jenny odell
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Travel by Approximation: A Virtual Road Trip (272 pp.; preview the book on Blurb here) 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 Street View 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 my virtual surroundings.

3. Each day of the trip was physically feasible in terms of gas, food, safety, and a place to stay. I only “drove” a realistic distance each day, based on the mileage of my real car.



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.

In the end, my trip reflects a specific, unrepeatable period of time: I traveled from March 2009 to March 2010, but even before I was done, the places I had visited were already changing or disappearing, virtually and physically. Shortly after I passed through it, much of the Southwest was updated on Google Street View, rendering many of the sights I’d seen inaccessible and leaving me with only the screen shots I happened to have. Meanwhile, a hotel I stayed at on Route 66 shortly thereafter closed its doors, and the owners of the sacred white buffalo I saw in Flagstaff were evicted from their ranch. Marta Becket, who for more than 40 years gave a one-woman singing, dancing and miming show in a tiny opera house in Death Valley Junction, gave her last show in February of this year.


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.

I was interviewed by KQED for the Gallery Crawl video podcast about the project during its installation (book, framed prints, and video) at the SFAI graduating MFA show. You can see the interview here (mine is about three quarters into it). I also manned the Ministry of Approximate Travel most days of the exhibition, in which I had conversations with visitors about my virtual memories of places as compared with their real ones.



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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