2012-12-18

Co.Exist

The Strange Joints Of Google Maps Show The World's Changing Seasons

The artist Elena Radice combs the mapping service to find places where the weather in one satellite photo and the next don’t match to create a series of photographs about space, time, and—oh, yes—climate change.

Sometimes when she needs to relax, the Italian artist Elena Radice travels on Google Earth to places where she knows she’ll probably never go in real life. Arriving from above, she “visits” far-off mountains and deserts and forests. She’s been doing this for a few years, during which time she’s come to intimately know the particular view of the world offered by Google’s satellite photography.

Radice was never all that interested in studying geography growing up, but she says she was fascinated with maps as pictures, as representations of reality. She was particularly drawn to the curious way that Westerners drew maps distorting the landmass of their own homes.

“When I discovered Google Earth I thought, 'Wow, no more shape-position-dimension misunderstandings are possible now. It’s the truth.'” Radice writes in an email from Geneva, where she’s currently studying. “But, is it the truth?”

A few months ago, she started to notice geometric quirks in her digital travels, what she calls “joints” in Google Earth that reveal a kind of “synthesis of space-time gaps” in the system. Google is constantly updating the images and interface, and sometimes satellite photos of the same landscape are captured during different times of year and stitched together. The effect is to view, for instance, a mountaintop simultaneously in summer and winter, with one slope covered in snowfall and the other baked by the sun.

In other images, a mere change in seasonal lighting and cloud cover creates a stark contrast in a single frame. These images do not, in fact, offer the absolute “truth” of the world, as Radice sees it; they’re photographs screened through a moment in time.

She began, casually, to collect screen shots of these joints (not unlike you might photograph your actual travels in the real world). “We try to keep memories keeping pictures,” Radice writes, “as I started to keep memory of those space-time gaps.”

She came to think about the satellite pictures more aesthetically, framing her screen shots to compose images that look almost like modernist abstract art. Now she uploads the results to a mesmerizing Tumblr blog that she calls “Abstract Season Changes.”

“Sometimes I find Google Maps joints between iced and not iced sea,” she says, “between a desert and a river that exists only in winter or doesn’t exist anymore, between perfectly defined fields and an expanse of muddy water which destroyed them, or maybe just makes them more fertile.”

She doesn’t particularly want you to be able to identify the geographic locations of the images (and she doesn’t provide that information on her Tumblr page). She is more interested in these images as a portrayal of time than location, and as a comment on what she calls the useless effort of keeping memories.

Another viewer might see in this digital art a reference to climate change, to a world where we increasingly live with mixed-up seasons, with snowstorms in spring and long summers that stretch late into the year.

For Radice, it’s become a collected work of art in progress. She’s still looking for new images today and thinking about adding another layer to the project by printing some of them, removing these representations of the world from the digital realm. Maybe she’ll collect them into a book, she says, a kind of atlas of space-time gaps.

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