On 10 June, Google’s Paris-based Cultural Institute introduced Google Street Art to the public. An extension of its already expansive Google Art Project, the online platform’s goal is to: ‘help preserve street art, so people can discover it wherever and whenever they like.’ The press release for the project’s launch begins with the line: ‘Here today, gone tomorrow’, lamenting the cyclical transience of an art form whose very roots are found in impermanence and repetition. Defying the logic that drove graffiti’s proliferation as a rebellious and competitive mode of expression, Google’s project flattens the immediacy, originality and site specificity of these works into data points, only separated from those works in the Louvre which Google also hosts online by the prefix ‘Street’. The reach of Google’s democratizing impulse remains as inevitable and as spurious as ever.
It’s the matrix of problematics present in these kinds of cultural endeavours that Georgie Nettell reproduces and critiques in her work. Her solo show 2014 at Lars Friedrich, which opened three days before Google launched its new exhibition platform, comprises a series of small, subdued canvases that riff on themes of authenticity and appropriation, rebellion and domestication. The seven works (2014.1–2014.7, all 2014) are digital prints on canvas, discrete yet all cropped from the same low-res JPEG depicting a wall of graffiti tags. Sourced online, the image was altered in Photoshop, the contrast ramped up and variously resized for the separate pieces. The legibility of the tags is obscured and with it their original signification. Nettell’s ‘pro-urban abstractions’, as the press release puts it, neuter the tags – the where, when, and who by of tagging being its primary content – flattening any interaction between the wall’s palimpsestic layers.
If reproduction and appropriation haven’t killed off authenticity then it has at least complicated its valorization, no matter how persistently it pokes its head up through the cracks of contemporary culture. Google’s Street Art Project seeks to reinsert this outmoded category in its celebratory logic of access. The result paradoxically drains the original sites and works of their specificity by absorbing them within a mammoth network while simultaneously asserting their uniqueness through geotags and author attributions. Nettell’s works position themselves opposite to this: by their obfuscatory character, they end up being more open to the intersectionality of their production than Google’s freely navigable database of stitched images.
This is the strength of Nettell’s show – exactly this simultaneously closed and open positioning. Turning in on itself, the work demonstrates the processes it critiques. But what seems to separate Nettell from her contemporaries who operate from a similar ‘post-authentic’ standpoint is that in performing the now familiar ironic turn towards one’s own complicity in the reproduction of voracious consumer capitalism, her work doesn’t exhibit a sexy, accelerated coolness, but instead bears an aesthetic equivalent to the work’s instigating problematic: the near-monochromatic lifelessness of a repackaged and repurposed disobedience.
First published in Issue 16