Jenny Odell is a digital artist based out of the Bay Area. Working primarily through Google, she pieces together intricate compositions that form a language speaking to a generation of the world that remains forever digitized and documented. The end result is a body of work that is a delightful blend between comedy and meditative nostalgia. Read our interview with Jenny Odell below.
I find your art to be very compelling. In my opinion, it holds a very unique dynamic - being both comical and inoffensive, but yet slightly brooding and raising questions on how humans relate contextually to each other. Can you speak to that? Is that something you planned?
Yes, there definitely is something brooding about it. I started using the phrase “pre-emptive nostalgia” a lot in thinking about the Satellite Collections— clustered together in what is often otherwise a vast and uninhabited landscape, the elements of our existence can look poignantly (but also comically) specific. It’s as though this context reveals the vulnerability of what we take for granted. Living amongst these things the way we do can make them seem timeless and banal, to the point where we don’t actually see them. But from an alienated perspective we can read our own humanity in these very strange, specific structures.
If you don’t mind speaking to it, what is your art process like?
Except for in rare cases (such as Every Outdoor Basketball Court in Manhattan), I prefer to turn the labels off when searching for things on Google Satellite. For me, this reinforces the idea of Google Satellite as one readable, scrollable image, rather than a map or a utility. Thus it often happens that I have no idea where I am. I see the structures I’m looking for as something like symbols or words; knowing what city they’re near is irrelevant to this and can even be distracting.
Depending on the thing I’m cutting out, I usually notice patterns and inadvertently develop a strategy for finding it. For example, landfills and empty parking lots are often on the outskirts of a town, near the exurbs and office parks. Stadiums are near city centers. Waste and salt ponds are near the landfills or the mouths of rivers. Usually by the time I finish making a piece I’ve gotten significantly faster at finding the pieces based on how consistently we tend to organize the components of civilization.
Once I’ve collected the screen shots, I cut them out in Photoshop and move them onto a blank file one by one. It’s hard to say how I know when I’m done; often finishing a piece involves moving the pieces around and around forever until for some entirely subjective reason I find the composition satisfying.
‘Everyone on Google,’ as stated in your description, was a reference to Douglas Huebler. Other the obvious prevalence of the internet, do you see any change in the society and population he was documenting versus the digitally and interconnection obsessed society we have today? Are people’s relationships any different?
One thing I think has changed significantly is peoples’ attitude toward documentation and being documented. Of course it varies by person but I think on the whole we’ve all begun to take for granted the fact that many versions of us exist online, sometimes almost autonomously and out of our control. Furthermore, the detachment of an image from the actual person is something that some people have come to embrace and even cultivate with the maintenance of Facebook profiles, etc. That said, there is definitely still a discomfort with the proliferation of static, arbitrary, and sometimes flat-out incorrect representations of ourselves. This absurd disconnect was one of the things Huebler was getting at. A couple years ago I had a friend have all of the images from her personal blog hijacked by a stranger who reposted them on another blog. This person wrote her own narrative for the images, her own captions and everything. More people commented on the photos on the fake blog than on the original, so my friend had to witness conversations happening that took this version of her for granted as the real one. This phenomenon of image slippage and detachment is definitely something that the structure of the internet has encouraged.
Are there any other artists that you look to for influence?
There are a lot of artists I admire who are working in the sphere of collecting and online imagery, the most obvious one being Penelope Umbrico, who made Suns from Flickr from thousands of Flickr users’ photos of sunsets. I also love Jon Rafman’s work with screenshots from Google StreetView. I had the good luck to meet both of these people last year in a show we were all in, “From Here On,” part of Les Rencontres d’Arles in France. There were about 30 artists in the show, all working with re-purposed photographic material— pictures made by webcams, satellites, security cameras, Google image searches, even an automated camera attached to a 3 legged cat. Basically anything but a photographer taking a picture with a camera. The show made me realize that I prefer vernacular imagery, for instance a picture taken automatically by a satellite, because of the strangely oblique and thus authentic nature of the image it makes. A my friend and fellow artist, Mocksim, explained it in the context of his piece in the show: “Low quality images taken by people who are not photographers can be quite beautiful and in a way more interesting than a high resolution picture.”
How do you view the permanence in your art? Some artists who directly reference or use internet resources make works that are temporal - it might exist on a web page or even a blog post but eventually fade away into the cosmos of the internet. Is your art work meant for more traditional consumption - to be considered for in the longer sense?
My work is definitely meant for more traditional consumption — the final pieces are framed prints shown in a gallery like any other piece of art. In fact, the transformation of something so completely temporal (satellite imagery being sporadically updated) into an image of a kind of non-space in non-time, an image that is furthermore preserved as a physical object, is one of the most satisfying parts of the process for me. Especially with the rate at which things are moving and how quickly the quality and interface of something like Google Maps changes, I don’t think it will be long before the Satellite Collections look much stranger to us than I originally anticipated.