Digital Voyeurism â€œWith my eyes I have been empowered to make you over into my image.â€?
Anastasia Kubrak 2
Voyeuristic desire in its nature originates from the psychological condition of scopophilia, a so-called pleasure in looking. French philosopher and psychoanalyst Lacan suggested that voyeuristic gaze replaces concrete objects with abstractions. While maintaining the safe distance between himself and the subject, voyeur fetishizes what he sees. The subject of his look on the other side of the keyhole is being objectified. It’s the imaginary image of the Other that becomes a subject of his perversion. Voyeurism is also an illusion of mastery. For Lacan, voyeurism, and the shame that follows is an indication for the whole human condition. Voyeuristic desire is not necessarily directed towards a sexual image. Let’s take the ubiquitously transmitted
images of airplanes hitting the WTC towers on 11/09/11. Remember the disturbing temptation of watching the images again and again, witnessing the recording of a dramatic scene over and over? It is not the scene itself that attracted our fascination. It is an ability to keep looking, to fuse inside of the spectacle of vision, seeing more and more, repeating again and again, while remaining safe and discreet. In the end, it’s fantasy of power that we gain in the act of looking that brings us an uncanny satisfaction. Therefore, it is the notion of power that lies beneath our scopic desire for the private, the illicit, the disturbing and the obscene images. In today’s overly surveilled reality, it results in increased interest and proliferation of surveillance imagery as an easy source of visual power.
With his eyes he creates the Other. He gives the Other a history, an erotic reading, a standing in the situation. His pleasure is in being able to control the Other’s presence for him. A diseased pervert, a peeping Tom, a violator of norms of privacy? Voyeur’s only guilt is in attempt to create his own world without boundaries, reducing the Other to a visual object in this world. The object that can be determined, made into an image, brought near. The object that can arouse and be used for fantasy purposes.
2. His eye is omnipresent. His vision is panoptic, and through it he obtains control. His presence is in his absence. He constantly observes, but cannot be observed. His eye is embedded in the power structures of society, and nothing can escape from it. He’s cause of curiosity, desire, aggression, guilt, and, above all, fear. He can’t be caught, and we can’t successfully fight back against him. He is the voyeur looking through the screen of the surveillance camera. Today surveillance devices bring total control to the human eye. Surveillance technologies put crude aspects of people’s intimate lives on exhibit. Exposure and surveillance phenomena have become widespread, accepted, almost naturalized part of contemporary reality. The notion of privacy has disappeared in the spectacular explosion of daily life through monitoring screens. Proliferation of websites featuring sexual surveillance images have empowered voyeuristic eye as never before. Real and manipulated images from the security systems are been easily circulated, both in television and via the Internet, turning everyday life into a spectacle. Paul Virilio reflected on the increasing convergence of technology and vision. He pointed out that today the eye of the machine has become a substitute for a human vision, and that human eyes have become anachronistic. Indeed, contempo-
rary powerful surveillance devices are effectively reducing the feeling of distance, providing detailed and precise view of the desired scene. The digital voyeur is able to minimize the distance between himself and the object of his gaze, while still maintaining a safe, detached position. According to Virilio in “The Vision Machine”, driven by paradoxical logic, we “synthesize spectacle with surveillance”. Indeed, today rhetorics of surveillance have spread from structures of power to the field of cultural production. In other words, production of surveillance imagery is not only a practice of control, but a substantial part of our visual culture. Remember the first famous Dutch reality show called “Big Brother” (1999). The appeal of a spectator empowered by technology was for the first time commercialized and gave birth to a whole new format of entertainment. Today’s Internet provides plenty of examples of amusing surveillance. Google Street View technologies spawned a plethora of blogs, where people exchange screenshots of people captured having sex, fighting, stumbling over something, or caught in an intimate or obscene situations, unaware of being photographed as a part of a landscape. Pornographic websites, the significant domain of online experience, gave more room for the amateur. Appealing to voyeuristic fetish, this images of a new type look as they were produced by a hidden camera or even public CCTV surveillance, emphasizing the fact of witnessing a scene from reality.
5 By definition, surveillance cameras function in a completely anti-narrative way. Generated by a machine for strictly functional purpose, these images are not supposed to be seen by general public. Although, contemporary visual culture delivers endless representations of surveillance material, raw or manipulated, “real” or “fake”, blurring the boundaries between original and simulation. Video artist Harun Farocki reflected in his work on the relation between sight and power in structures of surveillance. In one of the interviews on the notion of ‘operational images’, he argued how easy it is to manipulate the non-narrative material by placing it in a new, readable order. At first, he explained, at the early era of photography and film, images were mainly produced for scientific research, but soon they became illustrative and entertainment material. Surveillance imagery is undergoing the same process today — shifting from functionality to storytelling. Therefore, the aesthetics of surveillance are being widely deployed in narrative visual culture, for instance, cinema. Characteristic of a monitoring screen (date, tome, camera number) become a new style of representation, aiming to convince a viewer in the realism of presented scene. Black and white or cold colors, grain, noise and pixellation during the zooms are also typical tricks applied to achieve believability. Lo-fi image and its non-cinematic quality is giving credibility to images, even when they are completely
fictional. Websites with nude images of poor iPhone quality are becoming more popular then high resolution glossy and spectacular pornography. The ‘voyeurness’ of the image is considered as a new value. Ironically, when one sees a surveillance image, he is not questioning wether its “real” — this is simply assumed. And surveillance images are always images of “something”, even when they are very boring. Thus operational images are an easy pray for semiotic abuse. The “surveillance spectacle” has become a new idiom of cinema’s reality effect. Just as voyeur fetishizes the subject of his look, visual media fetishizes the idea of truth and authenticity of the image.
“A Series of Unfortunate Events” © Michael Wolf.
3. “The poor image has been uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted, and reedited. The economy of poor images is about more than just downloads: you can keep the files, watch them again, even reedit or improve them if you think it necessary. (...) And the results circulate. They spread pleasure or death threats, conspiracy theories or bootlegs, resistance or stultification. Poor images show the rare, the obvious, and the unbelievable—that is, if we can still manage to decipher it.” Hito Steyerl We are living in the era of accessible, immediate post-production. Demystification of design software lead to the extreme expansion of tools of digital manipulation. We have been thrown in a melting pot of copies, reproductions, remixes, collages, blurred images of low resolution, that don’t even resemble their originals. The notion of authenticity rapidly became obsolete, causing suspicion about the content of any existing image. At the same time, paradoxically in today’s society representation and simulation tend to replace reality, and the images of reality become more real then the “reality” itself. We prefer sign to the thing, and take image for a fact. According to philosopher of communication Jean Baudrillard, the author of “Simulation and Simulacra”, we are substituting the signs of the real for the real, taking representation for reality. We overrate the value
of the image, as we perceive vision as a substitute for knowledge. Today’s suspicion caused by postproduction technologies is confronted by belief in the power of the image as ”truth”. This contradiction is causing a clash in the sphere of digital spectatorship. On one hand, we still desire to see images and seek for a promise of reality in them. On the other hand, we realize that digital manipulation has never been as easy as today. So, back to voyeuristic appeal. What is there left to desire, in our hyperpanoptic reality? Reality, where any imaginable obscene scenario is reachable within a click of a mouse? Reality, where images are widely used for narrative purposes, and any deviant desire can be fulfilled by Youtube ? Reality without distinction between truth and lie, where any image can be staged, edited, recreated and rerepresented ?
4. If anyone is a voyeur, who or what is the object of desire ? We entered the era, when direct, exposed sexuality is widely accessible and doesn’t stir voyeuristic curiosity anymore. In order to get truly gripped we need to know that image wasn’t produced to trick or entertain us. We need to know it wasn’t produced for us at all. Modern voyeur is looking for the opposite of explicit and the opposite of staged. He is not looking for the clear image of sex but for hidden sexuality in the act of looking. What remains attractive is the hidden, the secretive, the blurred, the pixelated, the unexposed. An image that suggests that there is something to see, leaving the room for the story to happen in spectators mind. An image that at the same time suggests realness, authenticity, as it was generated by machine with no human intervention. Enormous popularity was recently gained by online databases of unprotected security cameras, that are available for constant online broadcast. On websites such as Opentopia.com, anyone can virtually enter private backyards or rooms inside private homes from all over the world, sometimes even controlling the position of the camera by tilting or navigating it to reveal more. Viewers are enjoying these real shows and sharing the most thrilling private video streams. The appeal of these voyeuristic websites lies within their “temporal indexality”, according to Thomas Levin, philosopher of aesthetics. It is not a category of space that excites a viewer
today, but a category of time. Digital noise becomes a visual texture of time, an artifact of simultaneous presence of the viewer and the viewed. Digital voyeurism is not anymore an amusement of the spectacle, shocking recording or reconstruction of events. It is fascination with real-timeness: tracking, witnessing, catching in act. It is seeing more value in seeing less quality. It’s fetishizing the now.
11 Denzin. Norman K. The Cinematic Society : The Voyeurs’s Gaze (London: SAGE publication, 1995). Levin, Thomas Y. “Rhetoric of the Temporal Index: Surveillant Narration and the Cinema of ‘Real Time.’” Ctrl Space: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother. Eds. Thomas Y. Levin, Ursula Frohne, Peter Weibel. (Cambridge: MIT, 2002). Steyerl, Hito “In Defence of the Poor Image” The Wretched of the Screen (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012) Virilio, Paul The Vision Machine, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994) Waszynski, Alexander “HARUN FAROCKI on MATERIALITY.” YouTube. YouTube, 3 June 2010. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994).
Design Academy Eindhoven
Essay by Anastasia Kubrak