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French hyperrealistic street artist, MTO, took a break from his usual highly detailed style for his addition to the Memorie Urbane 2015 Street Art Festival in Gaeta, Italy. His piece, entitled “We Live on Google Earth,” was painted on a massive 471ft long wall. It is a direct critique on artistic freedom, censorship, and Google’s control of internet information. MTO painted “Google ERROR 404 – MURAL NOT FOUND” on the large wall. The 404 or Not Found error message is an HTTP standard response code indicating that the client was able to communicate with a given server, but the server could not find what was requested. Along with this wall, MTO created a fictional front page of news headlines, set in the future on Friday May 22nd, 2020. The fake headlines include: Water Prices Reach Record High, Middle East: Palestine is No More, France Continues European Union Exit, and an article on Justin Bieber’s decline into depression after his career ending. But the main sardonic news headline reads “FIRST CASE OF ARTISTICAL CENSORSHIP BY GOOGLE CORP.” A blurb follows:

“In the small city of GAETA, Italy, a giant 125m (471 ft) wide mural by French street-artist MTO has been silently censored by Google CORP. Is this the first case of artistic censorship on our good old Google Earth? One thing is for certain, it’s sure to open a huge can of worms, as governments around the world consult their top legal minds and grapple with the implications for freedom of artistic expression. The censorship happens against a backdrop of growing international revolt against Google’s global supremacy in information control. NATO is now thought to be looking at all options to overturn the decision and thereby prevent a massive worldwide protest in the artistic and journalistic worlds.”

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MTO is also addressing Google’s involvement with the street art scene since their 2014 launch of the Google Street Art Project (a part of their larger Google Cultural Institute). The launch of the project was with the purpose of sharing and preserving street art (the impermanent nature of it). But with the inclusion of images comes the questioning of what gets included and what doesnt? Who is making these decisions?  Well, Google states that “we’ve partnered with street art experts to bring you 5,000+ images and around 100 exhibitions in the Google Art Project.” And they have said that within one year’s time they have doubled the number of inclusions to over 10,000 images. Still, this is what MTO is raising awareness toward –  the control of information (images of painted walls) online. We see street art buffed or painted over for many reasons in real life. Perhaps in the not-so-distant future, where online information control is number one, censorship may begin online.

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(photos by MTO and Flavia Fiengo)