Satellite Art: One Woman Tries to Create Google Earth Murals

By Rebecca Greenfield

Molly Dilworth thought having images of her rooftop paintings on Google Earth would get people talking about art. "I was a little frustrated with the hermetically sealed universe of painting," she explained. "Of course people care about it, but its not like music or movies; people have a favorite song, but not a favorite painting."

She imagined people would stumble across her work while cruising Google Earth. She hoped that using the search giant's satellites to move her murals into a digital space would push art into a larger conversation. She was wrong.

Story continues after the gallery.

Dilworth now has three rooftop murals scattered throughout New York City. The project began as an experiment. At the time of conception, Dilworth worked for a wallpaper company that had a lot of leftover paint. She didn't want the material to go to waste, so she started using it in her work.

Around that time, Google Earth had just entered into Dilworth's thoughts; she spent a lot of time looking at the world via the satellite-lens-view and decided she wanted others to see her art in that same way. In turn, she hoped the technology would pull her paintings into mainstream culture.

Using excess paint, she chose the brightest colors available and began to pour. But that didn't quite work. "I thought I'd get up there and pour the paint," she said. "I realized the rooftops weren't flat, I can't pick up the roof and manipulate it." She then tried a grid system. After spending 14-hour days painting one-by-one-foot squares for a week straight, Dilworth had finished her first rooftop mural at 16 Manhattan in Brooklyn.

Dilworth now had her very own rooftop mural, it was not yet satellite art.

Google Earth updates its imagery twice a month, but each update only covers a tiny part of the globe -- a city here, an island there. Dilworth did her research: She discovered that Google Earth shoots New York City during the spring to capture the best photographs with the least shadows. Having painted her first project -- the roof of 16 Manhattan -- in the summer of 2009, it took an entire year for the images to appear on the program. Earlier this month, Dilworth discovered her work from November 2010 at 561 Grand St.

Not only did it take several seasons for Google Earth to get the pictures up, but the murals didn't look as Dilworth had anticipated. Before she knew how the satellite renderings might appear, Dilworth painted her first roof mural as a pixelated version of a larger piece, hence the one-by-one-foot squares. Her theory was that, as viewed from space, the painted pixels would form an image. It didn't exactly work like that. "It went through a whole winter," she said of her pixels. "They're lighter, the paint faded, everything is sort of grayed out. They're not as bright."

Dilworth knew the colors would change over time and that aspects of her art would fade or be erased, yet she still thought that Google Earth would provide the preferred perspective. After seeing the faded satellite images, though, she now concedes that the best viewing spot is right on the roof.

Beyond this aesthetic disappointment, the satellite images didn't enter the American conscience the way Dilworth had hoped. She had been thinking about how much time she spends in digital spaces, and she assumed creating work for this world would allow her to communicate with more people. But not only did the images not show up right away, Dilworth found people couldn't even find her work, "The way people use Google Earth is to look for things that are connected to them, I don't know if people would stumble across it," she said.

This aspect may have disappointed Dilworth, but Dr. Anthony Aziz, an associate professor at Parsons The New School for Design, admired this miscalculation:

That's the beauty of the project. There's a great element of surprise. Clearly she would have no control in the end over how the image would look, no control of driving people to the image. It really is a lot about the random act of putting it there and the random act of a viewer coming across it -- it is part of the joy; it's an intervention into a situation that it wasn't designed to do.

Dilworth had lofty hopes for Google Earth's influence. She, like many of us, spends most of her day online, and figured if she created a unique space for her work in our digital lives, people would interact with it -- it might even become their favorite piece of art. As Dilworth learned, we can't always control how technology manipulates and influences data, art included.

Images: Courtesy of Molly Dilworth.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/03/satellite-art-one-woman-tries-to-create-google-earth-murals/72910/