On Google Street View, this small town in B.C. is a work of art

Peace, Love and Google Maps: these 360-degree portraits of a community aim to be an example for the world.

Peace, Love and Google Maps: these 360-degree portraits of a community aim to be an example for the world

Sylvia Grace Borda. Detail of "Holly and John Strilaeff by the Courthouse," 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)

Maybe you're not planning to drive through Nelson, B.C. anytime soon, but you should definitely search the place on Google Maps. The city itself is now a living art installation, one that anyone can access through Google Street View. It's called Kissing Project, and to find it, just open the gallery of images Google users have uploaded to the map. After a few seconds of browsing through the usual snapshots of landscapes and storefronts, you'll stumble on something unusual: a collection of 360-degree portraits. In each one, per the title, people are kissing. There are couples, there are parents and children — there are parents and fur-children. So far, 14 of these "dynamic photographs" can be explored on Google Street View, and they're meant to be pictures of love, affection and acceptance — an illustration of life in this mountain community. This spring, locals collaborated with Vancouver artist Sylvia Grace Borda to make the series a reality.

See for yourself...

Prints from the series are also on display at Oxygen Art Centre in Nelson to July 8, but the project is really meant to be experienced within Google Street View. On that front, Borda is a pioneer. She's recognized as the first artist to create work within the application, and her previous project, Farm Tableux — which she produced in collaboration with an official Street View photographer, John M. Lynch — involves vast 360-degree explorations of farms and the people who work them. Acre after acre, the viewer can view — spin and poke around — carefully constructed scenes that often reference art history and the medium of photography itself. "It was really pushing Google off-road," Borda says — and she means that literally. Google's fleet of cars have scanned city streets around the world, but you won't find them driving around a pumpkin patch. The project was honoured by the Lumen Prize last year.

Sylvia Grace Borda: A portrait of the artist in Google Street View. (Courtesy of Oxygen Art Centre)

Compared to that project, Kissing Project is, shall we say, more intimate in scope. Work on the series began late last year, when Borda started a residency at Oxygen. Born and raised in Vancouver, she wasn't particularly familiar with this community in southeastern B.C. With a population of little more than 10,000, it's officially a city, but in many ways it's just a small town, one with a rep as a tourist destination thanks to nearby lakes and ski hills.

"I was curious — could I elevate Nelson to a different status level?" Borda says. Could she make it a "cultural capital" — one that would also double as "the kissing capital of Canada"?

It's the happiest city I've ever been to [...] so you see people kissing — you see people just alive with their daily lifestyle.- Sylvia Grace Borda, artist

Why kissing? For one, she figured it was just quirky enough to get people's attention. But she also sees it as a genuine reflection of the city's welcoming spirit. "I discovered that Nelson had a history of being a very open community," she explains. From the Doukhabors 100 years ago, to more recent newcomers from Syria: "Everyone's interested in a harmonized lifestyle," she says. (An archival photograph of a kissing Doukhabor couple served as visual inspiration for the project, too.)

Taken outside the Nelson, B.C. courthouse by an unknown photographer, this 1950s photo of a Doukhobor couple kissing served as inspiration for Kissing Project. (Touchstones Nelson: Museum of Art and History/Courtesy of Oxygen Art Centre)

"It's the happiest city I've ever been to," she says. "Coming from Vancouver, you realize there are these differences. People are much more focused on a creative lifestyle." (Nelson's website boasts that it's the "number one small arts town in Canada.") "People are much more focused on expressing their civil liberties. The thing that's a little bit unknown to the rest of Western Canada is that it has this tremendous lesbian and gay and transgender community that's really strong, and everyone's living in tandem perfectly." There's even a slice of utopia to be found in their approach to city planning. There are no cranes in the sky, no condo developments. "There's a sense of stability and continuity. [...] So you see people kissing — you see people just alive with their daily lifestyle."

Not that the Kissing Project portraits are candid photos or anything — far from it. Each image is deliberately staged, and requires the participants to remain still for roughly 40 minutes as Borda captures the space with a Panosphere 360-degree camera. (Look closely and you'll find the artist herself hiding within some of these scenes. It's her selfie-signature on the work.)

To recruit subjects, the artist had Oxygen and the local newspaper distribute application forms to the community. She asked people to choose a kissing partner and a location. "What would that part of the city mean to them?" she asked. Everyone's personal stories are included in the project. As Borda explains: "I wanted to ensure that the city was get a really interesting living portrait of the city in 2017."

I'm almost like a graffiti artist tagging the city and hoping other people tag it.- Sylvia Grace Borda, artist

The project isn't over, either. Borda says she hopes to shoot more portraits. "I wanted to show a greater diversity," she says, and in a future phase, she plans to create an IRL component to the project, too — something that she calls "The Kissing Trail." In broad strokes, it would be a series of signs around the city that would prompt people to open Google Maps — or upload 360-photos of their own. "I'm almost like a graffiti artist tagging the city and hoping other people tag it," she says. Outside contributions are definitely welcome.

And because the project lives online, it's meant to be discovered by people living far beyond the Kootenay Region. As a series, the portraits don't just capture a slice of life in the community. They're meant to be an example of how good life can be. "Everyone exists in harmony," she says of Nelson. "Everyone is just getting on with their space, their time. There is a capacity to show, hopefully through the pictures, a much more loving and caring environment."

It's a message of peace and love — and who knows who might discover it while Googling directions to the nearest gas station?

Sylvia Grace Borda. Kissing Project. To July 8 at Oxygen Art Centre, Nelson, B.C.

Explore the Kissing Project on Google Street View.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.