The empty street is never really empty. Nonetheless, the vision of the uninhabited urban center has emerged as an iconic image of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since January 23rd 2020, lockdown orders have been issued by governments around the world in the attempt to quell the devastating effects of the virus. As a result, city streets have been left vacant. When the early photographs from Wuhan of deserted monuments and desolate freeways became first known, the visual trope of the city turned to an apocalyptic stand still took its early forms. Using randomly selected images found on Google Street View from the largest city of the twelve first countries where COVID-19 was detected, I will study how the photography of urban landscape in the context of a pandemic has potentially affected our very ways of seeing these often unremarkable blocks. While the images of St. Peter’s Square devoid of any visitors is shocking for its iconic status as a global destination, my project seeks to examine the street which has no recognizable name. In “Empty Streets” I will create a record of the otherwise ephemeral documentation of urban street landscapes taken during the pandemic as a way to consider the ways our vision itself has been altered.
The image of a pandemic takes the form of a fragment. In one sense, this fractured vision can be attributed to the fact that it is impossible to summarize the devastating global effects of the COVID-19 virus within a single frame. Yet more profoundly perhaps, the collective experience of government issued lockdowns has resulted in the fragmentation of one’s perception. While in a state of public health necessitated confinement, one’s relation to the outside world is certainly changed, it is perhaps the shift from experiencing the world to viewing the world which has the greatest consequence. While their effects of the Coronavirus are deeply felt, the infection itself is not so tangible. Visions of bodies piling up in extra storage rooms in hospitals, expansive fields of cremation fires, and the closely stacked shelves of mass burials all adhere predominantly within one’s mind. Yet the masked face, the socially distanced check out line, and the zoom seminar room also all reside as important parts of the pandemic imagery. It is of course difficult to distill. Yet as the images of the cumulative effects of the virus begin to illustrate what the pandemic is or has felt like, the montage form these images take never really settles down.
Under theses conditions of the public health crisis, one’s vision is doubled. At once, one sees the world as it appears, that is as a foreign place where people appear few and far apart, faces are covered, the most banal routines of daily life have been disrupted. Yet simultaneously, the world exists in ones mind as it was, or as it appears to have been. Memories of the packed supermarket, or the bustling city sidewalk also occupy one’s perceptive field. Through this constant juxtaposition between past and present, a new kind of vision emerges characterized by a certain kind of fragmentation. These pieces do not always fit together so smoothly. The images taken before the pandemic don’t fully give a replacement for the void and the loss that the pandemic has caused. In other words, there is no going back to the kinds of ways of seeing we experienced as they were before. That is to say, this disjointed fragmentary vision which we have collectively endured is here to stay for a little while.
The twelve images from twelve different cities from around the world illustrate a certain fragmented way of seeing. As one moves around on Google Street View, the date in which the panoramic photos were taken is in constant flux. While on one block you may be viewing images taken in January of 2016, on the next block you may be three or four years closer to the present. While this collaged model of viewing normally appears relatively seamlessly, given the kind of double vision presented by the pandemic, moving around the city in this virtual space where time is fluid, the visions of the street views of the past stand out very strongly against their contemporary pandemic counterparts. On Google street view, visions of the pre- and the post- pandemic can appear on the same road. By clicking on any one of the twelve coordinate points below, you will be taken to a specific street corner. From there a strange moment in time is shown, notably a moment in which the Coronavirus was active affecting the action occurring on the city street.