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An Artist Finds Government Censorship In Google Earth

Censored government sites makes an artist question our view on the world—in reality, and in pretty, loaded pixels.

  • <p>Believe it or not, those pixelated abstractions are not the work of a digital artist, but in fact come courtesy of Dutch state intelligence analysts.</p>
  • <p>The polygons obscure key government complexes and sites that authorities deem too sensitive for public viewing.</p>
  • <p>The censorship was enforced soon after Google Earth premiered and users had the entire world to peruse from the comfort of the couch.</p>
  • <p>The Dutch state doesn’t deserve all the credit, of course. The maps were compiled and cunningly cropped by British artist Mishka Henner.</p>
  • <p>Henner collected all of the most spectacular instances of the phenomenon, which resemble colorful geometric tapestries strewn across lush landscapes and quaint towns.</p>
  • <p>The images, he says, reveal the paranoia of the intelligence services that are integral to shaping virtual and real-world policies.</p>
  • <p>Henner’s project is infused with a political critique that his work has come to be known for. Many of the satellite images have since been uncensored, Henner says, though authorities had already "revealed their cards."</p>
  • <p>Censorship continues to be a problem around the world, but rarely has it looked quite as good as this.</p>
  • 01 /08 | Dutch Landscapes

    Believe it or not, those pixelated abstractions are not the work of a digital artist, but in fact come courtesy of Dutch state intelligence analysts.

  • 02 /08

    The polygons obscure key government complexes and sites that authorities deem too sensitive for public viewing.

  • 03 /08

    The censorship was enforced soon after Google Earth premiered and users had the entire world to peruse from the comfort of the couch.

  • 04 /08

    The Dutch state doesn’t deserve all the credit, of course. The maps were compiled and cunningly cropped by British artist Mishka Henner.

  • 05 /08

    Henner collected all of the most spectacular instances of the phenomenon, which resemble colorful geometric tapestries strewn across lush landscapes and quaint towns.

  • 06 /08

    The images, he says, reveal the paranoia of the intelligence services that are integral to shaping virtual and real-world policies.

  • 07 /08

    Henner’s project is infused with a political critique that his work has come to be known for. Many of the satellite images have since been uncensored, Henner says, though authorities had already "revealed their cards."

  • 08 /08

    Censorship continues to be a problem around the world, but rarely has it looked quite as good as this.

Artist Mishka Henner was trawling Google Earth when his cursor passed over a strange sight. A pixellated, mosaic-like pattern cut clear across his screen, disrupting the lush country landscapes that had been unfolding before him. Further inspection and a few Google searches revealed what these bizarre landforms were: censored government sites.

This first encounter with such governmental control struck Henner when he was scrolling over the Netherlands—the "Google Netherlands," as he calls it, the jarring abstractions "Dutch Landscapes." Apparently they concealed a number of significant government compounds that the Dutch state felt the need to shield from free satellite imagery.

"There was no need to do much alteration since the images are so absurd and spectacular," the Belgian-born, Manchester-based Henner tells Co.Design. Even so, they required some handling. "The cropping and framing of the series is crucial," he adds. "On their own, in their natural habitat, satellite images are rather dull."

In the censorship-inspired compositions, dull becomes artful. Henner embeds the polygonal collages into the bucolic landscapes like jigsaw pieces, as if the map had yet to fully load. Patterns suggest early Picasso and Braque’s cubistic canvases, shifting mounds of color that approach three-dimensional depth.

When he chanced on the censored sites, Henner had been compiling material for what would become "Fifty-One US Military Outposts," a series entirely comprised of Google Earth screen grabs documenting scores of U.S. military bases scattered around the world. Strangely enough, Henner points out, these sites had not been obscured. It surprised him, he says, as the free views were contrary to what you might expect from U.S. foreign policy over the last decade.

Like "Landscapes" and "Fifty-One," "No Man’s Land" makes use of another Google mapping service, Street View. The Google eye is so ubiquitous it records the more unsavory aspects of contemporary urban life without even realizing it. The images unwittingly document elements like the sex trade that operates at the fringe of the city (in this case, Abruzzi, Italy).

Henner explains: "I’d like to think that a project like "No Man’s Land" introduces a radically different notion of Street View. There’s a utopian dogma related to a lot of new technology and it should be counterbalanced with a healthy dose of dystopia."

"Landscapes," Henner says, was another instance in which he attempted to piece together his own worldview, independent of those presented to us by authorities. "If we’ve learned anything about the disastrous foreign policy decisions of our governments, it’s that time and time again, the intelligence services get it wrong. In that respect, I see my work as an attempt to gather and develop my own intelligence about the world."

Since the latter series appeared in 2011, Henner says that many of the sites have been uncensored. But in the moment he captured, the powers-that-be "revealed their cards."

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