Batista explores place and identity in “Google Beach”

Artist Stefan Batista discusses his work in the Carlos Gallery with students and other community members. Photo by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).

By Katherine LeClair

Staff Writer

Stefan Jennings Batista’s latest collection, currently located in Sewanee’s Carlos Gallery, began with a whim, a computer, and Google Street View.

Originally from coastal Florida, Batista wanted to explore the beaches he visited in his youth and used Google Street View as a way to temporarily fulfill this desire. Commenting on the miraculousness of this, he said, “In recent years, that photo based interactive platform has been expanded beyond the street to visually map the entire Florida coastline…. I am able to revisit places I once stood and walk the beaches I have walked in reality through my computer.”

Nostalgia shines through this gallery; each piece is informed by a longing to revisit places from one’s past. Ivey Dahlstrom (C’19) commented that this nostalgia “made the work all the more accessible.”

Scrolling through the coastline of Florida, observing beach-goers lounging in the sand and splashing amongst the waves, Batista began to question the motivation behind these photos. Why did Google find it necessary to capture miles upon miles of coastline?

In a written description of his collection, he asks, “Why does such a universally accessible archive exist in the first place? What does it reveal about the present and future of the photographic medium and information sharing?”

In an attempt to answer these questions, Batista began photographing the coast displayed on his computer, which eventually became “Google Beach.”

“Google Beach” is a collection of two triptychs, one lithograph, and one arrangement of 28 black and white photographs. All of these images are photos of Batista’s computer screen.

A cursor is located in the middle of the first triptych in the galley, immediately establishing that these photos are not capturing reality but a slight distortion of it. Curving lines of pixels also span across these photographs, which emphasizes the digital nature of the art.

Hunter Swenson (C’19), an art major who helped arrange the gallery, remarked, “By making the prints so large and making the pixels of the screen unavoidable, I was forced to contemplate my relationship with the physical and digital worlds.”

Other forms of distortions are visible in the smaller, black and white photos. Not only are faces blurred, but a few of the edges of the photos seem stretched, suggesting a slight error in Google’s photography.

These visual distortions create a stunning effect on the lithograph entitled “Google Girl.” The pixelated nature of this photograph makes it look as if it were a painting. In fact, all of the works seem carefully posed and constructed, even though Google’s camera captured them candidly.

Since all of the photos on Google Street View are in the public domain, this raised commentary about privacy in an age that is so focused on digital documentation.

“I took away from the the show an eerie feeling of being watched,” said Dahlstrom. “These images bring awareness to how publicized our private lives can be and are.”

Wilder McCoy (C’20) also commented on this issue: “[Batista] is using data that is technically publicly available, but he is altering it and also further publicizing people in… an intimate location: the beach,” he said. “Where you draw the line of what is right, what is private, and what is wrong here are some interesting questions to ponder.”

This gallery has the capacity to amaze, but also pushes viewers to reflect on their places in the digital world. Batista confronts us with the reality that we can never fully know the scope of our online presence.

“I think the most impressive part of the show is how it makes us contemplate our relationship to screens and the photos that exist of us without our knowledge,” said Swenson.

“Google Beach” will remain in the Carlos Gallery until Dec. 13.