Paolo Cirio on Fri, 21 Sep 2012 09:20:00 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Street Ghosts - Exposing specters of Google Street View in real life Street Art

Street Ghosts project.
By Paolo Cirio.

In this project, I exposed the specters of Google’s eternal realm of
private, misappropriated data: the bodies of people captured by
Google’s Street View cameras, whose ghostly, virtual presence I marked
in Street Art fashion at the precise spot in the real world where they
were photographed.

Street Ghosts hit some of the most important international Street Art
“halls of fame” with low-resolution, human scale posters of people
taken from Google Street View. These images do not offer details, but
the blurred colors and lines on the posters give a gauzy, spectral
aspect to the human figures, unveiling their presence like a digital
shadow haunting the real world.

This ready-made artwork simply takes the information amassed by Google
as material to be used for art, despite its copyrighted status and
private source. As the publicly accessible pictures are of individuals
taken without their permission, I reversed the act: I took the
pictures of individuals without Google’s permission and posted them on
public walls. In doing so, I highlight the viability of this sort of
medium as an artistic material ready to comment and shake our society.
The collections of data that Google and similar corporations have
become the material of everyday life, yet their source is the personal
information of private individuals. By remixing and reusing this
material, I artistically explore the boundaries of ownership and
exposure of this publicly displayed, privately-held information about
our personal lives.

In this case, the artwork becomes a performance, re-contextualizing
not only data, but also a conflict. It’s a performance on the
battlefield, playing out a war between public and private interests
for winning control on our intimacy and habits, which can change
permanently depending on the victor. Who has more strength in this
war? The artist, the firm, the legislators, the public concern or the
technology? This reconfiguration of informational power provokes
engagement between those social agents, who are recruited through
simple visual exposure.

Ghostly human bodies appear as casualties of the info-war in the city,
a transitory record of collateral damage from the battle between
corporations, governments, civilians and algorithms. Some of this
battle has played out in the courts: for instance, the Swiss and
German governments have placed legal restrictions [1] on Google,
claiming that capturing people on the street in this way violates
their privacy. Google rejoins with the accuracy of its facial blurring
algorithm, though it doesn’t always work [2]. But even if it does,
this is hypocrisy: the rest of their bodies, their hair or clothes are
more than enough to identify them, especially for someone really
interested in their private lives.

On the street, the public encounters the random victims of this war as
unclear, impermanent colors and shapes, inclined to fade away but
always there, like ghosts haunting the streets and sometimes
reappearing from the ethereal hells of digital archives.

The obscure figures fixed to the walls are the murky intersection of
two overlain worlds: the real world of things and people, from which
these images were originally captured, and the virtual afterlife of
data and copyrights, from which the images were retaken. The virtual
world, as a transposition of the real world into an enclosure owned by
multinational corporations, is no less real for its seeming
withdrawal; it has material effects. Media is the interface that
bridges the two worlds, and maintains a constant mutual influence
between them. By going back to the spot where information has been
extracted from the physical world and de-virtualizing it, critical
points emerge.

Google didn’t ask permission to appropriate images of all the world’s
towns and cities [3], nor did it pay anything to do so. It sells ads
against this public and private content, and then resells the
information collected to the same advertisers, making billions that
aren’t even taxed [4]. It’s a sort of exploitation by a giant social
parasite that resells us what was collectively created by people’s
activity and money.

The public display of this biopolitical surplus from Google’s
value-harvesting campaigns – the people aren’t supposed to appear in
the pictures, but they do – appropriates their aesthetic and political
value, as opposed to the commercial. Google appropriates the social
labor we perform by constituting the public; simply by investing the
city with social meaning, we unintentionally provide value for Google
to capture. This Street Art intervenes by confronting the public with
the aesthetic qualities of the data they didn’t even know they were
alienating, and forces them to reckon with the possibility of their
own image appearing as ghostly slaves trapped in a digital world

Paolo Cirio.
NYC, Septemebr 15th 2012.

[1] The Register: Google calls halt on German Street View
[2] NYTs: Swiss Court Orders Modifications to Google Street View
[3] NYT: Coming Soon, Google Street View of a Canadian Village You’ll
Never Drive To.
[4] Daily Mail: How Google avoided paying £218m in tax: Internet
giant's cash-saving deal on £2.6bn UK earnings
ABC News: Google and Other U.S. Companies Dodge Billions in Taxes,
Bloomberg Reports

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