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Jenny Odell

The San Francisco-based artist creates collages by piecing together images from Google Earth

Jenny Odell never thought she would be able to become an artist, but after managing to develop her work alongside her day job, she has managed to establish her own distinctive style using the Internet and its graphological tools to inform her work. The way Odell approaches a project is by collecting fragments of everyday moments with the intention to then arrange them into a statement. When looking at her portfolio of work, there’s a feeling that each series or piece has been considered, with the final product being well executed.

Her current project ‘Satellite Collection’, in which she’s gathered images from Google Earth and created a visual catalogue, echoes this sentiment. In this series Odell has collected industrial and man-made structures from across the world and grouped them together in grids. From this perspective the artist highlights the human stamp we've put on this earth heightened by the repetition and similarities between the various constructions. Here she explains why she enjoys changing the purpose of these Internet tools to create her work. 

Dazed Digital: What inspired your project ‘Satellite Collections’ and other works using the Google Earth satellite tool?
Jenny Odell: I’ve always been drawn to using Google Satellite imagery because of the way it alienates us from elements of our surroundings that are otherwise so familiar. There's something about seeing the structures of humanity from a non-human perspective that reveals something about them that we can't possibly see living in them. A lot of times what ends up being revealed is the fragility and time-specific nature of what we've created - what seems timeless and banal to us (parking lots, swimming pools, stadiums) looks from this perspective unmistakably, even humorously, human. This switch in viewing is what I am trying to amplify in the Satellite Collections.

DD: Similar to yourself other artists have made work out of using Internet tools like Google Street View as well, what do you enjoy about changing the purpose of these types of technologies?
Jenny Odell:
The thing that I enjoy about shifting the purpose of something like Google Satellite/StreetView is the obliqueness of the images they provide: that is, the people that we see on Streetview and the buildings we see on Satellite view are in the picture plane only incidentally. This is very different from the traditional idea of photography, in which a person with a subjective point of view takes a picture of something, usually with some kind of intent. 

Photographs that make up Google Satellite and StreetView are not taken by a person, nor are they taken at purposeful times; they are automated and meant to be purely informative. Because of this, the subjects that enter their view are captured in a way more accurately or honestly than in a normal photograph. They are caught in a truly arbitrary moment. I prefer working with this kind of unintentional photography because of how passionless, and thus straightforwardly, it portrays us and the environments we've created for ourselves.

DD: Do you like the fact these collections act as a visual catalogue, a bit like collected data on the space we inhabit?
Jenny Odell:
Yes, there is definitely something sort of scientific about the collections. Often when I'm working on them I describe the feeling as being an "alien anthropologist" who has just discovered these strange forms on the surface of the earth. In this context, the pieces I collect are a lot like data, or symbols, indicating the presence and behavior of people. 

DD: A lot of what’s included in the collections are man-made, industrial structures, was this a conscious decision?
Jenny Odell:
That was definitely a conscious decision. As I've described, my main interest in the Satellite Collections is the way the imagery allows one to form a portrait of humanity that would be impossible from any other perspective. For that reason, I tried to choose ubiquitous structures-- ones that can, more or less, be counted upon to exist near clusters of people. 

DD: What projects are you working on now?
Jenny Odell:
I find that it's easier for me to work on multiple projects at the same time, because inevitably as I'm scouring Google Satellite, I find things I wasn't originally looking for. Recently I've started collecting billboards and those huge roadside signs (the ones for Borders, Starbucks, Panda Express, etc., and usually with the temperature and time), things at a smaller scale than in the previous Satellite Collections. This is only possible because of the 45 degree imagery that's been made more widely available since I started working with satellite imagery. I'm fascinated with the idea of the text that's inadvertently captured on the surface of the earth: "TATTOO EXPO", for example, or a McDonald's ad for iced coffee that simply says "Cool Beans".