists and public programs focusing on various types of systems—systems of economy, systems of tradition, and systems of oppression, among others—which became so self-evident that we are no longer aware of them. Infrastructure will present a selection of Jenny Odell’s renowned Google Maps-based work, including her brand-new Satellite Landscapes series.
The young member of a generation of artists who turned web application and social media into instruments for art-making, Jenny Odell was born only a few miles away from where Google would eventually establish it’s Silicon Valley Headquarters. She holds a Bachelor in English Literature from UC Berkeley and a Master of Fine Arts in Design from the San Francisco Art Institute. In her work, she makes use of Google Maps technology as well as low-resolution, sometimes authorless imagery disseminated on the internet to investigate human existence on earth, both in terms of ecological footprint and online presence. Following an obsessive and labor-intensive process of research, capture, and reassemblage of this secondhand photographic material, she creates digital collages, installations, and books that provide a familiar, yet alienating portrait of the world around us. Works based on Google Satellite imagery—such as Satellite Collections (2009-2013), All the People on Google Earth (2011-2012) and her newest Satellite Landscapes (2014)—in particular, “allow us to see our environment from an absolutely unconventional, inhuman perspective. This view from above creates a categorical shift in angle and scale, inviting us to reconsider our surroundings with an alternative frame of reference,” as Intersection for the Arts’ Visual Art Program Director Kevin B. Chen phrased it in the exhibition text.
This essay, based on a conversation I had with Jenny Odell right before the opening of Infrastructure, provides a survey of the most significant moments of her career, plus an anticipation of her newest projects Satellite Landscapes and Power Trip.
(D.G.) Jenny, where does your fascination for the web, in general, and for Google Maps applications such as Street View and Satellite, in particular, come from?
(J.O.) I think that all the artists who, just like me, turn to the web to find visual material for their work, share a fascination for ‘vernacular imagery’ – imagery that wasn’t necessarily made by a photographer or for a specific purpose, like all those orphan, low-grade JPG’s you can find on media sharing websites. Both Google Street View and Google Satellite provide an endless supply of images that weren’t really made by anyone and only accidentally depict objects that are familiar to us, like merchandize in store-windows, traffic signs, and passers-by. I love the way their mechanized cameras on a satellite or on top of a car capture our environment without trying to take a picture of anything, just passing over and scanning. I often find this kind of ‘candid shots’ more truthful than fine art photographs, right because of their uncommunicative, peripheral nature.
(D.G.) So, in your opinion, this kind of vernacular imagery available on the web tends to reflect reality better than photography made on purpose?
(J.O.) I think it just better meets the purpose of my work. I teach a class at Stanford about ‘Cell Phone Photography’, which is really about how we use and treat images now that we have cameras in our phones. One of the things I talk about is that any image has the potential of being reread, especially those made without a clear intention. I guess that’s why anonymous, non-intentional images are the most interesting to me: because they are like blank slates, waiting to be recontextualized. In the specific case of Google Maps imagery, the camera registers everything that comes into its range but doesn’t really see anything. For example, in my works from the series All the People on Google Earth, people caught by the satellite are just excess information in the utilitarian terms of this software. Yet, when we look at those pictures, we recognize those vague figures as people and identify ourselves in their behavior and gestures. So, their humanity has to be reanimated by a person looking at them. This is true also with regards to the new work I’m about to present at Intersection for the Arts, which concerns infrastructures that, although massive in size and essential for our survival on this planet, are often invisible to us, except on Google Maps. While those ‘hidden landscapes’, including airports, wastewater treatment stations, and electric plants, are just space-based data for the satellite, for me they are the materialization of world’s issues that became crucial to my work, like global warming, economic globalization, and energy sustainability.
Jenny Odell’s first experience with Google Maps dates back to 2008 and was marked by her virtual encounter with a man on a desert street of Sunnydale, a housing project in a particularly poor and isolated neighborhood of San Francisco. He walked with his hands in his pockets, wearing a black sweatshirt with a life-size skeleton on it. Like every other person on Google Street View, his face had been blurred out, adding an extra layer of mystery to his already spectral appearance. Running into this perfect stranger in that remote corner of the digital world startled the artist much more than it would have in real life, as it awoke in her the painful awareness of the insuperable physical barrier between her dimension and his. However close, their encounter seemed to have increased the actual spatial, temporal and even cultural distance between them.
Several years later, this experience would turn into an essay by Jenny Odell, entitled Ghost in the Machine: an encounter with a man on Street View, and serve as a primary inspiration for her graduating project, entitled Travel by Approximation: A Virtual Road Trip (2009-2010). This last one is the work that better than any other reflects the artist’s role as a ‘mirror’ of our everyday life, and especially of the way we perceive reality and share experience in a time when internet and social media have revolutionized our way to position ourselves and communicate with others.
Travel by Approximation: A Virtual Road Trip is the record of a trip the artist made across the United States by way of the internet. For one real year—almost two virtual months—she navigated Google Street View using reviews posted on Yelp, TripAdvisor, CitySearch, and Insider Pages, and virtual tours of monuments, restaurants, and hotels to document her virtual experience in the most realistic way possible. She even used Photoshop to integrate herself into photos shared on Panoramio, Picasa, and Flickr. The result was a 272 pages book featuring the pseudo-material evidence of a journey made through our collective digital memory.
(D.G.) Similarly to the rest of your works, Travel by Approximation: A Virtual Road Trip strives neither to provide an objective description of reality, nor to produce new evidence of our everyday experience. Instead, it makes use of digital traces left on the web to reconstruct and rediscover a virtual—but not necessarily less truthful—experience, based on our collective perception of reality. How do you feel in this position as a mediator? What do you think is your role as an artist?
(J.O.) The way I see my role as an artist was really clarified three years ago when I participated to Les Rencontres d’Arles, a yearly photography festival organized in Arles, France. The 2011 edition, which featured renowned names such as Penelope Umbrico, Jon Rafman, and Mishka Henner, caused big stir because no one of the participating artists, myself included, was a photographer. We were all recycling images found on the internet without really making anything ‘new’. And that’s exactly what the idea behind the show was all about: reintroducing the post-modern concept of creativity, based on the act of ‘choosing’ instead of ‘making’, which, according to the philosophical aesthetics of for example Arthur C. Danto, doesn’t mean that everything is art, but it does mean that anything can be art. In their manifesto, the curators referred to what they called ‘ecology of images’ as to a new—more playful and unpredictable—approach to digital photography which, almost one century after Marcel Duchamp’s invention of the readymade, revives the practice of appropriation and recontextualization of what already exists, in this case of web imagery.
(D.G.) So making art becomes a matter of taking something that is already there and placing it into a new conceptual framework, giving it a new connotation, new criteria, and sending it out into the world…
(J.O.) Exactly, and whatever comes back is ‘the work’. It’s a very unpredictable process, very different than making something following a pre-fixed plan. All you can control are the structure and the rules you gave to yourself. So, that’s really how I like to describe my process of art-making. One thing I hope my work could do, is that it would transmit my insatiable sense of curiosity. I would like the person who gets in touch with it to feel the desire to go and look at those things himself. In that sense, I’m not making anything new but I’m trying to suggest a new way to look at the world around us.
(D.G.) Is your interactive installation Where Almost Everything I Used, Wore, Ate or Bought on Monday, April 1, 2013 (That Had a Label) Was Manufactured, to the Best of My Knowledge an example of how you try to transmit that sense of curiosity?
(J.O.) Right. That work is an attempt to trace the geographical origin of all the things I used on an average day of my life. By scrolling with the computer mouse on the images, the observer activates the Google Satellite view of the place where they were manufactured. The purpose of this project is, on the one hand, to materialize the physical distance that occurs between the place of production and the place of consumption of these objects, and on the other hand, to highlight the alienation that occurs when one realizes that all of his or her possessions were not only made by strangers far away, but are still afloat and available in the marketplace. This idea is enhanced by the choice of using product photos available online rather than my own. What I learned from this experience is that knowing where the things that we use everyday actually come from helps me to get a better understanding of the social mechanisms behind them, for example that Amazon isn’t this abstract entity where the stuff we order comes out but an actual place, and that its rigid corporate culture makes it really difficult to work there.
(D.G.) So, visualizing where the source of our necessities is located would increase our awareness of certain social, economical, and cultural issues related to them. Isn’t that the idea behind your three most recent Google Satellite-based projects as well—Satellite Collections, All the People on Google Earth, and Satellite Landscapes? Can you tell me what those three series have in common and how you evolved from the first to the last one?
(J.O.) I actually consider these three works as part of one extensive project, as they all use Google Satellite to locate specific elements which I then capture and isolate out of their original environmental contest. In particular, All the People on Google Earth, which I mentioned before, detects human presence in crowded places, revealing recognizable social behavior and patterns. Satellite Collections gathers and compares material evidences of that human presence, such as farms, swimming pools, or shipping containers, focusing merely on features like form and color. Satellite Landscapes, to conclude, draw attention to the infrastructures that provide services and resources essential to our daily life, such as train stations or manufactory plants.
(J.O.) The most fascinating about Satellite Landscapes is that the majority of us won’t even know what, for example, a wastewater treatment station looks like, while every city in this country actually needs one in order to function. Seeing those giants of concrete and steel through the eye of the satellite inevitably reminds us of our physicality and relation of dependence from systems which, in spite of their proximity, remain just as obscure to us as their exact geographical position.
(D.G.) Is that the reason why you decided to go and find out where things you detected on Google Satellite are located in the real world, like the transmission line that provides San Francisco of all its electrical power?
(J.O.) Indeed. In places where it exists above ground, the electric-power transmission grid is one of the best examples of something that is all around us but which we have learned not to see. San Francisco receives all of its municipal power—used to drive city streetlights, schools, hospitals, and the public transportation system—from a dam at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park. The only map of the transmission line I could find on the web was abstract: it included just two tower symbols and a couple of straight lines. Therefore, I used Google Satellite to trace the route from the substation in the East Bay, where the power enters the grid, to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where the flow of Hetch Hetchy water is first converted to electricity. I then used this map to generate driving directions for a trip in the summer of 2013. I took photos of every single transmission tower I could find and created a slideshow documenting my journey through the hundreds hot, dry, and generally desolated miles the power line crosses to reach us.
(J.O.) As Hanna Arendt, author of The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition, formulates it: “… because human existence is conditioned existence, it would be impossible without things, and things would be a heap of unrelated articles, a non-world, if they were not the conditioners of human existence.” That’s why, now that I’m aware of where the electricity that supplies the bus line that picks me up every morning actually comes from, those transmission towers silently lined up along the way will never look the same to me again.
(D.G.) Power Trip will also be part of Jenny Odell’s solo exhibition at Intersection for the Arts. Thank you Jenny for your essential support in the realization of this essay.
Jenny Odell, Infrastructure, Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco, February 5th – March 29th, 2014.