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  • Watch Me! Webcams and the Public Exposure of Private LivesAuthor(s): Brooke A. KnightSource: Art Journal, Vol. 59, No. 4 (Winter, 2000), pp. 21-25Published by: College Art AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 30/07/2013 07:59

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  • On your screen, you see an image of a young woman staring intently to the right of the camera, presumably looking at her monitor. Behind her are a bookshelf and some computers. A minute later, she shifts her position slightly, and another image is captured and sent to you via her website. Jennicam, widely recognized as the progenitor of all personal webcams, often offers little more than this scene to the millions of hits her site receives each day.' While Jennifer Ringley sees her work as a diaristic documentary, I believe that this mode of communication creates a new kind of social space, in which the pri- vate is performed for the public, and interaction is initiated by the one who is being watched. Cams make manifest issues of surveillance, community, the cyborg, domestic space, intimacy, pornography, and self-image. They are a form of artistic practice, with an art historical context and correlatives in documentary production, self-portraiture, and performance.

    Twenty-four hours a day, for over three years, Ringley has been living under the scrutiny of the cam's never-blinking eye. She observes, "For some

    Brooke A. Knight

    Watch Me! Webcams and the Public Exposure of Private Lives

    reason, we think it's OK to watch PBS shows about bison and whales, but not about ourselves. . . . I think that's terrible, because we learn a lot by watch- ing ourselves." With the Internet, we are able to watch the daily habits of just about anyone who cares to share them. In many ways, this exposure of the self shifts the surveillance model. Those being seen

    control what is to be seen. As Ana Voog, one of the most popular and com- pelling "camgirls" says, "I can move the camera wherever I want, whenever I want. I'm in control."3 This control goes beyond simply where to point the cam: unlike many other art forms, the artist has access to both the means of production and, through the Internet, the means of distribution.

    Many cam producers choose to point their cameras at themselves while they are in their most vulnerable state-sleep. Voog started the Universal Sleep Station, a grid of images of sleeping cam people, because of the fan response to images of her in slumber. She writes, "When people are watching me sleeping and stuff, from all of the nice e-mails I get, I feel that everyone's sort of an angel, watching over me and protecting me."4 Yet when I look at the Sleep Station, I feel like I'm a cross between the Tooth Fairy and a guard at a Supermax prison. The nearly panoptic view is disconcerting, perhaps because of the willingness of those on the screen to be seen. Jeremy Bentham's ideas for prison reform through constant surveillance have been applied here, but this time by way of the subjects' free will. Ironically, and fittingly, a wax figure of Bentham is the object of a proposed webcam as he "permanently sleeps.'"' While a graduate student at MIT, Steve Mann created a wearable cam that posted images to a website. Here, he has inverted the surveillance para- digm: the individual-rather than an unseen power-produces images of an event. Mann sees his projects as "Humanistic Intelligence," in which tech- nology is used to safeguard individuals. He feels that if his human rights are abused, his documentation of the event will protect him, much like the "angels" in Voog's Sleep Station. There is no tape or disc to confiscate, and the dispersal of the image is nearly instantaneous.6

    Clearly, those involved in this type of production develop a sense of

    I would like to thank Cher Krause Knight for her helpful suggestions and insightful reading of this text, and Ken Goldberg for his guidance in my research. I. Webcameras digitally capture images and distribute them via a website. Many sites include more than one camera, some allow the viewer to remotely control the angle of view, and a few stream full-motion video. There are thousands of active webcams right now, displaying everything from a fishbowl to the construction of a stadium. 2. Su Avasthi, "Cam-Girls Aim to Please," New York Post, May 28, 1998; July 13, 2000 ( html). 3. Ben Greenman, "A Room Within a View," Yahoo Internet Life, October 1999, 173. 4. Adam Pasick, "Living on Camera: Narcissism or New Wave?" Fox News Online (www.foxnews. com), October 28, 1999. 5. Rory Hamilton, Jeremy Bentham On-Line ( inalBentham. html), July 13, 2000. Bentham proposed the Panopticon, a prison with a centralized guard tower and a ring of prisoner cells, in which total surveillance was linked to behavior modification. 6. Steve Mann, "Humanistic Intelligence," in Ars Electronica: Facing the Future, ed. Timothy Druckery (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999), 420-21,425-26.

    2 1 art journal

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  • Jennifer Ringley of

    community. Voog states, "This is me. This is my life. I'm living on my cam. I've made friends through it. I've helped people through it."7 Chip, a "veteran of online communities," says that Chipcam was a way of making himself accountable and "authenticated his online persona."' The Web problematizes our relationships: we feel close to those with whom we communicate online, but are physically distanced from them through servers and wires. The critic

    Melita Zajc believes that all contem- porary communication technologies isolate the individual by preventing physical proximity to others.9 The homecam community, however, would say that they have generated friends through their shared exper- ience of living online. "Holly Golightly" from and Stephanie of consider themselves to be "twins" after having seen each other on cam. Golightly traveled to Stephanie's home, and they are now each other's "best friend.'" ' In October 1999, Voog attended Ringley's face- tiously named "Jennicon," which produced one of the most unsettling things I have encountered: the two most celebrated camgirls on the

    same cam, at the same time. Each had been in her own "remote window" box on my monitor, and seeing them together forced me to regard them as more "real" than I had before.

    Thomas Campanella, author of "Eden by Wire: Webcameras and the Telepresent Landscape," sees a role for the cam as the Internet allows for the creation of a new machine/body: "If the Internet and the World Wide Web represent [the] augmentation of collective memory, then webcameras are a set of wired eyes, a digital extension of the human faculty of vision."" Voog considers the Internet as a symbol for the collective unconscious, that it is "intimate in a different way."'2 While some critics envision the extension of the body into the corpus of the Net as a positive development, author Nell Tenhaaf cautions that there are "complications in proposing a language of technological media as a language of the body, in particular the female body." She feels that the declaration of the body in the technological apparatus is suspect, as the body becomes either idealized-and therefore a commodity- or fragmented in the form of the automaton and the cyborg, half metal/ half flesh. '3

    Interestingly, women comprise the majority of webcam subjects and producers. These women understand, participate in, and profit from the specular economy. Many target male desire by highlighting the more prur- ient aspects of their cams, while also maintaining control over the image. The producers are the subjects of the images, and in this way challenge the

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    7. Greenman, 174. 8. Simon Firth, "Live! From My Bedroom," Salon ( I st/feature/l 1998/0 1/cov_ 08feature.html/index.htm), January 18, 1998. 9. Mann, 297. 10. Holly Golightly, Twins page (www.ilovehol-, February 10, 2000. I I. Thomas J. Campanella, "Eden by Wire: Webcameras and the Telepresent Landscape," in The Robot in the Garden: Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet, ed. Ken Goldberg (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), 23. 12. Marlee MacLeod, "TechnoSlice with Ana Voog," Cake Magazine (, December 15, 1999. 13. Nell Tenhaaf, "Of Monitors and Men and Other Unsolved Feminist Mysteries: Video Technology and the Feminine," in Critical Issues in Electronic Media, ed. Simon Penny (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 230.

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  • to-be-looked-at-ness described in Laura M