Ph.D. Candidate, Institute of Communications Research, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Interfacing with infrastructures has in many respects become a mundane activity for users. One encounters visualizations of transportation, urban, and consumer infrastructures daily. The status of such visualizations as cultural productions, as readymade representations and systems embedded with values, is often unnoticed. Our belief in the transparency of digital media has made various sign systems by which we interface with different infrastructures, particularly those of Google, ubiquitous. This ubiquity naturalizes the values inherent in the interface’s organization. A critical eye toward the dangers of this ubiquity underscores the need to decontextualize such sign systems, demystifying the authority and power ascribed to them.
This paper shows how locative artists re-imagine Google’s representations of infrastructure in this manner. I will analyze three locative projects – Mushon Zer-Aviv’s You Are Not Here – A Dislocative Tourism Agency (YANH), Paolo Cirio’s Street Ghosts, and Chris Milk’s The Wilderness Downtown – for their appropriations of Google sign systems, representations, and infrastructures. These locative artists establish said appropriations in order to manipulate place toward the dislocative – the expression of locality that takes place away from the locality being represented, often facilitated through the digital.
My analysis centers on the following inquiries: how do locative media use ambulatory practices and a technologically aided circulation of bodies to enact resistance to the ideological apparatus instantiated by Google? More broadly, how does Google inculcate subjects into certain behavioral and ideological systems? To address the former, I argue that these locative projects foster dislocative user experiences predicated on rendering the effect of the ubiquity of Google infrastructure visible. Each project engenders a different strategy toward this end – be it a wholly ambulatory (YANH), mediated (Street Ghosts) or hypermediated (The Wilderness Downtown) dislocative experience.
The projects I include commodify place through their specific sign systems. Through the term ‘sign system,’ I refer to related sets of symbols that depend on each other to build a larger meaning. The study of semiotics, then, investigates culture not just as a way of life, but as a system of signs that produce meaning. As such, this paper interrogates Google Maps and Google Street View as mediating interfaces exemplifying how Google functions as an Althusserian Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) for the digital age. To Althusser, ISAs are institutions which “contribute to . . . the reproduction of the relations of production, i.e. of capitalist relations of exploitation.” 
While YANH reveals this in simply displaying place in a commodified way, Street Ghosts goes further in capturing subjects within the interface of Google Maps and Google Street View. The project reveals this interface as both a semiosphere of the commodity and a dominant interpretation of cultural memory. Meanwhile, The Wilderness Downtown deems Google a modern ISA in elucidating how its personalized content and affect is used toward flawed commercial ends. Through their sign systems, each project attempts to correlate the material system of Google infrastructure with an ideological system of behavior.
The Semiotics of Geolocative Representation
While the term ‘locative art’ refers to net art that employs geospatial data, I use the term ‘geolocative representation’ to analyze the broader mode of representation engaged through the practices behind locative art. Situating the included projects under the broader term of ‘geolocative representation’ enables me to discuss them as texts under a theoretical framework of cultural semiotics.
Cultural semiotics, more specifically, extends Peircian and Saussurrean semiotic models in incorporating notions of ideology, the semiosphere, and cultural memory into the study of signs. Within this broader framework, theorists like Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes open up semiotics toward the study of ideology and the contingency of meaning-making. To this end, Yuri Lotman uses the term semiosphere to signal “the whole semiotic space of the culture in question.” He contends that semiospheres have a role of governance in establishing cultural systems of representation. 
In many ways, cultural semiotics counters the structuralist emphasis of previous semiotic models, particularly that of Saussure.  While these prior models find structure in language, Lotman’s model of cultural memory positions culture as a producer of structure within meaning-making practices.  This accounts for the cultural ramifications of expression, as artists and audiences alike assemble the signs they are presented with in a given text in order to construct their own meanings and, accordingly, their own versions of reality.
Through a cultural memory framework, one can see how “Google Maps create a sense of culture by presenting a structure highlighting certain businesses, monuments, and attractions over other elements of urban spaces.”  As such, through this project, I will show how locative art projects can unravel the operations of Google infrastructures and representations within discourses of consumerism, thus inculcating viewers in a corresponding behavioral and ideological system.
Aside from the aforementioned semiotic precepts, two terms I borrow from semiotics are particularly important to my argument: Eco’s conceptualization of aberrant decoding and Stuart Hall’s notion of an oppositional reading. Aberrant decoding refers to instances wherein one unpacks a cultural production under a code that contrasts with the code under which the cultural production was produced. Due to this, the reading will differ from the intended meaning. Accordingly, an oppositional reading of a cultural production recognizes, yet directly counters, the intended message. 
I will argue that the sign systems of these projects reflect how each project engenders an aberrant decoding, often facilitated through an engagement with ambulatory practices, of Google’s technological infrastructures and the information they archive. Given this, each serves as an oppositional reading of Google sign systems and infrastructures. Specifically, the sign systems of each project operate to reveal such tendencies within Google interfaces to emphasize a semiosphere of the commodity within their representations and to conflate the public with the private, reflecting the capitalist ideologies that Google can impose.
Through this argument, I want to emphasize how these projects constitute alternative configurations of cultural memory enabled by the oppositional strategy of disaggregating data garnered by Google infrastructures. Ultimately, this elucidates the institutional position of Google in promoting the commodification of place through the representations and sign systems that its infrastructures make possible.
You Are Not Here – A Dislocative Tourism Agency
YANH engages in a dislocative form of tourism. Through the project, subjects navigate the built environment of one city as if they are in another. Subjects receive printed out, double sided maps and hold the map up to the sun with the cartographic image facing them so they see the sites on the other side imposed upon it. This imposes the sites of one city on the other. YANH has two different maps: one has subjects walk through Tel-Aviv as if they are in Gaza, and the other has subjects walk through New York City as if they are in Baghdad.
Mushon Zer-Aviv, the lead figure behind YANH, positions the project directly against the dominant representation of place that Google engenders, calling Google “questionable” for its “ideological distortions of history.”  In this phrase, Zer-Aviv elucidates the potential for misrepresentations of place within Google Maps, often from a perceived lack of local knowledge. Zer-Aviv’s commentary in relation to YANH shows how powerful Google representations become in translating place in accordance with dominant ideologies, rather than better incorporating alternative collective memories of place.
To expand this commentary, which renders Google as an ISA, YANH colonizes the technological infrastructure of one city as a means of walking through a completely different city. As such, the project explores a dislocative engagement with the virtual. The act of holding the map up to the sun for directions juxtaposes the analog with the digital. It also shows how one’s sense of place is compromised as part of YANH in the use of technological infrastructure through the mobilization of dislocative ambulatory practices.
The maps, in turn, assume a sign system that reflects the drive to provide an oppositional reading to Google representations. The recreational connotation of the beach umbrella in the project’s logo contrasts greatly with the dislocative agenda of the project. This mismatch of the two signs within the logo – the beach umbrella and the caution sign – reflects how YAHN is meant to be a disorienting, instructional experience by its very nature, rather than one of leisure. The logo, then, furthers the ironic “branding” of the project itself in promoting the technologically-based interpellative exercise behind the project as tourism. To this end, the technological components involved in this exercise appear as a common sign system on the map. They are all designated by a similar color paradigm of yellow-orange, which points to the power of technology within these dislocative ambulatory practices.
To further the project’s satirical branding of itself as a tourism agency as established in its logo, YANH’s manipulation and re-configuration of place through technological infrastructure becomes tied to promoting consumption. The maps’ selected sites pit consumer spaces (such as Roots Restaurant, PLO Flag Shop, and different markets) against spaces of cultural memory (such as the UNRWA, the Shaheed Monument, the Unknown Soldier Monument, and the Great Omari Mosque). These selections constitute a branding of place that matches the branding of the project, mapping place in direct relation to the commodity fetish.
The tendency toward cultural memory and the commodity fetish within the project may, considering Zer-Aviv’s commentary on the project, be influenced by the tendencies he perceives within Google Maps and the dominant representation it assumes. To him, it leads to specific configurations of cultural memory reflecting the dominant. Zer-Aviv questions the inclusion of certain sites over others in the Google Maps representation of Gaza, centering his critique on the exclusion of the Great Omari Mosque, a site he includes in YANH. 
Therefore, Google’s power over inclusion and exclusion impacts the representation of cultural memory provided through its representations. Said power reveals Google’s status as an ISA. Zer-Aviv contends that Google’s selected sites within Google Maps underscore how “Google’s agenda is not and . . . cannot be devoid of ideology,” necessitating critical interpretations of their representations.  YANH, therefore, can be read as an aberrant decoding of a Google representation to emphasize the need for oppositional readings of the data garnered by Google infrastructures and the representations they comprise.
Through an unorthodox presentation of place that directly resists the dominant, both in its mode of representation as well as in how Zer-Aviv contextualizes the project, YANH insists upon ideologies inherent in the semiosphere of the commodity. Moreover, Zer-Aviv elects to do this by simulating the sites of the commodity within a dislocated experience, modeling the commodified cultural memory that Google can present.
Cirio’s project features images of subjects captured by Google. By appropriating the Google Maps and Street View sign systems, the artist attempts to convince viewers that they too are susceptible to capture by Google. In extracting these captured subject images from the Google interface, Cirio fosters an aberrant decoding of the Google interface. When considering how each ghost is signified within the larger apparatus of Cirio’s project, each ghost becomes a symbol of surveillance and, by proxy, the ubiquity of Google’s nascent infrastructure.
Like YANH, the sign system of Street Ghosts relays this signification. To map out the locations of his subjects, Cirio appropriates subject captures from Google Street View links and pins them as nodes on a Google Map, borrowing from the Google sign system. Street Ghosts, then, reveals the alienation of subjects within the broader Google sign system and characterizes Google as an ISA. Subjects’ images are used in these captures without their permission within an interface that commodifies place. Cirio himself speaks toward this alienated labor in his artist’s statement for the project. 
Street Ghosts assumes a blurred nature of representation. Cirio explains that “[t]hese images do not offer details, but the blurred colors and lines on the posters give a gauzy, spectral aspect to the human figures, unveiling . . . a digital shadow haunting the real world.”  Hence, Google inspires this effect in alienating subjects. While YANH in large part constitutes otherness through language and embodiment to facilitate its dislocation, Street Ghosts relies more heavily on the blurred effect of Google’s captured subject images, the nature of its representation, to signify dislocation.
Moreover, the juxtaposition of the commercial arrangements of cultural memory that Google maps out with scenes of capture are meaningful in how the signs of the interfaces become contextualized as signifiers of both surveillance and capital within public spaces. When clicking on the linked Google Street View images that Cirio provides as the basis of the Street Ghosts, one sees that the captured subjects are pitted through the interface in an environment of promotion and, as such, commodity relations.
To this extent, the dislocation of the project reflects how “[i]n the networked world, we are all sharecroppers for Google. We take our deepest selves and turn them into light on glass cables, to be sold as marketing data or sandwiched between ads,” meaning that “[t]he consumer becomes the consumed.”  This is a sentiment that Cirio overtly expresses as an undercurrent for the project within his artist’s statement, making his emphasis on captured subjects’ position within Google’s commodified cultural memory of place within a semiosphere of the commodity even more jarring.  Through the project’s representations and the significations they embody, Cirio portrays this semiosphere of the commodity through an oppositional reading of Google infrastructure as an integral part of a Google interface that place subjects in the world outside of their control.
The Wilderness Downtown
Chris Milk’s locative music video for Arcade Fire’s “We Used to Wait” is a unique work that relies on the subject’s childhood address to supply the setting and, by proxy, its intended emotional content. The project is locative in that it relies on this piece of locational information, though it is admittedly quite different from the other locative projects examined here. In addressing the piece’s inherent contradictions, Milk demystifies how the work can be interpreted as an oppositional reading of Google representations as archived by its infrastructure:
It’s easy to lose the humanity when you start showcasing tech. Google Maps and Street View embody that contradiction though. It’s cold high-tech that can be incredibly emotional when used in the right context. The whole piece is full of contradictions. It’s essentially human nostalgia produced by the most advanced technology available today. 
Here, Milk recognizes the strong effect Google can assume in the relation of the domestic. Yet in elucidating the technocratic elements operating behind the presentation of that effect, Milk presents the possibility of oppositional readings that counter the power of its emotional content. This opens up a discussion on how The Wilderness Downtown can be interpreted in this manner.
The production itself eventually yields a series of competing browser windows. Different windows pop in and out to direct the subject’s attention toward different images at different times. After inputting a hometown address, the subject hears the song start. A browser window opens with the image of a running, hooded figure. The camera focuses first on the figure’s shoes before zooming out to show the whole figure. The figure has no distinguishing features – just as in Street Ghosts, this fosters self-identification on the subject’s part.
A new window then pops out of a flock of birds with the camera pointed toward the sky. The camera then takes a bird’s eye view as the flock flies down over Google images of the childhood neighborhood the subject provided. A new window with a street-side view of the childhood home pops out before the focus returns to the overall neighborhood image, which, after zooming in during the emergence of the street-side view window, proceeds to zoom out once more.
The same window then invites the subject to write a letter to their younger self, synchronized to the lyrics “I’m gonna write/ A letter to my true love/ I’m gonna sign my name.” The competing browser windows now feature pictures of gears and a smaller window in which the running figure returns. In the song’s closing verses, the birds return, flying over the window with the letter-writing invitation and moving into yet another browser window featuring the subject’s hometown. In that window, after the running figure is shown running from animated trees sprouting around the figure in another window, animated trees also begin sprouting in the street-side hometown Google image, obfuscating the image and alienating the subject.
The signs upon which The Wilderness Downtown operates reveal a central contradiction to the production. The browser windows of gears reflect that this is an algorithmic, not customized, experience – one that, in its programmatic nature, has the potential for an aberrant decoding. The Wilderness Downtown, then, is a production masquerading as customized that actually reveals the interpellative implications of “the most advanced technology available today.” These implications inculcate viewers into specific emotions about place as presented through dominant Google representations.
The nature of the production in zooming in and out contextualizes domestic space within the larger Google archive of images and the Google infrastructures that host it. Yet it does so in a way that could very well be incongruent with the memories the project seeks to conjure and locate within the approximate present that the Google images and infrastructures embody. 
Therefore, while The Wilderness Downtown diverts from the ambulatory practices that the other projects discussed here assume (albeit both in staunchly different ways), Milk still uses Google infrastructure as an organizing logic for an aberrant decoding of sorts, revealing Google’s ideological operations in re-appropriating the signs of Google infrastructure to support a dislocated narration. The project does so not by mirroring Google’s insistence on the semiosphere of the commodity through its interface, but through its conflation of the public and the private. This creates an exploitation of place in the service of capital, which justifies the characterization of Google as an ISA.
I have problematized the presentation of Google within locative works as an institutional presence in terms of its infrastructures and sign systems, one that reinforces capitalist ideologies. YANH’s sign system signifies a broader process of interpellation through technology in the contemporary landscape. This reflects the commodification of cultural memory inherent in Google infrastructure, a commentary furthered through the dislocative ambulatory practices YANH fosters.
Street Ghosts takes on ambulatory practices as a question of mediation between the public and the private. Cirio underscores this strategy through his blurry, blown up subject images, which, in being naturalized within the environment of capture, signify dataveillence within Google infrastructure in an interpellative manner.
The Wilderness Downtown is only seemingly customized for the subject. It facilitates readymade interpretations that conflate the public and the private. While it does not actively engage in the same caliber of aberrant decoding as the other projects in demystifying the commercial operations of the Google interface, The Wilderness Downtown is still a hypermediated marketing ploy directing attention toward similar tendencies regarding the commodity and memory.
1. Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)”, in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (Monthly Review Press, 1971), 154.
2. Daniel Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners, accessed February 15, 2014, http://users.aber.ac.uk/dgc/Documents/S4B/sem01.html.
4. Yuri Lotman, “On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture,” New Literary History 9 (1978): 213.
5. Ned Prutzer, “The Subjects of Subjective Mapping: Locative Art, Critical Theory, and Creative Systems” (Master’s thesis, Georgetown University, 2013), 90.
6. Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners.
7. Mushon Zer-Aviv, “A Subtle Zionist Occupation of Gaza Using Google Maps,” Mushon.com (blog), December 9, 2009, accessed April 15, 2014, http://mushon.com/blog/2009/12/09/a-subtle-zionist-occupation-of-gaza-through-google-map/.
10. Street Ghosts, accessed February 15, 2014, http://www.streetghosts.net
12. Molly Crabapple, “Google Glass, The Corporate Gaze and Mine,” Rhizome (blog), January 7, 2014 (11:40 a.m.), accessed April 15, 2014, http://rhizome.org/editorial/2014/jan/7/google-glass-male-gaze-and-mine/
13. Street Ghosts.
14. Michelle Castillo, “The Wilderness Downtown’s Creator Talks About What Motivated Him, What’s Next,” Time, September 10, 2010, accessed April 15, 2014, http://techland.time.com/2010/09/10/the-wilderness-downtowns-creator-talks-about-what-motivated-him-whats-next/#sthash.vkqpmhIe.dpuf.
15. “On Google Earth and the Life Narrative,” Pipelines: Maps and Narratives for Dense Urban Spaces, accessed February 15, 2014, http://edmontonpipelines.org/musings/on-google-earth-and-the-life-narrative/
Ned Prutzer is a PhD student in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he also serves as a Seeing Systems Fellow. His research focuses on digital media and cultural memory in relation to locative art and examines location as labor within the broader mediatization of mapping.