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This haunting virtual trip down Market Street questions our relationship with tech

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Stephanie Syjuco’s Spectral City “is meant to cast a critical lens on our own lenses”

Stephanie Syjuco’s Spectral City (A Trip Down Market Street 1906/2018).

To artist Stephanie Syjuco, Market Street is fractured and splintered, jarring and dizzying, disturbing and riveting—physically and metaphorically.

Like many longtime Bay Area residents, Syjuco has witnessed Market Street’s ups and downs over the decades. The artist and her family relocated from the Philippines, where she was born, to San Francisco in the late 1970s when she was still a small child. Since then, she’s seen a gritty, but culturally vibrant street morph into a dystopia of inequality. Gone are many of the Filipino-Americans who lived in SoMa and the artistic community she once knew. In their place? Tech wealth and abject poverty.

“Market Street has always been this space of flux,” Syjuco tells Curbed. “But if you go down it today, it’s a total clash of economies to the point where it’s more jarring than it has been in previous decades.”

Her 13-minute video Spectral City (A Trip Down Market Street 1906/2018) channels that perspective, as it guides viewers along Market Street through the lens of Google Earth. In slow motion, you travel down the center of the city’s main strip. It’s an eerie computer rendering of the city’s main artery, with random glitches that show up on screen as ribbons of street that unravel through the frame, hovering amorphous masses, and apparitions of buildings.

“I was trying to figure out a way to show that un-reality,” says Syjuco.

In 1906, the Miles Brothers hitched a black-and-white film camera—cutting edge tech at the time—to a moving cable car on Market Street and started recording. Their 13-minute documentary went on to become one of the most famous films of the early 20th century. It’s an invaluable record historians used to understand the architecture, economy, and street life of the mid-aughts and what San Francisco looked like before the Great Quake and fire destroyed much of the city. It’s also a tool today’s transit advocates use to illustrate what vibrant and safer streets could look like.

Syjuco was struck by the romance and nostalgia for the 1906 film and how different Market Street is now. Riffing on the Miles Brothers’ process and sentiment, Syjuco retraced the exact route down Market using what she considers to be one of today’s most sophisticated imaging technologies: Google Earth, which uses satellite imagery and computer vision to create a 3D model of the planet.

“I wanted to take the perspective of what technology was seeing,” says Syjuco. “This particular piece is meant to cast a critical lens on our own lenses.”

She recorded what appeared on her screen and did very little post-production (she used Google Earth Pro v. 7.3.2 and made the film in 2018): A glitchy, distorted, fractured streetscape with random floating masses strewn about. It’s like Google Earth captured an image mid-explosion. But most notably to Syjuco, there are no humans, which is a byproduct of Google Earth’s imaging algorithm.

“That struck me as a powerful metaphor for how technology can function as a form of erasure of entire groups of people, of communities who inhabit the space,” says Syjuco. You kind of create a landscape using the technology—which is useful in many ways—but it has erased the local population. To be blunt about it, I think that’s actually how the city is viewed by some of the tech companies and developers—as a kind of palette, an open landscape for putting things upon. It sounds dystopian in certain ways, but as a native and as a local, I don’t think it’s actually overstating it.”

Syjuco’s film was part of “Refiguring the Future,” a recent exhibition organized by Refresh, a collective of politically engaged artists, and Eyebeam in collaboration with the Hunter College Art Galleries.

Frustrated with visions of the future—in science fiction and real-life technology—that recapitulate dominant culture, economic systems, and social structures, curators Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Dorothy R. Santos assembled works by feminist, queer, de-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-ableist artists that reflect upon today’s visions of the future propose more inclusive ones going forward.

“The artists we featured want people to think differently about the infrastructure and systems that a part of every day lives,” Santos tells Curbed.

Today, tech companies are the entities shaping our future and their methods and visions are coming under scrutiny, as as their products become more deeply entrenched in society. Congress held hearings on the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Researchers are investigating how tech fuels housing discrimination. The New York Times has a new section dedicated to privacy in the digital age. At the root of many of these conversations and inquiries are the dense and thorny issues of ethics, bias, and inequality wrought by tech companies. They’re conversations that have a high barrier of entry—even our elected representatives struggle to understand the internet at a basic level—and are difficult to grasp. But Syjuco’s film addresses them in an accessible way simply because art often invites questions of, “What the heck is going on?”

“Art has the opportunity to be arresting visually, emotionally, and sonically in a way that books or the media or articles aren’t,” says Santos. “It’s important beyond an emotional and intellectual exercise; art enables a conversation to happen...Stephanie’s piece affords us the opportunity to think about our environment.”

Syjuco views her video as a reflection and a tool for reflection, and doesn’t presuppose any conclusions.

“The hope for the work is to have created these two bookends for Market Street,” she says. “If the first one is 1906 and now we’re at 2019, and this is what a city looks like, how does that reflect our values? And our vision of what we want in a city?”