As Google continues to map and organise the world’s information to make it more “useful,” the company pretends that it does so without hidden bias or corporate intent. When Google first started, Sergey Brin and Larry Page believed the service should be a non-profit, fearing that corporate interests would come between information and individuals. I suppose the promise of millions wore at the founders’ resolve. Google Maps and their search engine are situated as a public good, yet Google profits the most. What are the effects when we situate this type of documentation and private interest between art and the public? This is the situation that Google's Art Project creates.
As Google represents the world in a massive and near-neutral map, I’ve sought out artists and thinkers who could help me to decipher the hidden intents behind the behemoth. “The Camera in the Mirror,” (2014) a Tumblr project by Spanish artist Mario M. Santamaría, is one of the latest and most powerful projects that I’ve found. Santamaria has scoured Art Project for glimpses of the hardware behind the service. Art Project has released hi-def scans of over 70,000 artworks by over 10,000 artists, as well as a Google Street View-like experience of the interiors of over 60 museums.
Santamaría takes screen captures of instances where the camera used to document these museum interiors remains visible. Like the blurred faces in Google Street View, Google tries to never reveal the cars, people, and cameras used for their documentation, maintaining the sheen of objectivity and neutrality. But Santamaria doesn’t believe in neutral images, and is fascinated by the implications of Google coming into the art world.
However, Santamaria isn’t only questioning of Google, believing the connection between museums and Google is similar and both have their own false sense of objectivity. Over email Santamaria wrote me, “The museum says what is art and what is important to view. Google Street View says, "that is the world!" Google just has more power to define all of reality than cultural institutions.
As Clement Valla, a New York City based new media artist, found in his work and essay, “The Universal Texture,” Google’s maps have deeply embedded ideologies about how the world should look and be seen. Valla writes:
These jarring moments expose how Google Earth works, focusing our attention on the software. They are seams which reveal a new model of seeing and of representing our world – as dynamic, ever-changing data from a myriad of different sources – endlessly combined, constantly updated, creating a seamless illusion.
What happens when Google gets in between us and our search for those aspects of contemporary culture most important and hardest to fund; things like public space, art, great journalism, and more? What this type of slight control over seeing means for Google’s relationship with the art world remains unclear, but looking back on the evolution from Google as non-profit to Google as it is realised now, the relationship’s future looks dim. Evgeny Morozov, a tech critic Morozov writes in Slate, “In Google's world, public space is just something that stands between your house and the well-reviewed restaurant that you are dying to get to.” Google is a company that sells ad space and the information it collects about its users and the world. This is not a mission in alignment with those of art museums.
We also are seeing Google heading into the museum in other ways. The New Museum announced earlier this year that its 2015 Triennial will be sponsored by Google Glass. While documenting art and museums is one thing, squarely situating a product between the viewer and the artwork is another. Jillian Steinhauer writes for Hyperallergic, “Google Glass is an eyewear technology, which necessarily and fundamentally creates a different experience of looking at artwork.”
This is not Santamaria’s first look into Google’s emerging relationship to art. In 2013 Santamaria also made two other works dealing with Google. “Righted Museum,” a clever play on words documents images blurred on Google Art Project in an effort to protect the company from copyright infringement. This is where we see some of the politics and money interests intersecting with Google’s mission to document everything. “Running through the Museum” is a short video of Santamaria clicking through Google's Palace of Versailles as fast as possible, a sharp commentary on a networked public wanting everything as fast and accessible as possible. Of course it’s great to get access to invaluable collections abroad, but will we really enjoy them as we do standing in front of artwork in person? Of course, that question presumes you have the money to travel to these institutions and pay expensive museum prices.
Santamaria does not make any heavy handed statements about Google, but simply documenting some of the fringe qualities of the giant tech company. I know Google will continue to spread its cameras across the art world and beyond – it’s even buying a fleet of satellites – but what that exactly means remains unclear.
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