Virtual Footsteps

Google has added Pompeii to its Streetview service. Apparently, you can also virtual-visit Stonehenge. I'm very interested in visuality, especially of places, and Google Streetview to me is a fascinating meld of traditional cartography with filmic visuality, so that the mapped point of view becomes both omniscient and yet individual, almost as in a dreamscape.

This summer, I heard Mary Beard talk about nineteenth-century imaginings of Pompeii and the slow development of its tourist myth. She made some interesting points about how the archaeology of the site, and what bits were accessible influenced how the city's history was perceived. For example, the fact that in the Romantic period, you entered the site via the necropolis, contributed to it being seen as a City of the Dead. In the recently-screened Thirties in Colour documentary on the BBC4, techniques from Hollywood were used to revivify the city (view in iPlayer here, starts at 6:38), to the extent that the plaster casts of bodies were dragged back out in the street from the museum! Now, with Streetview, we can all tap into the video-game visuality of "participaction"; you can walk the streets as a tourist/inhabitant amalgam, the virtuality of the medium adding, I would argue, an extra freedom of imagination.

What's fascinating about this is that while it gives one the illusion of access and freedom, the perspective is still pre-determined. You cannot turn off into an alley. You cannot stand on your tiptoes and peek into the darkened interior of an ancient villa. You can "walk" the straight lines traversed by the 360-degree camera. It's the strangest combination of two- (pictorial) and three-(spatial) dimensional vision I've ever seen, and I am fascinated to see how it will affect perceptions of place.


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