San Francisco-based artist Jenny Odell must spend a terrific amount of time scouring Google images. She harvests particular features – like aeroplanes, baseball pitches or people in a park – and collects them in these fascinating, thought-provoking pictures. Her website bio includes among her likes: “thoughtful socks, dance parties and documentaries about powerful women who happen to be insane.” Utterly intrigued, we spoke to her to find out more.
When did you first start using Google satellite images in your work? What drew you to them?
I started using Google satellite imagery in my MFA program at the San Francisco Art Institute, three years ago. I was and still am drawn to the miniature aspect of satellite imagery – the sort of inherent nostalgia that one gets from looking at our own human structures from a totally non-human perspective.
I also like the idea of a long, continuous, scrollable image of the earth in which signs of humanity (pools, parking lots, nuclear cooling towers, etc.) can be read, as though it were some kind of tapestry. For this reason, I prefer to turn the labels off when I’m looking for things; without names and lines, Google Satellite becomes one giant picture, rather than what we think of as a map.
You say your collections allow us to, “read our own humanity” – what conclusions can we draw?
I draw different conclusions from each piece. One of the most interesting pieces to make was 39 Landfills. After searching for landfills long enough (again, with the labels off), I developed a method for finding them: find a big city, then find the suburbs, then find the exurbs, and then (inevitably) find a big gray blob.
It was like a period at the end of a sentence: if there are people, there will be trash, and the trash has to go somewhere. It was also telling that many of them were built in places that keep them hidden from us on the ground – only from above can we see them in their entirety. I found out that there was a huge landfill very, very close to my parents’ house in Morgan Hill – I now know where it is, but I can’t see it when I’m there because it’s behind a hill.
In general though, I think what the collections reveal is the utter contingency of the forms our civilization has taken. Viewing these pieces from above and in isolation brings home the fragility and time-specific nature of what we normally take for granted as our everyday, banal surroundings.
To see things from this perspective is to realize the strangeness of our structures as well as the ease with which they could be swept away.
Broadly speaking is Google Streetview a good or a bad thing for society?
Hard to say. I’d answer differently for the intent of Google Streetview an the reality of Google Streetview. The intent of it is to document every last street down to the minutest detail, and I think this would strange and terrible, not to mention that it would make things incredibly boring in a way.
However, the reality of Google Streetview is a different thing. The promise of endlessly detailed imagery draws us in until we run up against the current technical limit of its coverage: we find ourselves looking at and wondering about blurry faces, mysterious interactions, and open doors into which we cannot click to go inside.
What’s supposed to be detailed, utilitarian information becomes an accidental dreamworld where heads can be chopped off (by faulty image splicing) and one can pass from early morning to late afternoon in one click.
Based on the vicissitudes of Street View cameras, cars can “melt” and streets can end in what GSV-loving bloggers gleefully refer to as wormholes. This unintended effect, the human tendency to see something serendipitous or surreal in something like Google Street View, is something I find just short of magical. It’s what separates us from the robots.