Google Glass, The Corporate Gaze and Mine

January 7, 2014

Wearing Google Glass, artist Molly Crabapple drew the porn star Stoya and found surprising commonalities between the male gaze, the gaze of the artist and the gaze of the network.

When you buy Google Glass, you are not a consumer. You are an Explorer.

Everything about Glass affirms your specialness. The Swedish modern showroom, where a hot guy tweaks Glass’s nose grips just for your face. The card that comes with Glass, calling you an “adventurer,” a “founder.” The fact that you must be invited to purchase your pair, since there are only 8,000 Google Glasses in the world.

When you wear Glass, you and Google are a team.

But explorers are not neutral. They are the shock troops of empire. The lands explorers traverse are later conquered by armies, their sacred objects melted down for gold. Glass Explorers continue the corporation’s conquest of reality.

I don’t buy that women see differently. Female, male, genderqueer—artists are objectifiers.

In December I did an art project called Glass Gaze. Wearing a pair of Google Glass that had been hacked by the journalist Tim Pool to live-stream, I drew my friend the porn star and aerialist Stoya. The interwebs could see what I saw as I made art. The model. The paper. The ink. The whole 19th-century practice of life drawing commodified and separated from me. I once tweeted, “Google Glass lets the government see the world from my perspective.” With Glass Gaze, I was giving the network the same opportunity.

Gaze is a funny thing. Hang out in feminist circles and you hear the term “male gaze.” I have no academic background, so I used the phrase long before I knew its correct definition. I guessed it meant the rapacious, objectifying eye-fuck that turned women into pleasing lumps of fat. Men’s eyes have felt like a threat since I was 12, at which age guys started hollering at me that they’d really like to stick their tongue into my ass. Later a friend pointed me to the proper definition. She suggested that I read Laura Mulvey’s essays on Hollywood. Mulvey theorized that the male gaze was the ultimate audience for movies and that—in the world conjured up and sold to us by Hollywood—female actors were just objects to be seen.

If my woman’s body made me the object of the male gaze, my artist’s brain compelled me to look back.

The Dinner Party guests, bound together in a sisterhood imposed in retrospect, became as interchangeable as Spice Girls.

Because most women have spent most of history pregnant, nursing, burying miscarriages, and/or taking care of wealthier women’s kids, most “great” Western artists have been men. The male gaze is all mixed up with the gaze of an artist. When women started making art en masse, we were thought to see differently. Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, which reduced 39 oft perverse and argumentative geniuses to vagina-shaped plates, feels more trivializing than any odalisque. The odalisque had some style to her. The Dinner Party guests, bound together in a sisterhood imposed in retrospect, became as interchangeable as Spice Girls.

I don’t buy that women see differently. Female, male, genderqueer—artists are objectifiers. We take flesh and make it ink.

For Glass Gaze, I was inspired by Degas’s ballerinas. Degas himself was a classic creepster, a client of sex workers whose venereal disease fueled an icy misogyny. A posh man in suits, he had a voyeuristic fetish for working-class women: laundresses and ballerinas, breaking their backs for a buck, often supplementing their income with sex work. Degas just watched.

Stripped of context, Degas’s pastels are pretty. Look at that cute little ballerina, the tour guide says, missing the steel in her eyes. The little ballerina is practically a street kid, tough and clever, who will fight herself bloody for a place in the world. Degas caught her defiance. A hundred years later, we don’t notice.

Sketches of Stoya created during Glass Gaze

Sketches of Stoya created during Glass Gaze

I used to be a professional naked girl. The women I most love to draw are or were professional naked girls. They have that same cleverness and steel.

Stoya is one of the world’s most famous porn stars, a punk-rock smartass with a mathematically perfect face who tweets about menstruation and picking her nose. Like Degas’s dancers, she grew up training to be a ballerina and now performs aerial lyra. All athletes are consummate self-objectifiers, artists of their own flesh.

Stoya’s also my friend. When you get shit-faced and denounce the world with someone, you might make an object out of them, but you try and draw their snarky smile.

The things we once called souls are not legible to algorithms.

In the networked world, we are all sharecroppers for Google. We take our deepest selves and turn them into light on glass cables, to be sold as marketing data or sandwiched between ads. Google Glass takes this further. With it, the act of looking can be separated from the looker. Eye speed can be tracked. Gaze can be owned. The consumer becomes the consumed.

For now, Google Glass is a dorky headset so first-generation that it doesn’t recognize voices. You could walk up to a friend wearing Glass and, as a prank, whisper, “Image Search: Goatse.” But it will not always look like this. Glass and the sleeker wearables that will follow are the next step down the path started by smartphones: they are private, trackable, monetizable distraction engines that you need never take off.

Drawing with Glass is unnatural. During Glass Gaze, I could see, floating in front of the real world, its tiny replica on-screen. And I wanted to look at the screen. Not real Stoya, lifting her leg into a perfect arabesque. But tiny ghost Stoya. Screens are meant to be addictive, so I found myself addicted to that glowing cube. I was caught between focusing on the physical girl, the physical paper and the show that was being streamed through my eyes.

The internet is made of tubes. Through those tubes runs everything, including the spaces where we try to express our deepest selves. But the things we once called souls are not legible to algorithms. The network can see what dress we buy, what porn we masturbate to, but not how we wake up at night, gasping for fear of death.

The network quantifies eyeballs. It can’t see what’s behind the eyes.

But the line between interior and exterior is never clear. Glass Gaze lasted an hour. My iPhone is glued to my hand. The iPhone can’t see inside me, but it’s changed my insides. It has made me more confident in strange cities—I won’t be lost. It puts the sum total of human knowledge in my palm. It has made me more distracted, more connected, more obsessed with pellets of affection from those I love.

The network alters you in ways that make you more legible to the network. But maybe there are some things it still can’t get.

After Glass Gaze, I sat on the fire escape with the journalist Natasha Lennard. She was smoking, wearing kneesocks and a fur coat, speaking with that Cambridge-educated voice. She asked me my thoughts on the project.

She looked so beautiful there, in that borrowed fur, that it was the sort of moment you would Instagram to show how sweet your life got. But instead I saved it against the inside of my eyelids.

“It’s a delusion, the idea that you can see through someone else’s eyes,” Natasha told me. “In reality, the best you can do is look over their shoulder.”

She was right. I wanted Glass Gaze to give people the experience of making art with me. But they saw only motions. What made the art art was what Glass Gaze missed.

This article and Glass Gaze were produced in partnership with Rhizome.