Opinion

Finding Solace in Liminality and Confusion: an Ode to the Google Maps Robot

In a deeply personal essay, Carlinhos Manuel Gomes writes about the Google Maps robot, dissociation, and finding comfort and peace in liminal places.

By Carlinhos Manuel Gomes

I’ve been terribly stressed lately. More so than usual. As the curtain closes on my undergraduate, and with it a litany of deadlines, obligations, responsibilities, all converging around the same few weeks, I find myself drifting somewhere else in a deep funk. A mainstay of my depersonalising episodes, I spontaneously shaved my head over the bin (again). I’m getting much better at achieving an even, neat cut, but only ever seem to hone this skill during these moments when I have the least amount of control.

During this episode, I have been unwittingly abandoning the things I love, that usually keep me grounded and remind me I’m in my own body. Going to the gym, following a routine, pausing to work on passion projects… all of these have all fallen away around me in this particular spell, which as far as I can tell started some 2 months ago. It’s not that this is an unusual occurrence, lapses in my self regulation and control come far too frequently, but this time, this ongoing event is one of the longest and most difficult ones I’ve had to deal with for a few years. 

Ordinarily, writing articles where I can explore my own thoughts on politics is something that helps me remain grounded. It’s partially cathartic but primarily stimulating; I enjoy discussing my environment with people and understanding what that means to myself and others better. So for my final contribution as a student here, I wanted to write about something personal, again. (That ‘the personal is political’ is one of the greatest lessons I’ve learnt since beginning my studies here.) 

But this article is not what I planned on writing at all either. It’s all very spontaneous. To be frank, this article suddenly came into being some 3 days after the submission deadline. I am entirely unhappy with the past half dozen drafts of various topics I wanted to discuss (TDoV, art, ecofeminism…), and the frustration I felt about not being able to articulate my thoughts properly was maddening. Somewhere in the midst of all this frustration though, I happened upon an image which brought me a blessed moment of respite. 

I really love this photo of the Google Maps robot. I adore it. It’s at the threshold of an elevator on the second floor of Brazil’s National Museum of Fine Arts, the machine having being called to ascend to somewhere else in the building. Through Google Maps’ “street view” feature, you can explore the world freely at street level, as though you were there yourself. Areas of particular note- mainly museums, but also historical sites, coral reefs and the like- are also photographed extensively so they too can be experienced through the medium of Google Maps. The typical method of driving a camera addled vehicle around to capture these images is impossible here, and so instead, a small robot mounted with a camera is wheeled around. In doing so, images are frequently captured of mirrors- a much greater mainstay of museums than I’d previously thought- and the robot’s form is reflected back in the photograph. This elevator-moment is one of those brief, magical little images. 

On a purely aesthetic level, it is- in my opinion- a wonderful photograph. There is something immensely charming about the slightly noisy, amateurish quality of the image, the framing is interesting and the colours are very pleasant. Something I can’t quite put my finger on about the repetition of red throughout the image is visually exciting. Beyond that though, the subject is intensely interesting, and deserves consideration of its own. It is, however, an appreciation of both in tandem that brought me the solace to change my behaviour and impetus to write this article and incorporate all of those previously disparate elements. 

Without waxing poetic, I adore the aesthetics of the robot reflections, and after appreciating the menagerie of photos carefully collated by Mario Santamaría over the last five years, I was curious to see what other people thought of the work. The theme underpinning most of the commentary I saw was that the images were ‘terrifying’, that the blog where Santamaría curates the photographs was unsettling and spine-tingling, which I didn’t quite understand. The rare robo-selfies where the robot appears draped in a reflective, silver cloth are unusual, certainly, but personally made me feel warm. Clearly, some Google employee is accompanying the robot around its global art-museum-crawl, and putting a snazzy drape over it from time to time- the purpose of the fabric escaping me and the commentators alike, Google having yet to comment on it.

Mulling over these commentaries made me recall other incredible art pieces made possible through the medium of Google Maps I’d seen before. There was one that did unsettle me, and another that- like Santamaría’s ‘the camera in the mirror’– brought me solace. I’m referring to John Rafman’s ‘9 eyes’ and Mere Amaryllis’ ‘OESSA’ respectively. 

‘9 eyes’ is an assembly of various images, selected by Rafman in an attempt to ‘convey contemporary experience as represented by Google Street View’. The work being named after the nine pole mounted cameras attached to the cars used to ‘photograph every highway and byway in the free world’. The collection is eclectic; burning buildings, highways warped by camera errors, indignant youths, idyllic landscapes, it’s all in there. The self-assessment of the curation by Rafman, reflecting on his creation ahead of its featuring in a Texan exhibition however lends a greater, more rattling feeling than the various infernos offered to the viewer. He remarks that the indifferent, automated photography of the 9 eyes inherently create a cultural text, that their supposedly neutral gaze (unfettered by the agendas of a human photographer) whilst artless and indifferent, does not expunge meaning from the images captured. He notes that these images can give a sense of how it feels to have everything recorded, but accorded no particular significance- overwhelmed with these fragmentary, ephemeral snapshots of events but failing to register anything. Street View’s images reflect the gaze of a detached and indifferent creator, often capturing challenging stills of the poor and marginalised. Whilst 9 eyes is a celebration of the unique aesthetic of the Street View photographic method (elevated at 8 feet, shooting at automated intervals), it is equally a deliberate critique of Google’s arguably imperialist attempt to be the sole framer of our perceptions of the streets we view through its photographs. (His remark: “Isn’t it appropriate that Google hides our identities? Do I not often see my neighbor’s face as an indistinct blur?” haunts me, somewhat.) It is a powerful collection of images, bemusing at times and horrifying at others, made all the more critical and testing when considering Rafman’s intentions. 

By contrast, ‘OESSA’ is less aesthetically challenging, and significantly more enthused by the potential for good within the medium of Google Maps. In Amaryllis’ own words, ‘OESSA strives to capture and share the beauty of the world one view at a time, using Google Maps as a medium for exploration and discovery’. An ongoing piece, having started in 2012, the tumblr hosted curation is decidedly beautiful, sporting floral vistas, calm bodies of water, wild horses and so on. Though most of the images are at street level, occasionally Amaryllis will offer a collage of aerial shots of deserts, mountains and oceans, celebrating the textures of a given place. The photos are occasionally interrupted by offerings of poetry, the rare plea for those viewing the art to register to vote, and, interactions between Amaryllis and, often, anonymous individuals asking questions about photography. Unlike ‘9 eyes’, it is difficult to elucidate any deeper meaning beyond the simple desire to share the beauty of our environment with others; even where responses to questions weigh in on high politics, they are grounded in a strong desire to appreciate the beauty of our geography. In response to an anonymous text contribution which musing that through street view, most random forays were beautiful, barring those in Eastern Europe was met with Amaryllis’ plain response that “the natural beauty of the earth surpasses borders, human governance and 80s western anti-communist propaganda”. OESSA is simply an endeavour to share charming aesthetics as widely as possible, every image being accompanied by a coordinate, so that you could seek out the place on Google Maps and maybe even walk around through Street View if you felt like it. 

Recalling these other exciting works had me considering the robot camera images again in a different light. Though I could appreciate them being considered frightening by commentators, as I find ‘9 eyes’ both quaint and unnerving, I could not see this for myself. I also could not help but immerse myself in the art in the way ‘OESSA’ encouraged the viewer to, and in doing so, moving from aesthetics to subject, I could not help but see myself in this little camera robot. 

The robot at the elevator threshold arguably feels especially poignant due to its liminality. It is not inside the elevator, nor entirely in the hallway. It appears to be at the 2nd floor, though the register inside the elevator reads floor 5. The robot in the image is only a reflection of the actual robot that took the image, the elevator composed of both warm wood and bright, polished chrome. The various dualisms in this image and the subject itself being something in between feels incredibly familiar to me. Another image in the collection which evokes this feeling of liminality, and utter confusion of boundary features the robot in a room of mirrors in Korea’s National Modern & Contemporary Art Museum. A chandelier off to one side, light is refracted endlessly around the space and the metallic form of the robot too, reflected wildly around the room, is difficult to distinguish. Where exactly the room ends, and robot begins, is utterly confused. In the same way ‘9 eyes’ asks where the humanity in Street View images is, looking upon the robot in these mirrors, occupying this bizarre, liminal space, I can see myself in my current dissociated state

Like this little robot camera, in many regards, I am at the cusp of something, both not there, but no longer here. As I prepare to leave Surrey I am between-homes, in between-occupations, and as elements of my gender transition progress I’m occupying an entirely different liminal state. Presently I’m in the process of slowly emerging from this episode. Looking at the bizarre mess of chrome captured in that Korean museum does not inspire terror in me as much as it inspires kinship, and a blessed kind of calm; I too cannot really distinguish my own reflection at times, understand  what I’m looking at fully, but I can look at this robot and feel a great deal of peace. At risk of sounding absurd, the pictures of the camera robot evoke the comfort of seeing an old friend again, and make the immediate terror of being in these liminal states, a bit more manageable. 

Since sifting through Santamaría’s entire catalogue, I have been making a concerted effort to slow down and soak up the atmosphere of being in places that are in themselves somewhat liminal- service stations off the highway, the platforms of train stations, and most recently the aisles of a hardware store. Musing with friends over what materials we needed for an upcoming project, overwhelmed by the smell of paint and sawdust, there was something exciting at the root of this little trip: having company in this relatively trivial in-between, all of us together traversing the space between conceiving of and executing on this project, was nice. Passing by some mirrors, it is hard not to recall the pictures of the camera robot now, and find a unique joy in these mundane events that are extraordinary in their own way. 

Likewise, recognising and trying to parse with the fact that there is some joy I can try to extract from the confused state I have been in for the last two months has been consoling. Allowing the wild, erratic and spontaneous behaviour I oft try to suppress has recently proven intensely rewarding. Inspired, I took an entirely unplanned journey to my hometown, did some gardening, and idled with my family for some time before commuting back on the train alone. Though I think I have always found something oddly serene about train journeys, I would be lying if I said my perception was not altered by the photos in the back of mind. 

Further, spurred on by my re-viewing of ‘OESSA’, I sought out a friend’s equally meandering, comfortingly directionless podcast and eventually happened upon a jazz radio station, curated by an enthused netizen in his 50s. Approaching him for song recommendations on a whim introduced me to some music I’d never otherwise have heard- a serendipitous event that would not have occurred had I not stopped to look at Santamaría’s collection on the off chance, however many days ago.

To close, in the same way the robot does not have full agency- whilst still being able to blur the faces of people on its own, it ostensibly cannot drape that mysterious silver cloth over itself- neither do I. But that’s fine. What I have come to realise over the course of my undergrad is that there are limitations I simply cannot overcome, that I cannot transcend. Accepting this has been difficult. When embroiled in episodes where I feel lost, confused and terrified about how long they will last, how hard it will be to rally myself and carry on, I resent that these are regular occurrences that I cannot fully escape, but only manage. Fearing how this affects my interactions with others only really compounds this dread and resentment, my control diminished in a way that ripples over to other parts of my life. 

Over the course of my time here, my coping mechanisms have changed wildly, and blessedly this has changed the way I’m living for the better. Though I am not yet where I would like to be in terms of being emotionally unguarded around people, I do not isolate myself during these episodes any longer, which (to my shock) has actually resulted in a much better relationship with the people around me. Though I still cannot shake the feeling that being around others in these states might jeopardise their desire to continue knowing me, I understand that depriving myself of their company is kind of absurd, and I may as well just spend time with them regardless. (If they choose to cast me aside, so be it.)

It helps, too, that I have somehow managed to find myself amongst friends I never anticipated I’d make; I feel as though I can be truly vulnerable around them someday, but I am overwhelmed by their love and patience in the meantime. The dignity they afford me is reaffirming in a way I have never experienced before, and much like the middle-aged jazz-man I recently made contact with, I wonder about how serendipitous my meeting them was- not to shill for the university, but meeting these people was a wonderful thing that happened here. I’m not sure where (or who?) I would be without them. 

During my time here too I have been able to live much more authentically and freely; now in the company of people who respect me, I feel emboldened to take more control over my circumstances and have made slow but steady progress in my transition. Though being frequently rattled by this particular liminality, and unable to articulate myself clearly, I am soothed by the knowledge that I am on my way and have the documentation and support I need to continue forward. ‘Carlinhos’ means ‘free man’, and I am finally starting to feel like one. 

The current dissociative episode I am in is not over, and is not likely to be over by the time this is published either, but that’s fine. It’s alright, it will pass eventually. I’ve gotten better at handling them and my support system grows ever stronger. Whilst it would be inauthentic to suggest all of these changes are due to the Google Maps robot, it would be dishonest to say it has not impacted my approach. Though I have worked to try and push myself not to despair during these moments on my own, it is only after a long hard think and pointed inspection as to why I love that robo-selfie so much that I am in the headspace to pen this article. None of this would have happened without the initial image of the robot elevator which stopped me, made me reconsider all of this art, how I am living, and how I can maybe learn from this little metallic friend. As a final parting note, my favourite photo that Santamaría put in his collection is of the robot looking at a canvas of a jungle scene in the Singapore Art Museum; it has a really curious purple hue to it, and we see the robot reflected in a very tiny mirror in a wooden frame mounted on the jungle scene, above which is painted (mirrored, paradoxically,) “WHERE IS YOUR UTOPIA?”. 

It makes me smile. I am not entirely sure where my Utopia is, or what it looks like, but I am just going to keep on searching for it regardless, and try my best to enjoy whatever absurdities I will encounter along the way, in what I can only imagine is the largest liminal space, between here and wherever that is. Until then though, my thanks to the Google Maps robot: I hope we both find our Utopias, and you keep rocking that incredible silver drape.

Carlinhos Manuel Gomes is a final year Politics student at the University of Surrey.

Leave a Comment