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Google Street View photographs: the man on the street

Jon Rafman's new exhibition is dedicated to odd Google Street View photographs. Is he a pioneer or a plagiarist?

The reindeer is spooked. Somewhere on a deserted coastal stretch of Norway's RV888 highway, deep inside the Arctic Circle, the beast has been surprised by a car, and so it gallops away down the empty road.

It's a strange, singular moment, which might have lived on only in the driver's memory. Except that this wasn't any car: it was the Google Street View car, sent to digitally render the region with the nine cameras mounted on its 2.5-metre, 360-degree photographic mast, for use in the search giant's Google Maps programme. And now the image is one of a series of witty, intriguing Street View discoveries made by Canadian artist Jon Rafman, and included in The Nine Eyes of Google Street View, his forthcoming exhibition at London's Saatchi Gallery.

Rafman, 30, began his exploration of Street View in 2008, a year after the ambitious new feature launched as part of Google Maps. One of his techniques is to follow the most recent routes of the real-life cars, (virtually) visiting cities or regions that have only recently been photographed. This means there's less chance of Google itself having bowdlerised the images by editing or pixellating the quirky and unexpected. "There's also an excitement in possibly being the first person to ever gaze upon a scene," Rafman says, sounding for a moment like Cecil Rhodes. He describes his project as a poor relation of the Romantic quest: "A virtual search for the sublime."

At first, he would spend eight to 12 hours at a time traversing the globe from his desktop. "It was destroying my body," he says. But when the images he'd collected went viral online, he began to take submissions from other users, too. Some had collected images of prostitutes at work, others presented car accidents, even dead bodies left by the side of the road – and, presumably, ignored by Google's drivers. Many of the images in the exhibition have now been wiped from the web: the perps lined up against a wall by the São Paolo police are gone from Google Maps. A man sitting with his legs splayed strangely around a lamppost in Toronto has been blurred into obscurity.

Rafman's images, by contrast, are almost entirely untreated. He even leaves the Google Street View navigation tool in the top-left corner of each photograph. "The work is connected to the history of street photography," he explains, "but also to the 20th-century ready-made movement. So leaving those artefacts in the image is extremely important. In the bottom-left corner of each picture is a link that says, 'Report a problem'. Maybe in the middle ages you passed somebody in trouble on the road and were confronted with the moral dilemma of whether to help them. Then came a time when you could call the police. Now we've reached the point where it's a hyperlink. That represents just how alienated we've become from reality."

Google has stated that it will not pursue anyone using its imagery for artistic purposes. Though the company is aware of Rafman's work, he has never had formal contact with them. However, he hopes that his next film project will be about a Google Street View driver. "I see them as the ultimate example of post-industrial labour. Somebody moving around the world, probably making very little in wages, capturing reality but totally alienated from it."

Rafman has lived in Montreal for most of his life, and took an undergraduate degree in philosophy and literature before working in independent film. Sometime in the mid-2000s, he joined a growing amateur community of artists who had come into contact online, via the social bookmarking site del.icio.us. This was a school of art linked not by geography, but by the web. "They'd started using the internet – specifically the process of surfing the internet – as the main source of inspiration for their artwork," Rafman explains. "Every artist developed his own style of surfing, and they formed surf clubs with different styles, like painting or skateboarding. An artist's surf style became an extension of their practice. I realised who I was as an artist through what I was attracted to when I was surfing. The internet was my Paris of the 1920s."

Among the other artists to emerge from the del.icio.us scene – now known as (among other things) "post-internet" – were Dutch-Brazilian Rafael Rozendaal, who has exhibited at the Venice Biennale; Guthrie Lonergan, whose clever plays on the tropes of the internet are often viral hits; Berlin duo Aids-3D; and Oliver Laric, who is represented by east London's Seventeen Gallery. Most of the community, says Rafman, are based in Berlin and New York, "but really, they're all over the place." Rafman's own work originally appeared only online, but now the Google Street View images exist as physical prints. "There are some net art purists who see that as selling out." But how else can a net artist make a living? For some time before he began exhibiting in galleries, says Rafman, he was living off Canadian arts grants and cycles of debt. "Most people from del.icio.us either stopped making art and had to get jobs, or they went into making more gallery-oriented, object-based work."

Rafman's other best-known work, which he describes as a sister to Nine Eyes, involves another virtual world: Second Life, that weird digital domain populated mostly by pornographically endowed avatars, into which the artist introduced his own, Kool-Aid Man – a brand icon shaped like a jug full of red Kool-Aid. Certain more serious users of Second Life banned Kool-Aid Man from their fantasies, because they perceived him as poking fun at them. Which he probably was. The project, entitled Kool-Aid Man in Second Life, was a performance piece with no finished product, but as Rafman became more familiar with the virtual world and its community, Kool-Aid Man became a tour guide, offering paid-for trips around Second Life to educational institutions and individuals. "But recently I killed off Kool-Aid Man, because he was taking up too much of my time. I had him commit ritual suicide in a gallery performance. Now I make movies in Second Life instead."

As might be expected of an artist whose medium is the internet, Rafman found an enthusiastic following for his work not in any one city, but online. "I'm not known in Montreal as a famous international artist," he says. "I'm famous with Tumblr kids; they're my demographic."

The Nine Eyes of Google Street View, Saatchi Gallery, London SW3 (saatchi-gallery.co.uk; http://9-eyes.com) Thursday to 29 August