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:
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.
The project also includes the Ministry of Approximate 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.