Design can be defined as the reduction of technological complexity to user-friendly simplicity, and the digital camera offers a profound case in point. Bundled with the pocket-sized computer known as the smartphone, the camera is now ubiquitous — “part of the furniture,” as the saying goes — so deeply embedded in daily life that it has become invisible.

Meanwhile, computers increasingly use cameras in the same ways that we do: for recording, documenting, and understanding the world around us. As the camera disappears before our very eyes, Camera Ephemera poses two main questions:

– What does a camera actually see?
– What are we losing sight of?

Installation Views, Mined: The Graduation Show, Design Academy Eindhoven, Dutch Design Week 2017

Read companion essay on Disegno [PDF] →
Watch the ‘paradocumentary’ short film on Vimeo →
View the full archive of videos from DDW2017 on YouTube →

Panel 1


As a ‘materialization’ of the broader research project Camera Ephemera, this Janus-faced structure presents an architectural metaphor for the subject-object dualism of man and machine, in which the camera either points towards the front or the back — outward or inward. Each of the two 300mm cubic vitrines — seemingly identical except that one is mirrored and the other is transparent — serves as a kind showcase for two ultra-contemporary artifacts: Snap Spectacles and a selfie stick with an iPhone 5 (see full captions below).

The latter, suspended within the two-way-mirrored box, is concealed until visitors push a button to illuminate the box from within, revealing not only the contents of the vitrine but also the fact that the interior space is twice as large as the cube itself. More strikingly, the lights create a miniature ‘hall of mirrors,’ the orthogonal reflections creating a virtual infinity room filled with selfie sticks at every turn.

At first glance, the spectacle is simply intended to surprise and delight visitors, who will literally see the selfie stick in a new light. But to the extent that the mirror is a facile metaphor for digital reproduction, the jewel box is in fact a ruse: The iPhone is broadcasting live from the outward-facing camera, with the livestream on view both on a screen opposite the far side of the wall — and on any screen worldwide, thanks to YouTube Live (a built-in transmission delay of 5–10 seconds enables the “reveal” as visitors turn the corner). The button, then, is a blunt proposition for the visitor to “opt out” of the surveillance: Either the camera sees you or you see the camera.

Banal yet fetishized in situ, the two key objects invite visitors to consider these two ‘form factors’ for the contemporary camera — expressly by inverting which is an easy indicator for selfie-shooters and which is hidden in plain sight.

Camera Ephemera debuted at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, from 9–15 June 2017, where it was on view as part of the graduation show On Curating Design.

Following the initial proof-of-concept, it was also exhibited at MINED: Graduation Show at the Design Academy Eindhoven, during Dutch Design Week 2017, from 21–29 October.

The exhibition display is one component of a Masters thesis research project by Ray Hu.

Panel 2

Designed Entities

Selfie Stick

Although the selfie stick is readily dismissed as a tool for digital narcissism, its simplicity belies both an obscure origin story and its curious status as a primitive gadget, at once fetishistic and banal. Patented as early as 1985, the modern selfie stick was created by Wayne Fromm in 2006, predating the widespread adoption of smartphones.

Ahead of its time until it wasn’t, the Canadian inventor’s “extendable handheld monopod” would find its purpose several years later, following the astronomical rise of the selfie. Instantly recognizable yet utterly anonymous, the selfie stick is unique in that it actually dumbs down the smartphone, turning it from a computer into a camera.

Snap Spectacles

In September of 2016, Snapchat strategically unveiled its first physical product: Spectacles, a pair of youthful sunglasses embedded with a tiny video camera, expressly designed for the popular disappearing-picture-messaging app. In anticipation of its first foray into hardware, the Los Angeles-based technology startup also changed its name to Snap and rebranded itself as a “camera company.”

Yet Snap’s revenue comes from advertising, not cameras, and it competes not with Kodak or Polaroid but Facebook, Google, Apple, etc. For these tech titans, images and video are not media — much less memories — but rather data, both about the world and the users themselves.

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Installation View at the Van Abbemuseum

Since the invention of photography in 1839, camera and reproduction alike have shaped the way we see the world — a feedback loop that has accelerated apace with processor power in the digital era.

Long regarded as a truthful means of representing the world, the camera is now the optical accomplice of the computer, a similarly infallible tool for processing data. As the lens has been absorbed into the smartphone, it has not only grown more powerful, it has also shrunk to a degree of near-invisibility and proliferated to the point of ubiquity.

The fact that we collectively snap and share more photos than ever before simply affirms that the camera, like the proverbial furniture, has faded into the background of everyday life. Now that the computer is dissipating into the cloud and possibly vanishing altogether, the distance between lens and screen — input and output — irrevocably grows greater still.

But where does that leave the camera? And beyond the notion that machines oversee us to the extent that we overlook them, the question remains: Can the full richness of reality ever be captured and measured with algorithmic accuracy?

See more video highlights from the Van Abbemuseum on YouTube →

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