Please introduce the Yourhomepage project.
Yourhomepage is an online archive of local memories. I ask people to retell me their memories, whilst sitting infront of a greenscreen backdrop showing their childhood address. I tested the platform at Live art speed date, at Stoke Newington International Airport.
Live art speed date is a series of one-on-one performances, each lasting 4 minutes and happening in all sorts of spaces. It was a good platform to receive lots of stories and to get the project going.
The current Yourhomepage site is in beta, and is a demonstration of an idea that I would like to develop on a larger scale. I am currently looking for places where the project can be installed and grow with more input and participation.
The idea developed through wanting to perform with Google Maps as an interactive set. The Arcade Fire music video The Wilderness Downtown by Chris Milk integrates the Google Map of the viewer's address into the video. I remember being very excited about the connection with Google maps, but then slightly disappointed with the emotional impact of the piece. It established an innovative framework for creatively adapting Google Maps, and it was the first time I had ever seen it being put to good creative use.
More recently, I viewed a short film by Tom Jenkins called Address is approximate. In this film, toys embark on a road trip through the Google Maps left on a computer. It suggests a lot of performative possibility through interacting with the backdrop of Google Maps. I wanted to carry this idea further by applying it with people and live performances.
How have Google Maps and Street View helped to realise the idea?
The introduction and growth of the Street View feature happened subtly and rapidly. When Street View was released in 2007, it was to only 7 cities in America. This small-scale release didn't seem to bother anyone till they started seeing the Google car driving down their street.
It's not until you see the car coming down your street, or view your street on Street View, when you form an opinion on the subject of privacy. There have been very clear 'NO's from Russia and countries in Asia and Africa. But, for other countries, it has been a case of Google continuing until told when to stop. The Street View procedure operates in a grey area between national law and online privacy regulation. Lawsuits have been raised by Germany and Australia due to social unrest regarding breaches of civil privacy. It appears to be a collision between online privacy and civil rights, but the wheels of the Google car keep on rolling.
The aesthetics of Street View has expanded Google Maps into an ever-growing augmented reality. The change in camera angle from aerial to perspective transforms your experience from referencing location co-ordinates, to engaging with a visual stimulation of the environment. I am interested in the emotional experience of this interaction, and the how the user relates to the environment presented before them. As humans, we carry a lot more emotional sensitivity to a certain location that can be portrayed through Street View. The Wilderness Downtown video exposed this, as Street View was employed to generate an emotional relevance towards your home. However, we are unable to relate all our personal history to this very passive imitation of our home. The interaction feels alien and very abstracted from our emotional association with the environment; it seems to create a hyper-real effect. For example, Skype video calling leaves us feeling very dissatisfied with the emotional connection made; the visual technology is so real, it hurts.
Perhaps Street View presents the same problem. Its accuracy and HD imagery create an obscure, unfulfilled, hyper-real experience.
As well as serving the same functions as a map, Street View is creating a virtual imitation of our world. The significance of this augmented reality is still trivial and only through more experimentation can we produce more engaging, fulfilling experiences with the technology.
"Stories from Street View" is a great tagline. Are your participants having their own perceptions of the possibilities of Street View changed, too?
Yes, I hope so. I want to raise my concerns with our emotional relationship with Google maps and online personal data.
In The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser raises user privacy issues in the rapidly growing world of Internet personalization. Personalization is immediately useful; when I search 'cafe' I am shown cafes in London, not San Francisco. However, my clickthrough is then saved, so information on what cafes I like is more data saved to a server. With personalization, Google can give a better service to the customer (by providing accurate search results) whilst also collecting more data to provide more targeted advertising. Our experiences on websites like Google and Facebook are becoming increasingly personalized. As users of Google or Facebook, our internet activity is fully supported by personalization tools that doesn't seem to be a problem just yet, but our increasingly familiar web activity makes us vulnerable consumers.
I want to confront personalization in Yourhomepage. Individual stories are openly shared as we collectively personalize these agents that secretly save our data. Your browser can reveal all the addresses that you have ever lived just by clicking on the Autofill tool. In Yourhomepage, people are personalizing their data for creative benefit, to build an archive of shared stories and memories. If we can operate with more ownership of our data, than perhaps we can make personalization work better for users than corporate advertisers.
It also encourages people to directly engage with the digital simulation of their street. It comes back to identifying the personal, social and emotional connections with a location. The significance of Google Map and Street View is yet to be understood, but we can collectively shape its development. I have yet to approach Google about this project, but think it would make an interesting feature, or even a geolocative mobile app. Street View presents an augmented environment that can be developed into more than a map.
In terms of the reactions of the participants that you have captured through the Yourhomepage videos, were they as you expected?
In terms of expectations, I set up the first shoot very hastily and just hoped that Stret View could help to generate personal memories. In most of the videos, you can see that there is an immediate shock at seeing oneself greenscreenedonto Street View. The visual aesthetic and framing of these heads talking on their street has worked well. In a larger space, you have enough distance to alter the perspective to walk down the street. People found it very easy to give a guided tour of their neighbourhood, but intimate memories were a little harder to express. My questions need to be developed to encourage better answers, but also the way in which people express emotional association with their home is very detached from the images on Street View. I want to get past the immediate geographic detail, into the emotional significance of the environment.
We're looking at Street View "in the now" rather than at the time of the participants' experiences. Does the quick flash of a digital view allow the participant to tell a different story than if they were actually at the location?
It varies between each person. Many find their house hard to recognise, while more recent homes have an immediate familiarity. I think the stories would come more naturally from the original location, and the Street View experience is very different from that. It's interesting as to why we are unable to talk naturally about your street (like you would in the original location) and how the Street View experience disrupts this. Why does it feel alien and unnatural to attach emotional significance to these virtual environments? A compressed digital image acts as a reminder of an environment.
I'm interested in people's relation to it and whether we can change that. Street View feels very static and somewhat of a "captured time", a snapshot that actually feels fairly dated rather than In the now. The digital composition and lack of physicality in the images offer no context or time to the moments captured in Street View. Whilst digital photography remains the norm, identifying context in Street View remains difficult in this standardised reality.
A friend recently showed me a collection of Street View images before and after the tsunami in Japan in December. The dramatic effects of the tsunami provide context to the imagery, attaching a date to when the images were taken. Everything else in Street View could have been taken at any point over the last 5 years, creating a complete loss of time and context that will only get worse.
With such an abundance of content (photos, video, Maps, Street View) that we now have access to, are there any dangers? Could we end up re-appropriating the past and losing the original memories?
One of the possible tag lines for the project was to 'save your memories'. I decided against it because it felt gimmicky, and as human beings we choose what we decided to remember.
As for re-appropriating the past through digital representation, I think, visually, we are a long way off. Sound and audio libraries are much more successful in triggering memories. They leave more space for the imagination. A Street View is very limited in stimulating intimate stories from the past. The graphics and visual aesthetics are completely abstracted, and I think you need to be relaxed to remember the personal things. On the other hand, Google is developing a whole virtual landscape that re-appropriates the one we know. We should attempt to engage with it on a personal, emotional level - not only to empower users, but also to experiment and shape what it can be.