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This issue features a photo from Montreal artist Jon Rafman's website 'Nine Eyes of Google Street View', which he created shortly after Google launched its new 'Street View' feature in 2008. Since internet usage went global in the late 1990s, surveillance technologies utilised by State police and security agencies to monitor the general public have become an acute concern and the proprietorial reach of commercial interests is increasingly impinging on the free exchange of material. (1) At the same time, the internet offers unprecedented possibilities for the cost-free dissemination of information globally. Google Inc.'s 'Street View' search engine, which is the target of Rafman's project, self-reflexively tracks its own uneasy relationship with territorial capitalisation on the internet, in this instance utilising surveillance technology promoted as user-friendly and rhetorically presented as a new kind of web-based commons that 'just happens' to enrich the corporation (Google Inc.'s web platforms brought in 9.7 billion in 2011). (2) 'We have always believed that building a trusted, highly-recognised brand begins with providing high-quality products and services that make a notable difference in people's lives', Google Inc.'s annual report informs us. It is carrots like 'Street View' that secure the advertising contracts which generate 97 per cent of Google Inc.'s revenue. (3)

Google Inc. assures users that the scenes photographed by its fleet of cars with mounted surveillance cameras (nine per car) and then uploaded to 'Street View' are 'Public Access Only'. It likens its mass production photography to a one-on-one personal encounter: 'Street View contains imagery from public roads that is no different from what you might see driving or walking down the street'. (4) The language evokes chance incidents from everyday life. However, these images have been captured by mechanical devices, ripped out of the temporal flux of lived time, and hypostasised for simulated interactive viewing by remote users working from computers. Responding to complaints of unwarranted invasiveness, the 'Street View' homepage chattily informs us: 'We have developed cutting-edge face and license plate blurring technology that is applied to all Street View images ... If our detectors missed something, you can easily let us know'. (5)

The capitalising marketing strategy of Google Inc.'s 'Street View' web commons is rife with contradictions, and Rafman plays them up with abandon, in the first instance by taking the personalising rhetoric of the corporation at its word and rebranding 'Street View' as a nine-eyed monstrosity, with one surveillance camera 'eye' pointing right at you on the 'Nine Eyes' home page. (6) 'Street View' has a vast repository of imagery which Rafman systematically exploits from an artistic point of view, turning the tables on the corporation's exploitive relationship to the artist as statistical user = money generator. Work on the 'Nine Eyes' site includes: out-of-the-ordinary or dramatic incidents reminiscent of reportage photography; scenes that remind us of American 'social consciousness' depictions from the Great Depression; moments resembling 'found art' family snapshots; and photographic tricks of the lens that transform the natural world into a psychedelic panorama as light hits the surveillance camera at just the right angle. In this way, Rafman infuses the visual product of emotionally indifferent machines engaged in commercialised surveillance with artistic meaning, a tongue-in-cheek nod to Marcel Duchamp's 'readymades'. This leads Rafman to jokingly assert that an aesthetic haunts 'Street View'. (7) Users may ascribe significance or value to the captured scenes on 'Street View', but there is no capacity for connectivity between viewer and viewed. Knowledge of what we are witness to (temporally and geographically distant from our own lives) is completely truncated, a point Rafman makes by frequently selecting 'Street View' scenes with elements of shock, tragedy, menace or destitution. 'Although the Google search engine may be seen as benevolent', Rafman observes, 'Google Street Views present a universe observed by the detached gaze of an indifferent Being. Its cameras witness but do not act in history. For all Google cares, the world could be absent of moral dimension.' (8) In sum, the simulacrum of presentness, so integral to the seductiveness of 'Street View's' for-profit web surveillance commons, contributes to the breakdown of sociality: it is acutely alienating and pacifying. 'The Nine Eyes of Google' reveals a corporation 'providing high-quality products and services that make a notable difference in people's lives' in the worst possible way, by running roughshod over our social agency. Asserting his artistic prerogative, Rafman's intervenes and drags Google Inc.'s 'Street View' back into a critical dialogue with authentic, humanising values.


(1.) These issues are discussed in Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Anarchist in the Library (New York; Basic Books, 2004).

(2.) 'googleinc-cl a (GOOG:NASDAQ GS)', Bloomberg Businessweek; Accessed 8/23/2012.

(3.) 'Google Inc Annual Report: Washington, D.C. 20549 FORM 10-K United States Securities and Exchange Commission, Washington, DC 20549 Form 10-K Annual Report, 2010': Accessed 8/23/2012.

(4.) Accessed 8/23/2012.

(5.) Ibid.

(6.) Accessed 8/23/2012.

(7.) Jon Rafman, 'IMG MGMT: The Nine Eyes of Google Street View', Art Fag City (August 12, 2009) Accessed 8/22/2012. On the readymades, see Allan Antliff, 'The Making and Mauling of Marcel Duchamp's Readymade', Canadian Art Magazine, 23 (Spring, 2006): 56-61.

(8.) Ibid.
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Author:Antliff, Allan
Publication:Anarchist Studies
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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