Pop culture is visual culture. More people recognize Angelina Jolie than the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence ("When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary..."). The average attention span can now focus for about eight seconds, so the demand for printed books continues to decline while the demand for digital images — on Flickr, on Facebook, on every Internet site — continues unabated. Touching on this phenomenon are two new San Francisco art exhibits: one that repurposes the latest satellite imagery available on the Internet, the other that repurposes obscure books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In "Infrastructure" at Intersection for the Arts, Jenny Odell groups hundreds of images of outdoor structures into collages, which become eye-catching, thematically linked stretches of cutouts. In Waste Landscape, Odell pinpoints wastewater facilities that eliminate feces, urine, and other obtrusive elements to make clean water. In Transportation Landscape, Odell isolates airports, train stations, shipping facilities, and other hubs that move hundreds of thousands of people a day. Set against stark white backgrounds, Odell's new works are like out-of-whack jigsaw puzzles waiting to be assembled, except the scrambled puzzle pieces are a wake-up call. Odell, who finds her images on Google Maps and calls herself a "search engine artist," wants her art to demystify things like waste treatment and power plants — to make people realize how close we are in real life to structures that can make or break our lives. For Odell, the avalanche of images on the Internet is a blessing, not a curse.
"There have always been artists doing art like this — collage art goes back really far — but with the Internet, there's a new potential to be able to find whatever you want," says Odell, 27, who lives in the Mission District and lectures at Stanford, where she teaches a course about cellphone photography. "For me, the compelling part of working this way is, as much as I appreciate intentional photography, [it's] trying to convey something. I really like media that, especially automated or amateur photography, accidentally captures information that maybe wasn't the point of that imagery being made. It's like a filter, and you can find this one type of information that happened to be included."
Besides Odell's new "Satellite Landscapes" series, Intersection is featuring her previous digital projects, like the prosaically named "Where Almost Everything I Used, Wore, Ate or Bought on Monday, April 1, 2013 (That Had a Label) Was Manufactured, to the Best of My Knowledge," in which Odell traces every object she encountered that day to its origin. Click on any of the almost 200 images (Odell got each one from the Internet), and the screen reveals all. Odell's bra? Made in Cambodia. Deodorant? The Philippines. Clipper card? Mexico.
Then there's "Power Trip," where Odell, using Google Maps for directions, drives from the Bay Area to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, all the while taking photos of the massive power lines that bring electricity from the Sierra Nevada to our homes.
Odell has exhibited throughout the United States and abroad, and her work has been featured in such publications as Time, The Atlantic, and ESPN The Magazine. For her previous satellite series, some art-goers have pleaded with Odell to name names — to identify every stadium, every building, and every shape that she presents in cutout form. Odell refuses. The purpose of her art, she says, is to "defamiliarize" the objects on display — to make them seem new again.
"I'm trying to capture these views of things that are really quite strange, but you have to be removed enough from your familiarity with them to see them that way," Odell says. "I really see the satellite medium as a necessary stepping stone, to go back into the physical world and simply be able to see things that were there the whole time. Maybe you didn't know what they were, or you hadn't thought about them. I'm trying to make my curiosity about things contagious. Like, people don't think about water unless there's a drought."
Miller finds her books throughout the British county of Oxfordshire, where she lives. The books are tucked away on the shelves of used bookstores, often dusty, often forgotten, and often on the verge of being discarded. In reworking the books, it's as if Miller puts their very soul on public display, right next to the book's fading spine and remaining pages. "Vast numbers of discarded books are being destroyed, simply because they are surplus to the world's requirements," Miller says in an e-mail interview. "I inherited a passion for old books from both parents, and have been an avid collector since I was a child, spending countless hours in junk shops, flea markets, and secondhand bookshops throughout my whole life."
Miller is old school, an analog artist in a digital world. And Odell is new school, a digital artist who creates analog work. Their work is entirely complementary: Miller the yin to Odell's yang. They make static images come alive, make you want to pay attention for more than eight seconds. And that's never easy these days, even in galleries where we're supposed to slow down and turn off the Internet, and turn off the behavior that seeks out a new thrill every time we blink.