In the last few years a growing number of artists and photographers self-publish their work in an attempt to make their work visible while bypassing more ‘traditional’ publishing routes. The popular website Blurb.com is perhaps the best-known platform on which artists can upload their work and create a book that customers can purchase directly from the Blurb website. Instead of printing hundreds or even thousands of books all at once, many of which might never be sold, Blurb prints books on demand and thus reduces the risk of over-stocking to both artist and publisher. This system bears similarities with the just-in-time production philosophy introduced by the Japanese carmaker Toyota – auto parts are only delivered once they are required in the production process, which, in turn, reduces the cost for storage, rent, insurance and so forth.
In the same year that Blurb was incorporated in 2005, Google introduced an early version of Google Earth which proved to be an instant hit on the internet. Users were initially drawn to locate their home as seen from space in Google Earth. With the introduction of Google Street View in 2007, a growing amount of streets were captured by Google’s omnipresent camera. The ever-expanding network of images in Google Street View allows users to virtually traverse their neighbourhoods from the comfort of their own home. As the network of images grew, users ventured further and further to ‘discover’ the world as recorded by Google.
It was only a question of time until the worlds of self-publishing and Google Earth would collide. The German artist Joachim Schmid – well-known for appropriating images from sometimes bizarre sources – was an early adaptor of Google Earth and Blurb. In his book ‘O Campo’, Schmid collected satellite images that captured football pitches in Brazil. Unlike the perfectly groomed premier league pitches as seen on television, Schmid collection depicts pitches that are dusty, misshapen and crooked. Though as Schmid points out, these pitches, some of them located in economically deprived areas of the country, produce some of the most celebrated footballers in the world. Schmid’s collection of images is an ironic commentary on the rules of the game literally being bent on the fringes of Brazilian society.
In Schmid’s ‘O Campo’, the dusty football pitches function as a metaphor for the extreme disparity between those hoping for a better future through football and those profiting from the game. In addition to this power dynamic however, ‘O Campo’ also address a disparity between the ‘artist’ and his ‘subjects’. Schmid accesses the internet from the comfort of his home to literally look down on the footballers on the dusty pitch in faraway Brazil. My point is that this is a one way relationship, the artist (and by extension the viewer) is looking at the footballers, while the footballers are unaware that they are being looked from high above. The power to look, collect and subsequently publish images from Google Earth lies with those who can afford an internet connection.
Joachim Schmid’s ‘O Campo’ and similar projects such as Mishka Henner’s ‘No Man’s Land’ thus throw up a number of questions in this newly emerging cultural industry. In the first instance, to what extent can the ‘artist’ also be regarded as the producer of the image considering that the images are appropriated from the internet? Similarly, who actually owns the copyright to the image? The artist? Google? The public? Lastly, are we justified in collecting images of subjects, particularly in the so-called developing world, without their awareness or consent? Schmid’s project highlights the precarious condition perhaps characteristic for a cultural industry that is still finding its footing.
Please also read my post Google Street View and the Politics of Exploitation.