Spycam Chic


Jerry Bruckheimer knows his market. The mega-producer’s latest flick, Enemy of the State, opened on November 20 and promptly became America’s hottest thriller. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Privacy is the word on everybody’s lips— what with Linda Tripp’s infamous wire— and Enemy of the State provides a crash course in high-tech spying.

Opening with an orgy of rapid-fire, low-res footage, the film hypes cutting-edge bugging devices even as it conveys the terror of being stalked by the superspy National Security Agency. Will Smith plays the unwitting mark, but the real star of this movie is its look: semioticians might call it hyperreality, but Bruckheimer has a snappier tag: virality.

“It’s borrowed from those cop shows that use real imagery,” the producer of Armageddon and other high-tech blockbusters explains. “What we do is stylize that imagery, speed it up, color it, degenerate it— to make it look almost like art. It’s exciting and it creates an anxiety, because your eye is so conditioned from having seen it so many times that you think something will happen.”

While civil libertarians focus on the tangible threat of spycams— not to mention the FBI’s new license to bug any phone it deems relevant to a criminal case— the most troubling aspect of our surveillance society is its transformation into spectacle. Nothing has done more to make the invasion of privacy palatable, and even arousing, than the riveting new television format known as “reality programming.” Call it SPY-TV, a heady mix of monitoring and entertainment that glosses over the anxiety about being spied upon with a more seductive emotion: voyeuristic delight.

Lately, SPY-TV has taken over the tube. About 45 hours a week are devoted to shows that recycle video from police proceedings, emergency rooms, courtrooms, even workplaces— and that’s not counting the many Hard Copy imitators that hinge on hidden-camera footage. Grab the remote and you can run with the Rescue Squad, huddle with the brain surgeons in Trauma, or tag along with Cops as they collar the underclass. Playing authority is fun!

But so is checking out the corpse carving in Autopsy: Confession of a Medical Examiner, or watching errant employees get Busted on the Job. During sweeps month last spring, FOX News put hidden cameras in local men’s rooms to monitor cruising, but that was nothing next to 60 Minutes‘ second-highest-rated broadcast: Jack Kevorkian’s deathshow.

Not everyone who stars in these surveillance spectacles volunteers. Your remains can end up on TV if they figure in a criminal case, and if you’re convicted of a crime, any footage of your arrest is probably up for grabs. This spring, the Supreme Court will decide whether police can allow intrusive reporters to ride along on raids. The Justices will hear the case of a couple who were sitting around in their nightclothes when police burst through their door with a TV crew in tow. The ruling could have landmark implications for the right to be free from media invaders.

But the most striking thing about SPY-TV is that many of its subjects give their consent. “It was nice to watch, because there’s a lot from that time I don’t remember,” says the star of a parachuting accident who ended up on The Learning Channel. His only regret was that his major surgery was cut from the show. Still, “Everybody I know watched it. I got a lot of cards from people from the past, people I hadn’t seen in years.” The network was also pleased; the accident— which left him in a coma for five weeks— drew more viewers than the World Series.

Not even George Orwell, who created the model of a telegenic tyranny, could imagine that the watcher’s gaze would be replaced by candid commerce. If Orwell were alive and contemplating a sequel to 1984, he might cast Big Brother as an executive producer in the infotainment complex. Here in the digital dream machine, PhotoShop artisans edit hours of video into X-treme action that serves the bottom line of today’s multichannel environment. This product is cheap, abundant, and easy to market abroad as pure Americana.

But pleasure only hints at the effect of SPY-TV. “It’s the formation of a new norm through repetition,” says social anthropologist Ron Lembo. “By presenting scenes over and over, in which whatever you regard as the boundary between the public and the private is invaded, these shows create a sense that surveillance is normal.” Think of these shows as the aesthetic accompaniment to the end of privacy, and a happy premonition of the transparent world to come.

In Enemy Of The State, Will Smith fights the power by turning the master spy’s own weapons against him. It’s a classic scenario of human ingenuity triumphing over an evil teched-up system. But that saga has currency only in Hollywood. In the real world, it’s hard to resist the pixelated cool of being watched.

Surveillance has become a look, sexier and more sinister than any documentary. It lends the power and glory of infotech to anything it touches, from a sneaker ad to a blockbuster thriller. The most ordinary image becomes charged once it is invested with a time/date stamp, a grainy low-res surface, and the other signatures of spycam style. These cues prompt the sense that you’re somewhere you shouldn’t be. It’s a short step from this predatory vibe to an ad for Gucci stiletto heels.

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 World to 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 World coproducer 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.”

What was once considered pathological is common behavior in the age of SPY-TV. “It is neither a question of secrecy nor of perversion,” the French critic Jean Baudrillard writes in Simulations, “but a kind of thrill of the real, or one of an aesthetics of the hyperreal, a thrill of alienation and of magnification, of distortion in scale, of excessive transparency, all at the same time.” In other words, the omnivideo environment is producing a radical cultural response.

Spycam chic allows us to revel in the invasion of cameras— not to mention the deployment of thermal sensors, parabolic mics, Internet “cookies,” laser probes: all the dark technics of the information age. Stylization dispels the anxiety that mass monitoring arouses; it provides an aura of power and mastery in an uncontrollable world. But this feeling is a fleeting high. When the show ends, the gaze remains— and the surveillance society is humanized.

Next Week: Madison Avenue Is Watching You

This is the second of a three-part series.

Read part one: Spycam City.
Read part two: Spycam Chic.
Read part three: Spy Commerce.