Assistant Professor, Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, University of Michigan
[Keywords: erasure, history, material culture, story, digital mediation, digital reproduction, sociology, material investigation, narrative structures, physical-digital interaction]
Recently, in researching a site-specific project, I came across a glitch in Google Street View. I was searching for the Elks Lodge that used to be a farmhouse owned by the Ford family in Dearborn, Michigan. In fact, the Elks Lodge had been demolished within the past year, and replaced by a Tim Hortons. Google, having passed that way since then, recorded the absence of the Lodge, and thus the fact that it had ever existed passed out of Google’s eye.
However, an accidental artifact remains in Street View. From one particular spot on the road, if we move in one particular direction, the perspective changes to that of an older photograph, taken six years earlier: the Tim Hortons disappears, and the Elks Lodge returns. In the next step, we are back in (the photographs of) 2013, and the Lodge is gone again.
This sudden accidental time travel throws into relief the massive act of erasure constantly enacted by Street View, by the simple effort of remaining up to date. Saving over one’s previous work erases the history of edits one has performed; in this case, the work is the common landscape, and the history of edits is the identity of place embedded in that landscape, now hidden, and perhaps unavailable to view, behind the seamless surface of street-level imagery.
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Since Street View launched in 2007, Google has gone to considerable lengths to improve the accuracy of the images they capture, which includes not only increasingly comprehensive coverage, but improvements to the image-capturing technology array—from commercial lenses to custom-designed equipment, from an array of eight sensors on each car to fifteen. Each subsequent pass by Google’s vehicles replaces the ‘bugs’ of the previous version: bad stitches, inaccurate positioning, inadequate image coverage. The resulting version, the ‘real’ image of the landscape, is (notionally) a seamless surface representation of the physical landscape as it exists.
Among the ‘bugs’ that are smoothed away, however, are the historical quirks and previous versions of the physical landscape itself. In 2014 Google launched a feature that allows users to browse ‘historical’ imagery in Street View – that is, previous imagery captured by Google itself. But this organizes the past into tidy layers, an impervious surface peeling back to reveal another impervious surface. More revealing is the occasional technical imperfection, a digital scar that replicates the physical scars of the lived-in landscape. Street View depends for its reputation on the closeness of its relationship with objective reality: its constant updates, its apparently seamless stitching, its almost-omnidirectional coverage of the landscape. The result, or at least Google’s aim, is an unquestioned trustworthiness, the assumption that Street View is showing what’s ‘really there.’ What’s really there, however, is not a tidy organization of historical ‘layers,’ but a series of distinct ‘nodes,’ each accreting historical narratives as they go, each butting up uncomfortably against the next.
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In the 1850s a farm was built on this site, right on what was then the Chicago Road. In the early twentieth century, Henry and Clara Ford bought the property; after summering here for several years, Henry converted the farm into a home for orphaned boys. Here the boys would be trained in the skills they would need to move into Ford’s factories when they were grown.
A few years later, Henry moved his training program into the factory itself, and Clara took over the property, turning it into a home for wayward women – that is, single mothers. These women too were trained in respectable productivity, this time in the form of domestic skills. In later years, the home became a women’s hospital; in the 1950s, the hospital shut down, and the property was sold to the Elks.
Productivity, usefulness, paternal benevolence; this has always been a scripted site. Indeed it has always been a site of cultivation: cultivated land, cultivated people, a cultivated image of what it means to be an American town. The Fords’ benevolent social programs always had a strong impulse towards Americanization, teaching new immigrants (of which there were many) to be good Americans, productive citizens.
Today the site is a part of a seamless American exurban landscape – the Chicago Road is now Michigan Avenue, a divided highway like any other in the nation. This corporatized exurb, carefully uninscribed with anything but itself, is a portal into a reliable narrative space. One Tim Hortons is the same as any Tim Hortons; they are designed to be reassuringly interchangeable. The carefully seamless Street View, with its narrative voice of authenticity, reinforces this sameness of place.
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If we poke behind the Street View curtain, we become aware not only of what was there, but of what wasn’t there. Of all the things that happened on this site in its first hundred and fifty years, the presence of an African-American was not among them; for most of the twentieth century Dearborn was a sundown town. Similarly, there was long an understanding that the Chicago Road was built on what was originally the Great Sauk Trail, but this is untrue; before white settlers, the Sauk-Fox people moved through this territory, but not here, and the wide avenue we can glimpse under our notional feet in Street View is not a trace of their presence.
How can we keep ourselves aware of the jumbled repository of history, of the things that happened on this site, and the things that were criminal by their absence? One way to move past the curtain of Street View’s implacable accuracy is to smear it into recognizability, to reduce the current moment to the smoothest possible canvas, as I’ve done here. This further act of digital erasure turns the Street View surface into the base of a palimpsest, onto which we can reinscribe our history. This is necessarily a speculative act, but a powerful one; the past exists only as our speculation, after all. The very technology on which Street View is based works against this truth; its focus on seamlessness forms a rhetorical appeal to authority, in the form of ‘fidelity’ to physical presence on this site. This is in itself an unexamined act of erasure, hiding the mechanism as an act of technical prowess. But it’s in the seams that history accretes. The occasional mistake, the scar of a technical glitch, reminds of this, but we need to go further, to pry open this seam and look inside.
Seth Ellis is Assistant Professor in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan. He is a narrative artist and interface designer; his work draws upon local history, allegorical narrative, and experience design to create stories both historical and fictional in new, experiential forms. These narrative, as designed experiences, use both physical and digital tools, including signage, locative media, video, and audio. Ellis’ projects have shown in galleries, streets, symposia and festivals throughout the U.S. and Europe, and at a few places in the Atlantic Ocean. He has a B.A. from Yale University and an M.F.A. from Columbia University School of the Arts.