Phd in Artistic Research – 2016

Phd in artistic research, The webcam as an emerging cinematic medium.




At the age of four I had the impression I was constantly being filmed. It felt almost like intuitive knowledge. I believed that in the future, when I would be very old, the uncut rushes would be played back to me. This was the inception of my awareness that I was living in an increasingly cinematic world. The sensation of constant observation has guided me throughout my career as an experimental filmmaker. After exploring the thin boundaries between fiction and documentary, I turned to archival materials and found footage. For the past fifteen years I have been observing and recording webcam streams.           

This dissertation results from a project where I use webcam-generated footage as sole source material for the making of experimental films and installations. My study is an analysis of the possibility to create a new mode of filmmaking that is broadly accessible and networked, one that creates archives for future categorization of audiovisual materials documenting city life. Central to the dissemination and pervasiveness of this new cinematic medium is affect, which is present in the relation between individuals and the cameras, and which influences processes of subjectification. My art project has its roots in 1999, when I became aware of the growing number of cameras that streamed in real time over the Internet, apparently for no reason and in an unregulated manner. I realized by then that cameras normally used for surveillance were being sold as webcams to any household that could afford them. I wondered about the reasons that made ordinary people position cameras at their windows with the sole purpose of streaming imagery from the public space of their street to Internet viewers. Around that time, I got in touch with activists who were designing city maps to identify routes where surveillance cameras could not capture images of individuals. When performing a squatting action, for example, one could avoid being filmed if one followed the cartographic indications, or prevent recognition by wearing a hooded jacket if the cameras were too pervasive in the area. Fascinated by the high degree of influence the awareness of the cameras’ existence had on the activists’ street routines, but also by the increasing purchase of webcams by ordinary households, I started regularly observing the publicly accessible streams.

During the years leading up to the present dissertation, I continued to develop art projects with online cameras. I have observed the moments when they first appear on webcam-dedicated sites and when, after some time, they subsequently go offline. For instance, I have noticed how cities influence the images they provide to the online public. To illustrate, around the year 2005, Amsterdam’s webcams were mainly found streaming from picturesque shopping streets. However, their location has recently been moved to building sites, as the emphasis seems to have shifted away from the touristic appeal of branded retail pleasure. Judging from the available cameras, one might conclude that by showcasing the city’s current architectural achievement, Amsterdam is choosing to present itself as a world-class metropolis. Regardless of the choices cities might make in relation to how they present themselves at a given moment in time, I have learned through observing webcam streams that the vast majority consist of images of people in the streets: individuals can be seen shopping, eating, conversing, or just standing around.

Before I began the present film-based research, I assumed that people were unaware of the cameras constantly filming them and simultaneously streaming their imagery. After a few years of intensive observation, I wondered if they had forgotten about the cameras’ presence. Finally, I realized that the pervasive presence of video surveillance had been internalized, leading me to conclude that there had ceased to be an “outside” to the city’s cinematic realm. Networked cameras had formed a closed circuit in which everyone was involved, either by pointing the camera at the streets, by observing its image streams, or by being filmed, or engaging in all these activities simultaneously. I am part of this process.

I would now take the opportunity to say a few words about Artistic Research

When I began the present doctoral program in artistic research, I decided to establish a relation between surveillance and cinematography to find the webcams’ specificity as film medium. In keeping a balanced ratio between theory and artistic practice, I consciously avoided explaining my artwork through a theoretical discourse. When providing information about the experimental films and installations I make with this footage, I restricted the writing to a description of the elements constitutive of a specific artwork to unveil how the project was developed, rather than why. In addition, I consciously steered away from using my own artworks to illustrate the theory I was writing. The relation between the two research components is thus based on interweaving text and art in a mutually supportive yet methodologically independent process, respecting a guiding premise that artistic processes differ from scientific ones and thus deserve autonomous approaches. With this hybrid methodology, I demonstrate how webcams become a cinematic medium.

The cinematic, as I conceive of it, takes place beyond the traditional film set and the movie theatre. It is an urban condition and affects people through the multitude of cameras and screens that surround them, but also exists independently of the presence of any filmic equipment. This is a situation that the webcams, with their twenty-four seven audiovisual generation, have actively contributed to by transforming cities into film sets.

As a connecting thread running through the six chapters of my dissertation, I describe how several elements engage with one another to produce and maintain what I identify as a contemporary cinematic mode of existence. These are what I conceive of as the affected personal cams but also surveillance cameras in general, the principles of surveillance, the webcam as a film medium, the time frames of these cameras, the digital archive, and the artists. In other words, the cinematic mode of existence of the city comes about by means of film technology, webcam temporality, and archival conditions as well as people’s awareness of webcams and adaptation to their new roles.

To conclude this short introduction to the complex theme I researched through a theoretical study and my artistic practice, my guiding intention as an artist has been to understand how to use a medium that is simultaneously an oppressive means of control and a filming device with aesthetic potential. As a final word, I would like to emphasize that the implications of this dual role of video surveillance, to which the networked character of the webcams and the possibility of eternal archival has been added, provide artists with the opportunity to create cinematic objects that will influence the future interpretation of images that are constantly being produced.