There was a time long before the internet when we could only dimly imagine what other parts of the world must look like. Thanks to Jacqui Kenny, a woman who has turned her anxiety about leaving home into a powerful creative force, anyone can appreciate far flung places visually in a meaningful way without going beyond the front door.
Kenny, a London-based photographic artist originally from New Zealand who makes images – “portraits” – of often remote and isolated places located through the world using Google Street View which she shares on Instagram with more than 50,000 followers, is a very modern version of the age-old phenomenon in literature and cartography of imaginary travel.
In the West the story begins in ancient Greece with Plato, who established the term antipodes. It is a word which is still used, anachronistically, to refer to Australasia, and which for millennia referred to the places on the opposite side of the world which Europeans could not reach while reasoning that they must exist if, as they calculated, the Earth was in fact a sphere.
Since no European in Plato’s time had the means to circumnavigate the globe, there was no actual experience of the Earth’s full extent to draw upon. The first circumnavigation of the earth by Europeans was not completed until Magellan’s expedition undertook its epic voyage in 1519, roughly two thousand years after Plato.
Kenny’s images aestheticise the raw material of Street View, typically finding an astringent formal beauty in isolated towns and buildings that verges on the bleak.
Like nature itself, the human imagination abhors a vacuum. Plato reasoned that if the Earth is spherical, each point the surface has by definition an exact opposite point on the other side of the globe: “Indeed, can contrary terms be properly applied to any completely uniform object? For if there were a solid in equipoise at the centre, it would never move towards any of its extreme points because of their complete uniformity; while if anyone moved round its circumference he would repeatedly be standing at his own antipodes and so refer to the same point as both above and below.”
It was a short imaginative step from the notion that people could exist on the other side of the world, unreachable though it may be, to the idea that they must exist. And there was much speculation as to what other parts of the world were like.
Early chronicles presented a world full of weird and wonderful creatures, sometimes fanciful exaggerations of actual traveller’s tales. Some, like Gulliver’s Travels were satirical narratives, while others were presented as authentic stories. Readers had no way of knowing one way or the other if they were being told the truth about far flung places and people.
Though as always there were sceptics who questioned the whole idea there could be people living outside the so-called known world. Perhaps the most influential of these was Saint Augustine, born in 354 in what is now Algeria. Augustine dismissed the notion of antipodes as fanciful. Science, he argued in The City of God, did not support the idea: “As for the fabled ‘antipodes’, men, that is, who live on the other side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets for us, men who plant their footsteps opposite ours, there is no rational ground for such a belief. The upholders of this notion do not assert that they have discovered it from scientific evidence, they base their conjecture on a kind of a priori reasoning. They argue that the earth is suspended within the sphere of the heavens, so that the lowest point and the middle point of the world are identical; and this leads them to suppose that the other half of the world which lies below this part cannot be devoid of human inhabitants.”
Not unreasonably for a thinker of his time, Augustine pointed out that the antipodes hypothesis advanced by Plato was far from proven. Moreover, religious doctrine also weighed heavily against the antipodes, Augustine asserted, since Scripture did not support the idea and Scripture for Augustine was the absolute truth. Augustine argued that even if land did exist on the other side of the Earth and such a place was in fact habitable, there was still no way that humans, who according to Genesis are all descended from Adam, could have got there, since “it would be too ridiculous to suggest that some men might have sailed from our side of the earth to the other, arriving there after crossing the vast expanse of ocean, so that the human race should be established there also by the descendants of the one first man.”
Needless to say, we have moved far beyond the Scripture-restricted horizon envisaged by Saint Augustine. Not only do we have certain knowledge, if not actual personal experience as travellers, of human life in every corner of the globe, but we can each see an actual image of it for ourselves online in an instant.
Kenny is the remarkable pioneer of a new kind of stationary yet unbounded travel of which neither Plato nor Augustine could possibly have imagined.
Today, the Antipodes Islands literally lie to the south of New Zealand and form part of its territory. The islands were first charted by the British in 1800 and given that name because they are located more or less as the antipode of London. As it happens, London is the city in which today Jacqui Kenny, who was born in New Zealand, lives in a flat she reportedly does not like to leave.
Kenny’s images aestheticise the raw material of Street View, typically finding an astringent formal beauty in isolated towns and buildings that verges on the bleak. Typically, the colour is drained from the image, and often the picture is framed as if what would otherwise seem random had been carefully composed. The faces of the figures are pixelated, but otherwise there is little to suggest that the images originate with Google.
Media-shy Kenny has said little publicly about her work. In one interview, she is quoted as saying she “was diagnosed with agoraphobia about eight years ago but I’ve lived with extreme anxiety and panic attacks for over 20 years.” Feeling trapped at home by her fear of public places, Kenny developed a fascination with Street View: “I really loved the possibilities that comes with selecting and curating from billions of images that have been captured and frozen in time.”
By remaking images selected from among the countless billions available online to anyone and then posting them online as a body of work, Jacqui Kenny has turned the whole notion of imaginary voyaging on its head, and demonstrated that we can travel anywhere no matter where we are and no matter how restricted we may be in our ability to move around.
And in her images Kenny demonstrates that even though the Google camera car may have passed its spider-like lens cluster across much of the world, we can still capture there something new and different to what anyone has seen before.
Jacqui Kenny is the remarkable pioneer of a new kind of stationary yet unbounded travel of which neither Plato nor Augustine could possibly have imagined, though Plato at least might have intuited.
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