Monday, August 6, 2012

Jon Rafman and His 9-Eyes .com

It seems almost dated to be writing about Jon Rafman’s 9-Eyes .com project a.k.a. The Nine Eyes of Google Street View, as it is a project that started in 2008 which is time×infinity² in internet world but it’s back on stage in the formation of a real time and space exhibition currently on view at The Saatchi Gallery in London.  There is something interesting about the distance of time that makes 9-Eyes .com seem more pertinent for review.  The thickness of the time that has passed and the degree of accumulation of these images gives the entire project another spin that most internet based projects often lack. 

The formulation of the project seems simple but so is most art.  Google (the world dominating internet search and products provider) wanted to increase the scope of their GPS location capabilities by gathering pictorial shots of every possible location accessible to motorized vehicle.  This project is called Street View.  In 2007, cars stared scuttling through the lands and on top of these cars is a globular encased camera with 9 lenses on various sides and angles.  This camera automatically takes photos approximately every 30 to 60 feet.  The result is the compilation of the architecturally informative and mundane but also along the way it captures the happenstance of life.  It is from this collection that Rafman selects images for inclusion in 9-Eyes .com.

It is the oddities and the bizarre flashes of nature and human life that Rafman seems to be collecting.   He is making a sort of scrapbook or a travelogue of imagined vacations and sights seen that reflect the weirdness that is life.  There is a nostalgic tint to many of the images in both the tonal values and subject matter that enhances this picture album feel. The coloring and the hues remind you of photos taken in the 60s and 70s or of the Instagram-ming toning filters popular today.  Compositionally, there is often dramatics of zooming in on a figure and many of the shots taken in nature are wide and have an expansive quality to them. 

There seems to be various things that catch Rafman’s eye such as; animals in the wrong place, people in the wrong place, accidents, fires, the solitary figure, building facades that give evidence of human hand, light, prostitutes, children, long roads, and much more.  Throughout, there is something categorical in the way he seems to select his images.  As much as one would think that such a massive source that is the Street View project could easily result in an overwhelming overcompensation of images, from what I have seen, this has not occurred.  This skillful editing gives evidence of Rafman’s astute eye and consistency; this isn’t just a clever idea being studiously updated.  In this way, 9-Eyes .com is just as much about what the images are showing as to who is selecting them.

What is actually being shown in the images triggers fantastic mind exercises.  They propel you to think about time, space, history, coincidence and the accidental act of immortalization.  The 9-sided camera is a stand-in for all of us, yet it is devoid of conscious inquiry. It’s robotic-ness makes the taking of these images somehow okay.  The robot-camera cannot be a voyeur, but since it is functioning as the stand-in, it becomes this.  The fact that what the images capture is un-authored makes whatever is captured collectively ours.  The tree, road, building, dog, child, old man, etcetera, all just happen to have existed in the moment that the mechanical eye blinked and saved but now that we are seeing it, it is ours.  As the viewer, this is at once a freeing and empowering place to find oneself but it is also a touch sinister. Everything and everyone in the captured frame is devoid of authority over themselves of that moment and of the permanence of what is being captured.  Also, in turn we the viewers are captives to the unintentional image produced.

Both Street View and 9-Eyes .com are forms of photography that takes the language, history, and framework of ‘what is photography’ and makes it do back flips into a bottomless pool that is shaped like a U.  Additionally, it opens cans upon cans of worms on the ongoing conversations on what is public, private, mediated reality, converted reality, structures of containment and restraint, etcetera.  It really is brutal to think about in depth but that’s where the challenge/fun lies.  The more things are documented and the constant act of archiving, capturing and disseminating images has changed the fundamentals of how we are seeing/looking and how that a/effects internal and external realities. Street View is a fully funded, purpose driven, globally realized project that doesn’t ask the conceptual ideas on what this image dissemination means or challenges.  It just does what it set out to do and shows it as result. 

Even though the Street View project is a formula for optimal results with specific ends, it unwittingly captures this planet, its human beings and the structures built by humanity in surprising, diverse, and many times highly humorous ways.  I know it is possibly the cheesiest word in the world but many of the images are actually quite ‘inspirational’ and are testaments of this amazing thing called Earth and our crazy species called human.  Some are also sad and scary and revealing in economies lived but there is something comforting in the brutal honesty of this as well. 

Rafman’s project is a project within a project and both projects reflect and investigate various questions at various levels.  It is a stack of sociological, anthropological, capital, globalizing, aesthetics, and existence conundrum, question-cards that are piled up to an invisible sky.  It is dizzying to think about for long periods of time, like ping-pong balls being bounced in your head and your ears are the paddles.  This is a good thing though and the way in which Rafman selects the images for 9-Eyes .com makes the thinking process within all of it a bit smoother, enjoyable to see and much more funnier then expected.  The use of humor in subtle, black, and exaggerated moments is a thread that seems to keep things somehow bound to each other. 

Google’s project keeps moving along and Rafman’s does as well.  The syncopation of them will be interesting to see, will the patina of the images change as the camera and lenses advance?  Will it ever loop back over already treaded trails and show the changes or the stasis of a particular place?  What Rafman does exceedingly well is to select images that trigger stories, but not just any story, they are fantastic and strange and will change the setting in which they are taken, even if for only a moment or two.  This is the difference and the clear separation of the robotic 9-eyed mounted camera and the screen staring eyes of one human being.  These images mean something, prove something, show something and the act of caring at all about any of that is innately human.