Smithsonian Brings Google Glass to the Museum

Viewers wearing Google Glass and interacting with David Datuna's "Portrait of America" (2013)
Viewers wearing Google Glass interact with David Datuna’s “Portrait of America” (2013). (all images courtesy KIWI Arts Group)

If you’re a simple layperson who’s not yet had the chance to experience the magic that is Google Glass, you may want to visit the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, starting this Saturday. For President’s Day weekend, the Smithsonian institution is installing an artwork that incorporates Google Glass — a piece by David Datuna called “Portrait of America” (2013).

The imagery of the work is straightforward: a 12-foot American flag that’s covered in pairs of eyeglasses. But when the viewer standing before “Portrait of America” puts on Google Glass, the work comes alive, revealing images, videos, and interactive experiences relating to important American figures and cultural moments, both historical and contemporary. Cameras are embedded in the piece as well, which means that, in combination with the Google Glass technology, the artwork itself can take pictures and video of its viewers. On his website, Datuna calls this a “see-you see-me outcome” — sort of like the Marina Abramović Institute surveillance effect, Glass-ified.

“Portrait of America” is the first work in a 10-part series that the Tbilisi, Georgia–born, New York–based Datuna is working on with Google Glass developers, called Viewpoint of Billions. As art goes, it may not seem too compelling, but as a way to use Glass creatively and open up that experience to a larger number of people, it’s intriguing.

“Datuna’s piece is a wonderful experiment for this specific space because the Great Hall [where “Portrait of America” will be displayed] was originally built to celebrate American invention — in fact, the entire building has been called The Temple of Invention,” said Nik Apostolides, associate director of the National Portrait Gallery, by email. “Datuna uses the flag — America’s greatest symbol of identity — to explore these themes in a 21st-century format. His work integrates Google Glass with art in a way that has not been done before.”

David Datuna, "Portrait of America" (2013)
David Datuna, “Portrait of America” (2013)

Neal Stimler, an associate digital asset specialist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is also a Google Glass Explorer. “Artists throughout history have engaged new technologies to reflect upon and respond to their worlds,” he told Hyperallergic. “In the humanities, we especially revere artists whose technical capacities transformed the ways we see and make.

“Google Glass has exciting possibilities as a tool for making art, through its ability to aid the wearer in dialogue with, discover and document the flux of art and life in nuanced ways not previously possible,” Stimler continued. “Wearable technologies can be utilized as a tool to foster human connections between peoples and inspire new creativity in the arts as well as industry. Human beings may come to better understand the present and imagine our future because of new technologies like Google Glass when they are experienced in relationship to museum collections and programs.”

Artist David Datuna working on "Portrait of America" (click to enlarge)
Artist David Datuna working on “Portrait of America” (click to enlarge)

Those are lofty goals that will no doubt take time to achieve. “Portrait of America” seems to offer a smaller-scale but still promising possibility: a way to move viewers’ engagement with artwork beyond smartphones and selfies, into a more interactive, potentially thoughtful realm.

As for how all (or any) of this fits into a museum’s broader mission, especially a public institution like the Smithsonian, Apostolides explained, “We hear a lot these days about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. As educational institutions ourselves, museums are adding the ‘A’ — for art — to that paradigm, to create STEAM. To do that, and be taken seriously as an educational forum for students today, museums like ours must take creative risks and explore the frontiers of innovation that exists at the intersection of the arts and sciences.

“At the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery,” Apostolides added, “we always need to be looking ahead. Artists like David Datuna, and engineers such as those working on Google Glass, can help inspire museums to embrace the future and connect with new audiences onsite and online.”

David Datuna’s “Portrait of America” will be on view at the National Portrait Gallery (Eighth and F Streets, NW, Washington, DC) February 15–17.

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