Let’s face it: there are robots roving around the globe and taking pictures of your neighborhood for Google Street View, and sometimes that feels a little invasive. That’s why it can be fascinating when their powerful gaze is turned back on them, and when the seemingly magical seamlessness of Street View and its competitors meets a little tear in the fabric. Until now, this has been quite rare, but Google’s Art Project, which was launched three years ago and documents the storied halls and famous works of over 250 cultural institutions worldwide, has created some tricky situations for the army of photographer androids. The result is the occasionally robot ‘selfie,’ showing the roughly human-sized devices caught in the act.
The ‘selfies’ have been caught by Spanish artist Mario Martínez Santamaría and documented in a Tumblr called “Camera in the Mirror.” The curated litany recalls Joan Rafman’s “9-eyes,” which had a more subjective goal of capturing moments of violence, ugliness and beauty among Street View’s accidental human subjects. However, since “Camera in the Mirror” has a consistent subject, we gradually develop a relationship with this robot and its postures, which some commentators have seen as indicative of a ‘personality.’ The Paris Review‘s Dan Piepenbring sums it up well:
“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?”
Other viewers see the wide, low angles as recalling film director Stanley Kubrick and his science fictions, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey and the questions it raised back in 1968 about computer agency. Santamaría tells us he is fascinated with contradicting immersive images that strengthen a “worldview”:
I began in 2011 using Google Earth to copy the images of a Program televisión. Icop[ied] the perspectives of the images broadcast on Spanish television of the riots which occurred in Syntagma Square in Athens in 2011. Because the TV use[d] in this case a very specific point of view, very neutral. Similar to surveillance or CCTV cameras. I don’t believe in ‘neutral images.’
Pipenbring also notes that the camera has some ‘swag’ in tow, including two Gigapixel-capable panoramic cameras that make free access to tiny details in famous artworks accessible to millions around the world. If the robot did have personal agency, perhaps it would be displaying these status symbols to the world. Maybe this artistic observation is a warning that it’s only a matter of time until it will.