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Thursday, February 10, 2011

From Polavision to Gaga Glasses

By Stefan Helmreich

Much has been written about Lady Gaga’s astonishing eyewear, from her razor-blade glasses in the video for “Bad Romance” to her smoking-cigarette sunglasses in the “Telephone” mini-movie. Gaga’s glasses signify a traditional celebrity opacity, but also torque and augment – and sometimes even impair – her vision. Hers are more than mirror-shades, more than sunglasses that enact or enable reflection, reception, protection, and/or deception. Gaga’s glasses are simultaneously tools of projection – and especially so when they display video images, as with the TV specs in “Pokerface.” Gaga’s glasses concretize vision as double, as simultaneously seeing and being seen (lots of stuff is going on, here, of course: insofar as Gaga pitches herself as a [hetero]sex object/subject, for example, her refractory eyewear might be imagined as ricocheting a straight male gaze back onto/into itself for a kind of auto-destruct [akin to what McCaffray and Vicks [2010] suggest in their analysis of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga’s “Video Phone”]). 

In light of all this doubling and troubling, how fitting, then, that Lady Gaga has become the Creative Director of the re-booted Polaroid Corporation (http://store.polaroid.com/Gaga/), a company founded on the double vision of polarization, which permits light waves to be split into components vibrating vertically and horizontally (a split that can be used to reduce light and glare by superimposing polarized discs at angles to one another). More intriguing, Gaga has now imagined a Polaroid product that combines the paradoxes of her own doubled and double vision: GL20 Camera Glasses.

Polaroid’s GL20 Glasses permit wearers to take pictures or video of their framed viewpoints and to upload those images to other devices (via Bluetooth and, perhaps, later, other wirelessnesses). These digital images can also be displayed on the glasses’ 1.5-inch LCD screens, flipping perception outwards, replaying interior experience as exterior display.

Lady Gaga in a GL20 Camera Glasses prototype, displaying Polaroid logo

The product not only puts the dialectic of seeing and being seen into a Möbius trip, but also plays with Polaroid’s fetish of instantaneity, collapsing perception and projection – and making explicit that Polaroid’s “instant” has always entailed a time lag (Polaroid’s cameras famously included a 60-second-or-so interval of wait-time, during which span people would impatiently agitate developing photos [Outkast commemorated this action in 2003, in their song “Hey Ya”: “Shake it like a Polaroid picture!”]).

More than one hundred years ago, philosopher Henri Bergson imagined an interval between reception and cognitive composition as the very essence of sensing, which he described as unfolding with a mechanism analogous to that of a movie camera:

Instead of attaching ourselves to the inner becoming of things, we place ourselves outside them in order to recompose their becoming artificially. We take snapshots, as it were, of the passing reality....We may therefore sum up...that the mechanism of our ordinary knowledge is of a cinematographical kind (1911: 332; see also Grosz 2004).

Gaga’s cinematographical glasses put Bergson’s thesis into hardware but, more, they turn his claim into a cartoon, or, better, materialize it as a machinic, hyperreal caricature. In so doing, the GL20 Camera Glasses make clear the fact that sensing has become inextricably entangled with the media techniques we use as analogies for it. In making such a technologically enabled phenomenology so lucid, the glasses may contain the possibility of tweak and, perhaps, critique.

Relevant disclosure: I grew up in a Polaroid family. My grandfather, who invented the dye-developing molecules in SX-70 film, treated we grandkids and kids and cousins as home lab animals for testing new Polaroid products (Helmreich 2007). In retrospect, I think what made this fun for us was that the products didn’t always actually work all that well. Pictures would warp, discolor, seem to melt; they were experimental not only technoscientifically, but also aesthetically. “Polavision,” for example, an “instant” movie camera system released in 1977 that came with its own table-top developing and projection box (it took movies 3 minutes to manifest), was undone by its dense and muddy frame resolution and by its chemical instability, which left home movies dissolving into pixilated psychedelic Stan Brackage-like celluloid wonders. The projector box’s sleek, Eames-brothers-styled casing notwithstanding, the thing was a mess. It may be no wonder that artists like Andy Warhol loved Polaroid products.

The Polavision movie camera system

Like Lady Gaga’s intentionally impossible high-heel shoes, which, at their best/worst, highlight the sometimes debilitating codes of some genres of fashion and femininity (see Durbin, Kinzel, and Vicks 2010), GL20 Glasses, like the Polavision system, promise to reveal – with an indeterminate mix of klutz and glamour – how much mediation, how many mistakes, go into seeing and being seen, and into doubling and troubling vision.


Bergson, Henri. 1911. Creative Evolution. Trans. Arthur Mitchell. 1907. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Durbin, Kate, Lesley Kinzel, and Meghan Vicks. 2010. “Free Bitch Feminism: The Post-Gender of Lady Gaga,” Gaga Stigmata, Thursday, November 4.

Grosz, Elizabeth. 2004. The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely. Duke University Press.

Helmreich, Stefan. 2007. “The SX-70 Camera,” In Evocative Objects: Things We Think With. Sherry Turkle, ed. Pp. 208-215. Cambridge: MIT Press.

McCaffray, Eddie and Meghan Vicks. 2010. “Beyonce's ‘Video Phone’ (featuring Lady Gaga) – Observations and Discussion,” Gaga Stigmata, Sunday, September 12.

Author Bio:
Stefan Helmreich is a professor of anthropology at MIT, where he teaches courses on science, technology, and culture.


  1. Wow this is a very well written article. You have a very entertaining blog. I love Lady Gaga and I'm so fascinated by her style. Thanks for creating your blog!!

  2. Very thoughtful and compelling piece, Prof. Helmreich. I would add another dimension to this: the relationship between the immediacy of the polaroid and the immediacy of Lady Gaga's pop aesthetic that emerges if we press on the relationship between instanteneity and artifice within the history of the photographic medium as the principal medium for a pop visual aesthetic. Much to think about here.


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