Arts Desk

Google Glass and Highly Edited American History Collide at Smithsonian

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Artist and Google app collaborator David Datuna wants everyone to see what he sees in the American flag. That's why he's outfitted the ol' stars-and-stripes with hundreds of eyeglass lenses that come to life with images of American icons when viewed with Google Glass, the perversely expensive wearable technology that inspired the word "glasshole."

This is Datuna’s schtick: In 2008, he started a series called "Viewpoints of Millions," which, like his newest nation-centric series "Viewpoint of Billions," began with an American flag covered in pop-culture images and overlaid with eyeglass lenses. The series eventually led to the Israeli flag, the Union Jack, and a Chanel logo bedecked in images and little eyeglass domes.

As Glass-wearing viewers stare into "Portrait of America," on view this Presidents' Day weekend at the National Portrait Gallery, figures like John F. Kennedy Jr., Lady Gaga, and Steve Jobs stare back from a collage of pictures, newspaper clippings, and videos, activated with the devices' BrickSimple technology. (Eight to 10 Google Glass devices will be available for viewers to use.) The result is pop-culture Americana, boiled down to familiar images—Lucille Ball stuffing her face with chocolates at the candy factory, Jack Nicholson grinning terrifyingly through a hole in the bathroom door. "The images, news clippings and text in ‘Portrait of America’ tell a part of that [American] story," says Datuna.

Of course, Datuna's flag peddles a carefully edited American narrative. Throughout the piece, big names and events like Oprah Winfrey and George Washington abound. No regular people make the cut, nor do many nasty bits of American history (though the Black Tuesday stock-market crash gets a spot). To Datuna, it’s a necessary edit—there are only 12 feet of flag to work with. "A piece like this … would not be able to include so many important contributions," he says. The product? A curated mass of cultural tidbits, and little more.

In an attempt to open up the work to regular folks, cameras hidden within the flag capture video vignettes of the audience and—with permission—upload that footage to the Web. "Everyone contributes their part to society," says Datuna.

While "Portrait of America" makes no promises of a thorough history lesson, visitors can at least use it as an opportunity to tinker with Google's technology du jour. Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, says one big reason she chose to exhibit Datuna's work was to illustrate the idea that 21st century tech can have a place in art. "What is interesting to me about … Google Glass is what it can offer to our audiences who might [want to] delve deeper into an artist or an artwork," Sajet says. This is the Portrait Gallery’s first foray into an exhibit powered by Glass, and Sajet says she's open to more. “I see technology as a link between our visitors and vast amounts of information that could connect them to a work in a new way."

One can picture a future in which devices like Glass lead patrons through museums, dispensing highly accurate knowledge with few of the corny jokes all too common among human tour guides. "I predict that in a very short period of time everyone in the arts will be using wearable technologies in some form," Datuna says.

Still, there’s a lot of ground left to cover before the concept becomes commonplace. "Portrait of America" is the only major Google Glass-powered art series touring the country.

"Portrait of America" is on view Feb. 15 to 17 at the National Portrait Gallery.

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