November 21, 2010

Blurmany: The Dortmund School


More of Germany is appearing on Google Street View, and we can start to see what 240,000 blurred out residences looks like in a country of 8 million-plus: a lot. Far from being a marginalized fraction, the blurred structures pop right out; they'll be the prominent, even the defining feature of Google's virtual German landscape.

[How ridiculously cursory is this opt-out scheme, by the way? Does the blur go with the house, or the owner? Can an owner take his Street View privacy with him when he moves? Will blurred residences have an easier or harder time selling? Who gets to decide to blur a multi-family apartment? The landlord? A majority of the tenants? Whatever else they think of it, Germans should recognize that this blurring is unsustainable as it stands, and that Google is certainly treating it as a transient fix for getting through the immediate political situation.]


And in just a matter of days, it seems that the algorithm Google is using to blur out the houses has changed. The result, as seen in this completely random collection of houses I just surfed up in Dortmund, is all blur and no pixel.


It's also distinctively planar, with large, overlapping, color-averaging tiles, like looking through scrims or through a construct of semi-opaque glass. If they're still Richters, they're the glass paintings,


as assembled in space by Helio Oiticica.


At least that's what I'd probably use to reconstruct the blur structures in real life. Probably set up a very slight scaffolding of polycarbonate sheets, experiment with the films and filters to get the right optical effect. And then rephotograph the whole site.


Without searching through the German web, I'll naturally assume that I'm the first to think of this brilliant artistic idea. But I'm just as sure someone on the ground will beat me to the execution. And as Germans acclimate to this Street View, I'm sure that the Blurman landscape will begin to creep into the aesthetic consciousness in a whole host of ways.


Previously: Blurmany and the Pixelated Sublime


Ausgezeichnet, this is so awesome.

Amidst a fierce, ongoing, politicized debate, Google has released the first Street View panoramas for Germany. To assuage privacy concerns, the company is allowing homeowners to assert their Verpixelungsrecht, that is, their Right to Pixelation.


Some 240,000 locations are thus set to be blurred out. From what I can understand, though, the rollout is still in its early stages, and so only a handful of blurred buildings have gone live.

And the hunt is on. The few opt-out houses spotted so far have fed the media firestorm anew, and the examples cited by Der Speigel or FAZ [Google Translate] from Oberstaufen, the tourist village which first invited Street View to town, have been removed by Google "for review."


At the center of the debate is my old blogging 1.0 buddy Jeff Jarvis, whose rather hyperbolic post on the subject, "Germany, what have you done?" was translated and republished by FAZ. [thanks reader/cinematographer Sanne Kurz, who tweeted about Jeff's column.]


Sanne had referenced Germany's complicated history of a giant state surveillance apparatus that elisted millions of citizens to spy on each other. Jeff's having none of it:

This is not a matter of privacy. And don't tell me it has a damned thing to do with the Nazis and Stasi; that's patently absurd. If anything, the Stasi would have exercised their Verpixelungsrecht to obscure their buildings from public view, taking advantage of the cloak of secrecy the idea provides. That's the danger of this.
Well, who's Stasi now, because that is exactly what is happening next door in the Netherlands, where the Intelligence and Defense Ministries actively distort the Google Maps imagery and block Street View access for dozens of sites they have unilaterally deemed sensitive. [Search for "Dutch Camo" for details, such as they are.]

While obscuring active military bases or the royal palaces may be justified for security reasons, the Dutch government's Google Maps pixelation program also renders maps of entire villages and town centers unusable as it hides abandoned NATO weather stations--or nothing at all.


The state needs to be held accountable in its efforts at information control and censorship, but I can't disagree more strongly with Jarvis's unnecessarily extreme, incendiary language to criticize the individual assertion of some control over his own data. Referencing the Street View pano above:

Ugly, isn't it? As someone in the audience said when I spoke on the topic at a meeting of the Green party in Berlin a few weeks ago, it is as if they are digitally bombing the German landscape.
Actually, no it isn't, and--holy crap, wtf?--no it isn't.

Google's German Street View blurring looks utterly fantastic. And for that matter, fantastically German. By which I mean, of course, that it looks like a Gerhard Richter painting.

Nurses, 1965, image:

Richter's signature blurring technique calls into question the status, context, and veracity of the photographs that are his source material. Richter, Rosemary Hawker has argued,

refers not to the visual plenitude and truth that we usually associate with photography, but rather to its moments of representational inadequacy, to photographic blur and lack of focus that results in deliberately obscured imagery.
It's worth noting that Richter began his blurred photo-painting series soon after fleeing East Germany.

I would think that the persistence of a few deliberately obscured images on Google Street View will serve as a useful corrective to the convenient, info-rich panorama's seductive call, and will help remind users that they are, in fact, not in "the German Landscape," but in a corporately controlled, commercial, and contested simulacrum of it.

Two Fiats, 1964, via

Far from "bombing" the supposed digital public sphere, the people who exercise their Verpixelungsrecht are asserting the individual's right to virtual protest, to engage the digitization of his entire world on his own terms.

Mustang Squadron, 1964, image:

Google has filed for patents to place advertising, "virtual billboards," within Street View, reserving for itself the right to control and alter its ostensibly objective representation of the world for its own reasons, including, but not limited to, its own commercial gain. If someone painted their URL on the front of their store, would there be an outcry if Google threatened to blur it out unless they got a piece of the action?

Jeff argues that it's folly for politicians to restrict innovation like geo-tagged facial recognition that, who knows, might be useful in locating Katrina victims. But who's to say that, when our reality gets augmented to death with advertising and tracking, opt-out blurring isn't where the real value will be? It's the unlisted number of the future.

Or the vanity phone number. As an inadvertent-but-eager connoisseur of Google Map pixelation techniques, I could just as easily envision a premium Street View image management business emerging out of this controversy. In fact, it's already started.


Just look at the unsightly street closure and construction project right in front of the Tourism Office of the otherwise-scenic Oberstaufen. Sheesh, no wonder they baked Street View a cake. Now check out the screenshot Spiegel got, where an embedded photograph from Panoramio helps clean things right up, mostly:


The Street View we see now is a mere shadow of the virtual world--or the virtualized real world--to come, and I'd like to think that when it comes to building and designing that world, digital citizens will be able to vote with more than their wallets.

At the very least, when people start paying Google to decorate their Street View houses with Blingee crap and animated gifs, mark my words: we'll be grateful for the visual respite these Richterian Street View sites will provide.

Related, actually from over a year ago: Gerhard Street View


Now I knew George Catlin did some bird's eye views, but I did not realize he also did some Bird's Eye Views. This is one of the latter, an 18-inch gouache from 1827, Bird's Eye View of Niagara Falls.

He got it pretty close, too. Did he use a map or something?


September 11, 2010

Cretto Street View


Christopher Knight took the occasion of an Alberto Burri retrospective in Santa Monica to tweet about Cretto, the artist's absolutely incredible 20-acre memorial/earthwork, in which the earthquake ruins of the Sicilian town of Gibellina were encased in a grid of concrete. I'd mentioned Cretto in 2006, including a basic Google Map image.


Well, Street View has come to Gibellina. At some point, I suspect no one will marvel at the idea of using your laptop to drive around the backroads of Sicily, or to dive into geotagged photos of remote land artworks. But that point is not yet. The Street View images in particular have a great, desaturated feel that makes me imagine I'm right there for the ribboncutting. The future and the past is now.

Cretto, Alberto Burri/Ruins of Gibellina [google maps]
Related: finding Double Negative has never been easier

August 24, 2010

CityLAB's Duck & Cover


And in other Venice Biennale of Architecture exhibition news: cityLAB, Dana Cuff and Roger Sherman's architecture think tank at UCLA, is also in the US Pavilion show, Workshopping. One of the projects they're apparently showing is called Duck & Cover, which appears to be a community garden in the form of a giant Google logo visible from Google Earth.

Looks awesome, but wait, are those mirrors up there? Magnifying glasses? Spiral escalators to nowhere? Also, isn't the G a little self-referential for Google? I'd think they could get 'er done quicker if they sell the structure's shape to the highest bidder. Or make it a Q for Quimby.

cityLAB []
previously: heads up: roof as nth facade


I'm glad and not surprised to see I'm the only person using Google Street View as an artistic source. Since at least last year, photographer Michael Wolf has been making a series of Street View-based works that explore urban life as it's experienced, seen, and transmitted.

Wolf roams Google Street View in classic street photographer tradition, searching for the hidden, the unexpected, the sublime, the beautiful, the overlooked, images which reveal something about the character of a city and its residents. So far, he's done Street View Manhattan and Street View Paris.


According to his Amsterdam dealer, Galerie Wouter van Leeuwen, where he showed this Spring, Wolf has spent over 400 hours searching Street View, which sounds like a direct translation of street technique to the virtual world. His careful cropping and composition, too, resonate with street photography's quest for stolen, fleeting, magic images.


Some of his images carry Street View's trademark aesthetics: blurred out faces [but not as many as I'd expect], navigation overlays and cursors, and occasionally the fractures and distortions of the pano image knitting algorithms. From the prominence of the screen pixels, it looks like he actually reshoots images on his screen, or as one press release put it, "pictures of pictures."

His series Street View A Series of Unfortunate Events looks like archetypal on-the-scene photojournalism, only stripped by any news or context other than place. Though Wolf himself eliminates any place specifics or links, leaving each image to stand on its own.


In March, the photography museum FOAM and the Virtueel Museum Zuidas staged an exhibition of Wolf's Paris Street View photos on the street. Giant prints were placed around Gustav Mahlerplein, a plaza in a modern culture and office complex on the ring road south of Amsterdam. Unfortunately, no images of the exhibition have made their way back into Google Maps.


While Wolf's quote of Robert Doisneau's Hotel de Ville kiss is the most obvious, my favorite throwback images are like the ones here, where he finds in Google layers of reflections and perspectives that'd do Lee Friedlander and Harry Callahan proud. Really beautiful stuff.

Michael Wolf photography [photographymichaelwolf via things magazine]

August 20, 2010

Casting Long Shadows

This has been sitting on my desktop since last month, when Google Maps announced the addition of 45-degree Aerial View imagery for new locations, including Dortmund, Germany.


So I clicked over to Dortmund, and zoomed in there to the central platz [Friedensplatz, actually], just getting more and more psyched to see that sweet-looking geodesic soccer ball pavilion up close, and then poof, at the last minute, the final zoom, the Aerial View showed up, and it was from much later. The soccer ball was gone.

But then I forgot all about Google's 45-degree View when I saw the sun doing it for me. These attenuated morning shadows are just awesome. Like 19th century silhouette portraits as reimagined by Giacometti--and shot from outer space.


Which reminds me of the statue of a horse and rider in front of the Noordeinde Paleis in The Hague, the first building I saw on Google Maps which had been obscured by the Netherlands' unique polygonal camo pattern:


[An update on those Dutch Camo Landscape paintings I was talking about making: I'm still going to do it. One thing I'm very glad for is taking all the screenshots I need for the images I want. I first noticed the changes last winter, but now every the camo on site I've mentioned on has been replaced with typical square-pixel obscuring. Functionally, the camo still works, but aesthetically, it's a real loss.]

Now about that ball: It is probably better known to the millions of soccer fans in Germany as the WM-Globus. It was conceived in 2003 by artist/musician/actor André Heller, who ran the cultural and arts program for the Deutscher Fußball Cultural Foundation. Described by Heller as a "consulate of anticipation," the Globus was sent on a 1000-day, 12-city tour in advance of Germany's hosting of the 2006 World Cup. It's 18 meters high, weighs 50 tons. Two interior floors contained football memorabilia and multimedia installations, while the pressurized scrim exterior contained an LED map and nightly light shows. Lighting effects designer Anthony Quodt has several articles on the making of the WM Globus and its specs on his site, Too bad it predates the YouTube era, because the stills look like a hot, glowing mess.


After the World Cup, a Hamburg entrepreneur named Dr. Alexander Extra purchased the Globe from the DFB for EUR300,000, with plans to transform it into a permanent museum of sports culture, the Sporteum. Alas, no money was forthcoming, and the Sporteum failed to materialize. So Dr. Extra put the Globus on eBay last summer. Which turns out to have been a bad time for the geodesic soccer ball-shaped pavilion market, because bidding stopped reached just EUR50,000. The unidentified buyer was reportedly also from Hamburg, so I expect it's still sitting in the warehouse, but I'll look into it.

July 21, 2010

Google Lens Cap View?


I was on the phone, trying to give directions to a friend to a small Japanese grocery store in Rockville, Maryland, so I pulled it up on Google Street View. Which turned out to be useless, but weirdly beautiful. Turns out all the Street View panos on that section of the busy road are out of focus, with mottled light patterns that look like the inside of a perforated coffee can.


Either last week's earthquake has sucked Rockville Pike into a wormhole, or someone skipped the "1. Remove cover from panoramic camera stalk" step in his Street View Driver's Manual.

View Larger Map

Like leisure boats, beach houses in Emerald Isle, NC, where our family has gone for many years, are often given names. It appears that the practice tracks somewhat the expansion of the beach cottage rental directory business.

It may be nostalgia-induced prejudice and my disdain for the neon Floridization of Outer Banks cottage architecture, but it seems to me that older cottages' names aim for a kind of naturalistic postcard sublime, while the newer, larger, flashier McVillas have punnier, more self-congratulatory, more yacht-like names.

Anyway, on a recent trip, I decided to catalogue the house names along a stretch of Ocean Road, heading eastward, and ending with the best name of all, which is on the house above:

Top Notch
Impossible Dream
Granted Wish
Skinny Dipper

July 2, 2010

Olafur Street View


One of the simplest, best parts of Innen Stadt Außen [Inner City Out], Olafur Eliasson's multiple public and museum projects in his adopted hometown of Berlin this year, is now online as a short film.


In what feels like the diametric opposite of Google's Street View scanning, Olafur and his studio rigged a truck with a giant mirror and drove it around town. Part of me wants to not say what it is, but to let viewers figure it out. But the whole exhibition was promoted with photos of the truck. And I knew what it was, and I still was enthralled by every sequence and cut in the film.

Innen Stadt Aussen, from Studio Olafur Eliasson, 10'31" [vimeo via @grammar_police]

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Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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