Google’s 2021 Creator Labs Gives a Peek Into Progress

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As the coronavirus raged through the world last year, technology managed to keep us connected, even in stages of deep solace and solitude. Isolation was paradoxically felt by everyone. For its 2020 Creator Labs series, the behemoth tech company Google worked with creatives to express loneliness and confinement through cathartic art, to expose the raw feeling of working in a state of disconnect.

Yet, that was a different time and now 2021 is seeing a world that is stepping back into how things used to be – at least sooner than expected. The word “progress” is on the tip of everyone’s tongues and it’s no surprise that it’s the center of this year’s Creator Labs. Not entirely pandemic focused, Season 4 is a diverse narration of what progress looks like to the nine contributing artists. Through photography and cinematography captured by the Google Pixel 5, perspectives on culture, community, nature, and self are packed into a collection of thought-provoking works that unveil the power of storytelling and technology.

In some, progression is interpreted in the literal sense, documenting cultural trails, upbringing, and its ties to identity. Andrew Thomas Huang‘s Ancestors twines around this very concept. “The challenge always for BIPOC creators is how to navigate one’s art with themes and messages that speak to social issues that are important to us,” Huang reflected. His project depicts a single human configuring around Taoist symbols in a way that mingles his “Chinese heritage” with the notion of “contemporary identity” and paints a picture of what Huang sees as “queer Asian American progress”). “I think I am still learning to walk this line and my passion for combining East Asian folklore and mythology with technology and futurism has become a growing thread in my work that is propelling me forward.”

June Canedo‘s We Live Above and Below Danger is a tangible ode to her culture, particularly her grandmother who’s words are embroidered into the fabric featured in her project, and the lessons that’ve shaped her present. “The many lessons in my home place and family,” Canedo referenced, “are markers of my movement, often forward, but with many detours along the way.” Textiles are an integral part of Canedo’s work – her work for last year’s Creator Labs positioned bandanas as a symbol of domestic workers and their societal status.

It’s also parceled in the form of familial dynamics particularly motherhood. Mayan Toledano‘s Mothers envelopes the dynamics of being a mother and generational love while MaryV’s snapshots admire the maternal connection within culture. Her portraits are close to home because the subject is her long-time friend Becca who she met in middle school in Denver, Colorado. While their bond has rode the waves of growing up, often “fluctuating” MaryV explained, their relationship “flourished” when Becca’s daughter Aeron was born. Her project depicts the two dressed in Hanboks (a traditional Korean attire).

Anthony Prince Leslie‘s We Are One is a commemoration of this too alongside the figurative connotation of what family looks like as community. Inspired by Jamaica’s proverb “Out of Many ONE People” (a cultural nod to his background) and artist Hank Williams Thomas, his work literally shows the physical importance of unity, something that was much missed and needed during the early stages of the pandemic. “We Are One is a photo essay about my community. I truly believe that we are stronger together,” Leslie remarked. “I see a lot of division in our country and it only makes us weaker. I believe strength is in numbers and if we all believe in progress and change it can be our reality.” Within three photos, human bodies including Leslie’s mother, niece, and nephew configure into “joyful, cool, and ecstatic face [and] body positions” to embody the motto.

Kennedi Carter, the creator of Softest Place on Earth also laces this idea into romance in a photo series that encapsulates queer Black voices and captures a “joyous intimate narrative” that she has feels has been absent in the mainstream – “…rarely do I see fictional depictions of Black queer love that leave me feeling warm inside,” she said. In a way, her series is a mirror into the safety that love provides in the Black community – “…romance becomes necessary for survival because we remind one another that we’re not alone,” she said. Voicing out unheard stories is a common thread in her work. Her project for last year’s Creator Labs “Ridin’ Sucka Free” was dedication to BIPOC cowboys in America.

Then there’s Mother Nature, a reoccurring theme among artists who turned to the outer world to heal inward, a reflection of people’s crave for escapism. Natalia Mantini’s Healing Towards Progress is a continuous series on nature’s capability to nurture self-care. “I feel that healing is necessary for people to move forward in a mindful way, which is something I practice,” said Mantini about the inspiration behind her images. For Creator Labs, Mantini placed herself against the serene streams, the placid greenery, and bare rocks that California has to offer to translate her relationship with nature. “We’ve just been through such traumatic times collectively and independently…,” she reflected. “My series is somewhat offering a collective pause and also sharing some tools on healing benefits we can receive from Nature.”

“I’ve always been deeply inspired by the beauty of nature and it’s impact on us as humans,” Tim Kellner also noted. His project Distant visually records the optimism that’s found in the great outdoors. Vibrant flowers depict a soft and delicate emotion which translates to an appreciation of the little things. “I kept with the theme of following the moods of my surrounding landscape and how they effect how I feel. With spring coming I focused on green light and spring colors and how they bring a feeling of hopefulness and progress,” Kellner said of his process. “Finally moving on from all of the lonely struggles of this last year.” Both him and Mantini have showed that nature can truly be medicine.

Mental health has asserted itself in a considerable amount of dialogue too not just during onset of the pandemic, but in recent years. Joshua Goldenberg, who goes by the moniker “Glassface”, is no foreigner when it comes to prompting awareness to the subject, especially within the creative realm where burnout can lead to deterioration. And that’s where his series, Ultradreamers fills the gap. “Mental health is a prevalent topic that I’ve overlooked in my own life as an artist – if you don’t have balance & take time to focus on your mental health, your creative work, routines, output, happiness will all be impacted,” he told CR.

In his latest episode “Are We There Yet?”, he examines the creative process of ten people who stem from various industries (including animation, music, producing, and direction), dissecting their “perceived progress” and the way it influences their approach to what they do. “…what is the payoff for the ultradreamer? What drives you to keep creating everyday?” are the two centralizing questions within the video.

Technology is gold and Creator Labs revolves around its possibilities, even in its most compact form. Since the beginning of this initiative, Google has aimed to challenge creativity by limiting creatives to Google’s Pixel phone. The majority of this year’s artists revealed to CR that working with just a phone on hand made it easier to capture subjects freely and, with its high-tech camera features like portrait mode, three dimensional effect, the embedded self-timer, and the wide lens, were able to curate depthful works. However, working solely with everyday technology did feel awkward and slightly uncomfortable within the studio setting admitted MaryV.

Despite the initiative’s seemingly inhibiting nature when it comes to tools, its overarching objective has introduced a much needed space for artist collaboration. As stated in a Creator Labs presentation, the projects aims to spotlight emerging photographers and filmmakers and further authentic work that voices out “social causes” and “cultural narratives”.

If it wasn’t sensed through the potency and vulnerability translated across the collection of films and images, the creatives expressed how nurturing and creatively stimulating collaborating with Google has been. Kellner described it as a “dream collaboration” while others relished in its free rein yet genuine approach. The veins of the initiative also pulse with visibility and authenticity, which run deeper for BIPOC artists. Huang believes that its essence advances queer BIPOC creators like himself while Leslie said it’s given him “a chance to work on more personal projects and tell [his] story” and to “exercise [his] voice” in a way that isn’t capitalized or “watered down”.

    If there’s any epiphany this project explores, is that art is a sign of the times and can be created with the devices that lay right in the palm of our hands.

    To know more about the artists and works behind this year’s Google Creator Labs, visit

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