"Google Earth is a database disguised as a photographic representation," writes artist/designer Clement Valla. Within his project "Postcards from Google Earth,"
Valla collects unusual Google Earth
images. Specifically, Valla collects "strange moments where the illusion of a seamless representation of the Earth’s surface seems to break down… They are an edge condition—an anomaly within the system, a nonstandard, an outlier, even, but not an error."
Valla’s resulting images are beautiful in their own right, beyond the context of whatever landscape they are meant to represent; they can also be perceived as lovely moments of landscape. Looked at more closely, however, the postcards are representations of systems much more than of places; through their revelation of edge conditions, the images focus on the elements that intersect within the construction of Google Earth - software, mapping, photography and surveillance.
While Valla, a student of architecture, collects the topography, Jon Rafman mines the Google landscape for living beings. Within his project "The Nine Eyes of Google Street View,"
he extracts unexpected moments caught by the cameras of Google Street View
teams. A woman sits in the middle of a street, children fight, masked men hold their posts, and there may – in at least one image – be a theft going on. Rafman does not indicate times and places, but his collection creates an alternate, possibly more accurate, representation of the world that Google Street View otherwise deems anonymous beyond the identification of the streets.
The materials within another of Google’s tools – Google Art Project
– remain deliberately anonymous. Due to copyright restrictions, the Project’s otherwise extraordinary access to the collections of major museums blurs the identification of select images that fall within the camera’s lens. In response, the artists João Enxuto and Erica Love began "Anonymous Paintings"
in 2011. They take digital, blurred representations out of the Art Project and place the images back into the physical world; the extracted works appear in galleries as inkjet prints stretched on wooden stretcher bars (as one would a canvas). As they state, "Our Anonymous Paintings use abstraction as a code for autonomy and withdrawl from Google's comprehensive visual record."
Many others have used the ubiquitous information and systems infrastructure of Google as a source for creative work, but it’s somewhere between the above three referenced projects that I think that Salem Al-Mansoori’s
spontaneous Twitter tour of Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) on Google Earth resides. On January 20, 2014, Al-Mansoori – an Emirati artist who’s currently pursuing a Master’s degree at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program
- spontaneously introduced his UAE hometown to his Twitter followers through a sequence of found, mostly anonymous image posts left within the Google Earth map. He made no announcement that he would be touring, and he ceased with no more ceremony than he started. At the end of the posting thread, we find an image titled "ruins," one last @reply to a follower to explain that it was all "Around RAK in the UAE," and a retweet of FIND’s own tweet (announcing that we’d found him doing this tour, and encouraging all to watch).
From my experience, it’s relatively rare for those outside of the UAE to know about the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, and RAK’s relative anonymity to those beyond UAE borders is part of why Al-Mansoori’s spontaneous tour was so affecting to both those of us who know it and those who don’t. Al-Mansoori tweeted the mountains, the desert, the streams, the coast and the roads. He featured semi-anonymous personal histories ("Here I lost a mini helicopter with a camera") and opinions ("not nice town…"), while exposing more of the landscape, creatures, and people than likely most of his global followers have ever known. With little fanfare he bridged the anonymous to the personal – RAK is his hometown, while highlighting both the landscape and the living beings (people and ostriches alike) through the entirely found. Due to his spontaneous tour, perhaps RAK is now less a blur for some of those who reside outside of the UAE.