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Artists Create Scenes For Google Maps Users

November 13, 2008

Someone using Google’s Street View map may be surprised when looking down Pittsburgh’s Sampsonia Way.

In May, artists Ben Kinsley and Robin Hewlett staged outlandish scenes, including a 17th century sword fight, and an escape from a building using knotted sheets, to be captured when a Google car equipped with cameras was sent down Sampsonia Way.

The artists wanted to explore the boundaries between virtual and real worlds.

The Google Street View feature provides users with panoramic street-level photographs, a helpful resource for users to get a feel for wherever they may be heading.

When Kinsley and Hewlett first discovered the Google feature, they quickly located their house, and then found themselves deep in discussions about surveillance and virtual reality.

“But instead of dwelling on the darker undertones of these issues, we began to think about ways of playing with the system,” Kinsley said. The “Street With a View” project became his master of fine arts thesis project.

“We were interested in interjecting something staged, something fictional, into Street View and playing with – and subtly questioning – the notion of reality in something that we perceive as a factual representation of our world,” said Kinsley.

The idea drew inspiration from previous Google Street View moments.  In one city, a man was caught climbing a building to break in.  In another photo, a man is photographed passed out on the ground.

Kinsley and Hewlett hoped their artificially created scenes could become a type of virtual reward for users who navigated through the street.

“We attempted a balance between the subtle and the spectacular,” said Hewlett. “Seen individually, any one of these things may not raise your curiosity that much … but coupled together, you may start to question a little more.”

Google joined in on the fun by prearranging the drive-by after being contacted by Kinsley and Hewlett.

“There are all sorts of quirky things that appear organically in Street View, such as a giant rocking chair in Indiana or a wedding in France, which is why this art project was so fascinating,” said Google spokeswoman Elaine Filadelfo. “It spoke to the fact that you never know what you may discover, natural or man-made, while exploring the world via Street View.”

The artist’s received help from The Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum on Sampsonia, which helped connect the artists with volunteers for the scenes. 

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