I came across Paulo Cirio’s ‘Street Ghosts’ on Creative Review’s blog and they intrigued me at once. My very initial reaction was that they were eerie. The aptly named street art project initially confuses the eye, and there is something of an odd combination between the lasting nature of the digital image and the fading and ephemeral appearance of Cirio’s reincarnation of those images that feels slightly uneasy.
Cirio, in his own words, describes the exhibition as ‘a performance on a battlefield, playing out a war between public and private interests for winning control on our intimacy and habits, which can change permanently depending on the victor’.
He describes the spectral figures as ‘casualties of the info-war in the city’.
The purpose of the exhibition in the artists mind is to make a point. Google appropriated these images without public consent and has since copyrighted the content which Cirio has claimed back, he says, in the public interest. It’s a war on advertising, on the ‘exploitation by a giant social parasite that resells us what was collectively created by people’s activity and money’. (You can read the full artist statement here).
The idea behind the exhibition is a noble, and an interesting one. There has been much criticism and global concern over the issues Street View raises with regard to privacy.
However, there is also something more interesting and unsettling at play here. My immediate reaction to seeing the pictures was one of unease, but a similar unease to that which I felt when seeing some of the images in their original form.
For example, some pictures have appeared in the media that inspired in me the same reaction, simply due to their unexplained nature, and the feeling of their being the just the tip of an iceberg, a tiny part of some larger story, which we will never get to hear. For example, pictures like the ‘horse boy’ are most likely to have a very dull back story in reality, but an unknown quantity is always more interesting than one that we know.
However, more than the ‘strange’ figures captured on street view, there have been others; from prostitutes, to drug gangs to corpses. And via Street View, these otherwise unseen, macabre, melancholy and hidden everyday occurrences have been ‘reported’ in a way that is both totally unbiased, but also totally unfeeling.
Although Google has algorithms that can blank out the identities of the people it records, it cannot monitor what it sees. The best it can hope to do is to remove the images as they are reported - but given the immediate response and share rate of internet culture, those pictures are still available to anyone at the touch of a button.
And that is why Cirio’s exhibition is so interesting.
Whatever your views on the morality or privacy issues surrounding the images Google collate, they are a window, a tiny glimpse, into the lives of others that make you aware of just what a minute piece of humanity you are.
And to my mind that is not a negative thing.
We are all creatures who inhabit such a small fragment of a greater surrounding, and there is some merit to having the ability to venture into areas; neighborhoods, countries and lives, if only for a fleeting second, that you would never normally encounter. It is the beginning to a larger understanding – an awakening of an intrigue that goes further than voyeurism.
It is the same feeling I got as a child when I first travelled on an aeroplane.
I remember vividly looking down at the houses getting smaller, and the roads stretching out further than my little head had ever imagined, looking like a toy landscape, and for the first time seeing how big the country was. I remember realizing that no matter how important my life was to me, there were so many other people, who felt their lives were just as important as mine, who would never know I existed, and who would struggle on, each with interesting stories, to tell, stories I would never hear.
We would both live and die, none the wiser of each other’s existence. And there was comfort, tolerance and intrigue in that fact.
That is what I find so interesting about Cirio’s exhibition. It’s not the privacy issue, but the fact that, like anyone captured in any photo to which the context has been lost, there’s just that hint of a story. Of tragedy, struggle, and of the commonality of living.
The difference here is that technology has eliminated the possibility of a context. It is the unfeeling chartering of a land, a moment captured, a brief moment in time frozen and now available forever. A moment full of people living, dying and muddling through in a million different ways.
We can’t ever know them all, but the ghostly apparitions trapped in that one second of un-posed, unplanned recording proves that we are all here. It makes us wonder about the stories behind the blurred faces. Whether it’s a man waiting to cross the road, a hooker hustling for business, or a man shot dead in the street, the intimate knowledge that the whole world is not so distant after all, and that it’s just full of people trying to exist makes me feel for all those people.
And that makes me aware that my selfish needs are just a tiny part of many.
One day, I, like everyone in Cirio’s exhibition, and Googles comprehensive archive of fleeting souls, will be nothing more than a shadow on the wall, with a story that people can only, (if they even have the inkling) guess at.