The promises and contradictions of the Google Street Art Project

The Google Street Art Project boasts ambitious aims of immortalising, delocalising and democratising street art. 

Paris-based Google Cultural Institute launched a new initiative on 10 June 2014 to catalogue street art from around the world. Aside from copyright and institutionalisation concerns, Art Radar investigates the potential for greater Asian and African participation.

Google Street Art Project, screenshot. Image by Art Radar.

Google Street Art Project, screenshot. Image by Art Radar.

Internet giant Google announced the latest venture of its Cultural Institute on 10 June 2014: a digital repository that documents and displays art from the streets, ranging from graffiti to formal murals. Entitled “Street Art”, the interactive map-cum-online-gallery already boasts over 5,000 works from 100 locations around the world, searchable by artist, location, style and medium.

Globalising graffiti, immortalising street art

For some works, viewers are able to wander around at will in a virtual 3D space using Google’s street view technology. This is the case for the La Tour Paris 13, the world’s largest collective street art tower. The building was demolished in October 2013, but Google preserves the breathtaking wall art in the form of interactive, immersive high resolution images.

The same goes for New York’s 5Pointz graffiti mecca: Google Street Art enables viewers to peruse annotated photographs of the vibrant walls, taken before the building’s exterior was whitewashed in November 2013.

As Google’s Lucy Schwartz wrote on the official Google blog:

The transient nature of street art means it can be at risk of being scrubbed out and lost forever to its legions of fans. But long after the paint has faded from the walls, technology can help preserve street art, so people can discover it wherever and whenever they like […] Street art may be temporary on our walls and sidewalks, but its beauty and vibrancy live on, on the web.

Asian and African participation

Geographical representation is, however, currently skewed towards central Europe and the United States, with only a few Asian and African locations on the map. Among them are the Filipino Street Art Project (FSAP) and French-Tunisian graffiti artist eL Seed.

Kim Dryden, Project Director and Producer of the Filipino Street Art Project says:

Google’s Street Art Project is a wonderful initiative. It brings value to both street art enthusiasts and the artists themselves. The street art scene in the Philippines is young, vibrant and fresh. We were really excited to participate because the work the artists are producing there is incredible and they deserve this kind of international attention.

Austin Smith, Director and Producer of FSAP, adds:

Our project seeks to document and share Philippine street art via many mediums, and Google’s new initiative and the web tools they’ve made available to us, is a great way to expand the scope of our work. So we certainly see this as a big opportunity for us.

Kookoo and Ku. Image courtesy the Filipino Street Art Project.

Kookoo and Ku, ‘Welcome 2014′, 2014, spray paint. Image courtesy Kookoo Ramos.

Copyright concerns

Whether this opportunity can be extended to a wider selection and variety of street art, especially from Asia and Africa, will depend on the participation of intermediary organisations like the Filipino Street Art Project.

As The New York Times reports, in order to avoid copyright charges, Google can only display images provided by organisations that sign a contract attesting that they own the rights to them. Rather than searching through pre-existing Street View footage, Google offers their Street View technology to local organisations that have the right to the works.

This makes it difficult for unrepresented artworks to utilise the Google platform. Furthermore, the original anti-establishment and anonymous nature of street art is thereby undermined. The fact that somebody selects and determines the art to be included in the curated database is contradictory to the “democratic” motivation of the project.

In comparison, the user-submitted images in the Google Street Art Project’s massive Google+ community hit much closer to home. This aspect of the project pulls images onto its website based on street-art related hashtags.

Google’s curatorial impulse

Since its launch in 2011, the Google Cultural Institute has unveiled other exhibition-like collections such as Women in Culture, Made in Italy and Stories of the Holocaust. Amit Sood, Director of the Cultural Institute, acknowledged to The New York Times that the Street Art Project, like other initiatives of the institute, is a way for Google to generate good will in privacy-conscious Europe, where people are generally suspicious of the invasive Street View technology. He said:

It helps make people realise we are doing a lot of things that actually support the community.

Michele Chan


Related Topics: street art, graffiti, art and the internet, promoting art, democratisation of art, globalisation of art

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