Such are the thoughts that passed through my mind as I viewed Joe Yorty’s series of photographs titled “Neighborhood” at Agitprop Space. When I first walked into the gallery where the photos were hung, I was confronted with a reassuringly boring array of uniformly cropped, framed and hung photographs that were so unobtrusive as to resist being noticed at all. The force they exerted seemed more centripetal than centrifugal and this is very unusual in a world where most images seem to explode towards your eyeballs. But slowly they began to pull me in with their subversive power.
I was puzzled by the deliberate artlessness of the images until I realized the artist (can the label of photographer be accurately applied here?) had stolen the photographs from Google Map’s street level views of his neighborhood. I say stolen but is it really stealing if you pick up a dollar bill off the sidewalk that someone left behind? Each image was cropped to draw attention to a single figure – an anonymous person caught in the act of doing something boring such as walking down the street or getting into a car. As I said, each photo is very much alike and nearly interchangeable from the others. What makes their presence even more self-effacing is that Google has created an algorithm that scans all its street-view photos for faces and blurs each one out. Deprived of facial features these figures seem to float across the picture plane like ghosts. Google’s deliberate blurring comes in tandem with the naturally occurring artifacts, those funny crystal-like clusters of pixels, that appear in cases of extreme magnification. This lends the photos an impressionistic and painterly quality completely accidental in terms of any desired aesthetic outcome.
My sense is that Yorty is bringing to our attention a new source of artifactual images and a realm of reality that is pervasive yet relatively untapped. The photos are presented in a way that preserves enough of their boring, everyday quality to make them seem somewhat shocking when considered as art. After all, art is supposed to dynamically reaffirm our humanity rather than negate it. There is a kind of existential oblivion at play in these photos that keeps them from being easily forgotten despite their flirtation with invisibility. The people in these photos have been coercively stripped of any romantic notion of what it means to be an individual, an ego or a personality. Has the disappearance of privacy and identity that these images document become our new human condition? How will we respond to the revelation that our humanistic values vanish so easily when seen through the eyes of our prosthetic gods?