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Google Is Enlisting Artists To Paint Its Massive Data Centers

The company is asking artists all over the world to make the buildings that store our data more colorful and less ominous.

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Our letters, our schedules, our photos, and our memories: all the most intimate details of our lives are increasingly stored in the cloud. But "cloud" is a bit of a misnomer. Our data isn't stored in the ether, but in massive data centers—stark, windowless buildings that couldn't look more anonymous, despite the deeply important role they play in our world. These buildings are huge and impersonal, and rarely actually feel "at home" in the fabric of the communities that host them.

Google wants to change that—so it's launched the Data Center Mural Project. Similar in nature to Google's partnership with local artists to paint its self-driving cars, it's a new initiative in which Google has made several of its massive data centers around the world available as blank canvases to muralists. The goal is to not only better integrate these buildings into their local communities, but to also give them an appearance that better reflects the oceans of colorful, personal data they store inside.

According to Joe Kava, vice-president of Google Data Centers, the idea behind the mural project is to draw attention to buildings which—while functionally very important to almost everyone—are usually ignored. "Because these buildings typically aren’t much to look at, people usually don’t—and rarely learn about the incredible structures and people inside who make so much of modern life possible," Kava says.

The Mural Project has skinned two data centers so far. The first is located in Mayes County, Oklahoma, where artist Jenny Odell used satellite images of salt ponds, swimming pools, circular farms, and wastewater treatment plants plucked from Google Maps to create a series of four breathtaking, multi-story collages. Odell's intent was to use satellite images that showing overlooked infrastructure—much like data centers are themselves.

The second mural is in St. Ghislain, Belgium, on the side of a data center which serves Google requests through Western Europe. Here, Google invited Brussels-based street artist Oli-B to spray paint the walls with fun, creature-filled abstract representations of "the cloud." The painting also contains a number of sly little visual references to both Google and the local community: for example, in one cloud, Oli-B has hidden one of the bikes Google has scattered around its Mountain View campus, while another cloud contains a dragon—a reference to a local festival called the Doudou de Mons, in which they recreate the legend of St. George and the dragon).

Google doesn't intend to stop there. Future sites for data center murals include Dublin, Ireland, which will be handed over to Irish illustrator Fucshia Macaree, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, which will be realized by local painter Gary Kelley. Those two murals will be finished sometime this year.

It's a clever project, and an even better public relations initiative. After all, data centers tend to be ominous-looking buildings, and it's a little uncomfortable thinking of all your personal data being stored in one. Painting the equivalent of a big happy face on the side can go a long way towards making people feel more comfortable with just how much of their lives they entrust to Google. And even if it doesn't do that, turning data centers into blank canvases for talented artists definitely makes them less of an eyesore.

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