Google Earth (2005) and Google Street View (2007) represent a revolution in the way we interact and relate to the environment, displacing practically all previously existing cartographic representation systems – until not many years ago, it was common to travel by car with a roadmap saved in the glove compartment. Google Earth allows the user to travel comfortably to any part of the globe, using a network of satellite images of the entire planet, and Google Street View offers partial coverage with street-level images taken by 3D cameras, which assembled by software provide a continuous flow of vision.
This huge repository of images has not gone unnoticed by some photographers, who have navigated the labyrinth of streets looking for those small alterations with which life breaks into the monotony of the asphalt: accidents, disputes, unusual behaviors, visual anomalies, deaths, etc. .. Events registered in a mechanical and casual way by a Google Car that travels impassively through the streets, without any argument or script.
In 2011, the World Press Photo Awards honored the German photographer Michael Wolf (1954) for his series “Unfortunate Events”, in which he shows some of these situations captured by Google cameras. The response was immediate: the more moderate criticism did not consider that this type of work could be framed in the field of photojournalism, and the most reactionary ones that ensured that it was a case of appropriation and the author could not be considered as a photographer.
Since postmodernist movements questioned the primacy of the author as the origin of all new creation, and Walter Benjamin argued that modern techniques of reproduction had abolished the authority of the original work, the appropriation of materials from other artists or public domain finds justification as a vehicle to reincorporate representations of original works -and as such devoid of aura- into a new creative flow, to propose a new original work, with a message adapted to a new context of interpretation. A sort of artistic recycling. In this stream the works of well-known artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Sherrie Levine or Barbara Kruger are inscribed.
I do not think that it can be considered appropriation the use for artistic purposes that Michael Wolf – and other photographers like Jon Rafman. Mishka Henner or Doug Rickard- make of Google Street View and Google Earth’s images. The images are available publicly, and the artists must search for them, select them, cut them out and edit them according to their own interests and intentions. The Google image repository has been captured mechanically, with no intention other than the mere cartographic record. Advancing like PacMan, the GoogleCar is enclosing in small spherical capsules portions of space and time, trapping stealthily – without any intention or will – tiny fragments of the lives of those who run into it, scanned in a quasi-robotic manner.
It also has a certain “archaeological” merit to navigate these indefinite time registers, looking for stories and rescuing the past of those who were trapped in the Google capsules.