En Route

En route from Amsterdam to Berlin, Thomas Mann’s masterpiece Doctor Faustus open in front of me. Between the narratives, Mann’s reflections make my thoughts wander and I notice how freely I continue his train of thought. My attention is caught by his statement about the double computation of time:

Ich weiß nicht warum diese doppelte Zeitrechnung meine Aufmerksamkeit fesselt und weshalb es mich drängt auf sie hinzuweisen: die persönliche und die sachliche, die Zeit in der der Erzähler sich fortbewegt, und die, in welcher das Erzählte sich abspielt.

[I do not know why this double computation of time holds my attention and why I feel that I must emphasise this: the personal and the objective, the time in which the narrator moves and that in which the narrative unfolds.]

My own progress takes place against the backdrop of the landscape through which the train is passing, giving this sentence particular relevance. Meanwhile, I look at the passing scenery as if it is 'the narrative'. My movement ensures that my time has a different speed than that of the trailing but always present landscape. A second behind the window seems almost to materialise differently than a second that ticks by in the landscape outside. One time stands opposed to a seemingly different time. Mann and the train window make me aware that I am moving through variable layers of timelines.

My mental leaps lead me to the idea that a parallel manifestation of time also occurs at the moment that I look through my computer screen at home. The virtualworld also moves at a different pace from my reality, but where the train landscape trails behind and changes continuously, Street View is always stuck in the past. As a sequence of images, Google's enormous photomontage is complete by definition. The world portrayed on Street View is thus, strictly speaking, closer to Mann’s idea of 'the narrative' than the landscape outside the train.

Mann’s musings on the computation of time continue:

Es ist dies eine ganz eigentümliche Verschränkung der Zeitläufe, dazu bestimmt, sich noch mit einem dritten zu verbinden: nämlich der Zeit, die eines Tages der Leser sich zur gezeigten Rezeption des Mitgeteilten nehmen wird, so dass dieser es also mit einer dreifachen Zeitordnung zu tun hat: seiner eigenen, derjenigen des Chronisten und der historische.

[It is a unique accumulation of timelines, devised to be linked to a third: namely the time that the reader will one day take to absorb the message, thus leaving him with a triple time structure: his own, that of the narrator and the historical.]

Thomas Mann adds a third timeline to his accumulation, namely the time of the reader who is confronted with a triple time structure: his own time, that of the narrator and that of the narrated. This triple temporal division of roles is less defined if Street View represents 'the narrated'. After all, the street scenes are generated automatically and organised by algorithms, as a result of which Google remains anonymous in its role as narrator. Google’s focus is difficult if not impossible to trace; the choices regarding where and when the world is mapped on Street View remains unclear even during one's use of it. Street View as 'the narrated' thus requires users who actively focus and so fulfil the double role of reader and narrator. But how and which image we choose only becomes apparent when we become aware of the implicit, yet certainly pre-programmed operating instructions that Google imposes on us. Only then can we understand how Google guides us through its world of street scenes and how it determines our focus and destination, rather than the other way around.

In contrast to physical travel, Street View gives us the freedom to change our surroundings instantly. Distance is relative when Australia is just as close as the park around the corner. A remarkable reversal takes place: the starting point of a virtual journey is the arrival point of a physical journey. Street View's search function takes users directly to their desired destinations. As a result, the interpretive space between predetermined start and end points is limited. The journey is reduced to a moment that immediately evaporates, once the destination has been entered and the Enter key has been pressed. From A to B becomes A; Z; G; B; W; etc.: the virtual journey consists of a disjointed succession of destinations.

If the goal of the virtual journey is reached with a click of the mouse, then the possibility to travel, let alone travel aimlessly, seems to be excluded. Yet the very element of being on the move can clear the mind. The physical linear movement through time and space encourages our thoughts to wander. The capacity of the human brain also gives us the ability to bend and turn with the unexpected twists of our mental journey. In other words, to take a non-linear route.

The pattern of virtual travel becomes apparent when Street View's non-linear approach is omitted, as in the screenshot montage The Mother Road (2011) by Hans Gremmen. This five-hour stop-motion film consists of a series of screenshots that Gremmen selected from Street View when he made a virtual road trip along Highway 66 through the United States. The montage reanimates the individual, static Street View images and simulates the idea of movement. Gremmen maintains the linearity of physical travel, in order to convey this remarkable virtual road trip. From Street View's source material he (re)constructs a state that has disappeared in the virtual: the flow of continuity.

Due to the fact that continuity of time is missing from the world of Street View, the moment that is a part of this acquires a different weighting. At any time and in any physical location with a computer and internet connection, people are able to find the same moment captured. Or as the Canadian artist Jon Rafman put it: "Street View is a recharged version of browsing immune to the passage of time." This immunity to a changing concept of time means that the moment is only available as a static snapshot. Street View exists in a time vacuum.

The moment is a central element of photography. Choosing the right fragment of time is preached both in practice and theory, using the obvious reference to le moment decisive formulated by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004). Contemporary photographers who work with Street View are no longer faced with the continuity of time - choosing the right moment before it has passed. Their challenge lies in the continuity of space, where every visually recorded street corner is within reach, and so the emphasis lies on finding, selecting and reframing situations that have already been captured. Wandering through the virtual landscape of Street View, in some cases in combination with prior research, these artists find their art. The comparison of this kind of online street photographer with a flâneur seems obvious. The flâneur as a man-about-town who moves through the public space of the urban landscape, observes the life around him but avoids interacting with it. The Street View photographer also goes in search of specific situations in order to make statements about a portrait of time that Street View encompasses like an enormous picture frame, even as he sits behind his computer. Eventually, however, the flâneur distinguishes himself by moving through space with no concrete goal. He celebrates the journey as a state in itself, which in the virtual world still remains undiscovered.

Arriving in Berlin, I am once again connected to the online world and not confined to my musings. I stumble across the website of Robot Flâneur (http://robotflaneur.com). I think I will spend six hours or so looking through the screen of this website some time, and note the journey that my thoughts take then.

Caroline von Courten

with Thomas Mann and google.com/streetview