City Beautiful: Art as map. Map as Art.

This week’s City Beautiful lets my current urban planner self wax nostalgic with my undergrad art history major self from so long ago – together we’re going to indulge in a little exploration of how cities, photography and geographic information collide into Google Street View. Street View objectively surveys a physical place for us, but the roving mechanical eye can’t help but snap people and the marks they leave on their urban canvas. Let’s look at this from a couple of perspectives: first, how Street View can document art in the process, and then how it can become an art form in and of itself.

Last week was the grand unveiling of  Street Art View, art which is brought to you by the energy drink Red Bull and their Brazilian marketing firm Loducca. Basically it’s a Google map interface that uses crowdsourcing to pinpoint locations in the world where you can check out street art when you’re supposed to be working or studying – I found this one in Rio de Janeiro:

Red Bull empowers you to help create the “world’s largest art collection” with them – it’s a neat idea and fun to look at, but I’m not really buying the art collection spin. Let’s call it what it is – a lot of low-res photos of graffiti used to market fizzy syrup that tastes like strawberry Nerds. It’s also an ironic “collection” given graffiti by nature isn’t particularly collectible, nor does it generally want to be. At any rate, it’s still cool to cruise around Rio’s streets looking at what Brazilian urban outsider artists are painting on walls and buildings.

Shortly before Red Bull declared itself the grand collector of outsider art, Google itself edged into the world of fine art with the Google Art Project. This uses Street View technology to let us “walk” around in the galleries of the world’s finest museums (or those in the U.S. and Europe, anyway). I tried it out and was mostly annoyed, unable to navigate out of the Rijksmuseum’s gift shop. After bailing on Amsterdam I did fly over to Florence and sat on a bench admiring Botticelli’s Venus in the Uffizi:

For the most part Street View is a cold survey of the world, but it can’t help but capture what people in it are doing – artists are virtually walking the streets in search of a decisive moment, but appropriating it from Google.  Sure, this type of work might elicit the “seriously – this is art?” reaction to some, but how is it all that different from traditional street photography? Whether walking or clicking down a street, an artist still combs through mundane scenes in search of composition and expression. After flipping through a lot of these photos, you start noticing something eerily quiet about them. Solitary figures, blurred faces with identities intentionally erased by facial recognition software, some surprisingly painterly, many others depicting unfortunate events. Here are a few.

Michael Wolf is a photojournalist by trade and takes actual photographs of his computer screen with street views on it. He has series from New York and Paris – this one is from Manhattan:

Montreal artist Jon Rafman’s work is probably my favorite – there’s something almost intimate about the scenes he selected from across the globe, many of them gritty social commentaries hearkening back to the hard-boiled street photography of post-war America – drugs, guns, accidents and such:

Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture series is a recent initiative that focuses on crumbling American cities like Detroit and Camden. His selections are mostly quiet, lonely scenes like this one from Fresno, California:

If you know any other artists or projects that are appropriating Google’s appropriation of our cities, please do share in the comments or email me at amy.faust [at]



One comment

  1. Pingback: City Beautiful: Art as map. Map as Art. (via Encountering Urbanization) « Urban Observatory

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