Google Street View’s Projected Futures

Image Courtesy of Author
In this post, Aroussiak Gabrielian links Street View's aesthetics to extant cinematic techniques to explore the potential of its abstractions for telling new stories about the city’s possible futures.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Experimental Media and the City.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

We do not have to go to such extreme levels of abstraction as Liam Young to confirm Holly’s claims about the “reconfiguring of the cinematic itself as … representation becomes computation,” since Google Street View, while seemingly cinematic in the traditional sense of the moving image, is a database, yet navigable as images – where the image is no longer a representation but rather an operation. In this post I explore four distinct links between Street View’s proffered explorations and extant cinematic techniques. These links allow us to move beyond valuing Street View as a merely hyper-realist or indexical representation of reality and to begin exploring the potential of its abstractions for telling new stories about the city’s possible futures.

Young’s data abstractions allow him to generate new narratives of the city just as I suggest Street View abstracts the built world, allowing us to imagine it otherwise. Clearly the abstraction of Google Street View is seemingly “more real” or certainly more familiar. It is therefore both an abstraction and simulation that, perhaps because of its familiarity, yields new narratives more immediately relatable to our everyday condition. In other words, the narrative potentials of Google Street View are more tactical than the comprehensive rewriting of reality or the realization of a posthuman “Concept City” where autonomous machines dominate the urban landscape. Young claims “The drone stands as the central object of power today,” thus becoming the 21st-century version of de Certeau’s disembodied view of the city from the top of the World Trade Center. That said, the Google vehicles are similar to drones in the sense that they neutrally collect data and process it algorithmically. Beyond mapping the visual from a slightly elevated position (8-10 feet), Google now maps sound, pollution levels, and uses LiDAR to reconstruct streetscape elevations, to map terrain, and other 3D information. Yet the democratic and DIY aspects of the software additionally contribute to its everyday quality and tactical potentials.

Holly’s presentation of Young’s work provides parallels and intersections with the creative possibilities I see in Google Street View. Young’s investigation of narrative from a spatial perspective rather than exclusively a temporal one parallels the “multilinear narrative structures” of what I have called “storyspaces”. Yet it is important to note that, as opposed to Young’s creative experiments in filmmaking (while using a surveying technology), the aim of Google Street View is to behave as a map or utilitarian source of orientation. It therefore emerges from the often problematic lineage of mapping, which produced supposed “stable, accurate, indisputable mirrors of reality.”1Corner, James. “The Agency of Mapping: Speculation, Critique and Invention.” In Mappings, edited by Denis Cosgrove. London: Reaktion Books, 1999, pp. 214 While clearly distinct from the fixed content of the traditional map, the dynamic and reactive database of Google Street View still retains a “realist” agenda in order for it to read as a credible map. This redundancy of the map (as “tracing”)2Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.  See pp. 12 for the distinction: “Make a map not a tracing!” derives from the “objective” or “scientific” approach to map-making inherited from the Enlightenment.  Yet what realist maps imply, the potential of a 1:1 correspondence with their referents, is a delusion that both Jorge Luis Borges and Lewis Carroll remind us of. Carroll’s character Mein Herr concludes, “we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”3Corner, James. “The Agency of Mapping: Speculation, Critique and Invention.” In Mappings, edited by Denis Cosgrove. London: Reaktion Books, 1999, pp. 221.

Maps are not the actual territory: they are fictions. My work explores how maps do not depict or represent but rather enable or precipitate future possibilities. As an artist and designer working in the language and medium of landscape, I aim to destabilize the conventional idea of the map through my own transgressive interventions that reveal mapping as a cultural project that builds a world as much as it measures and describes it. Its abstractions open up new ways to read the landscape and its “reality.”

As I have mentioned, in addition to providing unique ways of “visiting,” reading, and recording sites, Google Street View offers one the ability to write new narratives about its possible futures. I present some such speculations below.

Cinematic Methods

The Street View process of capturing imaging data via multi-lens spherical camera, as well as the experience of navigating it through our computer screens, is structured by movement, duration, and speed, aligning it with specific cinematic techniques. Just as the camera’s frame in film and photography controls and constructs narrative, the specific navigational methods (or ways of moving through Street View) reveal distinct situations that become ideational seeds for speculative intervention. Here I present four such navigational methodologies, each with unique spatio-temporal implications and cinematic references: (1) sequential (forward progression); (2) elevational (lateral tracking); (3) volumetric (horizontal and vertical panning from a stationary position); and (4) archival (recording image data as it is updated through time). Because the footage only registers moments in the temporal continuum, it provokes the imagination to consider possible narratives that both support and transform these fleeting glimpses.

Navigational Methodologies. Image courtesy of Author

The following are examples of such everyday narratives that demonstrate my methodological point; they do not offer absolute or fixed designs. Multiple responses are possible, yet they are always informed by the navigational method, as well as the particularities of place and situational content discovered via the “walk.” It should also be noted that I do not simply advocate the design of opportunistic places made accessible by Street View. Instead, design here is presented as a kind of storytelling – building on the social, atmospheric, material, and spatial information fortuitously captured by Street View. The research thus proposes designs, not for the fixed and physical notion of site, but for the spatio-temporal and provisional quality of situations.

1: Sequential Navigation | Circumstantial Response

Sequential navigation is defined by progressive and directional movement through time and space. It is the Street View navigational technique that is closest to how we move through the physical world (although, uniquely, time appears in rewind when we navigate in the opposite direction of the Street View vehicle). Because of the continuous and familiar rhythm and spatial configuration of sequential navigation, we experience territory in the state of habituated distraction, with only circumstantial moments of interruption provoking our heightened awareness.

In this case, such a circumstance was the unexpected discovery of various sculptures commemorating historic events within this streetside vegetal strip. Building off this discovery, the design integrates other physical markers that embody, register and trigger memory and the passage of time.

Sequential Navigation/Circumstantial Response. Image courtesy of Author

2: Elevational Navigation | Social Response

Elevational navigation is traversed like a tracking shot in film, where the camera is set perpendicular to tracks that run parallel to the scene. Since this technique captures the street elevation, the focus of the frames is placed on the social interactions and situations that are fortuitously uncovered.

The elevational navigation captured various graffiti artists tagging this urban block. The intervention thereby focused on new forms of exhibiting or experiencing this accretional street art. This quickly-generated proposal introduces an urban (“rock“)-climbing program that gives visitors the opportunity to view both the art and its wider surroundings in new and provocative ways.

Elevational Navigation/Social Response: Image courtesy of Author

3: Volumetric Navigation | Phenomenal Response

Volumetric navigation is defined by panning horizontally and vertically from a stationary position. This technique allows one to capture spatial depth within a singular moment of Street View data collection. The design response is triggered by atmospheric qualities and focused on creating moments of pause and reflection within the volume of this space. In this scenario, a hammock infrastructure is designed to encourage stillness within the volume of the forest so visitors may be fully immersed in the atmospheric phenomena captured by Street View’s off-road “trekkers.”

Volumetric Navigation/Phenomenal Response. Image courtesy of Author

4: Archival Navigation | Ecological Response

Finally, archival navigation is defined by access to and collection of past footage of the same location – offering a kind of archive of both built content as well as the evolution of use and ecological change over time.  When changes are uncovered, the design strategy is the construction of a new narrative based on a projected and imagined future that builds on this transformative past.

The temporal archive of Street View’s momentary glimpses often reveals the advancement and combat of volunteer plant species that colonize unexpected urban areas. In this case, the traces of withered vine prompted the planting of the wall of this forecourt. This new ecology was further enhanced by the introduction of bird dwelling units that likewise begin to colonize the wall creating a new habitat for migratory birds and provoking new forms of human engagement with the city.

Archival Navigation/Ecological Response. Image courtesy of Author

While these brief examples and hypothetical exercises focus on everyday situations, the world Street View mirrors back to us might also stimulate a more transformative narrative agenda. In particular, its archival functions and the ecologies it records reflect a changing planet across scales. This vast database of imagery capturing the earth’s beauty, mystery, and tremendous loss might stimulate an imaginative rewriting of its future.

By recognizing its imaginative capacities, I do not overlook the vast information the corporation collects with our every action. As Alison’s second post addresses, Google Street View is clearly not a passive or objective tool that we control according to whim and desire. In the words of Hoelzl and Marie, “It is not only that we are operating the world through Google’s images, it is also and primarily that in generating, with each user query/navigation, huge amounts of user data linked across its different services, Google’s images are operating us.4Hoelzl, Ingrid and Remi Marie. Softimage: Towards a New Theory of the Digital Image. Bristol: Intellect Ltd, 2015, pp. 84.

With that said, there is more of an imperative that as navigational technologies such as Street View become a more ubiquitous part of our contemporary existence, that we continue to probe their potential for reimagining the city as dynamic landscape. The intention of these applications and quick demonstrative responses is thus not about the final product but rather the process, which questions how these new technologies might ultimately benefit physical dwelling.


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