“The Readymade Moment: The Theory and Practice Behind Jon Rafman’s Nine Eyes of Google Street View Project” – Written by Spencer W Stuart (Carleton University)

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Map of area documented by Google Street View as of 2012

On May 25, 2007, Google Street View (GSV) was introduced to the public. Meant to further detail Google Earth’s attempts to digitally capture and archive the world, GSV operates by the use of 9 video cameras mounted on a vehicle, be it a car or one of the Google tricycles designed to support the size of the device.[1] From the digital video that is captured, the images are then broken up into stills and then blended together to produce the appearance of unified space. Since its introduction to the public it has become an application on the Apple iPhone, Blackberry, as well as Windows mobile. To get a sense of the enormous size this project has acquired since its introduction, at this point a user can see images of 47 countries and Google has recently announced a tour of the Great Barrier Reef, trail routes, as well as a 3D feature. Considering this ever-increasing expansion, GSV has become as much apart of our conception of the urban as earlier photographic practices. The detail GSV provides for the larger Google Earth project allows for a vicarious exploration of unknown locales, a catalyst for memories, a highly accurate map that renders finding directions effortless, and a form of evidence when recounting experiences to others. It has western societies’ urban centers suspended in air, awaiting our navigation. For better or worse the empirical distance of the lens offers the external world as it is, or rather as it was. Programmed only with the intent to archive, the viewer becomes the initial site of distortion by projecting narratives on countless bodies with blurred faces. We need to take a close look at Montreal based artist Jon Rafman approaches and incorporates ‘found’ GSV images into his project ‘The Nine Eyes of Google Street View’.

Rafman’s project has two exhibition components to it, the first being his website in which he frequently updates images found through using GSV. The second mode is the conventional exhibition space in which Rafman displays enlarged versions of GSV images. During the searching process, Rafman invests up to 12 hours a day wandering GSV in hopes of finding an emotive image of humanity or natural beauty. In order to develop some form of continuity to the images he selects, either organically or intentionally, Rafman has established four categories: street photography, landscapes, surreal scenes, and direct responses by pedestrians toward the GSV cameras. The dynamic between Rafman’s online and traditional gallery practice is not an uncommon occurrence for Internet artists. However what is interesting to point out is the relationship the public can have with Rafman’s process as well as the ability to evaluate his work as more or less artistic than any other online user with a blog. Of course, the later discussion is one the Rafman openly invites. The former, brings with it new ways of conceiving of the artist’s studio in the digital age, something that does not work up to a show that comes to define the work produced through a definite window of time, but rather as something that is constantly in progress. This idea of the artist’s process as something that is in progress is not new, however the ability of the public to witness it and be involved in it at such a direct level is significant. This fluidity of relations between the public and the artist as well as the space in which art is exhibited and the conditions under which it is produced, carry with it significant transformations to art production and its relationship to history.

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Exhibition photograph Rafman’s The Nine Eyes of Google Street View at the Saatchi Gallery, London, 2012 (Photograph taken from http://sylvaindeleu.com/?p=1021)

Rafman values GSV as the essential achievement of the photographic medium, which is, quoting Siegfried Kracauer, “to represent significant aspects of physical reality without trying to overwhelm that reality so that the raw material focused upon is both left intact and made transparent”. Rafman claims “[t]he world captured by Google appears to be more truthful and more transparent because of the weight accorded to external reality, the perception of a neutral, unbiased recording, and even the vastness of the project.” Rafman further exploits the “more transparent […] external reality”, when he publicly exhibits his findings, by keeping the directional icons displayed. In this context, the GSV info graphics function as a rhetorical device to further constitute the candidness of the image Rafman is displaying. As Rafman says the “frankness [offered by the copyright logo and the compass] enhances, rather than destroys the thrill of the present instant projected on the image”. That being said, Rafman approaches the scenes of GSV as a “cultural text like any other, a structured and structuring space whose codes and meaning the artist and the curator of the images can assist in constructing or deciphering”. In this statement we can locate the impetus behind Rafman’s project, the often-tenuous relationship between automated record and human eye that perpetually seeks meaning in the phenomena it perceives. For Rafman this relationship is embedded in modern experience. With an existential tone, Rafman claims that “[a]s social beings we want to matter and we want to matter to someone, we want to count and be counted, but loneliness and anonymity are more often our plight”. In response to this, Rafman’s interpretation of his artistic practice functions as an emancipatory, as well as a resistant act. He claims the role of “the artist/curator [is to] reassert the significance of the human gaze within Street View, recogniz[ing] the pain and disempowerment in being declared insignificant”.

With this in mind, the act of relocation that Rafman carries out bares similar resemblance to the practices of Historical Avant-Garde collage or Readymade in that the act of selecting and repositioning transforms the relationship between the image and the consumer. Just as the advertisement takes on a different meaning when it is cut and pasted on to another surface with different images (think Hannah Hoch Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Beer-Belly of the Weimar Republic, 1919), the GSV image becomes more than information when framed within Rafman’s website or the gallery. Similarly in the case of Hoch or more recently Martha Rosler’s Bringing the War Home series, the images no longer work on you, enticing you to consume products and become other than who you are, to but rather work for you, serving a meaning you intend to create. This relationship between magazine advertisements, the primary medium of collage works in the 20th Century, and GSV does not immediately fit. This relation can be reconciled by asking oneself what is the major way in which one consumes media and is advertised to? The obvious answer is the Internet and within it Google’s influence upon the way information is stored and presented to users has come to define the way in which we understand the world through an online presence. Furthermore the relationship between more traditional transmissive forms of consumer culture and the more sophisticated technologically aided practices carried out today make it difficult to come up for air and make clear separations between who is being sold what and why. The development of complex algorithms in order to personalize Google searches are flown under the banner of efficiency and convenience, similar to the rhetoric surrounding GSV, however in this act of computer profiling what is being left out? There are a great deal of activities that occur online that have the potential to become infinite sites for the development of suspicion.

Returning to Rafman’s practice, The Nine Eyes of Google Street View is an attempt to remind the public of the humanity that is embedded inside GSV, something that is indifferently overlooked by the intentions of the cameras initial capture. In his selection and relocation he exposes something other than the initial function or message of the image – the chance encounter that involve the unfolding of events in the world and the meticulous documentation of everything and anything. The development of projects such as GSV, although convenient and efficient as they may be, should be engaged critically. Given the emerging allegations in the United Kingdom regarding the theft of users personal information, from passwords to finances, there are very real concerns that Google needs to address. Through the selection of particular images, Rafman’s project raises awareness of the physical world that is somehow forgotten or neglected as it is being digitally engulfed for the sake of utility. This, of course, is not a project that Rafman solely carries out nor does he make a claim on the originality of such an idea. There are a list of artists using GSV as the basis for art practice including Micheal Wolf, Mishka Henner, and Doug Rickard. The fact that there are a number of artists who work from the same source material and select images that address different issues speaks to what Rafman said earlier of the textual nature of GSV images and aligns with Duchamp’s definition of the readymade as a sort of rendez-vous between the object and the viewer/artist. Considering this, it is more productive to consider Rafman as a node within a network of artists who gather their material from GSV, however produce varying relations to the images through the varying forms of presentation they decide to associate with them. In this sense this group of ‘GSVentric’ artists exist as a movement, however not in the historical formulation governed by geographic location or education. Returning to Rafman’s use of curator to define himself, the multiple points of analysis that occur within the act of searching and selecting images reflects in many ways the characteristics of the ‘user interface’ Rafman relies on to create his work. As an artist who uses the Internet as his medium this opens him up to a multiplicity of aesthetic practices. Simultaneously, he is an anthropologist, photographer, collagist, curator as well as many other identities such as flanuer or photographic historian – he is both a consumer and producer of image meaning. Rafman is both isolated from the world and granted privileged mobility through it. Furthermore, he continues the Avant-Garde tradition brought about by the readymade of abdicating an authentic claim on the art object as an expression of the creative genius.

Rafman’s work is unique in his act of categorization and the selections he makes, however it is a part of a larger tactical practice that resists the dehumanizing scale of the online environment. In Rafman’s project a variety of dissolutions occur around the discussion of the selections he makes as objective documents come to have an uncanny resemblance to images taken from photographic history, or quite simply the conceiving of the scale of the project. GSV embodies an Enlightenment project par excellence. What Rafman works to reveal are the social and natural interstices woven within this vast scientific project.


[1] Lowensohn, Josh. “The Tech Behind Google’s Street View | Webware – CNET.” Technology News – CNET News. N.p., 31 May 2007. Web. 4 Dec. 2011. <http://news.cnet.com/8301-17939_109-9724565-2.html&gt;.

Written by Spencer W Stuart in his 4th year at Carleton University in 2011. The piece is a shortened version of a longer piece that explored Rafman’s work in relation to theories of cultural consumption developed by Lev Manovich and Nicolas Bourriaud. For a copy, contact Spencer directly (see contributors).

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