Places That Do Not Exist (Goggle Earth 1.0)

Isa Campo and Isaki Lacuesta
Production Can Xalant, Fundació Suñol

Goggle (gogl) v trans and intrans To roll the eyes // noun Rolling of the eyes // pl Protective eyeglasses. {Complement to, and occasional antonym of, Google Earth}

a video installation by Isa Campo and Isaki Lacuesta


"Queequeg was a native of Rokovoko, an island far away to the West and South. It is not down on any map; true places never are"

Herman Melville

(Moby Dick)


The project Places that do not Exist (Goggle Earth 1.0) consists of a series of portraits and films of places which do not appear on Google Earth, which we travelled to in order to document their true appearance through vid- eos and photographs, which in the installation were then contrasted with the false vision which we see on Google Earth. These were military grounds and training camps, govern- ment buildings, natural parks where speculators have constructed illegal apartment blocks, nudist beaches... in Spain, Colombia, Ecuador, Russia and Australia. The catalogue of land- scapes which, for various reasons, Google Earth glosses over is endless and often very surprising. The project therefore confronts this unrealistic and yet supposedly objective view of Google Earth from a realistic (yet nevertheless subjective) point of view of the ground-level images we have of these places which, in spite of eve- rything, do exist.



Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America or Africa or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the Earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’

Joseph Conrad

(The heart of Darkness)

When Joseph Conrad wrote these words in 1899 these blank spaces of the world, spaces where man had still not arrived, explored, desecrated or mapped out were becoming fewer and fewer.

Today, more than a century after these lines were written, the populari- sation of technological devices such as satellites and popular webpages like Google Earth would have us believe that the whole planet is within our reach: according to this belief there would be no blank spaces left and therefore to continue studying the Earth in depth would be pointless, as we would already have gained abso- lute knowledge of the entire globe.

However, a slightly more diligent observation of the interactive maps on Google Earth allows us to quickly ascertain that this supposedly omnis- cient knowledge offered to us is, in fact, a fallacy.

The most significant thing about this deceit is that, in contrast to the maps of the 19th century, Google Earth does not show any blank spaces. Seemingly, their view is exhaustive and the map is full of browns, blues, greens and ochres of every shade. What the Google Earth webpage does not tell us is that many of these places have been recre- ated virtually, digitally filling in the unknown zones or, more frequently,

deliberately hiding information about these prohibited zones from the gaze of the spectator.

The Origins of the Project: Unseen Speculation

We began to think about this project when we discovered that one of the places where we were filming La leyenda del tiempo – Casería beach on the Isla de San Fernando (a pro- tected natural park) – appeared on Google Earth to be distorted.

A large part of the area surround- ing Casería beach had been saved from speculation because the ground belonged to the army: bordering on the training ground and residency for the navy, it became a no-man’s- land where families without means set up homes. A few years ago the Ministry of Defence leased some of this protected area to the San Fernando Council, who then imme- diately sold it to a land developer for the construction of a leisure harbour and six twenty-storey blocks of flats just metres from the beach. Legally sidestepping coastal laws, the project went ahead and at present three of the six buildings have already been built. Next to the blocks of flats one can still see a large notice board which the developer has not even bothered to take down, which states: “By order of the council the construction of any buildings in this protected area is strictly forbidden.”

However, it was impossible for us to follow the progress of the works via Google Earth. In its place, we could only see the fake image of an area of waste ground, always identi- cal and of a consistent light brown colour: the fixed image of the place exactly as it was at some time, quite a few years ago now.


On the internet there are numerous websites that offer us visions of the world via satellite. We decided to approach this work from the most popular of all of them, Google Earth, in its free version (less powerful and updated less frequently than the ‘professional’ version).

To think that the ‘disappearance’ of so many places is due to a sort of Machiavellian and systematic conspiracy would be too simplistic, and therefore wrong. Each absence has its own reason for existing. In some cases, it is the delay or lack of updating the image, whose renewal depends to a large extent on economic criteria. Evidently, New York is not updated at the same rate as cities in Peru. For example, Pisco, devastated by an earthquake in 2007, is still look- ing in perfect shape on Google Maps, like a sort of virtual Pompeii. In other cases, it is for security reasons, such as happens with military bases almost the world over, in accordance with international law, or with refugee camps; in others, it is motivated by murky economic deals (as in the case of Fuerteventura, where a journalist condemned the fact that images of the new hotel constructions on the sea front were erased as a consequence of a “deal of good intentions”), or for image protection reasons (in 2006 the case was heard of a Dutch woman whose image was captured from the satellite while she was sunbathing topless: the coordinates of her rooftop were visited by thousands of voyeurs, even though the resolution of each breast was only of a few pixels; since then, beaches tend to appear scrupu- lously vacant).

We have approached each one of these places from different perspec- tives. In Fuerteventura, San Fernando and Cuyabeno, we had a certain pre- existing knowledge of what we would

find in the area. In other cases, such as the Russian one, we worked back- to-front: we scanned Google Earth until we found images that seemed to be sufficiently suspicious to make us think that they had been manipulated, and afterwards we travelled there, without having the remotest idea of what we were going to find on the ground, whose appearance seen from the air reminded us of the enigmatic geometric forms imprinted on the fields by the extraterrestrials in the film Signs.

Upon travelling to small villages on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg, we could not help remembering the old Soviet tradition of manipulating photographs and films with the inten- tion of erasing the faces of political adversaries, a practice which not even Eisenstein gave up developing. In Russia, we filmed the cameras of the old military satellites (used to locate and attack Chechen rebels), but we also happened to meet a young North American actress who dreamed of meeting Gary Kasparov and working in the enormous Russian studios: an American in Moscow.

In this sense, on each trip we let ourselves be led by chance, and we preferred not to limit ourselves to filming ‘non-existent zones’, but also their periphery: an environ- ment which often brought us to have chance encounters, make new friends, all of this determined by rather whim- sical associations of ideas or by the simple pleasure of keeping walking and filming.

In Colombia, a country that on Google Earth is little more than a blurry mark, as if someone had taken literally the notion that the country’s condition is undisclosed by nature, we made a stop in Cali. There we suggested making a collective piece with university film students, based on the images that each of them con- sidered most necessary to rescue from invisibility.

On the border between Colombia and Ecuador, where the satellites scan for the presence of the FARC and drug traffickers, we remembered the declarations made to El País by a chief of the North American intel- ligence service, in which he stated that nowadays they already had more than sufficient means to photograph Bin Laden from the sky, wherever he may be. The only problem was, that without the help of some old- fashioned undercover spy who had infiltrated the area, nobody could distinguish Bin Laden’s turban from that of anyone else.

In the end, often the most dan- gerous thing is not the manipula- tors, but rather our own capacity for autosuggestion, the huge need to believe everything that we have seen with our own eyes, even if it is across a screen.


Now we already have the technological means to realise the principle formu- lated by Berkeley according to which the essence of objects consists of the fact that they are perceived by us. (...) The idea that a death which is not filmed is still a death or that a Tomahawk missile is only a radar signal on a control screen is not yet proof in the visual age (and as such, does not produce any impact). ‘Media coverage’ is rightly talked about. In fact, the visual covers it. (...) Something’s visibility cannot be refuted by arguments. One image is exchanged for another. (...) We are the first civilisa- tion which believes it is authorised by its apparatus to give credit to one’s eyes. The first one to have established some trace of equality between visibility, real- ity and truth. All the others, and ours until yesterday, loved the fact that the image hindered you from seeing. Now, the image is valued as proof. (...) What is not visible does not exist.

Régis Debray

(Vie et mort de l’image, une histoire du régard en Occident)