Jon Rafman: Experiencing the Sublime in Google Street View | Kenta Murakami

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During the spring of 2014, I have been co-curating an exhibition that is examining contemporary explorations of the landscape genre. As someone interested in digital culture I was immediately drawn to works that address the emergence of virtual environments and the effects these have on our relationship to the earth. The first artist that came to mind was Jon Rafman and his popular series of screen shots from Google Street View called 9-Eyes. Rafman’s work explores the transitions between real and virtual spaces and the intuitiveness with which his audience moves between the two. As people interact more and more through the mediation of virtual avatars (for some people, on some days this may even be the majority of their interactions), it’s difficult to say whether one world is more real than the other. A proficiency in navigating interfaces and utilizing programs has become more valuable in our culture than an attentiveness to nature, and for much of us, our presence online has become as important as our self-presentation in real life.

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Rafman’s interest in Google Maps seems inevitable. The ambition of the project is entirely unprecedented and the amount of time and brainpower invested in the project’s development is simply incomprehensible. But as god-like as Google seems, it remains one of the most familiar and banal interfaces with which we interact. In house searching for the summer my friends intuitively look to Street View to scope out perspectives; my mom, who lives in Tokyo, often walks her day trips on Street View before leaving the house. Places she’s never been feel a bit more familiar when she’s seen them earlier in the day on her laptop. As one can see, Google has tasked itself with “organiz[ing] the world’s information and mak[ing] it universally accessible and useful”. In undertaking this immense responsibility, they’ve famously promised to “do no evil” – yet, it’s hard to say that they’ve done this without question[1]. Although it’s far from intentional, Google Street View has created a representation of our world – an “objective” one at that – that is laced with ideology like any other. Not unlike the passages couverts of Paris famously described in Walter Benjamin’sArcades Project, Google’s world is a commercial one[2]. Users traverse the space in order to conduct business or to consume, and the realm Google presents only goes as far as the streets. While nature can only be found where there is commerce, one can now enter and explore the interiors of stores around the globe.

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Yet the objectivity of Google’s methods allows these ideologies to show through. Rafman’s wandering, not unlike the wanderings of the Parisian flâneur described by Benjamin, present a world littered with people on the margins[3]. Prostitutes, gangsters, and panhandlers find themselves scattered throughout the world’s streets while the wealthy are hidden away in office buildings and suburban homes. The subjects Rafman chooses to document are intentional, for he believes that “the more marginal, the more ephemeral the culture is, the more fleeting the object[,] … the more it can actually reflect and reveal ‘culture at large’”[4]. In the case of Google this seems to hold true, for the “fleeting” moments of accident, death, and destitution are rendered truly momentary by censorship. Rafman’s excursions typically follow the paths of the Street View cars as posted online, meaning he or his assistants are often the first to see the images (as the photographs are taken by a robotic camera); and, as Google takes down any image that might distract from its product’s use, they are often of the few that see the images within their original environment at all[5]. In this sense Rafman’s work functions as a sort of archive, a documentation of hyper-temporal, privately produced cultural objects that are valued on their rapid obsolescence[6].

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Not unlike the tradition of street photographers before him, Rafman seeks what Henri Cartier-Bresson titled the “decisive moment”. But unlike the “father of photojournalism”, the compositions Rafman captures don’t exist for a fraction of a second[7]. They exist in a slowly refreshed world of mechanically captured still images, a seamlessly stitched panorama that exists publically for anyone with internet access to utilize. The actual “photographer” of the images was not directed by an artistic gaze, creating a sense of happenchance to the images Rafman archives that only elevates their aesthetic aura[8]. In viewing the works I cannot help but feel an ownership of these images; not only do they denote our shared world (incomprehensible really), they also exist in a world of images which I was privy to. It’s certainly possible that I could have stared through my screen at the exact same moment, frozen and ready for the taking. In speaking of his series, Rafman has said that the “Street View collections represent our experience of the modern world, and in particular, the tension they express between our uncaring, indifferent universe and our search for connectedness and significance”[9]. Google’s virtual world exists as a commercial tool; wandering the streets I often find the relative lack of people alarming, and whatever pedestrians do exist are devoid of identity, their faces blurred by algorithms. This loveless space rings of dystopia, yet Rafman is able to weed out moments of tension, intimacy, violence, and connectivity. Perhaps even more than traditional photographers, Rafman is sure to be found exploitative or otherwise problematic by many, yet his gaze is one of empathy and respect, aiming to subjectivize the dispassionate online realm.

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In this way, 9-eyes falls in line with much of Rafman’s work, which often deals with the crisis over individual subjectivity in the face of the perceived void that is the internet. In the work Still Life (Beta Male), made in collaboration with musician Oneohtrix Point Never, the narrator speaks:

“As you look at the screen, it is possible to believe you are gazing into eternity. You see the things that were inside you. This is the womb. The original site of the imagination …. You can’t find your way out of the maze you are convinced has been solely created for you”[10].

The narrator describes a disembodying sense of connectivity with the seemingly infinite mass of information online that is reminiscent of the language that has been used to describe the conventions of Romantic landscape painting. As a human constructed environment, the Internet functions similarly to both historical representations of landscapes and to the actual lived landscape in which a subject is embedded. Representations of landscapes within Western art have been seen ordering the world in relation to man (as if we are the subject and the landscape an object; as if the landscape exists for our consumption), yet online this representation’s vastness allows our experience to simultaneously function phenomenologically, resulting in an indistinct subject-object relation[11].

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I believe that in representing this mass of information in the form of a landscape, Rafman invites the viewer to conceptualize this experience in terms of the sublime. Surely, one may counter, it has been abstracted, distanced enough that any feeling of terror or awe would be rendered innocuous. One is more likely to be met with frustrated boredom instead, the movement through hyperlinked arrows feeling remarkably like an afternoon spent in heavy traffic. This experience of moving through finite scraps of virtual space rather aptly demonstrates a concept by literary and cultural theorist Sianne Ngai termed “stuplimity”. Kant defined the sublime as an experience in which an object or situation exceeds the faculty of one’s imagination, resulting initially in a feeling of powerlessness in the face of something greater than oneself. This is then followed, however, by a feeling of human superiority as the subject identifies the experience or object as a singular whole, indicating the power of one’s supersensible faculty of reason. Ngai’s stuplimity affect is a similar revelation of the “limits of our ability to comprehend a vastly extended form”, but, by contrast, is made in an encounter “with finite bits and scraps of material in repetition”[12]. Experienced most frequently in our interactions with technology (such as moving through an extensive world in an RPG through finite spaces), the stuplime affect is an experience of aesthetic awe intertwined with boredom; an experience that results not in an affirmation of the human subject, but in an indefinite state of anxiety[13]. This state of banality has been termed the “post-internet” condition, a state in which the complexity of the internet has become mundane enough to be taken for granted[14]. Although Rafman’s use of Street View draws light to such an experience, he seems to be focusing on something slightly different: his series serves to mystify the otherwise banal reality of Google’s virtual world, presenting through curation a world as feeling as our own.

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David Nye writes of technology as evoking a distinctly American sense of the sublime, an experience in which one identifies technology as “an expansion of human power and yet simultaneously [as] evoking the sense of individual insignificance and powerlessness. … As an extension and affirmation of reason [and, simultaneously, as an] expression of a crushing, omnipotent force outside the self”[15]. When truly confronted with the wealth of information available online it seems inevitable that one would experience a sensation not unlike vertigo; the amount of human capital invested in the simplest of softwares is beyond the capacities of our imagination. But Rafman’s series doesn’t immediately conjure the vastness of Google’s application or its technology’s opacity. Unlike 19th century paintings of the sublime – meant to replicate the awe evoked by their subjects – Rafman’s images create a dialogue of familiarity. Looking through the images I almost expect to see someone I know, their face blurred as they gaze curiously at a car crash or a homeless man begging for change. Rafman’s world draws its viewer in.

Much of Rafman’s work deals with this connectivity with technology, but often situations which border the obsessive. Interviews with professional gamers, explorations of online fetish cultures, live tours through Second Life, and narrative films made from the game play of video games, Rafman’s work challenges the separation we maintain between subjectivity as it exists through our bodies and through our screens. In describing the virtual worlds of videogames, Eugénie Shinkle asserts:

“The job of the interface is to maintain [an] alternate reality by supporting a perceptually coherent gameworld. A properly functioning interface ‘humanises’ the technology, acting as an extension of the body and enabling the technology to function as an affirmation of reason. It sustains a subjectivity that is ‘posthuman’ …. That of a subject that is seamlessly articulated with an intelligent machine”[16].

The notion of the posthuman is described with incredible conviction in N. Katherine Hayles’book How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. She sees the articulation of subjectivity within virtual spaces, with its feared erasure of embodiment, as a natural extension of the liberal humanist subject. She identifies such a conception of the subject with “the rational mind”, and although it may possess a body, it is “not usually represented as being a body”[17]. In posthumanist extremes, the body is merely hardware and consciousness is a replaceable interface, meaning man and technology are capable of, and in fact already have begun, an inevitable process of mutual entanglement.

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Although the virtual realm of Google Street View seems far removed from the seemingly fictional topics of posthumanist writing (such as artificial life, theoretical biology, and cyborgs), the product has undeniably become ubiquitous in much of the developed world. Its innocuousness and accessibility have allowed it to become banal and familiar. But what happens when this tool’s utility is foregone for aesthetic experience, or when the virtual world becomes humanized? Google’s Street View becomes an example of the virtual worlds in which we inhabit with increasing intuitiveness and acceptance. Rafman’s work invites the viewer to inhabit this world, yet as we embrace the web more and more, incorporate ourselves more fully into our subjectivities as played out through social media, in video games, or simply in navigating our browsers, a sense of anxiety still persists. Shinkle proposes a contemporary notion of Nye’s technological sublime: an experience in which the subject that has merged with technology is met with a “breaching of this bond, and a return of the technology to the realm of the banal”[18]. Typically experienced through glitches or hardware failure, this experience of the sublime is a moment in which the posthuman recognizes the sublimely immersive realm in which they were immersed as outside themselves and as a mass-produced consumer object. The incomprehensible mass of information that makes up such a world’s software is reduced to an opaque and mysterious set of hardware, and the posthuman’s agency within such a system or sense of power over it is called into question.

In a similar sense, the realism of Rafman’s images is undermined by their materiality (in galleries they are printed large and framed, online the series is an ongoing tumblr). Intermittent and out of context – through the Google compass, navigation arrows, and street lines; glitches and errors – the representationality of the images is laid bare. One looks at the images and feels immersed within their world, yet as humanized as this realm is, complete conviction that the world exists as shown is disallowed (in real life or even online anymore). Rafman’s work straddles the line of the sublime; half immersive and half opaque, the world challenges our ability to separate ourselves from technology and poses questions on such a dilemma’s repercussions. In looking at the series one cannot help but conjure thoughts of Rafman and his studio deliriously clicking through the Streets for days, of the thousands of images that were never documented that no longer exist, or of the simple ambition of Google’s project and the power that that entails.

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*All images from Jon Rafman’s ongoing series 9-Eyes.

[1]Rafman, Jon. “IMG MGMT: The Nine Eyes of Google Street View.” ArtFCity. http://www.artfagcity.com/2009/08/12/img-mgmt-the-nine-eyes-of-google-street-view/ (accessed April 25, 2014).

[2] Harmann, Maren. Technologies and Utopias: The Cyberflanuer and the Experience of “being Online”. Berlin: Nomos Publishers, 2001.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Stephen Froese, Jon Rafman. “Jon Rafman.” Pin-UP: Magazine for Architectural Entertainment: Pin-Up, 2014.

[5]Staley, Willy . “Poaching Memories from Google’s Wandering Eye.” The 6th Floor: Eavesdropping on the Times Magazine. http://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/16/poaching-memories-from-googles-wandering-eye/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=3 (accessed April 25, 2014).

[6] Mana, Galit . “Jon Rafman.” Frieze magazine, September 1, 2013.

[7] Bresson, Henri, and E. riade. The Decisive Moment;. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952.

[8] Staley, “Poaching Memories from Google’s Wandering Eye.”

[9] Rafman, “IMG MGMT: The Nine Eyes of Google Street View.” ArtFCity

[10] Rafman, Jon. “Still Life (Betamale).” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, November 2013. Web. 25 April 2014.

[11] DeLue, Rachael Ziady. “The Art Seminar.” In Landscape theory. New York: Routledge, 2008. .

[12] Shinckle, Eugénie. ” Video Games and the Technological Sublime.” Tate. http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/video-games-and-technological-sublime (accessed April 25, 2014).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Vierkant, Artie. “The Image Object Post-Internet.” JSTCHILLIN. http://jstchillin.org/artie/pdf/The_Image_Object_Post-Internet_us.pdf (accessed April 25, 2014).

[15] Shinckle, “Video Games and the Technological Sublime.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Hayles, Katherine. How we became posthuman: virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

[18] Shinckle, “Video Games and the Technological Sublime.”

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