Operative Fictions // Istanbul Becoming

As Istanbul actively reinvents herself to inhabit the title of the 2010 European Capital of Culture, her millennia-old identity has been thrown into flux. Politicians, artists and theorists have been hotly debating which facets of her complex identity should be reformulated for re-presentation to the outside world. A bottom-up desire to express the "new" liberal and progressive Istanbul is in contention against the top-down edict that history is (and always will be) the most important part of Istanbul's contemporary identity. At the same time, fiscal energy generated by the ECOC designation is funneled into development, the skyline and sidewalks of Istanbul are rapidly approaching that of the generic city.

Taking advantage of Google Earth as a platform for identity dissemination through voyeurism and surveillance, imagined realities which question Istanbul's current perceived trajectory will be inserted into public (web)space. Specifically juxtaposing Boston and Istanbul as two inherently different urban environments, these fictive scenes innocuously disguise themselves as mundane and real, but actually depict places to which no one can go. Riding on the wave of internet tourism, this project questions whether it is possible to influence the identity of a place through guerilla tactics and desktop infiltration.

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At the heart of this project is the question of whether Google Earth's powerful ability to surveil is matched by the equal and opposite force of a vigilant public. Technically speaking, Google Earth's imagery is obtained legally, since anything visible to anyone flying over (or driving by) a piece of property qualifies as "public". As a result, though some people have called it a dangerous stepping stone towards greater violations of privacy, Google has continued to create higher and higher resolution coverage of the world. Interestingly, depending on the circumstances, Google will agree to blur, omit or censor specific satellite imagery. Unfortunately, this willingness to compromise seems highly subjective to who asks, with a strong bias towards supporting existing power structures (for example, Google agreed to blur key sites in India, upon request of the government of India).

Likewise, Panoramio - a partner website that accumulates geo-tagged photographs of places and funnels them into Google Earth - has shown an inconsistent attitude towards how it defines the public realm. For example, Panoramio explicitly states that images of the interiors of buildings, events and exhibitions, and portraits of people will not be accepted into Google Earth. However, these types of images are frequently found throughout both Panoramio and Google Earth. At the same time, there are numerous images which are outright rejected for inclusion because they may inappropriately reveal something that an unnamed entity did not want to become public.

This inconsistent exercising of censorship is troubling precisely because of its temperamental nature. If the worst case scenario were to come along, how could Google Earth's capabilities be abused to the detriment of the public domain?

By creating fictive images of well known places and uploading them to Google Earth, I am testing the boundaries of what one can do under the radar. Thus far, no one has noticed that the images I have uploaded have been doctored. Fake scenes of Boston Common with minarets in the background and the Istanbul skyline with Boston skyscrapers quietly appear while perusing Boston or Istanbul in Google Earth. Of course, this handful of images alone may not mean much. However, the significance of the success of these guerilla infiltrations hints at some troublesome loopholes.

Spring 2009 studio seminar in public art at MIT, taught by Antoni Muntadas.

The slideshow to the right narrates the research and process that led to the final project.
Please see the following links below to see each project in situ.

For "Boston Common with Minarets" I found an existing, publicly-shared image of Boston Common to use as my canvas. I then inserted minarets from the Hagia Sophia and the Suleymaniye Mosque into the background. I filled the foreground with people and street furniture from photos I had taken while in Istanbul. None of the people in this scene were in Boston at the time this photo was taken.

For this image, "Boston Skyline", I conflated an image of the a winter Boston skyline with selected buildings from Istanbul in the background, including the Galata Tower.

In "Gezi Parki", again, none of the people (and few of the objects) in the foreground are from the native context. Rather, all of these people and items are from photographs taken in Boston and Pennsylvania.

Finally, "Istanbul Skyline" is the opposite of "Boston Skyline", and inserts tall Boston buildings - including the John Hancock Tower - against a view of the Galata neighborhood of Istanbul.

The video below is an animation of the Istanbul skyline slowing becoming the Boston skyline. The changes are individually almost imperceptible, but by the end, Istanbul has transformed to become a completely different city.