jenny odell
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Travel by Approximation: A Virtual Road Trip (272 pp.; full-screen preview available below) is the record of a trip I made across the United States by way of the internet. It began as something loosely based on a real trip I had wanted to take but never had, but soon took its own, much more reckless form. In order to travel, I made use of any sources of information I could find online, relying espeically on Google Street View, photo databases (Panoramio, Picasa, Flickr), review sites (Yelp, TripAdvisor, CitySearch, Insider Pages), and virtual tours of monuments, restaurants, hotels, etc. For one real year—almost two virtual months—I transported myself into one place after another, both by writing a travel narrative and by using Photoshop to integrate myself into photos I found online.

I set several parameters for this trip in order to preserve a sense of spatial wandering as well as the integrity of my source information:
1. I had to find things by wandering on Google Maps before researching them further on other sites (as opposed to looking up a list of attractions for a given city, then traveling to one of those destinations).
2. I could not digitally alter the photos I put myself into; I could only alter the photo of myself to match the source photo.
3. Each day of the trip was physically feasible, in terms of gas, food, safety, and a place to stay, as well as the number of miles or hours driven.
4. Every piece of information (photos, videos, articles, websites, online books) would be cited at the end of this book.

The countless images and narratives I traversed were blurry, incomplete, or anonymous, suggesting the profusion as well as the flatness and deficiency of my virtual experience. But this same deficiency incidentally created a space that could only be filled in by my imagination. It was a narrating viewpoint, infused with my own subjectivity, history, and memory, that allowed me not just to apprehend a huge system of data in a (humanly) coherent way, but also to re-create meaning from flatness. Thus, the feelings of discovery, novelty, fear, and exhilaration that I encountered along the way were as real as any I have ever had. At the end of a virtual experience of real places, I am left with real memories of virtual experiences.

This trip also reflects a specific period of time: I traveled from March 2009 to March 2010, but even before the trip ended, the places I had visited were already changing or disappearing, physically and virtually. Shortly after I passed through it, the Southwest was updated on Google Street View, so that many of the sights I remember seeing are no longer accessible. I crossed a section of the Hoover Dam that shortly thereafter became unavailable on Street View. Meanwhile, a hotel I stayed at on Route 66 has since closed its doors, and the owners of the sacred white buffalo in Flagstaff have been evicted from their ranch. And I myself have gotten older, with bittersweet nostalgia both for grad school at the San Francisco Art Institute but also for the pixelated mountains of Utah.

Since this book relies heavily on quotation, paraphrasing, and re-purposed information, I had to devise something more than the ordinary system of quotation. In the book, text in blue is quoted verbatim from a speaking agent (usually a reviewer or a journalist) as speech or dialogue, while all other referential material is quoted in green. This means that any speaking quotations in green are paraphrases of, quoted phrases from, or fictional dialogue based on information from an outside source. In all cases, the sources for the cited text can be found at the end of the book. The remainder of specific information— directions, names of places and roads, etc.—is evident from observations of Google Maps or Street View and is not cited.

A small selection of moments:


Pages 97-98, in which I brave the tourist-masses of the Grand Canyon. In the first page, I'm encountering a guy who claims (on TripAdvisor) that "the thing with the Grand Canyon is... once you've seen it, well, you've seen it." (Those are his bored kids in the photos.) On the next page are user photos all geotagged at the same exact spot on Google Maps, a lookout point just off the main road.


Pages 181-182, in Kansas City, which appears to be undergoing major construction upheavals on every corner and where, in one click on Street View, a movie theater ("Live Every Scene") is magically completed.


The project also includes the Ministry of Appr
oximate Travel, a virtual travel agency in which I have conversations with visitors about my virtual memories of places as compared with their real ones. The Ministry of Approximate Travel has appeared at the SFAI graduating MFA show, Root Division, and the California Academy of Sciences' Night Life.



The installation featured a video version of the day from the trip in which I visited Las Vegas, including all of the shots from that day and my voice reading the text over them, as well as having various YouTube videos (of people walking down the street and through hotels, etc.) spliced in.

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