The Webcam Chasm Crossed Into Real Life and Art
An Essay by Barry Salzman
The webcam, by any metric, has crossed the chasm. In technology marketing-speak, the chasm is crossed when a product moves from its early adopters to being embraced by the early majority, thus dramatically increasing its likelihood of market success.1 In 2011, PC World reported that 79% of laptops now have webcams.2 A Google search for “live webcams” yields 622 million results, almost ten times more than a search for “contemporary photography”. In this paper I will explore the evolving and growing relationship between the two.
I have organized this essay into three main sections. In the first, I consider the impact of streaming video imagery over the Internet in real time and argue that to be the determining driver of large-scale adoption. In section two, I look at how immediacy and accessibility of the means of production and distribution via the Internet fuelled a new era of unprecedented self-representation. That, in turn, is forcing a redefinition of the domains of “the public” and “the private” and helped pioneer the art of the “publicly lived private life.”3 I close with a look at the transformation of surveillance into spectacle and how that has been reflected in the work of artists, making the case that despite the historical evidence of surveillance in art, the tidal wave of that trend is yet to come.
The Real in Real TimeIn a few short years technology innovation has transformed, yet again, every facet of how we communicate, engage, create, and make things, including art. While the process of transformation is ongoing, the rate of change is unprecedented and continues to increase at an increasing rate. In 1999 the Free Online Dictionary of Computer terms described the webcam’s ability (or lack thereof) to “periodically make images available to other Internet users via a web page as frequently as every few seconds or [it] may not deliver an image, at least any representation of something happening in front of the camera,…[it] provides a staccato or sequence of stills.”4 In contrast, today’s definitions almost always include the descriptor “live” as in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which defines “webcam” as “a camera used in transmitting live images over the World Wide Web.” The perception of real time, and resulting approximation of reality is a material change. It allows the viewer to engage with this mediated Internet representation of reality as though it were a physical entity or space to be accessed. Ironically, behind this illusion of intimacy is a complex network of cables, computers, electricity, programming code, satellites and hundreds or even thousands of people. “Our culture wants to both multiply its media and to erase all traces of mediation: ideally it wants to erase its media in the very act of multiplying them.”5 What results is an “in-between-ness” somewhere between mediation and attention, which roots contemporary life in a state of “perpetual liminality.”6
With the incorporation of live audio, for many people, webcam engagement is defining a new reference for reality. The webcam pushes the Barthes and Sontag musings on what photography is closer to the real. Barthes considered the persistent presence of the referent to be at the core of photography and the “that-has-been” based on the camera capturing a trace of light or energy reflected off the subject in front of it.”7 Susan Sontag writes, similarly, “a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.”8 The webcam directs the viewer’s gaze to the referent in real time, to what is actually depicted rather than its representation, giving him/her access to a tangible physicality. That physicality takes as many forms as there are subject categories. A simple web search for feeds from live cameras yields tens of thousands, probably many more. They are placed at perfect vantage points in exotic lands from the Norwegian Fjords to the North Pole, from animal watering holes across the African plains to the pyramids of Egypt. From ski resorts to surfing beaches, harbors to airports, commercial centers to suburban neighborhoods, and from random street corners to the living rooms and bedrooms of millions of people around the world. Thomas J. Capanella captured it well when he wrote, “[I have] never set foot in Jerusalem, yet on most days I see the faithful gather at its Western Wall.”9 The content offering is seemingly endless. I am, however, most concerned with the personal, the self and the other.
Paul Virilio, in his essay from the seminal art exhibition on surveillance, CTRL [SPACE] (discussed later in this paper), argues that the virtualization of communication, its disengagement from material physical encounters and its increasingly distributed proliferation is synonymous with the loss of “meaningful intersubjective connections.”10 Others, with which I concur, argue the opposite. That it is in fact, these very characteristics that facilitate a connectedness, a community, an identity and an acceptance for many. Simon Firth makes the point that webcam users and viewers often share comments or engage in chat “betray[ing] a knowledge of, and affection for, the objects of their gaze that suggests feelings entirely different from the quick, anonymous transactions of conventional porn.”11 It is the real of the real-time viewing experience that cultivates such feelings. Similarly, Michele White, in her research on women webcam operators, argues that webcam users (which I will use to refer to the person broadcasting an image, as opposed to webcam viewers or audience, which I will use to refer to the person(s) viewing the image) experience a sense of empowerment, affiliation and connectedness. They choose when and whether to make themselves visible, with direct control over their representation and over both the means of production and distribution, debunking conventional theories on how the gaze, encumbered with power-laden staring, reinforces gendered positions.12
The proliferation of webcams has been driven largely by the way in which they offer instant nourishment that feeds our scopophilic desire for permanent direct access to the whole visual field, while helping to engender feelings of intimacy, connectedness, community and belonging. By definition, the scopophilic drive is a cyclical one, never satisfied beyond the short-term, thus helping push further adoption and usage of webcams.
Self-Representation and the Public-Private DivideSelf-representation, generally on the Internet, and specifically with webcams, shifts from passive to active. Echoing Marshall McLuhan’s “ the medium is the message,” we can think of engagement on the web as dialectic as opposed to dialogic. On the web we stream our videos, post our images or our words for a public audience. The audience responds. We then choose to respond or ignore. If we respond, the status of our self-representation shifts from passive object to subject demanding recognition. In her book Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in the Age of Social Networks, Theresa Senft defines an ongoing cycle as our demand to be recognized takes the form of words, video and images, which in turn get circulated as representational objects, and so feed a continuous cycle.
Walter Benjamin wrote, in his pivotal 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (or Reproducibility) that “every day the urge gets stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.” The introduction of photography and cinema led to an aesthetic that art critic Robert Hughes called the “shock of the new.” Mass access to these technologies shattered what Benjamin called the “aura” – the worship of authenticity in art. It is worth remembering that Benjamin positioned this as a positive change brought about by technology. It made art more democratic. If Benjamin’s mechanical age introduced the transformation of authenticity through reproduction, the digital age that is now upon us brought about the opportunity to produce and distribute ourselves as copies.13
It is no coincidence that the dominant genre of imagery posted or streamed on the web is self-portraiture, not long ago the domain primarily of art photographers. This reflects a major social change in embodiment processes and the shaping of self-perception. Guy Sticherz, author of Americans in Kodachrome, 1945-65 (Twin Palms 2002), says he reviewed 100,000 pictures from 500 families over 17 years in compiling his book and found fewer than 100 self-portraits.14 Today, even a brief scan of a few Facebook pages will yield a lot more. While technology may be able to explain some of that increase, there is something else at play. While in the 1960s, such behavior would have been thought of as too self-aggrandizing, today it is considered an integral part of identity development, offering the promise of impact, relevance, connectedness and meaning. If you are not seen, you are not there. This representation of the self, often sexual in nature, has blurred the already fuzzy line between public and private. These self-portraits (still or moving) are often made in the “privacy” of the bedroom or bathroom, but then posted or live-streamed onto one or more of thousands of public access websites, the equivalent of a global Main Street.
I posit that some thinly veiled false perception of privacy remains when we are behind our computer screens, enabling a self-rationale that justifies broadcasting our most intimate and vulnerable moments into the most public of domains. Most people would be a lot less comfortable performing the same acts of self-exposure on the back of a flat-bed truck driving down Main Street at rush-hour, than they are on the Internet, despite often having much larger audiences in the digital domain than they would have in the physical one. I believe that the Internet has in fact gone beyond a blurring of public and private, and has somewhat inverted the conventional definitions. While the boundaries between public and private may continue to shift and blur, what is unequivocal is that our current era can be defined by a more exposed private world, with surveillance technologies entering the private and public domains in unprecedented quantities. This is in sharp contrast to an era retrospectively posited as the “preserve of unmediated intimacy, impermeable privacy and uncontaminated sexuality.”15 I, however, would argue that sexuality is not any more contaminated, but as a result of webcam proliferation, it is more visible, accessible and exposed than ever before.
We are in the process of redefining “privacy” which is becoming less about the modern bourgeois Anglo-Saxon version about protecting territory (body and home) as in “my castle, my home,” and more about controlling information about ourselves. It is worth highlighting that in the age of digital capture, there are many instances when we are not aware of the digital footprint we leave behind (e.g., cookie files placed on our hard drives when we visit virtually any web site). However, as it relates to self exposure and sharing of images, users have consciously or subconsciously defined ways to sustain an acceptable level of privacy, or to relinquish it altogether, in favor of the positive aspects engendered by such contact, including sociability, validation, acceptance, and pleasure. Because being invisible is much less appealing.
The widely acknowledged pioneers of the art of the “publicly lived private life” are Jennifer Ringley and Ana Voog.16 Ringley ran her Jennicam site for 7 years, until 2003, where she streamed a constant and uncensored broadcast of her daily life. Starting around the same time in 1997, musician and artist Ana Clara Voog's website Anacam streamed her, often naked, surreal experiment in performance and play live from her home, providing users with the opportunity to observe her everyday life. With Voog and Ringley, the webcam-enabled convergence of surveillance and spectacle in the art world had taken root.
Surveillance and SpectacleMichele Foucault’s “surveillance society” and Guy Debord’s “society of the spectacle” co-exist in the digital arena, and by extension in the world as we increasingly know it, which today has both a physical and a digital component, together integral parts of our new “reality”. Webcam’s have in fact turned the Orwellian perception of surveillance as controlling and intimidating into spectacle. They have contributed to activating the gaze in ways never before possible, at real time speed, 24-hours a day, seven days a week, on a global basis, upon both the public and private domains.
Surveillance has had a place in the art world, long before the proliferation of the World Wide Web and the webcam’s chasm crossing. However, its prominence has greatly increased to the point where today it may be considered its own genre in contemporary art and photography. The idea of watching and being watched in public, was once the province of street photography, but today resonates more with surveillance. Photography made for surveillance dates back to the early twentieth century. Historical examples include British police pictures of militant suffragettes, intelligence photos of World War I–era anarchist gatherings in New York, and Cold War espionage activities caught on film by the F.B.I.17 Surveillance, existing between the Panopticon ideals posited by Jermey Bentham in 179118 and the Orwellian critiques of them, based on the 1949 novel 1984 by George Orwell, raises critical questions of interpretation, control, democracy, and rights and engenders a sense of fear and anxiety in society. As such, it is a recurrent theme ripe for investigation and consideration by many artists.
A major exhibition, CTRL [SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother held at Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany (October 2001 to February 2002), showcased hundreds of established and emerging international artists exploring aspects of surveillance, including Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Merry Alpern, Sophie Calle, Diller + Scofidio, Rem Koolhaas/OMA, NYC Surveillance Camera Project, John Lennon/Yoko Ono, and Thomas Ruff. The accompanying catalog is more a scholarly tome of critical essays on the history of surveillance than a simple museum catalog. In that catalog, Paul Virilio argues that the proliferation of live cameras on the Internet is at the heart of “the banalization or popularization of global surveillance, or to put it another way, the democratization of voyeurism on a planetary scale has overexposed even our most private activities,” resulting in the consequent “overexposure” being received as pleasurable19. The CTRL [SPACE] exhibit was followed by another major exhibit on surveillance a decade later, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870, co-organized by The Tate Modern and SFMOMA which included works by major artists, including Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Nan Goldin, Lee Miller, Thomas Ruff, Paul Strand, and Weegee presented alongside photographs made by amateurs, professional journalists, and governmental agencies, exploring the larger cultural significance of voyeurism and surveillance technology. In both major shows the public was observed and surveyed via webcams as they navigated the exhibits, forming a unique real time installation that required the viewers participation to complete the work, echoing Nauman’s early surveillance video pieces, Live-Taped Video Corridor (1970) and Video Surveillance Piece: Public Room, Private Room (1969-1970). Nauman’s work with video surveillance was a precursor of what was to come. Curator and media theorist Chrissie Illes described his video surveillance as most exciting “because in contrast to film, the instant real-time quality of the new video technology…presented, for the first time, the possibility of observing human behavior as it occurred.”20 Two decades later, Internet webcams would democratize video technology by taking it from the rarefied space of the museum to the mass market, making the experience of surveillance as spectacle accessible to all.
The powerful impact of observing as it occurs is evident in the work of Wolfgang Staehle, who in 2001 pointed webcams at the Manhattan skyline, the TV tower in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz and a monastery near Stuttgart. In viewing his piece across three screens, the audience experiences that dramatic impact of live mediation on attention as the banal view of lower Manhattan transforms into an event of shockingly grotesque magnitude when the planes crash into the Twin Towers.
As the 20th century was crossing into the 21st, Internet pioneer Josh Harris conceived of an art project to consider the loss of privacy in the Internet age. The project, Quiet: We Live in Public, is profiled in a documentary film by Ondi Timoner called We Live in Public (2009). Harris convinced 150 artists to live communally in a bunker in a New York loft building. The film’s web site describes how Harris envisioned a brave new world of surveillance, control and loss of privacy, both predicted and enabled by the Internet. The bunker occupants slept in Japanese-style capsules or pods with cameras in every pod and across all the shared public spaces, allowing anybody to watch and be watched at anytime. In August 2009, artist Steve Kaplan wrote on his blog, “In December 1999 I was one of the pod people living in a sub-basement warren of tiered sleeping capsules…we were constantly on camera, producing our own flow of images. Anyone at the control booth could watch as we ate, shat, argued, made art, fucked, etc….anyone in the bunker, at any time, could tune into anyone else.”21 Scenes from the movie show pandemonium as the order of the day in the bunker, but the project ended somewhat anticlimactically with the police raiding the bunker on New Years day 2000 because the occupants were firing live ammunition at the firing range in the bunker. Harris went on to live another 6 month stint under 24-hour surveillance as part of another experiment to make him and his wife the first couple to live under 24 hour surveillance, before having a mental collapse that demonstrated the price of living at the extremes in the public domain.
ConclusionWalter Benjamin, drawing on the work of Charles Baudelaire, identified one of the archetypal figures of early modernism as the flâneur, meaning stroller, lounger, saunterer or loafer. It referred to a literary type from nineteenth-century France, integral to any picture of Parisian streets at the time. It carried rich associations: the man of leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. It was Benjamin who made him the object of scholarly interest in the twentieth century, as an emblematic figure of urban, modern experience. Following Benjamin, the flâneur became an important figure for scholars, artists and writers. He has been recently resurrected in the literature on webcams and the new digital era. Webcam users and viewers, and the artists that engage with and are engaged by them, have variously been referred to as the new breed of flâneurs that use technology to access more intimate spaces and moments than their 19th century forbearers. Cheryl Simon, writing about the webcam work of artist Cheryl Sourkes calls her “flâneur of the cybersphere, botanist on the information highway” in a review of Sourkes’ CAM WORK, a snapshot of digital every day life, or today, simply everyday life.22
Akin to flâneur-as-street photographer seeking the decisive moments of juxtaposition and gestures that compose everyday life – digital everyday life – like Bresson, Adams, Frank and others before her, Sourkes offers an early view on the digital citizenry, citizens of our newly emerging world. Just like the wave of others that followed Bresson, sparking a new genre of photography, so others will follow Sourkes as rapidly accelerating Internet connectivity, computer processing power and high definition video cameras continue to define a new visual reality more real than the one we know.
References, Sources and Footnotes
1Geoffrey A. Moore, Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers (New York: Harper’s Business Essentails,1991).
2Matt Szymcyzk, We Are Organized Chaos blog, July 5th, 2011. (URL: http://weareorganizedchaos.com/index.php/2011/07/05/webcam-penetration-rates-adoption).
3Simon Firth, 21st: Live From My Bedroom, Salon, January 8, 1998. (URL: http://www.salon.com/1998/01/08/feature_354/). )
4Michele White, Too Close to See: Men, Women, And Webcams, New Media and Society, 2003, 12.
5Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2000) 5.
6Susan Lee Main, Resonant Attention: The Practice of Art in the Age of Manic Mediation, (Umi Dissertation Publishing, 2009) 5.
7Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981) 77.
8Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Penguin Classics, 1977) 154.
9Thomas J. Campanella, 21st: Be There Now, Salon, August 7, 1977. (URL: http://www.salon.com/1997/08/07/cam)
10Paul Virilio, The Visual Crash, translated by Bernard Prusak, CTRL [SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, ed. Ursula Frohne, Thomas Levin and Peter Weibel, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 113.
13Theresa M. Senft, Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in the Age of Social Networks, (New York, Peter Lang, 2008).
14Alex Williams, Here I am Taking My Own Picture, New York Times, February 19, 2006.
15Julie Levin Russo, Show Me Yours: Cyber-Exhibitionism from Perversion to Politics, Camera Obscura 73, Volume 25, Number 1 (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Duke)
17Sandra S. Phillips, Senior Curator of Photography SFMOMA, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera Since 1870, (San Francisco, CA: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art ; New Haven, Conn. : Yale University Press, 2010)
18The Panopticon was a 1791 concept in prison design by English law philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, where “the few” watch “the many”. Inmates could potentially be surveyed at all times by guards located in an 'inspection lodge' in the center of a semi-circular building; the perimeter was formed of cells. Control was maintained by prisoners' paranoia that they were watched by unseen eyes. David Lyon, The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1994) 62-63.
19Paul Virilio quoted by Julie Levin Russo, Show Me Yours: Cyber Exhibitionism From Perversion to Politics, Camera Obscura 73, Volume 25, Number 1, 2010. 133.
20Chrissie Illes, Video and Film Space, Space, Site and Intervention: Situating Installation Art, ed. Erika Suderburg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000) 253.
21Steven Kaplan, Josh Harris and QUIET: We Live in Public, August 9, 2009, blog Steve Kaplan: What Goes Around. (URL: http://stevenkaplannewyork.blogspot.com/2009/08/josh-harris-and-quiet-we-live-in-public.html).
22Cherly Simon, Loitering in Cyberspace, C Magazine, Issue 94, Summer 2007.