Night at the Museum
July 7, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Google is growing up. Its cameras have entered the mirror stage. Since 2011, the company has sent elaborate camera-mounted trolleys into museums as part of Google Art Project, which allows users to browse galleries around the globe, clicking through room by room to simulate the sense of space. Sheathed occasionally (and abstrusely) in shimmering Mylar blankets, Google’s cameras take photographs in 360 degrees; whenever the trolley passes a mirror, it takes an accidental self-portrait.
Now, just as Jon Rafman’s “9-Eyes” presents moments of incidental beauty and sublimity from Google Street View, a new tumblr by Mario Santamaría called “The Camera in the Mirror” captures Google’s cameras as they capture themselves: unsettlingly alone and caught in a kind of perpetual anachronism, surrounded by art and artifacts from centuries past.
If Lacan and Baudrillard somehow procreated, and their child ate some bad LSD, the hallucinations might resemble something from “The Camera in the Mirror.” There are no people in these photos—only an inert, mechanical totem pole seemingly obsessed with itself. It’s hard not to ascribe human motivations to the thing, in part because it resembles a sleek bipedal extraterrestrial and in part because it sits, with chilling deliberation, at the center of every frame. In certain shots it looks imperious, haughty; in others it becomes almost playful or curious. In only a few minutes it takes on a kind of personality, and so the whole project becomes tinged with the rhetoric of science fiction: What does the machine want? Where is it going? Is there any stopping it?
I thought of a few lines from Sartre’s Nausea and gave myself the willies: “People who live in society have learnt how to see themselves, in mirrors, as they appear to their friends. I have no friends: is that why my flesh is so naked?”
And yet, as terrifyingly impenetrable as they seem, these photos are signs of fallible life from the Googleplex—they shatter the illusion of seamless museum-going, showing us the leering, error-prone business end of one of the world’s most ubiquitous and powerful corporations. They testify to Google’s mind-boggling wealth: among other niceties, these trolleys are mounted with the CLAUSS RODEON VR Head HD and CLAUSS VR Head ST, two panoramic cameras that take photos with about a thousand times more detail than the average digital camera. They cost upward of five thousand dollars apiece. Of course they want to look at themselves.