The graphic artist on visiting the Google headquarters, the limits of photographic “reality,” and the rapidly changing face of contemporary photography.
By **Molly Osberg**
Photograph by Jenny Odell.
Bay-area graphic artist Jenny Odell is obsessed with collecting and rearranging the Internet’s raw data. But her brand of aggregation casts the net a bit wider than most of her micro-blogging peers. Odell works almost exclusively with what she calls the “inhuman” eye of Google’s mapping technologies, applying the curator’s organizational impulse to the marks we leave on our planet’s surface.
To create her “Satellite Series,” Odell spent hours scrolling through Google’s satellite view, cutting out industrial structures—swimming pools, landfills, water towers—and pasting them together as mesmerizing, gridded collections in shapes that recall the orderly geometrics of a display case. “From this view,” writes the artist, “the lines that make up basketball courts and the scattered blue rectangles of swimming pools become like hieroglyphs that read: people were here.”
Now, she’s leaving civilization’ industrial impressions behind to zoom in on the behavior of humans themselves. Her series, All the People on Google Earth, captures the Google-eye-view of popular public destinations and pulls the landscape right out from under the crowds assembled there.
—Molly Osberg for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve been working exclusively with material ripped from Google for a few years now—what brought you to that medium?
Jenny Odell: Well, the art I find interesting that other people make usually involves photographic material that isn’t taken by a person. I think it’s this really strange perspective on the world, something that wasn’t as widely available before. And particularly with a satellite there’s something weird about seeing human structures, our civilization, in a photograph that was taken by a machine. No person chose to take that image. So I think there’s this very authentic thing about it. There was no intention when the photo was taken; our environment is captured inadvertently. [Google is] very recognizable and there’s something almost official about it. It’s the default.
Guernica: I love the idea of the “inhuman eye” of Google, which is something you’ve written a bit about. What’s the aim in turning that eye onto these kinds of subjects?
Jenny Odell: Well, I started it a long time ago. And I didn’t really know what I was doing at first. But I was in an exhibition in France that was showing all the kinds of things I love—web cam, amateur photography, Flikr. Penelope Umberco was in it. It got terrible reception because it was part of a photography festival. But, having seen that, it crystallized why I was doing this, and it seemed ironic to me that all my prints [in the “Satellite Collection”] were very clearly about people, though there were no people in them. I realized I was picking these structures that were very endearingly human in some way. I mean, swimming pools are really strange, when you think about them. They’re just these little boxes of chlorinated water. But they’re so ubiquitous: where there are people, there will be these artificial bodies of water… They’re so human that we don’t see them.
Guernica: I read something on your blog about certain parts of “All the People on Baker Beach” being blurry because a section of the space was near a military site.
Jenny Odell: Right. And certain neighborhoods are much blurrier, like it’s not worth updating them. I just met a guy in a coffee shop who was from Israel, and he said he was trying to look at his hometown [on Google Satellite] and it was too blurry to see.
People take it for granted that it’s this representational, one-to-one kind of thing. And well, it’s not. The ways in which it’s not are really interesting to me. The more accurate it gets, the more boring to me.
I went on a tour of Google’s headquarters, when I had a show there. A woman showed me around the offices, where all the people are programming Google street view. I kept bringing these things up that, to me, were fascinating in an art context. But to her they were clearly just a nuisance. I asked if she’d seen Clement Valla. He collects bridges that are all distorted because of bugs in the 3-D modeling process. I was asking her: “Have you seen those? I really love those.” And she said, “Oh yeah, yeah, we’re gonna fix those.” For them, it’s all just a matter of progress.
Guernica: Can you talk about the decision, in “All the People on Google Earth,” to place your subjects on a white background, in this boundless void? In other series of yours the backdrop is a little more concrete.
Jenny Odell: I was definitely interested in showing people in this non-space, a place outside of time. Because that’s how Google Satellite feels to me, even though I’m aware that it was a photograph that was taken at a certain time. I was trying to isolate [the people] as much as possible. I wanted to reveal their patterns of behaviors, the way they arrange themselves. I wanted to have them in a kind of Petri dish. I feel like an alien anthropologist that’s found this strange planet… “What? Who are these beings? And why are they congregated in this big square? And why are there blankets everywhere?”
Guernica: It sounds like you’re more interested in images than photography.
Jenny Odell: Exactly. This is a new way to create, and photography needs to take that into account. The whole concept is changing. I mean, it’s not that there hasn’t been art [with a similar aim]—ready-mades and all that, but it defiantly changes the part in the process in which you expect to find the artist. I’m not really present in my work in a very distinct way.
Guernica: And speaking of that shifting role, curation is very much part of what you do. I read a review that likened the “Satellite Collection” to butterflies behind glass. Why is this an important role for an artist to have?
Jenny Odell: There are so many attitudes you can have towards the explosion in the amount of images—often images and information of, well, dubious truth-value. It’s overwhelming, it’s disorienting. It’s hard to know where to go with it. I think there’s a reaction you can have against it where you go in the opposite direction. People are like, “Is this the direction art is headed in?” It’s supposed to be this pure, transcendent act of creation that clears everything aside. But I think there’s another attitude that’s more productive. These are confusing times, especially in terms of the way people encounter information. There’s a way to take these pieces of Internet garbage and look at them from an angle they weren’t meant to be looked at. It’s like going out and doing fieldwork on yourself, on humanity, and using it as data, instead of whatever original purpose it was meant to serve. The whole idea is to collect enough of these specimens that are the same in some ways, and different in others. Lining them up you can discover something about the original pieces, but also something about the whole category.
It’s a stance you take. You can either be overwhelmed, or you can turn it around and use the information and data to make something. Re-use turns the whole thing around.
Jenny Odell’s work explores the (dis)connection between virtual space and lived experience and involves a particular fascination with Google’s mapping technologies. Her prints, books and videos have been featured on KQED and exhibited at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Jenny lives and works as a designer in San Francisco.
Molly Osberg is an editorial intern at Guernica.