Are we living in a simulation? Photography duo Orejarena & Stein might have some evidence

Sourcing locations from Google Earth, the pair have found evidence of real-life glitches – from fake villages to the “perfect” American town that never existed.

27 June 2022


In today’s digital world, you can never quite be sure whether what you’re looking at is true or not. With constant information merging with unreliable sources – and the means of anyone being able to take a picture and share it – the theories of fact and fiction have never been so intertwined. This is a concept explored by Andrea Orejarena and Caleb Stein, aka Orejarena & Stein, in their latest series American Glitch.

Since we last spoke to the couple, the pair have been driving across the US like nomads – travelling the roads for months at a time and living out of their car. Returning for short stints back to their Brooklyn-based studio for research, this experience is what drove the making of American Glitch, which arose during the first peak of the pandemic when the CIA declassified many documents. “Amongst them was the Gateway Experience,” says Andrea. “We were struck by this report which discusses our ability to control certain things around us if we reach a certain brain state.” Coined as the term "manifesting", the duo sought to explore the idea of living in a simulation, “an increasingly prevalent theory we keep coming across,” adds Caleb. “We want to dive deeper into this idea by using the internet as a record of our collective unconscious.” This lead to the question of whether or not we're living in a simulation. And if we are, how can we tell? How stable is it? “What are the glitches?”

Setting out to respond to these questions – and answer perhaps one of the world’s most thought-of conspiracy theories – they spent months scouring the internet to source imagery that would serve as evidence of spotting a “glitch in real life”, says Andrea. Many of which had “location clues” that they proceeded to track down on Google Earth – “it turned that lots of them were real places”. The findings are very much in tune with the themes explored in iconic films like The Truman Show and The Matrix, nodding to a bordered, watched and controlled territory in which the subjects find themselves in – that is before these subjects one day stumble across the edge, or the “glitch”, provoking everything to fall apart. “It is a vernacular that embodies a generation’s experiences of digital worlds,” says Caleb. “The notion of a ‘real-life’ glitch reflects a generation’s experience where the digital and physical worlds are merging.”


Orejarena & Stein: American Glitch. Fake Iraqi Village (Copyright © Orejarena & Stein, 2022)

So how does this transcend into the 'real' world? Perhaps it’s better to understand the concept of the project through the places in which they visited. A fake Iraqi village in the middle of the Californian Mojave Desert is an apt example, built by the US Army where they hire Middle Eastern actors to occupy the village’s marketplace, selling fruit and creating a “true to life” environment. “When we returned to the village a month later, the conflict with Russia and Ukraine had started, and all of those actors were suddenly Russain. The fruit was different,” explains Andrea.

In another spot in California, there’s a “blueprint” for what was be deemed as the “perfect” American town. “We particularly love all of the cul-de-sacs which resonate with our obsession with all-things Americana and Lynchian,” adds Caleb. However, despite the real estate developers promising homes and buildings to hundreds of people, it was all a big scam. “The developers had built the blueprint but there was no intention to build anything else.” The picture for this location took months to reach fruition, with help of assistant Jonathan Auch. Not only did they spend masses of time on research and organising – as well location finding and sourcing a helicopter and pilot who could take the doors off for the photo – they also found out last minute that it was a restrict airspace, adding a somewhat large curve ball to the process. They luckily got special permission the day of the flight from an Air Force base.

American Glitch is one of those projects that will leave a lasting taste in your mouth – one that will start you questioning the world and all its supposed truths and fictions. “It’s meant to open up conversations about ‘real’ and ‘fake’ news, conspiracies, glitches in our landscape,” says Andrea. “We want to take the pulse on a collective perspective on parafiction.”

GalleryOrejarena & Stein: American Glitch (Copyright © Orejarena & Stein, 2022)


California City


Fort Irwin, Desert Facade


Controlled burn


Gettysburg Reenactment


Fort Irwin Firing Range


Montezuma Futurish House


Split House


Very Large Array New Mexico

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Orejarena & Stein: American Glitch. Mars Simulation in Utah (Copyright © Orejarena & Stein, 2022)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima. 

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