Recently I've become fascinated by two artists whose work is inspired by that ultra-practical yet creepily voyeuristic technology we've all become familiar with in the past few years: Google Street View.
The first such artist is Montreal's Jon Rafman, who seems driven by a documentarian's compulsion for magnifying reality. The result of what must be hundreds of hours spent poring over Street View searching for remarkable scenes, his work confirms that constructing narratives out of images is a basic human impulse. We look at the puzzling and/or surreal moments he digs up, such as this:
...and immediately start imagining who these people are and what they are doing, or what the circumstances were that led up to that moment. Our natural curiosity makes us want to know what happened and what happens next, like we do when we're decoding a fictional story.
The thing is, these aren't fictional characters. These are real people who probably live in the area close to where they were captured by the Google Street View camera's "9 eyes", their faces and license plates blurred to avoid litigation. These folks were just going about their daily realities or clandestine activities when they became suspended in time by the serendipitous passing of the Street View Vehicle, to be pictured in that geographic location forever (or at least until Google decides to update its Street View images).
The act of traveling the streets of the world and discovering traces of its bizarre ephemeral events via the internet is one feature of the Street View technology that captures the imagination and gets creative juices flowing; Tre Baker of Google Street Scene flips that concept on its head and painstakingly recreates the Street View aesthetic to pay hommage to scenes from fictional films.
A movie shoot is essentially the act of immortalizing a non-existant world. A production takes over a location or a backlot somewhere, constructs a piece of a fictitious universe, then records it in a certain light, for all time, on film. People are often dismayed when they visit locations from famous movies only to find that they don't look anything like they did on-screen (one such example being the monastery tower in Vertigo, which was actually a model matted into the shot in post). Baker, who by day is an online editor for a publishing company in Arkansas, treats us to snapshots of moments our favourite films as though they actually occurred in the real world. Baker told me that what he enjoys most about making these "is watching something once larger than life, a scene from the silver screen, come back down to earth almost literally. And it's not just the little arrows or the blur patches. It's turning these film scenes into what resembles our real lives."
With regards to the street addresses, Baker says "I have never tried to be factual or accurate. I've seen others say that I'm staying true to the locations, but more than 50-percent of the time, I'm making them up." He points out that, "Movies are rarely filmed where they're set," and says he hopes that "the reader can suspend their disbelief a little." I think he's succeeded in this; because the addresses are mostly fictitious, there is no disappointment in finding out that the location does not fit the movie in our memory, only the fun of recognizing a long-forgotten scene or iconic character with his/her face blurred out.
Furthermore, moments such as this:
...remind us of how closely tied the cinema is to roads. Virtually every film ever made has a street scene or highway in it and the symbolism of roads fits perfectly with the Hero's Journey so often repeated in narrative cinema. A movie's setting is just as important as its characters or plot and contributes just as much to its effect and meaning, much as the real places in our lives contribute to the fabric of our identities.
Baker says, "When Google Street View first appeared, and after you had checked out Times Square or wherever, you probably headed to your house. After that, you looked up your childhood house, your college dormitory. It's all there on the Internet now. Not only can you see these places, but you get to see them through the eyes of a third-party. You can't get much more impersonal than the Google Street Car. You may still miss your grandmother who passed away in 2009, but there she is, still in 2007 on Google Street View, just another blurry figure tending to her garden. So bringing Jack Nicholson or the Tenenbaums' house to that same level is an interesting and fun challenge."
Sometimes Baker's movie scenes appear more believable than the images taken from the real Street View, but plausibility is beside the point. Whether they choose to assume the stance of documentary or fiction, these two artists are using a technology intended to help us navigate our world in a fascinating way: to reflect on human beings' obsession with narrative and place.