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Even artists are transfixed by surveillance chic. Filmmaker Harmony Korine (Gummo) is reportedly shooting his next feature through a security camera. Spacewürm, who composes techno with bits of intercepted cell-phone conversation, is about to publish a compilation of his pilfered messages as a new kind of sex text. Artist Julia Scher, an astute critic of intrusive technology, is currently making "smart" rooms that track your every step, issuing commands as you walk through them. "Surveillance is the perfect scaffolding upon which to lay all kinds of desires," Scher says. And where there is desire, there is advertising.
Iridium employs the aura of surveillance to tout a new satellite-phone system with the line "Tracking a package shouldn't be easier than tracking a person." Reebok shows its shoes being watched by a pair of Big Brother eyes, with the tag "It knows too much." A Kenneth Cole billboard teases, "You are on a video camera an average of 10 times a day. Are you dressed for it?" This ad celebrates the fact that, in 1998, snooping isn't just pervasive; it's hip.
Before surveillance was chic, it was scary. As recently as 30 years ago, being caught on video was considered a good way to lose your composure, as visitors to the Whitney Museum will note watching superstar Edie Sedgwick fall apart in Andy Warhol's 1966 film, Outer and Inner Space. Sitting in front of a profile of herself on a TV screen, Sedgwick's mood grows volatile while her TV image remains impassive. "Sedgwick seems to be unnerved . . . by the uncanny presence of her own prerecorded video image looking over her shoulder," notes Warhol scholar Callie Angell, who curated the Whitney program. "Video and perhaps television as well seems to be directly implicated in her suffering."
But as we shed the distinction between an on- and off-camera personality, there's little reason to be unsettled by the video gaze. If anything, the real fear for many people is of a life never graced by the validating lens.
Around the time he shot Outer and Inner Space, Warhol thought he'd make a fortune pitching NBC The Nothing Special, a real-life surveillance show in which "we'd all be waiting for something to happen but nothing ever would." As usual, Warhol's vision was years ahead of the popcult curve. It took MTV to mainstream his minimalist idea with fast-paced editing. The result is its two top-rated shows: Real World, featuring a group of twitty twentysomethings who live in front of cameras, and Road Rules, starring similar brats on a perennial vacation. MTV expects the tryout for next season's Real Worldto draw over 15,000 wannabes, auditioning for a shot at what semiotician Marshall Blonsky calls "the Fishbowl Life." They are competing for an experience more powerful than just 15 minutes of fame. "What they get out of it," boasts Real Worldcoproducer Jonathan Murray, "is four years of life lived in five months."
This joyous intensity is the inverse of the terror felt by 1984's Winston Smith, who cowers before the omnipresent telescreen. But in the therapeutic '90s, knowing the camera is watching can be part of the cure, as the thousands who work out their issues on the daytime talk circuit can attest. "This is a prime example of what seems paradoxical about the culture," says Andrew Ross, who chairs New York University's American Studies department. "There is a very strong emphasis in official rhetoric on the guarantee of privacy. But the explosion of these genres that scorn the boundaries between public and private life shows that, given the opportunity, people will expose their interiority at the drop of a hat and let everything hang out in a very public way."
Not only that: they get to be seen in a format that makes their "interiority" seem compelling. By applying the jump-cut techniques of French New Wave cinema to spycam footage, the auteurs of this genre have created a style somewhere between action-adventure and cinema verité.
But the ultimate expression of spycam chic is the format pioneered by 22-year-old Jennifer Ringley, the economics major who first thought of training the Internet's most original invention the homecam on herself. Click on anytime to see Jenni lounging, clipping her cat's toenails, sleeping (yes, bare thighs exposed), or even getting busy with a boyfriend. By now, the Jennicam is a virtual industry, with an estimated (by Jenni herself) 100 million hits a week.
Ringley's notoriety has attracted a legion of imitators. Consider earnest Ginger, who has cams watching her two pet wolves ("noisy, lovable, and a bit rough"). Or Sean Patrick, a stud who cavorts in his Calvins and sleeps in the nude, observed by his cam. While some of these geeks are in it for the porno profit, thousands seek neither fortune nor fame. For these brave new exhibitionists, it's a way to reach out and touch someone.
Most of the people reaching out are women, which flies in the face of classic psychoanalytic theory. There's no such thing as female exhibitionism, notes Dr. Paul Fink, a leading authority on sexual disorders. But when confronted with the Jennicam, he revised that diagnosis: "What we're talking about is a new kind of behavior that we're trying to fit into old models."