Images for an Unknown Public

Article Author: 
Jenny Vogel

Images for an Unknown Public is a performative lecture that explores the phenomenon of webcams by drawing connections of their usage to Romantic ideals of travel and hermeticsm, Walter Benjamin’s flâneur and our changing ideas of privacy and surveillance.

The lecture has been performed at the 2011 Design Principles and Practices Conference in Rome, Italy and at the 2011 Technology and Security Conference at UNT. Most recently the lecture has been performed as part of the UNT iARTA research cluster panel at the 8th International Conference on Technology, Knowledge and Society at the University of California, Los Angeles, February 2012.

Jenny Vogel, UNT Assistant Professor of New Media Art

Images for an Unknown Public

I remember the first time I went online. It was during my first year in the United States, and an acquaintance who had been ordered to keep me entertained for a couple of hours sat me in front of a library computer, opened a browser window and told me to look up something… anything?

A couple of years later I heard that my hometown in Germany had installed a webcam in the main market square. I didn’t really believe that a familiar face from my childhood would walk by while I was online. It would have been impossible to recognize anyone anyhow, because of the pixilation. But I stayed and watched the images load every second for a long time. In the end I walked away from the computer feeling enchanted, as one must feel after seeing strange lands in a crystal ball. From then on I spent hours watching web cams in other places: traffic cams, beach cams, weather cams, tourist cams and personal cams. Nothing ever happens when looking at these images, but I never give up the hope that somewhere in those mostly grey and blurry images something magical might occur. For me these cameras transform the banality of everyday life into beautiful visualizations of our hopes and failures to connect to and communicate with our surroundings.

Webcams are like little eyes attached to the ends of the World Wide Web, which, as the artist Garnet Hertz suggests give the physical sense of sight to an otherwise ephemeral world of the Internet in form of telepresence.

I want to make a distinction here between tele-presence and virtual reality. Tele-presence allows for remote action in a real space, rather than interacting with the virtual such as the Internet itself. Since most webcams allow the viewer no more than seeing and at times controlling a limited movement of the webcam, we are looking at the low-end of tele-presence. But what we are seeing tends to be a mediated version of reality, rather than the illusion of such. 

Tele-presence has become increasingly common in our daily interactions in a variety of forms. But the desire to overcome  *time* and *distances* has been an old pursuit of humanity. Thomas Campanella even argues in his essay “Eden By Wire” that it has also been one of the main driving forces in technological inventions. The history of visual synchronicity allowing teleportation started with the development of optical devices such as the telescope, binoculars and microscopes. Most poignant of these devices might be the Camera Lucida. Located on scenic seashores, or perched on top of towers, this simple device of lenses and light brings the outside world into specifically developed interiors in the form of moving real-time images that particularly inspired the imagination of the Victorian Era.

The invention of photography allowed the transportation of images over vast geographical distances, albeit with a time delay that was only fully bridged with broadcast television and video conferencing systems. But it took the infrastructure of the Net to make tele-presence accessible to a wider public. One of the first webcams was installed in the so-called Trojan Room outside the Computer Laboratory at Cambridge University. The camera was pointed at a coffee maker and was designed to save people in other areas of the building a pointless trip if the pot happened to be empty. In 1992 the videoconferencing client CUSeeMe was developed as freeware for Mac users. Anyone with a computer, Internet access and a camera was soon able to communicate with friends who had the same setup. 

Later cameras like the San Francisco FogCam, which is now the longest running cam still, online broadcast of live images of specific locations around the world. The fact that the images were live was, and still is, often more interesting or appealing than what the image itself presented. In the case of the FogCam it is a rather unspectacular view of the campus at San Francisco State University. 

However, the camera that received by far the most attention was the Jennicam. Operated by college student Jennifer Ringley, it broadcast live images 24/7 from her dorm room, no matter what she was or was not doing. The simple idea of making her private life public turned preconceptions about surveillance and invasion of privacy upside down, which sparked a plethora of discussions on exhibitionism and voyeurism. Since then the Jennicam formula has been repeated many times and is used now by pornographers, bored teenagers as well as performance artists. 

In 2009 webcams became a news topic again with the launching of Chatroulette, a brilliantly simple but effective website that matches the webcams of two random strangers for chat or conversation, until either one of them hits the “next” button to move on. Almost like speed dating one can find oneself in a variety of situations in a short period of time. Aside from the ever-present anonymous nudity, I have come across a musician who played a song for me; soldiers overseas; groups of overly excited teenagers; men in masks; and a variety of people from all over the world who actually cared to talk to me for a minute or two. 

As I search for webcams around the world, I take screenshots or short videos of my finds, much like a tourist would take photographs as souvenirs of a trip. Later on I categorize these finds by subject matter in case I might use them later in my work. 

In her essay “On Photography” Susan Sontag describes the street photographer as “an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes.” The solitary walker is of course Baudelair’s flâneur, who, in the words of Terry Eagleton, knew the delights of “possessing unpossessed and seeing unseen.” Perhaps I am a contemporary version of the flâneur, a part of the webcam traffic, but apart from the street life I interact with. I photograph my subjects without their knowledge, but also without any chance of interference from my side, through whatever camera angle is presented to me. 

The most frequently asked questions I am asked in regards to my art are regarding invasion of privacy, voyeurism and surveillance. We have learned to understand cameras of any form as a tool of power, used by those who are behind the lens over those who are in front of it. George Orwell’s “Big Brother” has become the standard metaphor for the surveillance camera systems, which are keeping an eye on us constantly in any urban landscape. In “Visual Pleasures and the Narrative Cinema” Laura Mulvey explores the power of the male gaze in film productions, and policemen are “shooting” protesters with their cameras to secure visual evidence against anyone stepping over the line. 

Considering the power of cameras one might wonder why a 20 year-old College girl would voluntarily live her life publicly online. Jennifer Ringley and other so-called Cam Girls received mounts of criticism for their actions and were accused of exhibitionism, pornography and the inducing of voyeurism. Things looked different from their point of view. In an interview with Ira Glass on This American Life, Ringley observed that she had felt lonely in her dorm room before she installed the camera. And when the artist and CamGirl Ana Voog was asked about her definition of intimacy, she answered that in her mind the Internet is a symbol for a collective unconscious, where time and space no longer exist. For her it is a sense of being a part of a whole that gives her a new sensation of intimacy online. Both of them mentioned that after a while they forgot the camera existed.

Reactions to CamGirls might have changed since their first appearance in the 1990’s. It has become socially acceptable to communicate one’s thoughts or “status” to a larger public since the emergence of social networking media such as facebook or twitter. However, browsing the catalogs of personal cams it becomes clear that the spirit of Cinéma Vérité in the early CamGirls, who where dedicated to live their life in front of a camera, has been replaced by a more solitary life for the camera. This might be caused by the disappearance of public spaces, or maybe the idea of a public place simply shifted from the physical to the disembodied. But when roaming the channels I see more and more webcam hosts with the glow of monitors reflecting in their eyes, eagerly waiting for updates in their chats. Their webcams are no longer acting as eyes to the physical world, but rather as windows to stare into the virtual. 

When working on a new project, such as a series of photographs, a video, or this talk today, I usually revisit the archives of images and footage gathered from webcams first. When looking at the gathered footage I am always struck by the image quality that the webcams are producing. Some of the images remind me of the Romantic landscape paintings by William Turner or Caspar David Friedrich. This is partially due to the blurry quality of the low-resolution cameras, which again mirror the Romanticists interest in undefined form and avoidance of empirical realities. But many of the locations in which I find webcams such as mountain-tops, lighthouses, beaches, or the vast landscapes depicted by weather and traffic cams in Alaska and Finland have striking resemblances to the subject matters of the Romantic period. In addition, my travel from the comfort of my home to these distant locations places me in the liminal state somewhere between “heimweh” and “fernweh,” which dictated so many of the Romanticist sensibilities. Imagine that you are watching a sunset outside your window, while at the same time watching the sunrise on your monitor half way around the world.

In my work high-resolution photographs of low-resolution encounters, offer a surprisingly intimate reading of a contemporary loneliness. Live streaming video projections of the one-shot-per-second progression of web cameras result in a fireworks-display of light signals as if trying to communicate in some unknown code, some unknown message. Voyeurism and self-induced surveillance through constant online exposure are the desperate desires of participation in the online world, which fails in the colloquial boredom of chat-rooms. Together these practices present a postmodern tableau of the Romantic ideal of solitude, the failing utopia of the global village and the dark beauty of a mediated planet. However, I don’t merely see my subjects as victims whose individuality is crushed by the homogenizing effects of globalization and mass media. They are also heroes in a way, defying categorization, re-instating a sense of humanity, poetry and myth.