Google makes the world a stage for Sampsonia Way


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What's more fun than a giant chicken, a walking ham and a marching band? More fun than a mad scientist with a laser that makes people fall in love, and a snowstorm of confetti falling from the sky? More fun than a barrel of friends and neighbors wigging out in purple and blue hair?

Putting them all together on Sampsonia Way when the Googlemobile drives by.

Actually, they don't call it the Googlemobile.

"It's just a regular car," said Ben Kinsley, but one equipped with a roof-mounted, 360-degree camera to photograph the buildings, streets and sidewalks that appear in the Street View function of Google's satellite maps.

Mr. Kinsley teamed up with fellow Carnegie Mellon University fine arts student Robin Hewlett to stage the "Street With a View" performance on the morning of May 3. It wasn't a guerrilla act; Google was in on the scheme. So were lots of folks whose homes or garages face the narrow North Side alley made famous by the Mattress Factory, which also was in on the fun.

The idea came to Mr. Kinsley and Ms. Hewlett, then housemates, when Pittsburgh came online in October 2007. After they found Street View images of their Bloomfield house, they began wondering what people might do if they knew in advance that the Googlemobile was coming.

Street View debuted in May 2007, showing the streets of Miami, San Francisco, New York, Denver and Las Vegas, and now documents about 100 cities worldwide, not without criticism and the occasional lawsuit from those who consider it an invasion of privacy. But travelers, architects, real estate agents, journalists, the homesick and others find it an invaluable tool, and countless more take virtual Street View tours just for a lark.

In its wake, Web sites have sprung up documenting quirky discoveries caught by Street View strollers. One of them is Googlesightseeing.com (Motto: "Why bother seeing the world for real?"), which currently highlights an abandoned mining town in Namibia, a curious sculpture in Germany and the Sampsonia Way project.

  

In a phone interview from Iceland, where he is spending a year doing artist residencies on a travel grant, Mr. Kinsley, who graduated in May, said he and Ms. Hewlett didn't want to focus on Street View's surveillance issues.

Not knowing if Google would play along, they plotted to interject staged scenes that blurred the boundaries between fiction and reality. It helped that in 2006, Google opened an office in a Carnegie Mellon building on Forbes Avenue.

"So there was an easy way to start this communication with them" through the intercession of key people, Mr. Kinsley said, and Google bit.

Then the planning began, with Mr. Kinsley spending many weekends knocking on doors in the neighborhood looking for participants.

The shoot was scheduled for the morning of the first Saturday in May, with fingers crossed for good weather because the Googlemobile camera can't shoot in the rain.

"It actually was pouring rain most of the day," Mr. Kinsley said. "We were hoping it would clear up, and it did for an hour. We got three good takes in there."

So three times the Langley High School band queued up and the mad scientist, the garage band, the woman unfurling knotted-together bedsheets from a third-floor window, the sword fighters dressed in 17th-century costumes, the movers unloading a U-Haul truck, the marathon runners, the firemen rescuing a (stuffed) cat from a tree and the woman dressed as a ham all took their places -- about 100 people in all.

"We were trying to create something that could have taken place," although highly unlikely to be happening all at the same time, making Sampsonia Way "the most exciting street in the world," as Mr. Kinsley says in Jeffrey Inscho's video on the project's Web site, streetwithaview.com.

"You eventually figure out this was a staged event. And we hope viewers, once they realize that, will start exploring [nearby streets] and then not be able to know" what is staged and what is real.

It doesn't hurt that one-way Sampsonia Way is not your typical Pittsburgh alley. Over the years, Mattress Factory art projects and City of Asylum/Pittsburgh have transformed the outsides of several houses along Sampsonia, adding another surreal layer to the intrigue. The event stretched seven blocks, from Buena Vista to Federal streets, with most of the action taking place in front of the Mattress Factory and the altered houses.

Google put it online on Election Day, Nov. 4, as Mr. Kinsley was preparing to watch the returns at the American embassy in Reykjavik. He and Ms. Hewlett expected it to be discovered over time, but by the next day it was posted on Googlesightseeing.com.

The project, which was Mr. Kinsley's master's thesis, is the first time Google has participated in a public art piece for Street View.

It "seemed like a very innovative, creative use of Street View, and it shows that you can discover and experience so many fascinating things" using it, said Google spokeswoman Elaine Filadelfo.

Now that it's spreading virally, "People have said, I didn't know that Google takes requests," Mr. Kinsley said. "It's not something that they're going to do for just anyone, I think."

To view selected scenes and Mr. Inscho's "Making of 'Street With a View'" video, visit streetwithaview.com or youtube.com. For instructions on using Street View, visit google.com and click "maps."


Correction/Clarification: (Published Nov. 13, 2008) This story as originally published Nov. 12, 2008 about the public art project on Sampsonia Way, captured on Google's Street View function, incorrectly attributed all of the creatively altered houses on Sampsonia to artists associated with the Mattress Factory. Two of the houses were developed as international writers' residences by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, which has two more in the works.

Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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