The Next, Next Street Art

Street With A View is a performance/digital art hybrid (I know! So rad!) coordinated by a small team of artists, residents of Pittsburgh's North Side, and Google. The artists thought up the idea to create vignettes in the city's streets that would be coordinated with when Google's Street View camera car would drive down those same streets. They tapped local residents to act out a series of scenes, coordinated with the Googleheads, and the rest is history.

SWAV's staged "interventions," as the team refers to them, point out an interesting possibility for street art. Referring to an earlier post on the subject, tech like RFID chips and barcodes will make digital graffiti a more ready possibility in the future. SWAV highlights one of the many ways that this type of art could be achieved: take a 360˚ photo (of which there are plenty freely available through Street View for an enterprising hacker), doctor it, and attach it to an RFID chip installed inconspicuously nearby. Set it up with an automatic trigger, and any passersby with an iPhone or a Blackberry will be treated to an alternate reality version of the place that they're walking through.

Aside from the potential for humor, there is political potential here as well. Think of preservationists looking to impress upon people the importance of preventing the destruction of historic structures; take the current, well-publicized battle over St. Vincent's in Manhattan, for example. A skilled digital artist with a penchant for quirky 1960s-vintage low-rises could create a digital, 360˚ recreation of the intersection of 7th Ave and 12th Street in which to-scale renderings of the 300 and 233 foot towers planned by the adjacent hospital replaced the distinctive O’Toole Medical Services Building. Passersby could get a better sense of the scale and blandness of the new development than they ever could from a wallet-sized picture in the Times.

Inverting the perspective, SWAV says some interesting things about Google's Street View feature as well. When examining the interventions on the Google Maps website, try to imagine what a normal user, unaware of the SWAV project, might think when encountering the digital parade. At the same time that it makes Google Street View more fantastical, SWAV also makes it, in a way, seem a bit more real. Certainly moreso in examples like the moving truck or the garage band practice. Add to that the impromptu "meta-interventions" staged by locals unaware of the project until it was happening, and the lines between reality and digital representation get delightfully blurry.

To ponder: If people become more aware of the Google Street View camera car and scenes like those staged by SWAV become more common (which seems very plausible, I think), what role does the Street View feature take on? Its parallel reality becomes heightened; humor and politics are woven into the scenery, and become as valid as the built environment that the feature was intended to represent. In addition, what does a more theatrical representation on the web mean for the real place being represented? If one were to walk down Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh -- a charmingly "Pittsburgh" kind of street -- would it seem boring? Less authentic or interesting than its Street Views counterpart? Does the digital city draw from the real city, or add to it?

(Photo from Street With a View. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

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