Tech by VICE

This Artist Is Hacking Google to Create Surreal Street View Art

Brooklyn-based artist Jason Isolini has inserted over 42 immersive pieces of art into Google Maps’s Street View tool.

by Caroline Haskins
Jun 19 2019, 8:53pm

Image: Google Maps

Elaine Herzberg was killed on March 18, 2018 after being struck by an self-driving car that was being developed by Uber. The car detected her six seconds before the collision, but for reasons that are still unknown, the car did not apply the emergency brakes. Herzberg was 49 years old.

If you go to the site of the crash on Google Maps—Mill Avenue and Washington Street in Temple, Arizona—you’ll notice that the location is registered as a bus station stop. But if you enter the map’s 360-degree "Street View" tool, you’re met with a chaotic, immersive mishmash of stock art and photography that appear to be encasing the viewer. A crumpled up "THANK YOU" plastic bag overlain with a computer arrow and the text "Click Forward to your Perk." "Users also bought" in a semi-transparent box. Uber patents. A gigantic can of corn.

The Google Maps memorial at Hill Avenue and Washington Street.
Image: Google Maps

It’s a memorial to Herzberg and an experimental art piece that's hidden in plain sight in the largest mapping system in the world. Jason Isolini—a Brooklyn-based artist who has done work as a contracted photographer for Google Maps since 2015—inserted this art into Google Maps by uploading the 360-degree image file to Google Business View, a tool designed to give businesses a way to upload images and information to Google Maps. Anyone with a Gmail account can use Google Business View to insert a 360-degree image file into the Google Maps universe. As Google explains in a promotional video, a bar owner could use this feature to let potential customers see what the bar looks like inside before they visit it.

As a contractor, Isolini worked as an intermediary between businesses and Google. At the request of businesses, he would capture 360-images inside business establishments and upload them to Google Maps. Isolini was paid by the businesses, but not Google.

Now, Isolini is using the same method to create art on Google Maps. But instead of capturing true-to-live panorama images, he is uploading surreal collages that subvert the purpose of Google Maps: to be a tool that brings users from their current location to a business.

In a phone call with Motherboard, Isolini said that he wanted to acknowledge the tragedy on Google Maps, which by intention, is a sanitized mapping system devoid of humanity or history. Hesitant to make something that directly used Herzberg’s images, life, and story, Isolini said that he created a visual parallel to the accident using ecommerce.

“I made it about the sense of abandonment that maybe a user may feel, kind of like if you abandon your shopping cart online, then you have email blasts coming back at you,” Isolini said. “So it’s like a trajectory that a marketing company or commercial company doesn’t want you go through. I started to think about that as Elaine Herzberg’s trajectory, as she walks through the median that had a brick area. There was a crosswalk miles away from where she was, but obviously it was a place where people cross the street.”

Since August 2017, Isolini has made 42 "contributions" to the Google Maps landscape and they've accumulated just shy of 200,000 views. In some of his earlier works, Isolini inserted collages of photos—like street signs, monopoly pieces, laundry detergent bottles—into spaces around Brooklyn.

More recently, in addition to his memorial at the site of the accident at Mill Avenue and Washington Street, he’s superimposed his work onto 360-degree views of art buildings like the Simon Lee Gallery and inserted a images of abandonment and destruction over the entrance to the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. A cigarette, a broken glass screen, USB ports on a slab of stone, leading to nowhere.

Isolini's collage at the Fifth Avenue Apple Store on Google Maps.
Image: Google Maps

“I think it was really a big experiment when I started doing it—it was colliding images in a panoramic stitching software and seeing what happened,” Isolini said. “Now it’s like this 360 playground that I imagined. I really imagined this as how we could actually interact with the internet. How the internet could feel new again.”

In June 2018, Isolini published a dystopian look at an aerial Amazon Fulfillment center based on a patent which went public in 2016. The art floats unassumingly in Google Maps above an intersection in Midtown, Manhattan. There's Amazon Fire TV Sticks, hot dogs, ketchup packets, and hamburgers flying out of the sky among drones and empty boxes. It looks like a mix of Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and your worst nightmare.

USA Today was talking about how the Amazon Fulfillment center would fly over stadiums and deliver refreshments and food,” Isolini said. “And this is just hilarious. Every outlet, I’ve heard multiple times. The first thing people wanna do is receive food.”

In his phone call with Motherboard, Isolini frequently described his piece as “interventions.” He explained that since ubiquitous Google Map street views have collapsed the distinction between private and public space, his work could be seen as performance art, a type of art where the defining trait is intervening with people’s experience in a public space.

“It’s really interesting, [as a contractor] you’re sort of going into people’s spaces and really making them completely visible online in a way that’s so past the point of their private spaces,” Isolini said. “You’re exploiting it. But some people want that. They want to be visible. And obviously, these garner a ton of views for businesses, so they can be really positive.”

"Our Street View Trusted Photographer program allows users to contribute imagery to the platform so people can virtually explore the real world," a Google spokesperson said in an email statement. "We're aware of the altered imagery that was recently published to the platform and will remove the content because it violates our Maps User Generated Content Policy."

Google Maps would not be possible without the work of contract laborers like Isolini, who capture 360-degree panoramas, upload them, and make them public. But by the same token, this means that little bits of humanity will inevitably leak into the sanitized tool that Google originally had in mind.

Update June 21: This story has been updated with comment from Google. The story has also been updated to clarify that Jason Isolini wasn't paid by Google directly, but by the businesses for which he took 360-degree images.