Orpheus and the Nine Eyes of Google Street View

Jon Rafman's "The Nine Eyes of Google Street View" project unearths the Orphic gaze from its mechanistic slumber.

— By | August 22, 2011

Note: All photos are Google Street View screenshots collected by Jon Rafman.

Jon Rafman, a Montreal-based artist whose work ranges from image-translations of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley to film documentation of video game arcade nostalgia, suggests that a modern day Orpheus would shun the lyre in preference for Google Street View. Orpheus would use the digital map as the instrument of access in his search for Eurydice, the objectified yet unattainable Other who lives in that other netherworld, the voluminous but searchable byways and alleyways of Google Maps, the mirror copy of a defamiliarized Earth.

This mirror image is most likely not the Earth as we know and understand it–it is not, for example, an Earth in intimate collusion with the sensuous limitations of our bodies, nor is it an Earth defined by our ample ignorance of its largeness, making it more terrifying in its localized concentrations–rather, the Earth of Google Maps is a Zone in which human desire and its waste product creep up along the blueprinted, line-traced passageways like an ineradicable weed, a gnarly and phantasmagoric apparition, the human face blotted out as a way of preserving the integrity of the machine that recreates not the visage but les yeux sans visage.

For Orpheus, and equally for the 9-eyed camera of Google Street View, the Gaze is All, while the face, the body, and what political or symbolic value of identification can be attributed to these detached limbs and voiceless creatures of accident, dissolve in the withering sight of the mobile Panopticon. Jon Rafman’s curatorial project, The Nine Eyes of Google Street View, collects the most striking screen captures he finds on Google Street View (or through scouring other blogs devoted to the service) and exhibits them as a way of reinforcing the human presence that is always on the cusp of disintegration, threatened as it is by the randomized framing of the autonomous panoramic camera.

Rafman manages to rediscover the Orphic gaze in Google’s aesthetics of informativity, and it is this gesture of arduous selection (a selection made precious by the extent of effort involved in picking his subjects out of countless mundane specimens) that restores something of the human sight to the Panopticon’s alienating lens. The restoration, however, is not totalizing, and while the human trace receives a name and a scent of the familiar, the senses remain divided: human sight, left on its own, can sometimes begin to take on the contours of the machine, and a type of hallucinatory disorientation can sometimes seep in the images.

As Rilke would have it, Orpheus, his “senses split into two,” walks a path from the screen simulacrum of Google Maps up toward the actuality of the walkable, five-sense designed Earth: but while “his sight would race ahead like a dog/ …his hearing, like an odor, stayed behind.” Google Maps, as we know, does not yet give us the option of listening to the traffic that rumbles through the streets we navigate, nor does it allow for us to pause and taste a four dollar falafel at the street corner stand that is digitally mummified for a few months or, at least, until the Google Street View van makes its anonymous run again, this time to record what changes had occurred in a large and bustling metropolis that chronically destroys and renews itself.

Orpheus is all eyes, a minor Argus Panoptes, a lyrical agent who cannot remove the camera of his yearning from the eminently visible object of desire, but who finds his surveillance assassinated by Argeiphontes, the courier god who notices Orpheus’ impatient eyes turning, and who consequently turns Eurydice around, leading her back into the corridors of infinite forgetfulness we call the World Wide Web:

And when, abruptly,
the god put out his hand to stop her, saying,
with sorrow in his voice: He has turned around –,
she could not understand, and softly answered

Who, indeed, is this Orpheus, the anonymous driver of the Google Street View van who persistently travels through all the empty and populated spaces of the Earth, not so much enlarging its sphere of attractions as it does regulate and attempt to homogenize the non-linearity of a fundamentally asymmetrical, imperfect world?

He is No One, or he is everyone: let us make the startling suggestion that the 21st century Orphic poet is now the Automaton, but going beyond what has been declared before by Marinetti and his progeny, let us claim that the lyricism of the machine, the poetics of the Google Street View camera if you will, is not necessarily the anti-human, nor even merely the nonhuman (though in effect it captures the gloriously nonhuman aspect of things normally unseen, those marginal objects and events that become lost in the rubble of obliterated memories and erased server banks).

Instead, this 9-eyed monster (for many poets have proven to be beasts unrestrained) grants us the opportunity to look upon the rarity and grossness of the human condition from the standpoint of oblivion, or better, from a perspective of the Anachronism. The Anachronism of the Human Species. Must this mean the end of all poets and thinkers, the termination of the so-called human order of things as a consequence of Google’s interminable mapping, reducing in effect the world’s marvels and anomalies into geometrical, screen-sized redundancies?

No, obviously not: it will be rather a quite different (but no less robotic) systematization, a documentation of the human condition from Eurydice’s perspective on her way out from life, as the final glance at the Poet Who Once Sang Her Name (he who represents all the anachronism of the human race, Orpheus, the last human) burns into her retina and produces an image, a digital picture that drapes itself with the absence of the unmarked, homeless object, whose life unwinds itself on a “pale path unrolled like a strip of cotton” and leads toward uncertain extinction:

Far away,
dark before the shining exit-gates,
someone or other stood, whose features were
unrecognizable. He stood and saw
how, on the strip of road among the meadows,
with a mournful look, the god of messages
silently turned to follow the small figure
already walking back along the path,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.

“Someone or other stood, whose features were / unrecognizable.” Rilke gives us a simultaneous description of what Orpheus and Eurydice appeared like to each other, when they had lost all memory of their earthly life (a life whose narrative, like those stories whose wordless pictures are left untranslated by the nine-eye camera, is left discarded among the refuse and torn down walls) and could only look back at a figure distorted by the passage of time and whose face is–as the human face nearly always is in the Google Street View snapshots curated by Jon Rafman–blurred into unrecognizability. But it so happens that sometimes a regard for the human figure can create, even in the eyes of the machine, a nostalgia for the flesh, unsentimental and pure, an embrace divested of direct human agency yet eminently and tragically humane.

As Rafman himself points out in a photo essay detailing the history and intention of his project, his intention is not to circumvent or oppose Google’s imperialistic interception of our private encounter with the world, but to send back postcards reminding us of our indubitable significance even when we have lost control of the mechanisms that imprint and license our daily interactions with what is most real to us:

The collections of Street Views both celebrate and critique the current world. To deny Google’s power over framing our perceptions would be delusional, but the curator, in seeking out frames within these frames, reminds us of our humanity. The artist/curator, in reasserting the significance of the human gaze within Street View, recognizes the pain and disempowerment in being declared insignificant. The artist/curator challenges Google’s imperial claims and questions the company’s right to be the only one framing our cognitions and perceptions.




One Response to Orpheus and the Nine Eyes of Google Street View

  1. Sunday Reading « zunguzungu on September 4, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    [...] Orpheus and the Nine Eyes of Google Street View [...]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *