The Zuidas (South Ax) Zuidplein, Gustav Mahlerplein, Claude Debussylaan.
Surprising and often hilarious images from Google Maps Street View circulate around the internet as fast as curious virtual tourists can uncover them. I’m sure you’ve seen your fair share of these, which include crime scenes, LARPers, flashers, public urinators, digital marriage proposals, and even Norwegian spear fishermen chasing the Google van down the street. Some of these are happy accidents; others are pranks. Either way, looking at them seems to satisfy in us a search for wonder and mystery in the everyday world, one often erring on the side of humor in our time of viral memes and hyperlinked attention spans.
International artist Michael Wolf has mined Google Street View’s tremendous visual archive, revealing and also creating a new type of street photography. He refigures the “decisive moment” into the “decisive cut”, creating photographs not from the anticipatory release of the shutter, but through the editorial acts of searching and cropping. His public art project, Paris Street View, consists of twenty-four prints installed on freestanding billboards in the Zuidas, Amsterdam. It attempts to represent the almost exhaustively photographed Paris in a new and meaningful way.
Paris is the city of Atget, Cartier-Bresson, and Doisneau, and we can’t help but filter its representations through their iconic images. Through the indiscriminate and mechanical eye of Google, Wolf’s Street View project depicts a modern Paris in a state of transition. His images are new and urgent, yet like his predecessors, Wolf still manages to capture the city’s signature combination of romance and edge. He uncovers intimate embraces, like a public kiss inarguably reminiscent of Doisneau’s Kiss by the Hotel de Ville, and flashes of public temper. A motorcyclist flashes his middle finger; a woman smokes in the shadows; weary pedestrians recuperate on a curb; and lots of people navigate the streets and sidewalks, minding their own business.
The exhibition is set amongst large corporate buildings in the Gustav Mahlerplein and along Claude Debussylaan, adjacent to Amsterdam Zuid train station. The outdoor display in this area inhabited by businesspeople and travelers (you can actually see some of the photographs from the train) calls to mind photography’s spatiotemporal facets. Indeed, Street View itself is composed of stitched together exposures that create a navigable and multidimensional virtual space. At times it feels like you are in this virtual world. As you move around the exhibition, the photographs’ angles align themselves with the geometric contours of the surrounding buildings. Where the installation comes to a halt, hitting a construction detour on C. Debussylaan, a downward-facing directional arrow from the Street View image seemingly tells you to turn around.
The public installation, but also the choice of Paris (home of certain post-structuralists), seem to comment on surveillance and the implications of the Google project. Street View opens up our world, satisfying curiosities of the armchair traveler. We watch others, but must remember that our own outdoor environments are also consumable, catalogued according to the contingencies of the photographic moment.
The public spaces of The City 2.0 are re-territorialized by Google Maps through superficial yet widespread accessibility – and Wolf is there to capture them, documenting the documentation. This is Paris, but different. He blends its classic sites and symbols with a new stock of icons now including cursors, arrows, navigational ovals, and hovering street names. Algorithmically blurred faces add mood and mystery, while enlarged pixels seem at once Pop-y and nostalgic, recalling the visible grain of a blown up photograph.
I wonder if Atget would be impressed or shocked by Google’s comprehensive documentary project? And what does it say about the photographer when such intimate and fortuitous moments are captured by an indifferent process? Despite his use of the readymade Wolf is no more Duchamp than he is Cartier-Bresson; his dynamic cropping aligns him more with Robert Frank than either of these Frenchmen. He uses a discerning photographer’s eye to extract frames of the city, visualizing Paris anew. Just as elements of space and time are mapped (and often unwittingly revealed) in the Google project, so too are our own travels through this open exhibition space implicated in Wolf’s work. It cleverly reminds us that our personal journeys are also anonymous performances which can help shape understanding of our public environments.
~ Andrea Alessi, a writer living in the Netherlands
(Images courtesy of Michael Wolf)