The Universal Texture

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Images via Clement Valla.

These artists (...) counter the database, understood as a structure of dehumanized power, with the collection, as a form of idiosyncratic, unsystematic, and human memory. They collect what interests them, whatever they feel can and should be included in a meaning system. They describe, critique, and finally challenge the dynamics of the database, forcing it to evolve.1

I collect Google Earth images. I discovered them by accident, these particularly strange snapshots, where the illusion of a seamless and accurate representation of the Earth’s surface seems to break down. I was Google Earth-ing, when I noticed that a striking number of buildings looked like they were upside down. I could tell there were two competing visual inputs here —the 3D model that formed the surface of the earth, and the mapping of the aerial photography; they didn't match up. Depth cues in the aerial photographs, like shadows and lighting, were not aligning with the depth cues of the 3D model.

The competing visual inputs I had noticed produced some exceptional imagery, and I began to find more and start a collection.  At first, I thought they were glitches, or errors in the algorithm, but looking closer, I realized the situation was actually more interesting — these images are not glitches. They are the absolute logical result of the system. They are an edge condition—an anomaly within the system, a nonstandard, an outlier, even, but not an error. These jarring moments expose how Google Earth works, focusing our attention on the software. They are seams which reveal a new model of seeing and of representing our world - as dynamic, ever-changing data from a myriad of different sources – endlessly combined, constantly updated, creating a seamless illusion.

3D Images like those in Google Earth are generated through a process called texture mapping.... 

 

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Artist Profile: Clement Valla

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Clement Valla and John Cayley's Hapax Phaenomena is featured this month on The Download.

Certificate of Authenticity, Hapax Phaenomena (2011)

In Hapax Phaenomena and other projects such as Google Earth Sites, you refer to your art objects as artifacts or curios. Do you see yourself as an observer documenting an endangered technological curiosity?

Yes. These things will all disappear, and probably soon, in the name of progress. These artifacts are atypical ephemera, and often accidental products created by various internet algorithms.  There is very little direct human hand in these artifacts. Though the purpose in collecting them is not simply for their preservation. It's more about framing them, allowing them to be seen, and showing a kind of bizarre byproduct of these super-functioning and useful systems, such as Google. 

When did you first notice the glitch in Google Earth? What inspired you to begin capturing these surreal moments?

It was accidental. I was Google-Earthing a location in China, and I noticed that a striking number of buildings looked like they were upside down. I could tell there were two competing visual inputs here - the 3d model, and the mapping of the satellite photography, and they didn't match up.  The computer is doing exactly what it's supposed to do, but the depth cues of the aerials, the perspective, the shadows and lighting, were not aligning with depth cues of the 3d earth model. I figured that this was not a unique situation in Google Earth, and I started looking at obvious situations where the depth cues would be off—bridges, tall skyscrapers, canyons. Soon I noticed the photos being updated, and the aerial photographs would be 'flatter' (taken from less of an angle) or the shadows below bridges would be more muted. Google Earth is a constantly ...

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