Artist Profile – Clement Valla

Published on 2018-08-31

Artwork featured in the salon – 'Postcards from Google Earth' unique web-based algorithmic artwork (2010 – ongoing). Image courtesy of the artist.

Clement Valla worked with design software in architecture offices across the U.S., Europe, and Asia before getting an MFA at RISD and applying his programming expertise to art. He’s now a full-time faculty member at his alma mater and has exhibited in The Indianapolis Museum of Art, Museum of the Moving Image, Bitforms Gallery, and Thommassen Galleri in Gothenburg.

He explores authorless systems created by both human labor and machine intelligence, asking what it means to teach computers to think and collecting the jarring results. He has an eye for how technical details shape digital life but also knows how to switch to a wide lens and consider sprawling systems. He’s printed selections from The Metropolitan Museum’s open database of 3D ceramics scans on cloth, wrote software that recreates Sol Lewitt’s instruction-based drawings with the help of Amazon’s Mechanical Turks, and tinkered with digital map APIs to “explode” cityscape displays. 

His best-known work is a series of postcards from some of the strangest places on Earth — Google Earth, that is. To make Postcards From Google Earth, a project he’s been working on since 2010, he searches for quirks in how Google Earth maps reconstructs our world. Google’s patented “Universal Texture” software stretches scans of cityscapes over a virtual 3D world—and sometimes does it badly. The collapsed bridges and warped overpasses he encounters “are seams which reveal a new model of seeing and of representing our world—as dynamic, ever-changing data from a myriad of different sources—endlessly combined, constantly updated, creating a seamless illusion.” 

He writes: “Our mechanical processes for creating images have habituated us into thinking in terms of snapshots—discrete segments of time and space (no matter how close together those discrete segments get, we still count in frames per second and image aspect ratios). But Google is thinking in continuity. The images produced by Google Earth are quite unlike a photograph that bears an indexical relationship to a given space at a given time. Rather, they are hybrid images, a patchwork of two-dimensional photographic data and three-dimensional topographic data extracted from a slew of sources, data-mined, pre-processed, blended and merged in real-time. Google Earth is essentially a database disguised as a photographic representation.”

The concept adds to a heap of cross-disciplinary conversations about how maps are exertions of power. Depicting a kingdom is a way to lay claim to it, and making choices about how to depict it is also a subtle but significant form of control: scale, orientation, and points of emphasis are cartographic details that have the potential to change the course of history. And if it were possible to depict a territory in real scale and perfect detail, Lewis Carroll, Jorge Luis Borges, and Jean Baudrillard have all famously theorized, it would entirely blur abstraction and reality. Is Alphabet on its way to doing that? Has it already? 

Valla continuously performs Postcards From Google Earth to show how the software improves and corrects the anomalies. “By capturing screenshots of these images in Google Earth, I am pausing them and pulling them out of the update cycle. I capture these images to archive them—to make sure there is a record that this image was produced by the Universal Texture at a particular time and place.”

Artist profile by Katheryn Thayer for The Current.

'Postcards from Google Earth' is featured in 'The Current // Truth' curated by Tina Rivers Ryan from September 6 – 14th, 2018. Become a member of The Current to attend our private salons: