Interview for "Libération" (FR) about Street Ghosts. 2012.
Marie Lechner: First, how and why did you start this project with google street view? What was the triggering factor?
Paolo Cirio: I was initially attracted to the artistic qualities of those pictures, the visual abstraction of an intimate moment in the public. Then I realized it was just a good continuation of other projects of mine that explored privacy issues and the ownership of private information being abused by Internet companies, like the project that I did with Facebook's users.
In this case it was interesting to notice how those pictures were actually old, exposed in a way and archived forever by Google. Our ghosts will haunt the servers of Facebook, Google, Twitter and the like forever. All the information that we leave behind us on Internet will be stored and traded in a shadowy digital hell.
M.L.: In some way, those people did not choose to appear on googlestreet, nor did they want to appear on the walls? It is a kind of double privacy violation, isn't it?
P.C.: I wouldn't abuse personal information that was not already compromised. In a way, my projects are simply warnings and denunciations, through art. Being on Google Street View is much worse than being on a poster on the street, because a poster is not permanent and can be always taken down. The notion of what is public has changed a lot. People don't care much about physical space anymore. Everyone looks at the screens of their devices even as they walk down the streets. The project became popular and provocative not because I put those posters on the walls, which are actually very hard to find and notice, but because the pictures of the public interventions went online, creating attention about the consequences of this technology. In a way, this is just a conceptual work of art experimenting with fear and the potentials of exposure in private and public spheres.
M.L.: Why did you choose googlemap (and not openstreetmap), picasa and other google tools for the online part of the project? Isn't it a bit paradoxal?
P.C.: Beyond the provocation, this choice gave a wider reach to the project. For instance, by putting the pictures of those people found on Google Street View on Google+, someone can tag their names and potentially link the pictures to the personal profiles on other social media platforms, closing the circle of exposure. It demonstrates how much potential there is by amassing great quantity of apparently worthless data, and finding valuable information through processing and cross-referencing it. That's why Google tries to harvest other kinds of data with their cars as they take these pictures(Look at the scandal of the WiFi spots data), potentially matching people walking on a specific street with their telephone number, biometrical facial measures and their Gmail accounts—pretty scary but technically possible. So using Google's services for this project just exposes even more about how much personal information can be abused through them.
M.L.: In previous work you fought against Amazon, Facebook, now Google. Why?
P.C.: These companies are the totalitarian powers of our days. The power they have is out of control, and this is why they must be constantly under public scrutiny, making sure that they serve the people and not abuse them. Artists have always fought against the despots of their era. It used to be the Romans, the Pope, the bourgeois and now we have IT companies exploiting personal and public information as well as free labor, and not even paying any taxes.
M.L.: What is the problem with google street view?
P.C.: I find Google’s ease especially problematic, when it comes to privacy. I find Google Street View quite invasive in general, but Google just doesn’t care about anything. They didn't ask permission of the local authorities to take pictures and don’t even pay fees for it, when usually, anyone who needs to do something in a public space has to go through many approvals and taxes.
M.L.: How did you choose the people/location on streetview that you mapped on the wall?
P.C.: It was hard to decide because there are many potential subjects and spots. Initially I thought to use only pictures of persons that have clearly visible faces, which happens when Google's facial recognition software fails (the rate of these failures was just debated in a Swiss court a few months ago). However, I realized that the esthetic qualities of those images were actually always interesting. So then I just focused on noticeable locations for street art. I’ve lived in Berlin, London and NYC to do street art, so I had enough experience and knowledge to organize and execute the project in two weeks. However, I couldn't manage to put up many posters that I had, because some buildings have changed (some pictures on Google Street View are dated 2007) or security guards were passing by at night.
M.L.: Did you have any reaction from those people posted on the wall without being asked any permission?
P.C.: Not yet. But I suppose it may happen soon. So far I’ve only gotten emails from people that want to help with disseminating the posters, in Sydney, Mexico and Hong Kong for example. Someone even just sent me the links of themselves caught by the camera of Google's car, asking to became one of my posters. Everyone has different idea about his or her own privacy, but I doubt that there is anyone who doesn't care at all. I'll keep doing this project in several new locations around the world. I'd also like to do it in small villages, where everyone actually can recognize themselves posted on the walls of their houses.
M.L.: Which cities will be targeted next?
P.C.: I have a few on the list. Paris may be the next one. However, again, this is quite a conceptual artwork.
M.L.: and also, on what project are you working next?
P.C.: In the next months I'll publish a project about Twitter and a major one on financial data of the world's false economy.